Battleborn is a hard game to pin down. One of its modes is very much right out of the MOBA playbook, but there's much more to it. During the demo presentation and hands-on time with the game, I didn't once here the term "hero shooter," Gearbox's bolted-together descriptor for its newest IP. Instead, the focus was on the characters.
2K Games has given up on fighting against Battleborn being likened to a MOBA. Gearbox's Chris Faylor and the 2K production duo of Melissa Miller and Chris Thomas all used the word when speaking with me. The reason for the shift is simple: MOBA isn't the dangerous word it was even a year ago, as the $18 million prize pool for the ongoing Dota 2 The International 5 evidences.
But to suggest that Battleborn is entirely a MOBA ignores at least half the game, inclusive of the single-player and cooperative modes. I had the chance to play in a five-person mission, which feels just as competent a first-person action game as Borderlands. The MOBA elements here are restricted to the in-mission level progression, which starts at one each time.
The mission, set on Bliss (the planet you've likely seen in past videos), tasks us with securing a landing site, escorting a giant wolf mech to a heavy door, and then guarding it while it uses a cutting laser to get us in. All of this is accompanied by classic Gearbox humor and in-mission storytelling.
The combat slowly ramps up throughout the mission, before reaching a crashing crescendo at the finale. As we defended the wolf mech, more and more of the dark entities known as Varelsi piled into the area. Each wave carried more foes, including extremely tough heavy-hitters. Also in traditional Gearbox demo style, we're left with a cliffhanger. To be continued in February 2016 (or possibly before, but more on that in a bit).
I played through as Thorn (one of the characters revealed when we featured the game on our cover in August 2014). It's important to play to a character's strengths, and my build for the nature-focused archer meant staying on the fringes of the fight, tossing area-of-effect "blights" onto the field, and pinging swaths of enemies with five arrow bursts that also do bleeding damage (and hurt more if I happen to standing in my blight field).
Each character has its own out-of-match progression, too. Players will unlock different abilities to swap into the helix (the mechanism by which players choose an upgrade at each level-up). This offers more opportunity to tailor heroes for specific playstyles (including single- versus multiplayer builds).
Like a MOBA, Gearbox will be tiering characters based on their accessibility, but it may be more organic than what you see in games like League of Legends or Smite. While there will be a number of the 25 characters unlocked when the game launches, players will find the more advanced heroes unavailable until they progress through the story to a certain point or complete certain challenges.
As Gearbox progresses through development, it's keeping an eye on the networking needs a game like this requires. 2K will be holding a technical closed beta and then at least one open beta phase. The timing of the public test is predicated on the data the studio receives from its smaller pool.
An open beta gives players a chance to get hands-on and understand more about Battleborn is. For me, playing was a better educator than anything, which is why the game is playable on the show floor at Gamescom and will be at PAX in a few weeks.
Miller, who is the director of product development at 2K, tells us that there's one important reason why this beta is so important, though. "You can look at the recent press in the industry, and I don't need any more justification than that," she says. "You see all these articles about how people are upset they are that games are broken. They can't get online and they're having a bad experience. Gearbox and 2K, especially with Borderlands, have tried to be responsive to the community. When things have been identified, we respond very quickly. One of our key pillars of success for this game is launching it with smooth service."
Gearbox and 2K would do well to include some of what I played today in the beta. While MOBAs are rapidly gaining acceptance among wider audiences, the genre is typically intimidating to new players. Easing them into the helix system with a mode more akin to Borderlands (while also giving those players the chance to try out competitive play) would be an eye-opening experience.
We'll find out what the duo has in store sometime before the game releases on February 9, 2016, for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.