Battleborn: Speaking Ill of the Dead

Battleborn’s story is short and tragic. Released by Gearbox just a couple of weeks before Blizzard’s Overwatch, this hero shooter fell in a deadly whirlpool of unflattering comparisons despite being a pretty different game. In the public consciousness, those two games became counterparts, and Randy Pitchford’s attempts to emphasize differences between them fell in vain. Ironically though, Battleborn’s weaknesses lay also in its differences from Overwatch, not just in similarities. In the light of the latest news about Battleborn shutting its servers in January 2021, I just had to look back at it. For it is not only for successful games to be remembered: flops also deserve their place in history.

According to Steam Charts, more than 12,000 concurrent players were tasting the waters of Battleborn arenas on the game’s launch on the first days of May 2016. A month later, the number tanked to less than 2,500. Already in September, only lucky ones could find themselves a party to play a full 5v5 match: there were far less than 1,000 concurrent players in the game. In June 2017, Battleborn went free-to-play, attracting some new players but failing to keep them playing. Today (29.01.2020), when I last checked, only 8 people were playing the game. Basically, now it is nearly impossible to find a party for a match.

Thankfully, there is a couple of alternative options in this wasteland. There is a story-based campaign that was designed to be played in co-op mode but may also tolerate a lonely player for lack of a better option. Additionally, it is always possible to play with bots. Starting with the campaign, I’ve straight away got the same feeling I felt 4 years ago while playing Battleborn for the first time: feeling the need to play Overwatch

The reason, as far as I can tell, is pretty simple: Battleborn provokes a particular itch in you: the yearning for a first-person MOBA-like shooter with diverse characters—the craving for a fun and colorful arena shooting chaos. The itch that Overwatch succeeds to scratch, while Battleborn doesn’t. And that is the fatal flaw in this game’s design.

On the one hand, Battleborn seems an over-complicated game: there is a broad and diverse roster of 30 different characters; there is an in-match leveling-up system with an option to choose one of two perks each level and eventually unlocking the character’s ultimate ability; there are shards that you should collect in-game and spend them on building turrets and droids to help you gain an advantage in a particular area of the map; there are several game modes, each with its own strategy. But on the other hand, the game’s complexity is just an illusion: all that matters is your individual skill in the core mechanic of a chosen character—be it marksmanship, maneuvering, or survivability—everything else is just dust.

Therefore, Battleborn falls flat between two chairs. It seems intimidating to those seeking a pure, straightforward brawling fun, and it eventually disappoints those who seek the first-person alternative to DOTA 2. Battleborn is a game for no-one at its very core. Add to that the fact that most of the characters were locked on the launch, demanding from the player a fair bit of grinding to get unlocked. Everyone hates grinding, so the result was unsurprising: players just stopped playing. Some went straight to Overwatch with its ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ attitude.

As an addition of an insult to injury, Battleborn’s strongest side ended up being the most overlooked one. That’s the campaign I’m talking about. Quite a bit of an effort went into the lore, the plot, the dialogs—each of 30 characters has her specific voiced remarks in certain mission points that flesh out and stress out each character’s unique attitude. Campaign’s intro is one of the coolest bits of animation I’ve ever seen in games: hand-drawn old-school style rampage with some bad-ass music in the background. Gearbox’s style of humor maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but there are certainly fans of its cringe-worthy punches, as evident in the success of the Borderlands series. And, oh boy, there are loads of it in Battleborn’s campaign missions.

But nothing helps if the mission design itself is so bland and boring. Waves after waves of mostly samey mobs with eventual boss-fight in-between. It gets pretty old, pretty fast. Who knows, maybe if Gearbox had invested more into improving the campaign flaws post-lunch, after Overwatch’s dominance was established, it might have kept Battleborn stay afloat a little bit longer. Alas, it gave up surprisingly fast.

Battleborn is going to be playable for another year and will finally put to rest four months before its fifth anniversary. The game has been dead for most of its life-time though, and it is nobody’s fault—nor Overwatch’s, nor anybody else’s—but Battleborn’s own.

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