Every Borderlands game has launched at a point in my life during which I couldn’t make the time to fit them into my schedule. Within weeks of release my friends are at too high a level to play with, and I end up clearing the first few missions alone – or with one or two random folks online, if I’m lucky – before eventually dropping the game entirely.
Battleborn is a more ‘casual’ take on the Borderlands formula, a game that feels like it has been designed to fit into busy lives. The RPG elements have been toned way down: the level cap is now 10, your level resets at the start of every mission, and there doesn’t seem to be any loot to collect. There are 25 characters to play as, and each one comes with a unique arsenal and special abilities. With each level you choose a new buff, and at level 5 your ‘Ultimate Ability’ unlocks.
It’s all incredibly streamlined, the game leaning on the differences between its characters more than Borderlands did. I had a chance to play with three of them in my hands-on session. Marquis is a robot in a bowler hat, who is most effective at range with his rifle but can slow down enemies when up-close. Miko is a sentient mushroom person, who attacks with throwing knives and can summon up poisonous clouds of spores. Montana is the big dude with a gatling gun that every game of this type needs, and works much better up close than he does at range (which makes his rushing charge attack extra handy). All of them played differently, with Miko standing out as particularly unique.
The demo involved playing through the same level (‘To The Edge of the Void’, which felt awfully similar to the opening sections of Borderlands 2) three times with a pleasant bunch of European journos. I’d like to say that by the end we were working together as a well-oiled machine, but in truth it became clear very fast that communicating and strategising wasn’t necessary. This demo was ridiculously easy, which had me wondering whether the game scales for multiple players, and why there weren’t harsher penalties for death. You basically respawn nearby, a system that works for games like Borderlands and Destiny because the upcoming loot drops are the real main attraction; stripping those away leaves Battleborn feeling a little aimless. With five players you rarely need to do more than target your enemies and press all the attack buttons repeatedly (your special attacks recharge very quickly), and enemies show little reaction to your attacks until they’re dead, meaning that the gunplay isn’t as satisfying as it could be.
Still, as a casual co-op experience, Battleborn could work. The characters all felt genuinely different from each other (one of them, Orendi the war witch, attacks with four hands in a way that reminded me of The Darkness), and the level-up system means that you can try different strength combinations each time you play. The fundamental mechanics are quite strong, and if Battleborn more effectively escalates in the full game, it could scoop up all of us who have difficulty getting invested in Borderlands.