Battleborn: a heroic royal rumble from Gearbox

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If you’ve always admired the sparky eccentricity of Gearbox’s weapon and ability concepts, but resented the time needed to unlock them, Battleborn may be the shooter for you. While comparable to Borderlands in many respects—the co-op emphasis and exaggerated ‘toon aesthetic, that violent sense of humour—the new game is no hundred-hour quest for a talking shotgun. It’s an open air buffet of silly, spectacular ways to hurt things, most yours for the wielding within moments of picking a class.

As in the PvP multiplayer, which we sampled last year, Battleborn’s heroes begin each half-hour campaign chapter at level zero and rank up at lightspeed, unlocking an ultimate ability at level five on top of your starting two specials. Every time you gain a level (there are 10), you’re also given the choice of two perks—extra knockback for a charge attack, for instance, or a lifesteal effect for one of your specials. Adapted from the MOBA (a genre whose uber-geek cache Gearbox and 2K covet, but whose impenetrability they’re clearly wary of) this approach makes it easy to experiment with and within classes, identifying the techniques that suit you best.

An open air buffet of silly, spectacular ways to hurt things.

“Hang on, aren’t MOBAs all about ridiculous levels of teamwork?” the dabblers among you may be worrying. Never fear. The campaign’s regularly spaced spawning pads take the sting out of deaths brought about by sloppy coordination, seldom dropping players further than a minute from the action. Much of the time, the challenge isn’t really to function smoothly as a team but to work out who exactly is killing what.

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Playing as the four-armed witch Orendi, I summon beringed pillars of antimatter beneath the feet of purple Varelsi aliens, cowering behind crystal barricades. Caught in the ensuing maelstrom—there’s no friendly fire, mercifully—the team’s Rath player activates his ultimate ability, an oddly festive red-on-white katana flurry that spins him across the arena like a kamikaze maypole. Not to be left out, psychic swordswoman Phoebe (Mary Poppins to the tune of Kill Bill) teleports straight through the mob, leaving a slick of electricity in her wake, while obligatory Modern Warfare guy Oscar Mike calls in an airstrike to seal the deal.

Pyrotechnics of this ilk aren’t exactly unusual in MOBAs, but it’s seldom that we get to experience the chaos at ground level, nose-deep in particle effects. This isn’t always for the best. Ranged fighters should enjoy the show (which is soundtracked, in Orendi’s case, by petulant squeals of “I WANT YOU ON FIRE”). Melee class players may find the audio-visual bombardment confusing, even grating. There’s something to be said for a top-down view.

This is especially true of Boldur, an axe-wielding dwarf berserker who can charge through formations to knock enemies over. Choosing him means spending lots of time with your screen in something’s crotch, though you can always toss the axe (perhaps after upgrading it to inflict bleed damage) if an enemy escapes your reach. Assault mech Caldarius strikes more of a balance between ranges, jetting forward to uppercut enemies after stunning them with flashbang grenades. His ultimate ability sends him roaring high above the map, then slamming earthwards—as convenient a way of getting out of a fight as getting into one.

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Sadly, Battleborn’s level design isn’t as exhilarating as its cast. When first we saw the co-op in action we summarised it as a Borderlands quest minus the open-endedness and, of course, the loot. That remains true, but the scenarios do at least seem varied and well-paced. The demo build takes us to an icy clifftop base, populated by a mix of gunners, heavy bruisers and squishy skirmishers. After a series of scuffles in courtyards, we nobble an elite minigunner and deactivate a pair of industrial loading pincers, allowing our comms operator Kleese to deploy an AI-controlled robot tank.

The tank is more than a bullet sponge— you can spend shards acquired on the map to equip it with turrets and a shield, perhaps offsetting any weaknesses in your team’s skillset. Having kitted the beast out, we escort it through a valley that’s lousy with enemy spawnpoints to a giant door, which triggers an assault from all sides and a simple bossfight. Not quite Left 4 Dead 2’s Parish campaign, all told, but eventful enough to hold the interest—and hopefully, Battleborn’s diverse spread of heroes will compensate for any humdrum layouts or one-note opposition.

The game’s biggest potential pitfall is an obvious one: in seeking to cross-breed Borderlands with the MOBA, Gearbox risks riling fans of both. After tackling Evolve’s Defend mode I can’t say I’m convinced that the line between genres needs any more blurring, but then, Gearbox is the studio that turned the FPS into a kleptomaniac worthy of the catacombs of Diablo. If any developer can teach these archetypes to coexist, it’s surely this one.