Released way back in 2007 (can you believe that it's been seven years?), Team Fortress 2 introduced gamers and the media to the idea that a shooter could get buy with cheaper-looking graphics so long as it had a certain sense of style. Valve's smartest move was to imbue each class with a certain amount of personality, making them feel like characters in themselves. Everyone had their favorite, among them the Spy and his cigarette, the Crocodile Dundee-like Sniper, and the Heavy and his sandviches, to name just a few.
Fast-forward eight years or so and multiple studios are working on class-based multiplayer games spurred in part by the eSports gold rush, the dominance of MOBAs, and the successful blueprint of Team Fortress 2. Battleborn is one such game. Developed by Gearbox Software, the studio best-known for Borderlands, it tries to leverage Borderlands's uh... unique... sense of humor to stand out from the crowd while tossing in a host of established multiplayer elements. It's a game that tries to be everything to everyone in throwing elves and dwarves together with a soldier named Oscar Mike and a burly minigun operator named Montana who looks suspiciously like Team Fortress 2's aforementioned Heavy.
To one degree or another, it's clear that Gearbox wants to be the quirkiest shooter on the block. So what are their prospects? Let's take a look.
The Case for Battleborn
There's no denying that Battleborn's frenetic pace makes for a fun shooter. Small levels and loads of melee-based characters keep the action brisk and result in a lot of entertaining firefights. Pretty much everyone at the event I attended that Rath - a cyborg dual-wielding two katanas - was dramatically overpowered in multiplayer owing to his ability to surprise enemies with his speed and crush them at close range, but the fundamentals are in place for a passable shooter.
In a move befitting its MOBA-based roots, Battleborn has skill trees that can be upgraded as you level up, allowing you to customize your character on the fly to fit the situation. The skills alter existing abilities, for example allowing Rath to either use his Crossblade attack to blind his enemies, or send him leaping forward for additional damage (by the way, blind is so good - it completely disorients an enemy while you slice them into little bits). There are also perks that can be unlocked from loot packs that activate as you collect enough shards on the battlefield and buff your attack, your defense, or some other aspect of your character.
The upshot of all this is an enjoyable, if something messy, action game. Hardcore competitive multiplayer fans will no doubt enjoy the opportunity to min-max their character's abilities, and the different abilities lend it a bit of an RPG-like flavor. As a general piece of advice, you're going to want to make sure your team has a healer and a tank, otherwise you're going to get overrun and overwhelmed in a hurry.
In keeping with Battleborn's desire to be everything for everyone, it has three multiplayer modes - the MOBA-like Incursion, the more traditional Capture in which you capture control points with your team, and Meltdown, which is basically tower defense. Interestingly enough, despite its obvious comparisons to MOBAs, Meltdown is the mode that seems to do the most play to Battleborn's strengths. In it, two teams battle try and escort their minions into their opponent's gate, battling both enemy team members and AI-controlled units along the way. Shards take on a particular amount of importance as the game's de facto currency as they can be used to purchase turrets, which are crucial for keeping minions at bay. Certain classes also take on added importance in Meltdown, particularly the ones capable of using area of effect attacks to knock out minions.
If I were to hazard a guess, though, I would say that Control that will end up being the most popular mode. Though Battleborn will likely bring in a broad cross-section of multiplayer fans, shooter enthusiasts are likely to dominate, especially on console, and Control is the simplest and most accessible mode of the bunch. Incursion also has a chance, but its naturally higher commitment and the fact that Smite exists and is very popular may ultimately hold it back a bit.
Probably the biggest argument for Battleborn's success at this point is that it will have a full-featured single-player and c-op campaign, which is not something that its free-to-play counterparts can claim. I only played one mission - a battle against ISIC, a self-proclaimed 'scary renegade AI' - but it has that Borderlands flavor that figures to draw in fans of that style of humor. With mainstream shooters like Battlefront moving away from single-player rather than embracing it, those who would rather play alone or with their friends have more reason to like Battleborn. In that sense, Gearbox has done a good job of covering Battleborn's bases and setting it up for success.
The Case Against Battleborn
I think my biggest problem with Battleborn so far, aside from the fact that I don't care for the overly explanatory and referential humor (sorry!), is that it in motion it feels oddly like a free-to-play game, which is to say that it feels a bit... cheap. League of Legends and Team Fortress have shown that deliberately stylized cel-shading can work, but a game selling for $59.99 in today's environment has naturally higher expectations. And while its mostly fine, it's hard to get past the floaty feeling of the controls and the rather modest environments and character models.
What's more, its art naturally suffers in comparison to its direct competition, particularly Blizzard's Overwatch. Admittedly, there's no shame in not being able to match up to the likes of Blizzard, who employ some of the best artists in the business, but the comparison is unavoidable given that they are two games targeting much the same audience. There are times when Battleborn feels just a bit too much like Team Fortress 2, down to the fact that Montana is basically a direct copy of the Heavy.
The really tough thing for Battleborn is its price point. It's entering a space dominated in large part by free-to-play games; and while it does its best to be a fully-featured shooter designed to appeal to a broad swath of people, its lack of focus may ultimately be its undoing. After all, MOBA fans are certainly not wanting for choices, nor are shooter enthusiasts. Battleborn's hodge-podge of elements makes it an interesting novelty, but it's tough to say whether it distinguishes itself as an especially strong choice in such a crowded space. The trope heavy and referential nature of its classes - the Oscar Mikes and the Raths - make it feel like a shooter with no identity of its own.
If Battleborn were just a multiplayer shooter, I would be tempted to say that it's headed for trouble. Thankfully, though, it has a robust single-player component to offer as well, and that combined with the established fanbase Gearbox has earned from Borderlands could well push it over the top. Say what you want about the classes being cliche, but there seems to be an unquenchable appetite among gamers for robots with jetpacks and clones wielding shotguns.
All snark aside, I genuinely like how Battleborn has managed weave the components we've come to know and love from MOBAs - particularly XP and skill trees - into the shooting experience at large. There's some danger that a match can get out of hand once one team gets overleveled, but the games are brisk enough and opportunities to level plenty enough that it doesn't feel like a real weakness. And moreso even than Team Fortress 2, the RPG-like skill sets foster a demand for balanced teams. At the very least, I'm pretty sure that only one person on a given team can pick Rath.
In any case, Gearbox has their faults, but it's tough to pick against them when Battleborn seems so squarely in their wheelhouse. Regardless of how it turns out, though, it's clear that quirky class-based shooters are still thriving in this post-Team Fortress 2 world.