First look at Gearbox Software’s genre-bending Battleborn

Here's why they're calling it a "hero shooter." 

 

Lisa Granshaw

Internet Culture

Published Sep 17, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 2:08 pm CDT

When Gearbox Software announced its new original IP Battleborn in July, the developers emphasized the game’s genre blending by referring to it as a “hero-shooter.” 

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One look at the studio’s success with the Borderlands franchise and there’s no doubt about the its pedigree when it comes to crossing genres. Still, it was hard for many to look at early news about the game and not think of something leaning closer to a multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA, than a first-person shooter. Now we have a slightly clearer idea of what Gearbox is trying to do thanks to a press preview of the pre-alpha version of Battleborn.

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Since this summer’s announcement, gamers have really only heard rumors and seen exclusive looks at the new IP via Game Informer. At a media preview event in New York City, we were able to get a closer look at Battleborn and just what we can expect from this not-quite-a-MOBA hybrid. Unfortunately we couldn’t get hands-on with the game at the event (and pre-alpha means really anything can change before the game’s release) so everything they said we take with a grain of salt. Still, here’s what this first look at the IP had to offer. 

Not science fiction, not fantasy: It’s science fantasy

Battleborn is set in a far-future universe where all of the stars have died except for one last star, Solus. The civilizations that could leave their planets have all gathered around this star and formed separate factions around their different beliefs. Not only do they fight among themselves for survival and power, but there’s a larger threat from another universe called the Varelsi that are behind all the stars darkening in the first place. That’s where the Battleborn come in. These heroes from different factions set aside their differences to fight this real foe for the fate of the universe.

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The setting is an interesting premise to say the least. Clearly Gearbox isn’t just blending gameplay styles with its new IP. They want this to not just be science fiction or fantasy, but instead a science fantasy setting where you’ll see spaceships and magic mix. According to creative director Randy Varnell, this blending of genres enables the studio to create a broad universe that can contain a diverse group of characters. So far they’ve announced nine characters, but there are apparently many more on the way. Players will be able to unlock characters as they progress through the game.


 

With these characters they hope to include every kind of character trope you can think of, from heavy tanks to fully dedicated melee characters, all with different abilities and skills that will fit in this blended world where for example, they hope you’ll feel a Jedi, elf, and space marine all belong in the same place. During the press Q&A, art director Scott Kester said he thinks of each of the characters in this game as “the main character of a game that hasn’t come out yet.”

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The hero-shooter blend

At its heart, Battleborn is a first-person shooter, Varnell said, but its focus on characters is what makes it a hero-shooter. Each character has a role and play style that is supposed to make them work well together in very team-based co-op or competitive multiplayer modes. 

Role-playing elements are clear when it comes to character customization. Five-player teams will play in 20- to 30-minute sessions, where characters will always start at level one and gamers will be able to work their way up to the max level during each session. Everytime you come back and play with the same or different characters, you’ll start back at level one—but you’ll have other ways to grow your character. Developers referred to the growth available to gamers as having three levels. The first level will take place in each scenario, with characters going from level one to their max level. Then you can grow the character from scenario to scenario through campaign play or PvP, unlocking more of what’s possible for the character and earning loot that will let you modify the character. The third will take place on a profile level where it doesn’t matter if you use the same or different characters. Either way you will be able to grow a long-term profile. 

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A lot of this is meant to make the game more inclusive, so gamers no longer have to worry about there being a big power difference if they want to play with friends. When asked about the MOBA comparison, the developers agreed that they borrowed aspects like rapid leveling from MOBAs but were quick to emphasize how they also pulled from FPS and RPG games as influences too.

Without hands-on experience with the game we can’t speak much about the game mechanics yet. Instead we were treated to a look at both the multiplayer five-player team versus five-player team mode and the narrative co-op campaign. From what we saw, the game clearly resembles a classic FPS in combat. Switching between the views of each character gave us a peek at how each different style can be played and it was surprising to see how a dedicated melee character seemed to actually fit rather well in this shooter style.


 

The environments stood out as a beautiful mix of 3D and 2D elements that characters can interact with during combat. The agility of characters varies, but it looks like there will be multiple ways characters can jump around and be agile in the environment. The special effects showed off in combat were also impressive. Kester said they wanted effects to have a personality and for gamers to be able to tell which character they came from, and that seems to be the case. For example, it’s very clear when an airstrike is called down, it’s from a military character whereas a green mist-type effect is clearly from a more nature-oriented character. We also got a look at leveling-up options during the campaign, and it seems leveling will offer a good range of ways to customize your character. 

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If you’d rather not play with other gamers and want to handle the campaign solo, it sounds like you’re in luck. That will apparently be an option, though the developers weren’t able to say much about it at the event. 

There is still a lot of time between now and Battleborn’s release, and a lot of what we saw can change. Until we can get hands-on with the game, we can’t really speak to what it will be like or how it will play, but from these first glimpses the potential for something unique from Gearbox’s proven genre-blending skills is certainly there. It’ll be worth keeping an eager eye out for more.

The next-gen game is slated for a 2015 release for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

Images courtesy Erik Robertson/Access Communications

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*First Published: Sep 17, 2014, 9:00 am CDT