Have you ever gone on a date with someone you’re initially attracted to, only to have the most painful first date of your life? If you have, you know exactly how I feel after spending time with the closed Early Access build of Battleborn.
I desperately want to like Battleborn, the confusing first-person shooter from Gearbox Software that’s set to launch on May 3. Maybe it’s out of blind ignorance, but there’s something about Gearbox’s penchant for first-person shooters laden with dumb humor that feels irresistible to goofy people like myself. Even after perhaps the single most frustrating preview experience imaginable, there’s still something intriguing about a fast-paced shooter with MOBA tendencies loaded with unique characters. As video game critics, it’s our duty to report exactly what happens when we play a given game, no matter how negative or positive. Still, even with all of the blatant comparisons that you can make to Overwatch, Borderlands and the dozens of MOBAs floating around out there, the best way to describe my experience with Battleborn is a soul-crushing date with someone who you initially thought would be perfect for you. Whether or not this says more about Battleborn itself or the follies of my dating life is anyone’s guess at this point, but hey, it makes for some decent reading.
The vast majority of the time I spent playing Battleborn over the course of the past few days has been running through Story missions completely on my own. This isn’t because of any particular leaning towards single-player experiences, but rather due to a complete inability to find any players to team up with, be it cooperatively or competitively. The worst part about this is that Battleborn’s Versus mode is that one of the options available, Incursion (the famous MOBA mode), is actually extremely fun when you have a team of players following objectives. Sadly, my lone Versus match crashed immediately upon launching, though Battleborn does give you the option to join a match that you were previously in if this occurs. This would be a fanastic addition for any other type of multiplayer game, but when in-game leveling is one of the main mechanics, joining a partially completed match is akin to suicide. When everyone else has stronger main and special attacks, you’re going to be at a disadvantage for the entire duration of the match (this is why getting off to a good start in games like Dota 2 and League of Legends is absolutely critical). To make matters more frustrating, the reason for the lack of matchmaking success does not appear to be a result of faulty servers, but rather the exceptionally limited access to the Early Access build that Gearbox and 2K have granted. If there’s ever a game that would benefit from having a full, public Steam Early Access launch, it’s this one, especially when you consider that the Overwatch Public Beta is set to begin on Battleborn’s launch day. It’s for this reason that this Early Access period is receiving little to no press; there’s simply little to no reason to wait around for a match that is likely never to come.
Imagine if your date didn’t show up for the first, second or third meetings, yet you continue to make plans with this person. Most of us would call you crazy and say you’re wasting your time, so why is this something that should be excused here? Sure, software and people are entirely different beasts, but the poor planning here seems to be reflective of the misguided messaging that has surrounded Battleborn since the moment it was announced. Think about all of the trailers that we’ve seen so far. They’ve largely been focused around introducing Battleborn’s admittedly unique and well-designed heroes, but we’ve been given no reason to care about any of them. As someone who has spent time playing Battleborn, even I struggle to describe exactly what it is. Sure, it’s a hero-based first-person shooter featuring cooperative and competitive modes, all of which are built on the back of in-game leveling, but all of this winds up feeling like a bunch of random ideas that were thrown against a wall. Of course, there’s a single tweet out there that sums up the confusing messaging in less that 140 characters. You’ve probably seen it by now, but if you haven’t, take a look:
Battleborn is: FPS; hobby-grade coop campaign; genre-blended, multi-mode competitive e-sports; meta-growth, choice + epic Battleborn Heroes!
— Randy Pitchford (@DuvalMagic) July 8, 2014
This is akin to that moment on the Date from Hell when the person you were originally attracted to describes themselves in a way that makes them seem downright insane. That moment where their answers to your questions create more confusion than clarity. Oh, and that last bit, where Pitchford mentions those epic Battleborn Heroes that we’re already supposed to care about is the equivalent of your date randomly spitting up in the middle of their sentence. Yes, Battleborn’s Early Access build has been a frustrating experience when it comes to matchmaking, but getting to experience its core mechanics and bits of narrative was a bit more positive (in the way a mixed bag is better than absolutely nothing).
Considering that this entire article is one big reference to a hypothetical terrible date, the core shooting mechanics and general mission structure are essentially those two mildly interesting moments that fool you into accepting a second date despite every other aspect indicating that you shouldn’t. The fast-paced nature of Battleborn’s core gameplay, which is bolstered by a number of in-game pickups and light tower defense crafting, is interesting enough to build something of a core audience, though all indications are that it won’t be large enough to be considered successful. From Orendi’s multi-armed energy-flinging (the animations for which are absolutely fantastic and unlike anything we’ve seen in the first-person shooter genre) to Oscar Mike’s relatively tight assault rifle, there is enough gameplay variety there to warrant trying out each character. In-game leveling does dangle a carrot in front of players during each session, though having only two options to pick from in each level feels like Gearbox is taking Heroes of the Storm’s controversial leveling system to the extreme. The two story missions that are currently available in the Early Access build do a good job of blending genres, as there are moments of horde-slaying, corridor shooting and some pretty intense boss battles.
The issue with Battleborn has never been its actual gameplay, however, but rather the assumption that we should care about this universe without any initial hooks. From the television-style introduction sequence to the absolutely insufferable dialogue, Battleborn’s narrative has all the makings of a complete flop. Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a conversation only to stop and wonder what the heck is going on? Convert that sensation into a video game story and you have the content of the cutscenes here. Granted, these two missions are completely devoid of context, and could make sense in the midst of the entirety of the launch content, but it’s emblematic of the marketing of Battleborn. We’re expected to care about this world and these characters, but every bit of Battleborn content feels like it drops the player into a world with absolutely no context.
Yes, Battleborn’s Early Access was perhaps the single most infuriating preview experience in my many years writing about games, but there is still something to this bizarre title that begs for another chance. It’s clear that Gearbox cares about the product it’s creating, especially when you consider how hard it has the potential to flop. Make no mistake, all indications are that Overwatch is going to top Battleborn from a sales and player-base standpoint. Still, Gearbox does have the talent to create some interesting gameplay mechanics. When they’re saddled in the middle of one of the most perplexing packages the industry has seen in years, however, it’s hard not to feel like Battleborn is destined to be the video game equivalent of the person you swear you’ll stay friends with before immediately deleting his or her number from your phone.