Game review: Battleborn – mediocre mash-up of first-person shooter and League of Legends

The lack of humour and any cultural sting, a riotous colour palette, and the tackling of similar objectives over and over to unlock new avatars may leave you feeling battle weary

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 May, 2016, 12:57pm


Gearbox Software

3 out of 5 stars

Under the shadow of terms such as “mash-up” lies the understanding that spirited things can happen when once-separated elements are knotted together. When the union is a happy one, new genres can spring forth. (Funk is a good example.)

But when a mash-up is less than ideal, the results can be akin to a dry elevator pitch: “Well, market research shows that a lot of people like X and a lot of people like Y so imagine the loot we’ll generate if we fuse the two together!” Alas, Battleborn, the new game from Gearbox Software, slots into this category.

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Battleborn (for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) is, in the words of Gearbox Software’s creative director, Randy Varnell, a “hero shooter”. The game weaves together first-person combat, RPG-like character upgrades, and the kind of wide cast of playable characters and overall pacing of a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena.) Although MOBA might not be a household word, the genre’s standard bearer, League of Legends has claimed one of the largest and most loyal fan bases throughout gaming during the past few years. (MOBAs do well in China.) As would be expected, other parts of the industry seek to replicate their success.

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League of Legends, similar to its popular competitor Dota 2, operates on a free-to-play (F2P) model. After an account is set up, a player has access to an array of avatars, each with their own specialties. One competes in matches against others to accomplish a series of smaller and greater goals, such as the capturing and retaining of territory.

The action on the screen is seen from an isometric or not-quite-top-down perspective. (Think Diablo.) Players have the option to pay for cosmetic upgrades to their characters, which many do. And MOBAs have been embraced by the eSports community, which provides its own lucrative opportunities.

It’s been reported that in 2015, Riot Games, the maker of League of Legends, netted more than a billion dollars in revenue. As critic Harold Goldberg points out, the game’s structure was ripe for the financial era in which it was introduced. “In 2009 at the height of the recession, a constantly morphing, ever challenging, free to play game was what players needed and wanted.”

Battleborn is not free to play, so it struck me as slightly gauche that after firing the game up for the first time I immediately saw an advertisement for a season pass. (The game also has a marketplace where one can spend real-world dollars on loot packs.) A slick animation prologue sets up the wink, wink, knowingly half-baked narrative about the disintegration of the universe and the convergence of multiple alien races on a star where all they do is fight.

Battleborn is divided between three different multiplayer sections and an eight-chapter story mode. It features a roster of 25 playable characters, which includes gunslingers, fantasy characters, many-limbed mutants, and robots that look like refugees from an anime cartoon series – a hodgepodge of archetypes plucked from all corners of geekdom.

The only aesthetic principle that unites the characters and binds them to the environments in which they compete are saturated colours. Seriously, aside from the characters’ fluid animations, the most striking visual components of the game are not architectural or background flourishes but the game’s riotous colour palette, which will be familiar to anyone who has played Gearbox Software’s Borderlands series.

At the start of the game, one has access to only a handful of avatars. Additional heroes can be unlocked by completing challenges, like killing a number of a certain kind of enemy and ranking up one’s overall career statistics or Command Rank, as well as running through story missions.

Similar to other MOBAs, in Battleborn you begin each multiplayer match or story episode as a level-one character who has the opportunity to rack up an additional nine levels, each of which provides access to different perks. Levelling up a character from scratch didn’t bother me in the multiplayer portion of the game because one is normally squaring off against a new set of opponents. However, I found this mechanic unwieldy in story mode since it undermines any sense of continuity between chapters.

In the multiplayer mode, Battleborn offers the usual territory-control feature as well as two other modes that emphasise the shepherding of minions, or non-playable characters, to specific points on the map. In Meltdown, the goal is to guide your minions to an incinerator, where they sacrifice themselves for your greater glory, while trying to prevent the competition from following suit. In Incursion, you try to lead an army of minions to destroy an enemy sentry.

I saw very little tactical thinking on the part of my teammates – people seemed preoccupied with shooting the nearest threat. I couldn’t blame them since the game’s first-person perspective isn’t as conducive to surveying the playing field as the isometric perspective of a traditional MOBA.

I don’t know what else to say about this game. Its humour goes nowhere – it has none of the cultural sting of something like Grand Theft Auto V – and while the game does offer players a slew of fighting styles to choose from, the thought of tackling similar objectives over and over to unlock new avatars leaves me numb.