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Battleborn Open Beta Impressions- It’s Borderlands Meets Dota

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Gearbox Software’s recent success lies upon the Borderlands series. Known for its interesting blend of FPS and RPG, the series is known for making the shooting part fulfilling while making the classes and loot be interesting tools to mess around for min-maxing and outlandish builds. Now with that framework, but dropping the bazillion guns to emphasise more on the different characters to play as, like how a Mobile Battle Arena (MOBA) does it, then you’ll get something like Battleborn.

Basically, it’s Borderlands meets Dota.

Read on if you’re still wondering why such comparison is made.

A Rough Day 1

Since the open beta starts early on the PS4, I had some fair time giving the game a shot. The first few hours were problematic. To keep the servers running I was put into what was called a “beta queue” and can’t access most options until the servers give the green light. The wait was long and there were no indication will it ever be done, advising to “just hang on”. This only happened in day 1 of the beta, and I have to admit it’s a nifty way to let the earlier players play without the fear of newer players coming on board en masse and smash the server when it still is coping with handling them. This is why open betas are usually done, to test out servers before launching the game proper, but deserved to be told as it made my expectations dropped pretty low from that point. Not good.

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Settings and Lobby

On the other hand, that long time I’ve spent fiddling with the settings menu. Tons of options to mess around with, including auto-aim (on by default),  hit feedback (on default, enemies flash on hit, and the damage is shown), and interestingly, a colour select for allies and enemies’ HUD elements. A different way to address colour-blindness problems, perhaps.

Battleborn’s main menu doubles as the lobby for multiplayer, like Borderlands. The UI has a lot of similarities with Borderlands, and fans of the series can immediately see it. You can invite friends this very menu, or wait in the matchmaking after selecting a mode to play with other people online. The game has multiplayer- place on the top, clearly the priority- and a story mode.

Yes, a Story Mode. Expect a bite-size Borderlands level, but more on that later.

So far, so Borderlands. Where does Dota come into the equation?

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The Battleborns

While Borderlands have slowly treated the classes as full-fledged characters as the series grows on, Battleborn amps this up entirely. You have 25 characters, the namesake Battleborns, to choose from, coming from 5 different factions. The factions served as only  to make the cast more cohesive with each other, and you can mix and match any characters for all game modes. All 25 can be unlocked in the beta, with 5 of them from each faction available from the get go. (Except for Toby, whose apparently exclusive to the PS4’s open beta).

Each have a 10-level skill tree that will reset each game, like Dota. There’s a lot of variety too. Some are huge in size- like Montana and the luchador El Dragon. Some uses melee exclusively like Rath and Phoebe. Some can fly, like the the eagle Bennedict and Calderius. There are healers and tank characters too. It’s definitely a MOBA-esque cast of characters.

But the character selection skill is done like how fighting games do it. A nice touch I’ll say.

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These characters each have lore challenges to unlock pieces of their backstory, a character rank (a level that carries over per character) that unlocks what is called mutations, extra perks that you can select when levelling up.

Speaking of leveling up, the skill tree (helix) in Battleborn uses a dual choice system like Firaxis’ XCOM rather than the deeper trees in Borderlands. Levelling up in the heat of battle take just two button presses, and you can plan your build first by browsing each character’s skill tree in the menu. Why so? Like Dota, every match begins with the character in level 1. So everything’s fair.

Well, except that everyone can carry different gear per match.

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The Gear System

Another similar mechanic from Dota is the gear system. In Dota you can shop for items that can boost your stats in some ways. It’s crucial to understand and min-max the right items for the right build, as it could lead to victory or defeat. In Battleborn, gears are treated as loot. You need to acquire it first from either a drop in the Story mode or by acquiring gear packs. Yes, it has a trading card feel to it, and a potential micro-transaction may be implemented.

However, having gears alone won’t make you plow your way to victory with ease. Higher rarity gear has some setbacks to offset its strong buffs. You can only bring three gears (a loadout) in one match. Gears also need to be activated by collecting shards- acquired only in that specific match and doesn’t carry over. So the rare gear can be powerful, but can only activated late in the game, whereas cheaper gear can still be useful since it’s cheap and give buffs earlier. Interesting way of balancing it, but we cannot say it’s perfectly balanced just yet.

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The Story Mode

As mentioned early on, if you have played Borderlands, expect the same quality for the Story Mode. On launch there will be 8 missions, with 5 more coming as DLC. The beta showcases the first two levels. Is eight a small number? Yes. But also consider that one level can take up to 45 minutes to beat, and the fastest time I’ve played took 30 minutes. Then it would be.. just a 6-hour campaign. Short, yes, but it is designed to be replayed a lot, with different characters and different character combinations so there’s that.

You can play the story missions so-operatively with 4 other online players, or with split-screen multiplayer, or the two of you with three online players, or go in solo. Difficulty is adapted to the number of players (like Borderlands have excellently done). Players have a set of lives- and once it’s out you can’t respawn. If everyone’s down and there’s no more lives then it’s mission failed. There’s a hardcore option that limits you to one live only, if you prefer to play with high stakes.

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The missions are a strictly linear affair, but the level designs try to make it less so, with some large areas to fight, and clever use of interiors that wrap around. There’s mini-bosses to be encountered, each with their own title card. There’s challenges, basically side objectives, that triggers in a specific area and has a time limit. You can also earn credits (a permanent currency) and unlock gear and packs. At the end of a successful mission you are given a score, so you have something to aim for when you do it again for the umpteenth time.

So let’s talk about the multiplayer.

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The Multiplayer

Multiplayer lies the meat of Battleborn. There’s two modes: Incursion and Meltdown. In other words: one’s a mode like Dota- defending turrets and main base while attacking the enemies’, and the other resembles Smite- feed a number of minions to the enemies’ portal while stopping theirs doing the same thing. You are free to select any character for the match, a 5v5 affair. Each time before you start a round, an announcer will brief you on the game mode and what you have to do, in case you need a quick primer.

From the matches I’ve played for both modes, the online component feels solid, and the netcode works as intended. Despite having a terrible home router, I have yet to experience bad latency on my end. Characters, both allies and enemies, move as expected and attacks hit when it is expected to do so.

And yes, the multiplayer is meant to be treated like a MOBA. Going alone against two or more player enemies can be risky if not futile, so learning to co-operate with your allies and make use of the skills each Battleborn have to your advantage is key. For example, heavy man Montana can dish out damage from afar as well as having lots of health. He’s also massive, and has a tiny head making it hard to see what’s under him directly. Melee characters can punish Montana this way, rushing him down close range. However, Montana can dash out of danger with a skill, or use an Area of Effect skill- his ultimate, to pound those enemies and grants a short invincibility window to reposition.

Oh yeah, it’s a MOBA alright when you hear that sort of breakdown. And interestingly, I never could get into, or ever enjoyed, playing a match of Dota. But Battleborn felt fun for me.

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Closing Thoughts

If Borderlands is an FPS-RPG hybrid, then Battleborn is an FPS-MOBA hybrid. Your mileage will greatly vary based on your interest on the MOBA genre. Folks who have only stick with console gaming or haven’t really grown up with playing Dota in cyber cafes may be adverse with the whole nature of the game. Enemies are bullet sponges, lots of focus on positioning, retreating and using the right skills. It’s understandable.

Some might be turned off by the brash tone of the humour. Its a T-rated game so censored swear words and censored butt exposures are considered jokes here. Some are charming enough, and some can be really grating to an average adult. But surely I believe there’s an audience for these sort of humour.

But as someone who have played a ton of Borderlands with friends- to the point of having problems with other looter shooters like Destiny and The Division since they don’t have guns you can throw as grenades to reload, and as someone who only appreciates Dota at a distance, I enjoyed my experience with the beta. The shooting is fun, but melee characters may be hard to use for solo at the moment. Multiplayer is well thought-out, even though they’re just lifting it from the big-hitters of the scene. It takes some time to get into, but once you learn enough of it you will be rewarded for acquiring such knowledge by dominating the matches.

Yet, the question lies: is it worth the $60 (RM220) price when it comes launching May 3? I have a hard time recommending this unless you somehow have been a fan of Borderlands and play a lot of games like Dota. Then this is your game right here. Otherwise, it’s going to be rough ride trying to grasp how to play a MOBA. Bring friends, just in case.

The Battleborn open beta is still running until April 18th. Go check it out on PS4, Xbox One, and PC (via Steam) if you’re interested.