E3 2015: Battleborn is less MOBA (and more Borderlands) than you think

In the midst of an E3 swimming with MOBA twists and imitators, Battleborn stands apart as a game that borrows what it needs from the popular genre, and uses it to forge its own path.


Is Battleborn a MOBA? It's a fair enough question on its face. The upcoming effort from Gearbox Software features a wide cast of playable characters and a progression system that ramps quickly and then resets after each match. It's certainly MOBA-like, and would be easy to miscategorize. After having played it, though, I came away with a different impression. It's as much a MOBA as Borderlands is a dungeon-crawler. And it shares much more in common with that series than anything that League or Dota fans would recognize.

First, though, the MOBA similarities. Or similarity, rather, since it's really only one aspect of this particular mash-up. During single-player missions, you gain levels quickly, and the ramp of play is much steeper since it's built around the assumption that you'll constantly be upgrading your skills. Like a MOBA, the upgrade path is simplified to only a few options, with a quick two-button combination for handling upgrades that will become second nature once players know their build order. 

That's where it ends, however. In every other respect, Battleborn looks and plays almost identically to Borderlands. From the neon-soaked aesthetic to the feeling of squeezing off rounds to the absurdist, self-referential humor, this is practically a Borderlands spin-off. I was assured by a Gearbox representative that Battleborn was always meant to be its own franchise, but it's absolutely impossible not to notice the similarities.

That said, this is a much more focused take on the mission types in Borderlands. While those can sometimes be a slog, spread out amid an open world with plenty of back-tracking, Battleborn missions are meant to be linear. Paired with the accelerated upgrade path, there are much fewer moments of downtime in Battleborn, or trudging across a tundra to find your next objective marker. Objectives are tightly packed and enemies pop out more regularly, streamlining the formula to its most enjoyable parts.

I played as Marquis, the gentleman robot sniper--and also a huge jerk. I usually shy away from sniper roles in console games. I've never been adept at aiming the reticle fast enough to be effective. I was drawn to Marquis entirely by the character design, but I was glad to find him so fun to play as well. Maybe because the enemies were lumbering brutes, I had a much easier time scoring headshots and helping my team. If I felt cornered by a charging enemy, simply unscoping would let me fire hip shots with ease. His special ability, which slows down enemies in an area-of-effect, helped me pinpoint my shots, naturally. Plus, I spent most of my upgrades improving my robotic owl Hoodini, who could pester enemies on my behalf. 

Instead of constant, slow progression like Borderlands, Battleborn offers a wider array of options. Outside of the mission levels that unlock abilities, you can level up your character in a larger sense, earning more skins and different upgrade options that will be mapped to a different key. The idea is that, eventually, you can sample different types of builds with the same character, and be rewarded for playing a lot with a favorite.

It does share another common trait with MOBAs, but not one I witnessed firsthand. I was told it will launch with three competitive multiplayer modes. Two of them, Devastation and Meltdown, are objective-based in different ways. The remaining one, Incursion, draws the most inspiration from traditional MOBAs, including mobs of enemies, guard sentries, and the ultimate goal of reaching and destroying the other team's base.

Still, one-third of the competitive options and a twist on the progression ramp in single-player does not a MOBA make. Battleborn defies easy definition, and handles itself with a style all its own. I'm already looking forward to playing more.

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