Gearbox Tackles a New IP With the Character-Driven Battleborn

battleborn box art

Developed by Gearbox Software. Published by 2K Games. Release in 2015. Available on PC, PS4, Xbox One. Travel accommodations provided by publisher.

After the success of Borderlands 2, it seemed like a logical – and quite possibly lucrative – next step for developer Gearbox Software to get a sequel on the drawing board as soon as possible. However, Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford has never been one to follow conventional thought. Of course, Gearbox is hitting the Borderlands audience with a “pre-sequel” set in space, but the company has also chosen to go the new IP route, with something it dubs a “hero-shooter” in the guise of Battleborn.

“We like to invent and try new things,” Pitchford said at an event in New York that unveiled the new property. “We did the same thing when we went from the success of Brothers in Arms to Borderlands. People thought we were crazy, but look how Borderlands turned out.”

The story behind Battleborn is that all the stars in the universe are slowly winking out of existence thanks to a malevolent race know as the Veralsi. One star (Solus) remains, and all the remaining races and factions have moved to this last star system in a last stand against a common enemy. The races have agreed to put aside their difference and supply heroes known as Battleborn to work together for a common goal – ridding the universe of the Varelsi.

The story then drops the characters into a 5-player cooperative mission-based campaign. If you are one who prefers to go at a game solo, you may get your wish – with your character and four AI buddies – but Gearbox wouldn’t elaborate on that, preferring instead to focus on the coop missions for this event.

battleborn character rath

Pitchford said that taking this story approach allowed the team to come up with a wide variety of characters for the game. While the Bordelands series was known for its large arsenal of over-the-top weapons, Battleborn is going for a similar concept with a variety of characters. Nine different characters were revealed at the event, but plenty more have been promised. Many of the characters represent an archetype of character that has appeared in other games, but Pitchford said that isn’t always going to be the case. “We’d love for a few of these characters to be a prototype for a game that has not come out yet,” he said.

For example, you have Oscar Mike, your typical space grunt meant to play much like Master Chief in Halo, with lots of automatic weapons and grenades. There is Thorn, the Tolkien-esque Elven archer that is so deadly with a bow. And there are even a few melee characters, including Rath, a member of a vampire race that loves to do damage with dual swords. (Castlevania anyone?). Other characters include a man-mountain aptly named Montana who favors big guns; a mushroom man named Miko who is more of a support character, but can be deadly with throwing blades; and Marquis, a gentlemanly robot sniper who was a butler in a previous life before a bad software upgrade turned him into an all-too-polite terminator. Reyna, Phoebe and Caldarius were also mentioned as characters, but they were not part of the coop gameplay.

Each character is also complete in their own right, with their own backstory and play style. No character is a reskin of another. While in Borderlands, all characters had the same run speed and moves, that is being changed up in Battleborn. Thorn can be seen darting around the battlefield as Montana lumbers in. Rath will go in with a whirlwind of blades, while Marquis will headshot you with a bow and an apology.

While only enough of the story and characters were revealed to whet our appetite, the crux of the event was to reveal the gameplay of the new IP, a first person shooter with RPG and MOBA elements. This hero shooter is taking a different approach to the RPG leveling mechanic, giving players the chance to take a character to the max level of 15 before resetting them again to level one for the next mission.

As players level through a mission, they can choose one of two upgrades to their existing arsenal of weapons. For example, one of Oscar Mike’s upgrades could allow him the choice of grenades that do more damage in a smaller radius, or grenades that do less damage in a bigger radius. Montana could choose between ice bullets that slow an enemy or fire bullets that do more DPS, and so on. Marquis uses an owl and a stopwatch, each of which could be augmented with different abilities as he levels.

battleborn screenshot - campaign the varelsi arrive

Not everyone will hit max level during the 20-30 minute missions, as leveling depends on a player’s play-style, but players should be able to hit at least level 7, which will unlock an ultimate ability for their character. And then, when the mission is complete, player abilities will reset to level 1. allowing the character to make different choices as they level not only only for experimentation, but also to adapt to the needs of the mission. Each mission will have a five-man team to accomplish the objectives, but there is no restrictions. There could be five Oscar Mikes if players decided that’s what they wanted.

“The Battleborn system allows the benefit to playing different characters or trying different specs without having to respec,” said Gearbox Creative Director Randy Varnell. “More freedom allows more character exploration and experimentation.”

While characters will reset after each mission, Gearbox is also working on some meta details that would persist in a players account, similar to Badass rank in Borderlands 2. The concept is that the longer you play, there will be more player profile growth to earn things over time. The goal is to reward players for putting a lot of time into the game, but not keep them from playing with friends who may not be a high level or have as much time invested in the game.

Gearbox also wants to give players an incentive to try new characters, another reason they are looking at player profile style of perks that can be applied to all characters in their Battlebarn (yeah, they went there, although that is more of a joke term than anything official). While loot was at the core of Borderlands, it will probably be more of an account perk than anything if they choose to implement it.

battleborn screenshot - campaign rath ambush

One thing that did come through in the non-hands-on demo was the trademark Gearbox humor in the interaction between the various characters. Designer John Mulkey said that each character has 500-700 lines of “battle chatter,” which includes interactions between the characters, faction call-outs or just quippy one-liners meant to lighten the mood. “Humor is part of Gearbox’s DNA,” Mulkey said. “The characters use humor as a coping mechanism, since they are all fighting to save their race from dying.”

While coop was the primary focus of the event, Gearbox had previously revealed that competitive multiplayer will also be part of the game with various 5v5 modes. Only Incursion mode was briefly discussed, but more modes are expected to be revealed down the road.

Other tidbits picked up from our time with the team:

  • Each player will be part of one of five factions: The Peacekeepers, who are the protectors of Solus; Rogues, which are a motley band of misfits and mercenaries; The Jennerit, who value power above all else; The Eldrid, who are out to preserve the natural order of the universe; and the LLC, profiteers who look down on all who have less than they do.
  • When a player dies, they will respawn, but Gearbox is toying with the idea of only a limited number of respawns for the team so that players can’t die indefinitely and will force players to play a bit more carefully.
  • Gearbox would love for Battleborn to become an e-Sports game, as it has been awhile since they have done anything in the competitive multiplayer space. Characters continue to be balanced so that one will not always be an obvious choice over another.
  • The team has development hardware for Morpheus and Oculus Rift in house. There are no plans for that officially yet, but they are open to the possibility if “commercially viable.”
  • Missions will take place at various locales on three different planets: Ekkunar, Tempest (think cyber-Castlevania), and one that has yet to be announced.
  • Many characters have hefty AoE abilities. Gearbox has been going back and forth on whether players will be affected by friendly fire, but nothing is official as of yet.
  • The game will have a retail release and not be free-to-play. DLC is a possibility, but nothing definitive has been laid out.
  • Some characters will play better with a mouse and keyboard, while others are more precise with a controller, so PC players and console players should be happy.

The game is still very early in development, and it was difficult to get a sense for how the game played without hands-on time, but Pitchford said that the game represents Gearbox’s most ambitious project to date. In concept, and watching the devs play, it appears Battleborn could be a fast-paced thrill ride meshing a few different genres. Hopefully we can find out for certain in the coming months.

Battleborn will be coming to PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One sometime in 2015.

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