Battleborn: Preview

With legal proceedings over Aliens: Colonial Marines still rumbling on, Gearbox’s recent failures won’t be forgotten quickly. But while their influence is felt in how we’re shown Battleborn (more on that later), this is a game that exhibits more in common with the studio’s greatest homegrown success than its licensed letdown. The hook is that it casts the net even wider than Borderlands, harvesting bits of fighting games and MOBAs as well as RPGs to splice into the firstperson shooter, which can still be considered the foundation of the gameplay. Gearbox even has a name for its new amalgamation: the hero shooter.

“A lot of the process by which we came to create this came down to, ‘What would you love to be able to do?’” design director John Mulkey says. “What do you like from different games, and can they work together? The in match levelling was a really cool iteration on RPGs that we saw MOBAs were pulling off. But we’ve pulled in a lot of things.”

The setting for  Battleborn ’s cross genre experiment is the last star left in the universe. A race of spindly photophobic aliens known as the Varelsi have extinguished all but this one, and survivors from species across the galaxy have convened on its surrounding planets to fight back in five player co-op  and five against five competitive play.

The MOBA is felt most prominently in the level design, in which arena-like settings are punctuated by more linear areas that give the campaign’s narrative time and space to unfold. It’s also front and centre when the Helix Menu, a level-up screen presented like a DNA strand, appears characters level up roughly once a minute during every round, each advance presenting you with a binary choice: do you want faster movement speed or more ammo? Damage or buffs? Then, a minute later, there’s another decision to make. It means character growth can be steered in different directions depending on how a round is going, and gives you the chance to identify and fix weaknesses in your team.

With the game in what Mulkey describes as “pre-pre-alpha”, he’s reticent to define the long term progression systems, but they're there, and they bring to mind another possible influence that this time he doesn't vocalise. “At the top, you have a command level that’s your profile. And in your profile you have many Battleborn that you collect. They’re your action figures, you know?”

Is it reductive to hear this, drink in the friendly art direction and think of Activision cash cow Skylanders? Possibly. The action figures in question are figurative, and as far as Gearbox has mentioned thus far, not part of a microtransaction ecosystem. But it suggests a desire on the studio’s part to bring in a younger audience. Art director  Scott Kester responds: “I think with this game, I visually wanted to cast the net as big as I could. We didn’t want a barrier that would lead people to say, ‘No, I don't want my kid to play that.’”

Said child may take a while to grasp Battleborn ’s metagame, though. “Each of your Battleborn has a character level that raises through earned experience,” says Mulkey. “We also have earned currency, through which you can purchase these packs of what we’re calling Salvage. So the Wolf Spider thing we destroyed [during the gameplay demo], you would get the head of that as a Salvage where
you can rip it open and inside are mods. You can carry a number of those into each combat with your character and apply them to a role.
That’s going to be the draw: being the best kunai slinging fungus on the battlefield
“There are different tiers of rarity associated with those, and there’s a ton to explore. There’s also going to be a crafting system in which you can create those. There’s a huge amount of meta gameplay there.” The minute by minute levelling seems unlikely to diminish your sense of ownership over a character long term, then. In fact, it’s even possible to unlock Mutations within the Helix Menu that offer different choices as you level.

Would Street Fighter diehards recognise their genre’s tenets here, as Mulkey suggests? Well, animations are all hand-drawn and designed to emphasise one stance per action, letting you know in an instant whether a teammate just launched a special attack or buffed you. “You know how in fighting games, it’s mostly just poses, and a couple of frames between those?” Mulkey asks. “That’s the way we approach our characters. Scott goes in and sets up key poses for each character, almost as
if it was a fighting game. So it’s like, ‘Here’s the strikes; here’s the recoils…’ And then we’ll build our animations off those key poses.”

It’s a subtle enough nod that you could play through the campaign and never think of Hadoukens, just as it’s conceivable that without having played  Dota 2  or  League Of Legends  you could also mistake the MOBA elements for a hyperactive take on RPG staples. What’s unmistakably fresh about Battleborn and thus key to its potential success is that there’s a vast breadth of playstyles possible via its broad cast. Each hero is designed, Mulkey says, as if they were “the main character in their own standalone game”. Of the nine revealed so far, taking in the likes of an even more steroidal incarnation of Team Fortress 2’s Heavy and a mushroom adept with throwing knives, none appear to borrow each other’s animations, attack types or playstyles. That’s going to be the draw: being the best kunai-slinging fungus on the battlefield and knowing the particular abilities you offer (each character has three unique powers, plus an Ultimate) can’t also be offered by the next guy, barring the circumstance that they’re playing as the same character, levelled up in exactly the same way this round, and carrying the exact same Salvage items.

While Gearbox showcases its new game, however, two ghosts of past projects haunt the presentation. By playing a pre alpha build live in front of journalists and making us aware that mechanics and names might change along the line, the studio wordlessly acknowledges the lessons it learned about transparency from the Colonial Marines mess.

But there’s something else about Battleborn that’s almost embarrassing to write: it isn’t Borderlands. This summer, studio head Randy Pitchford suggested that expectations for a third game might now be so high they couldn’t possibly be met. To all intents and purposes, no such game is in development.

Battleborn  might be the studio resetting the clock on those expectations, adjusting the formula enough for this to be considered a new project, even if it is one that keeps the foundations of its celebrated series intact. Given the longform leanings of the genres it fuses, it’ll take dozens of hours to uncover whether that revised formula is as robust as the one powering  Borderlands . All we can be certain of is that Gearbox is being careful about what it promises it knows more than its reputation is on the line this time.

The hard cel
Before building Battleborn’s art style from the ground up as art director, Scott Kester played a key role in developing Borderlands’ cel-shaded (or if you’re Randy Pitchford, absolutely not cel-shaded) visuals, and designed most of the main characters in the first and second games. “I started on Borderlands 1 before the style change,” he says. “We had to redo a bunch of it, but there was a starting point. This one was a challenge, because we started with nothing.

We re-used nothing.” Could the studio’s penchant for radical rethinking affect the work he’s done so far on Battleborn? “I don’t think it’s necessarily studio policy to go, ‘Hey, it’s the 11th hour, let’s change everything!’ Please, God, I hope!”

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