Battleborn-derlands: Hands-on with Gearbox's familiar new shooter/MOBA hybrid

All hail the Mushroom Dude.


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There’s a concept I’d like to discuss with you today called “Flanderization.” If you’ve never heard this term before, here’s the TVTropes definition: “The act of taking a single (often minor) action or trait of a character within a work and exaggerating it more and more over time until it completely consumes the character.” And yes, it comes from The Simpsons’s Ned Flanders and his increasing religious zealotry.

Although it’s primarily a TV-centric trope, I bring it up to kick off this Battleborn preview because I feel like we see the same idea quite often in games—and not just in terms of characters, though that’s certainly a problem too.

Rather, I’d like to discuss how entire studios undergo this process of Flanderization.

BioWare becomes “That RPG Studio.” Naughty Dog, after years of switching up its approach for each new console generation, now seems destined to make Uncharted games until Nathan Drake dies of old age. Bungie, once the creator of Minotaur: The Labyrinths of Crete and Oni andMyth becomes “The Shooter Studio.” DICE, who at one point churned out all sorts of crap for EA (seriously, look it up) is now “That team that makes Battlefield.”

And Gearbox...Well, that should be clear. Gearbox makes Borderlands. Even when it’s calling the game Battleborn.

Square peg in a rectangular hole

Is it slightly reductionist to say Battleborn and Borderlands are identical? Absolutely. But it’s not far from the mark—especially if you’re playing as one of the game’s many gun-equipped characters.


Quick: Which Borderlands game is this? Answer: It’s Battleborn.

The premise: There’s only a single star left in the entire universe, and the 25 of you (or whatever) have to decide on the star’s fate. Do you save it? Study it? Blow it up and get it over with? That’s certainly a heavier tone than the meme-heavy humor Borderlands relies on, assuming it’s not played for laughs.

There are 25 characters in Battleborn, and you can think of them sort-of like the heroes in League of Legends or Dota 2—each is themed a different way, with unique abilities and weapons. Battleborn is not a loot-driven shooter like Borderlands. Instead, it’s more like…I don’t know, really. Some sort of MOBA/dungeon crawling hybrid thing with some really fascinating characters.

Like Blizzard’s new shooter Overwatch, it’s all about flashy characters with recognizable silhouettes. Here in Battleborn there’s “Mushroom Guy,” “Prim British Robot Dude,” “Dwarven Axe-Man,” “Elven Archer,” “Soldier,” and a bunch of other characters who probably have names but who you’ll more likely refer to by the archetype they inhabit. And that’s fine, because it means Battleborn’s done a good job making these characters (and their corresponding roles on the battlefield) immediately identifiable.


To Gearbox’s credit, some of the roles play less like Borderlands than others. For instance, weird mushroom guy is primarily a healing class, running around and buffing the more combat-oriented teammates.

Stop me if this sounds familiar though: You and three others run across an ice planet pumping bullets into waves of enemies and making big yellow numbers pop out of their heads, all while cracking jokes and reviving fallen comrades. Hell, my character (the jolly tea-loving robot) even had a hawk owl he threw at enemies as a special ability.

Let’s put it this way: On a scale of one to Borderlands, Battleborn scores Borderlands.

Or, rather, a more stripped-down Borderlands—one that, in the absence of loot, can focus on action instead. There’s no more impetus to run around in circles popping open little green boxes of trash, because Battleborn doesn’t have little green boxes of trash. Nor does it have ammo to collect. Instead, you’re encouraged to keep moving forward into the next encounter. Keep up the pressure. Attack. What a relief.


And as I said, the game plays less like Borderlands the more you get away from its core combat classes. Crazy Mushroom-Healing-Guy is far more interesting than the “Robot With a Gun” class I played, primarily because there isn’t any obvious equivalent in Gearbox’s other series.

I was amazed overall how familiar Battleborn felt, though—doubly so considering the initial trailers didn’t make it seem much like Borderlands at all. Sure, we knew it’d be a shooter. Sure, we knew it was cartoony. But the feel of the guns, the look of the enemies, the color scheme, the way those damn yellow numbers pop out of people’s heads when they get shot—this is Borderlands Redux. It is about as clear that this is “From the team that brought you Borderlands” as it was clear that Destiny was made by the same studio that made Halo.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. People love Borderlands, though I’ve grown a bit tired of the series over the years. If you’re a Borderlands fan, I can pretty much guarantee (from my admittedly brief hands-on time) you’re going to enjoy Battleborn.

It’s the rest of us who I’m more concerned about. Is a change of scenery all I need? Or a more serious tone? Is that enough to get Gearbox to make me play a Borderlands-alike? I’m not really sure. For now, let me leave you with a quote by Handsome Jack Shakespeare himself: “A Borderlands by any other name would Borderlands as hard.” Wise indeed, Will.

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