With its brightly colored roster of quip-lobbing heroes and a flashy opening credits sequence that kicks off each “episode” of its cooperative campaign, Battleborn seemingly wants you to feel like you’re playing an old-school Saturday morning cartoon. In practice, the effect is more like the resulting high of wolfing down too much of the sugary cereal that often accompanied those shows: hyper-kinetic, distracting, and ultimately more unpleasant than invigorating.
At its core, Battleborn is functionally two games: the aforementioned cooperative story mode and competitive multiplayer battles that draw from the structure of games like DOTA2 or League Of Legends. The two sides are tied together by a roster of mercenaries, rogue robots, and cackling space witches known as the Battleborn. Roughly divided into melee and ranged characters, each is distinguished by a trio of skills, a handful of stock jokes, and some passive effects that determine their approach to the fight. Sniper robot Marquis, for instance, can deploy a time bubble that slows opponents and gains damage boosts when he lands consecutive shots on a single target. The demonic melee fighter Galilea, meanwhile, stuns enemies with a hurled shield, before closing the gap and covering them with health-draining gunk. Each character’s abilities can be customized with gear pieces that slowly accrue as matches are played and a 10-level progression system that resets at the start of each fight. This allows players to shape their chosen hero or antihero as the needs of the battlefield dictate.
The concepts of the game’s characters—a sword-wielding vampire samurai here, an uber-patriotic rocket launcher-loving eagle-man there—work well to make the packed list of fighters look and feel unique. But they also highlight the biggest problem with the game’s look, one that often cripples its effectiveness as a first-person shooter: Its visual design is cluttered and overly busy. This pervasive issue is at its worst during competitive multiplayer, where the average player will have to constantly track (and try to comprehend) all of the following visual elements, usually while bullets are flying and enemies are swiftly closing in: nine other characters, each with their own individual skills and ways to make your life either a heaven or hell; maps full of ornate details and crannies that are perfect for ambushes; skill effects, which transform parts of the battlefield into deadly traps or healing havens; and a horde of computer-controlled minions that have to either be destroyed or safe-guarded as they make their way to some distant goal.
It’s not that Battleborn is visually unappealing—the game is beautiful in its approach to chaotic combat. But it’s frequently impossible to look at a given moment during a battle and determine what’s actually going on, especially when you factor in the notion that a large portion of the game’s cast fights without ranged weapons. When you’re up close and personal, swinging a giant sword or monster fist in front of your own eyes as your health gets steadily whittled down by enemies you can’t even see, it’s hard to feel like the game’s lush graphics are contributing to your enjoyment of the fight.
That’s a shame, because there’s satisfaction to be found in Battleborn’s less hectic moments. Learning the nuances of a new character is a pleasure, and figuring out the best ways to deploy them—and which foes you need to actively avoid if you’re going to stay alive for more than a handful of seconds—provides a smooth and enjoyable learning curve. The maps are full of interesting ways to tilt the fight in your favor, like a wide variety of turrets and buildable structures that speed up how quickly you and your units move across the map. And on the rare occasions that the game’s spotty matchmaking system coughs up a fair fight, the back-and-forth of battle can produce a lot of fun, whether you’re playing a game of capture the point or one of the two modes that involve guiding minions to a specific location. When the matchmaking fails—which it often does at the moment, pitting teams of highly experienced killers against groups of low-level neophytes—it’s a joy-draining slog, with one team getting steadily worn down until they’re eventually forced to offer a feeble surrender.
Those matchmaking problems bedevil the game’s story mode, too, albeit in a different but equally frustrating way. Battleborn’s missions are designed so that they can be played in any order, with your ragtag crew of warriors bouncing around the solar system trying to keep the last star in the universe from being snuffed out. You’ll definitely end up running them in any order and almost certainly more than once, due to the baffling decision to make the mission you’re going play more-or-less random. Upon entering Story Mode, you’ll be teamed up with other online players and presented with a list of three of the game’s eight missions. At that point, players vote and the majority determines which map you’ll be playing.
This is infuriating. Not just because it’s a potentially huge waste of time—even if the game tries to mitigate the pain of inevitable repetition by handing out rewards for high scores and changing up dialogue based on which characters you bring to the fight—but because it would be so easy to fix. There’s nothing worse than only having an hour or so to play the game, rolling into a story mission, and being forced to replay something you’ve already done, lest you be locked out of the game for several minutes as a penalty for quitting. (To be fair, you can play with friends or in solo mode to avoid the randomization, but the game pushes its online play.)
Once you actually get into a mission you like, things ease up a bit. Story-mode levels are simple but enjoyable, with your team of Battleborn cutting through wave after wave of AI opponents and the occasional boss. It’s especially interesting to see the different ways characters can be built to emphasize either player-vs.-player or player-vs.-computer situations, with their skills gaining utility against hordes of mooks that they wouldn’t have in a one-on-one fight. And the ensuing dialogue is fun, even if it relies too heavily on the “We’re all having a casual conversation while something crazy is happening” school of writing favored by Gearbox’s Borderlands games.
But the game’s co-op difficulty is a mess. Basic missions—the ones where you walk down a series of hallways, blow away some monsters, and eventually take down a boss—aren’t bad at all. You might die every once in a while, but other players can revive you and extra lives are generously doled out. Many of the game’s missions involve defending objectives, and it’s here that Battleborn gets mean. Almost all of these precious objects are ridiculously fragile, forcing players to run around like crazy to ensure no precious slivers of (non-regenerating, non-replenishable) health get shaved from their life bars. And if your team fails, there’s no quick retry or extra chance; it’s a failed mission, and you’ve just blown the last 25 minutes of your life. Some of these fights are screaming out for a post-release patch to tweak their difficulty, but until they get it, missions like “The Saboteur” are going to be exercises in frustration.
Battleborn isn’t a bad game. Gearbox has obviously lavished a lot of work onto its world, its characters, and the ways players move and fight. But it is a frustrating game, full of details that drain the joy it’s meant to invoke. From its emphasis on ornamentation over clarity, to the randomness and cruelty of its cooperative missions, it constantly trips itself on its attempted journey toward the pantheon of great, long-lived online shooters.