It was the guns that did it for the Borderlands games, wasn't it? Thousands, millions, umpty-trillions of weapons to find, collect and love more than some actual flesh-and-blood human beings. Well, in Battleborn, the people who made those games want to do for characters what they did for guns in Borderlands.
That's not to say that Battleborn will have scads of procedurally generated playable characters. It's going to have around 20, possibly more, nine of which we've seen so far. No, what Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford means when he talks about Battleborn's protagonists is the idea that these personas will be the items that players collect and get attached to. "Every kind of character trope that's in a first-person-shooter, we want to be able to put that in Battleborn."
Pitchford's remarks came during a two-hour-long demo where he and other Gearbox staffers showed Battleborn to press in New York City. A live gameplay demo of Battleborn's co-op campaign was shown, with a squad of five players fighting on a world called Tempest during a phenomenon called a Shardstorm. The goal of the mission was to track down the shards falling from the sky, protect them from enemies and win a final showdown against waves of enemy forces to claim a giant shard for a huge bounty.
The mission provided an extended look at the upcoming game's nine revealed characters and, as Pitchford said, some well-trod archetypes were in the mix. Military man Oscar Mike fills the space marine role, blurting out soldier jargon in the same brisk, clipped tones heard in Call of Duty, Battlefield and similar games. Elf-styled warrior woman Thorn channels a mystical, one-with-the-trees vibe common to many Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds. And swordsman Rath comes across as an homage to Darth Maul, something of a cross between a samurai and a vampire.
Battleborn art director Scott Kester—
the man responsible for the ink-drenched, comic-book styling of the Borderlands series who gave many of Borderlands' playable vault hunters their distinctive character designs—says that he thinks of each character in Battleborn as the main character in a game that hasn't come out yet. The heroes converge on a far-flung solar system from different planets across the galaxy, seeking refuge as all the stars start dying one by one. In the game's fiction, the characters on Battleborn's roster put aside their differences to battle the Varelsi, the shadowy race responsible to snuffing out the stars.
Montana's the guy who's pretty much a classic tank-type character and it was during his leveling up that Gearbox revealed how the game's upgrade system would work. After getting a new upgrade at level 8, the player controlling Montana opened up the Helix Menu, which holds a slew of either/or upgrade options. Ultimate abilities are unique skills that each character has. Montana's ultimate ability is called the Mansformation and covers him in metal skin, which makes him more damage-resistant. Battleborn's leveling progresses much quicker than in Borderlands. During the game's quests, all players will start at level one and end at the maximum level by the quest's end. This design decision is supposed to encourage folks to play over and over and make different upgrade choices.
One of the core ideas in Battleborn is to provide players with a broad swath of possibilities, in everything from characters to playstyles. Missions like the one shown will take around 20-30 minutes from start to finish, Gearbox reps said. Individual character levels reset to level 1 after each one but design director John Mulkey said all that work will be reflected in a profile-persistent growth system that will recognize and reward the time put into the game.
Pitchford referenced Borderlands' reward system, calling Battleborn's "Badass Ranks on crack." He went on to explain how Gearbox is trying to build out three layers of reward for the people who'll be playing Battleborn. There'll be an in-scenario loop, where the rapid leveling and upgrade selection happens. On top of that will be external rewards that influence character growth like loot and end-of-mission prizes. Finally, the previously mentioned profile-persistent rewards will follow users no matter what characters they switch back and forth from.
The goals are to ostensibly open up more ways to play and to avoid the kinds of huge level disparities that prevented new and veteran Borderlands enthusiasts from playing with each other. "We found that most Borderlands players committed to one character and one type. That means there's a ton of value that they're not experiencing." The shorter grind loop and level resets are meant to be an encouragement to replay a lot, try out different skills and jump into games whenever possible.
The studio that fused together FPS gameplay and RPG elements for Borderlands is calling their next game a "hero shooter" and creative director Randy Varnell likened the cast to a collection of action figures. He also said that the focus on building a toybox of characters is giving Gearbox the room to experiment with features that they've long wanted to explore. "If you look at most FPSes, Borderlands included, most of the characters and classes have the same run speeds and generally the same mobility options," Varnell offered. "But, we're going to be able to change things up in Battleborn with characters like Thorn, who's super-fast has a double jump." Rath is another character that represents Gearbox's attempts to diversify. He's the first character in a Gearbox game to be fully focused on melee attacks and can play a different kind of role on a team.
Generating teamwork is another big focus for Gearbox as they build Battleborn. It's the reason that squads will consist of five people. "It's an odd number that makes people focus on team play and co-ordination," Varnell said. "With five people, you can't evenly pair off into teams. It forces players to make more interesting decisions, especially when you have to split up to pursue different objectives."
Battleborn still has the broad, quippy banter that Gearbox has rolled out in past releases, but the salty language from those titles won't be in the upcoming game. The team members at the event acknowledged that eliminating cusswords is a play for a wider audience. "There's no swearing in Star Wars," Kester said. "I've never sat around and thought that it'd be so much cooler if C-3PO could've said 'Holy shit, motherfucker!'"
While co-op was the main focus of the gameplay demo last week, multiple competitive modes are being built for Battleborn, too. With a bigger cast of characters, a core gameplay loop that's less time-intensive and the promise of a variety of play styles, Battleborn is Gearbox's most ambitious title yet. There's still a big chunk of time left before the game hits PS4, Xbox One and PC next year and the dev studio is hoping that Battleborn will be an evolutionary step capable of pleasing their current fans and creating a whole bunch of new ones.