On paper, Battleborn—game development studio Gearbox Software’s big follow up to its successful Borderlands series of games—might sound like the studio is repeating itself. After all, Battleborn, like Borderlands, is a first-person shooter that freely grabs interesting ideas from other genres and repackages them into something with a distinct style and personality.
But that’s not very fair.
Games can be a lot like sandwiches—while technically, every sandwich is simply “bread with stuff in between,” there is a world of difference between a Monte Cristo and a PB&J, with plenty of room for experimentation in between. Similar to how the vast and interesting world of sandwiches can be terribly wronged by our desire to label everything, video games deserve a little bit more than a few genre descriptors. But don’t worry, the genre descriptors are coming.
Before Borderlands, Gearbox never really staked out a part of the gaming landscape that was uniquely theirs. Borderlands changed that. The game was a genre mashup with a big personality, taking the endless looting and gear from games like Diablo and wrapping it around a first-person shooter with a rude sense of humor and hand-drawn, ink-heavy art style. Looking back, Borderlands functions very much as a statement of purpose for Gearbox, boldly proclaiming what a Gearbox game would look like: bold, irreverent, and full of genre free-association. But with the studio committed to the Borderlands franchise straight through to 2012’s sequel (give or take a Duke Nukem Forever), no one knew how closely to that new-found special sauce the next Gearbox game would hew. Rest assured, Battleborn sticks very closely to the Borderlands formula—which is another way of saying it’s totally different.
The game’s story takes place in a universe where every star has gone out, save one: Solus. As a result, the star has become a hub for immigrants and refugees—and conflict. Factions form, each with their own interests and motivations, and escalating tensions would lead to full-blown war, if the Verelsi never had shown up. These are Battleborn’s Big Bads, the mysterious force that threatens to destroy the last star. To take them on, champions from every race and faction arise—the titular Battleborn. It’s very grand stuff, like space opera by way of Pixar or Dreamworks Animation—approachable enough for an all-ages feel, but versatile enough to handle all manner of serious themes as would befit a story about the possible end of all life.
This, of course, is paired with Gearbox’s self-professed love of genre-blending gameplay.
Video games, unlike most forms of entertainment, are unique in that they’re categorized by technical criteria as opposed to the narrative kind. This means that most games aren’t described based on how they’re supposed to make you feel, but rather what they’ll let you do. In this sense, games are more like vacuum cleaners than entertainment. So while you could describe Gearbox’s last big franchise, Borderlands, as a Post-Apocalyptic action-comedy, that really doesn’t tell you much about how you play the game. To describe it in game-genre speak, you’d have to call it a Loot-Based First-Person Shooter With RPG Elements. Applying the same logic, Battleborn is not a Sci-Fi/Fantasy Adventure, but a Hybrid First-Person Shooter/MOBA with RPG Elements. (It just rolls off the tongue.)
In an attempt to make Battleborn easier to describe, however, Gearbox invented a new buzzphrase, much like I just invented the word “buzzphrase”: “Hero-Shooter.” This would seem to imply that you either shoot heroes (which would be kind of bad) or shoot some type of gun that launches heroes out of it (which would be kind of awesome). Neither is the case. “Hero-Shooter” is less of a genre descriptor and more of a job description, it’s one of those phrases that really suffers from hyphens having no phonetic sound. You are a Hero-Shooter, much like our early ancestors were Hunter-Gatherers, and it is your job to heroically shoot.
The way you’ll go about this is where all the genre-blending comes into play. So if the first-person action is the ice in the Battleborn smoothie, then the MOBA bits have to be the fruit—let’s say they’re mangos. For the uninitiated, MOBA is an acronym for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, an immensely popular genre of game that lets players control one hero from an overhead perspective and form a team with other players to take on other teams and/or hordes of enemies. MOBAs are fun for a lot of reasons, but the bit that’s most relevant to Battleborn is how characters get stronger: while most modern games slowly put your character through its paces, making him/her more and more powerful the more time you sink into it, MOBAs compress that growth into a single match. Every time you play, you start from the bottom—kind of like Drake— and have the potential to reach the peak of your powers within the 20 or 30 minutes a match lasts.
But there’s another bit of MOBA goodness that Battleborn borrows from—let’s say these are the pineapples in our genre smoothie. It’s a huge cast of characters.
“Every character in the game is the main character in a game that hasn’t come out yet,” says Battleborn creative director Randy Varnell. The team is striving for a wide variety of playstyles with regards to how players move through the game. This is one area in which the team is pushing past Borderlands, which included every kind of gun players could possibly imagine, but outside of a few special abilities tied to each playable character, the way they moved was more or less the same. In Battleborn, however, characters will be significantly more distinct—fleet-footed players who like jumping around can play elf-archer Thorne, crafty snipers can play dapper steampunk robot Marquis, shooter purists will prefer soldier pastiche Oscar Mike.
The Battleborn team has shown off nine characters so far—including anthropomorphic mushroom shaman Miko and Victorian-style swordswoman Phoebe—but the finished game will include a much larger roster for players to unlock and experience. At the official unveiling of the game’s five-player cooperative story mode in New York last week, each character really did seem distinct in meaningful ways. When playing through the game with others (friends or otherwise—serendipitous matchmaking is encouraged), players will be able to specialize in skills that suit how they want to play based on their character, and the MOBA-like skill progression means that you don’t have to spend hours investing in a character that doesn’t suit you—once you’ve played one match with a character, you more or less know what they have to offer, and the various ways you can customize them.
Battleborn marks a conscious effort on Gearbox’s behalf to make the kind of game that anyone can play, and it stems from more than just the variety of player characters. There’s nary a swear word in Battleborn—a huge departure from the crude and loud comedy of Borderlands. According to writer Aaron Linde, this stems from a desire to make a more inclusive kind of game—if foul-mouthed characters are going to keep players from giving Battleborn a shot, then why not remove that barrier?
Also gone is the over-the-top violence—blood and gore is replaced with broad physical comedy. Characters gyrate like cartoons when boosters fling them through the air, robots comically fall to scraps when players shoot them, and special attacks often come with a visual joke tied to the character’s personality. It’s less lewd, but still fun.
All told, Battleborn is still early in its development. Everything that’s been shown comes from a pre-Alpha build of the game, and there’s no release date yet. There is a wealth of questions that remain to be asked and answered. (Like the game’s single-player mode—Gearbox said it’s something the company is thinking about, but isn’t ready to talk about yet.) Plus, there’s still quite some time before anyone gets to spend any meaningful time with the game.
But from what was shown, Battleborn might be onto the very same thing that made Borderlands a huge success: combining very old, very familiar tropes into something that feels very new.