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    Battleborn:New CO-OP/Competitive Multiplayer Franchise

    First-person shooters are a core part of Gearbox’s pedigree. The studio got its start developing spin-offs of the legendary Half-Life, porting Halo: Combat Evolved to the PC with online multiplayer, and creating the World War II series Brothers in Arms. Gearbox dramatically broke out of its comfort zone with Borderlands, an inventive hybrid of slick FPS gameplay, loot-grabbing, and RPG progression. A striking art style and absurd sense of humor made the exotic cocktail even more enticing.

    The Borderlands franchise is alive and well, with two successful main entries, a “pre-sequel” on the way to last-gen consoles, and a storydriven Telltale spin-off . However, just as Gearbox hit full stride last generation, it also endured two major stumbling blocks. The developer revived 3D Realms’ doomed Duke Nukem Forever, but its harsh critical reception suggested the long-delayed sequel may have been better off a myth. Aliens: Colonial Marines further tainted the waters, with scorned xenomorph fans crying out that Gearbox’s early previews didn’t accurately reflect the final, rough release.


    For the new console generation, Gearbox’s most obvious bet would have been to deliver a glimmering new entry in the Borderlands series. Instead, the developer is once again showcasing its knack for genre hybridization in an imaginative new IP built around campaign co-op and competitive multiplayer.

    BLENDING GENRES ONCE AGAIN
    Borderlands wowed gamers in 2009 by combining twitch shooter action and satisfying RPG progression. Gearbox is back to creating an “I didn't even know I wanted that” experience with Battleborn. It’s a first-person game through and through, but simply calling it a shooter would be a misrepresentation. A huge cast of playable characters, all locked in battle around the last star in the universe, brings strikingly unique gameplay styles to the table.

    This tremendous variety of heroes provides an eclectic mix of genre tropes and first-person gameplay styles. Some characters carry rifles, pistols, and Gatling guns, while others launch cursed arrows or telekinetic swords. Some characters play like they’re from entirely different genres, such as a Sith-inspired dual blade-wielding space samurai, or a bipedal mushroom man that sprouts poisonous fungus patches. The roster of wildly different characters is reminiscent of all-star fighting game mash-ups like Super Smash Bros. or the ever-expanding casts of MOBAs.

    Speaking of MOBAs, Gearbox is leading the reveal of Battleborn with a five versus five multiplayer mode called Incursion that draws obvious inspiration from games like League of Legends and DOTA. The elongated battlefield we saw features multiple twisting paths flanking a broad lane running down the middle. Robot minions (manufactured by the industrious Last Light Consortium), pour forth from two bases on either end of the map. The squat little bots march toward a pair of huge, mechanical spider sentries guarding each team’s base. Like projectile-firing towers gating players’ progress in MOBA matches, these spiders devastate players who get too close with a salvo of missiles, laser beams, and more. By protecting the minions’ march towards the spiders, players help them to launch a combined attack against their powerful shields. With the shields down, teams of up to five can whittle away the arachnid’s health and eventually siege the enemy’s base.

    Incursion’s concept may be recognizable to MOBA players, but Gearbox’s signature first-person gameplay changes the experience dramatically. Even if you’re not familiar with MOBAs, the accesible FPS controls allow players to engage in the exciting tug-of-war battles that make the highly competitive genre so exciting. The host of wildly different characters offers tons of play-style options, deepened further by a accelerated progression system.

    Character leveling in Battleborn borrows another page from MOBAs. Gearbox wants players to hop into games with their friends no matter how much experience they have, so it is embracing a speedy leveling system that resets after each match. Dubbed the Helix, pulling up this leveling menu presents players with two choices that can be selected with a quick tap of a trigger button. These options generally augment existing abilities, like adding frost bullets that slow enemies or increasing jump height. Often times these choices are at odds, presenting players with the choice of focusing on mobility or increased defense, for example. Level seven unlocks a powerful ultimate ability that can turn the tides of battle. It’s a fresh take on first-person multiplayer matches, which in the case of shooters like Call of Duty can become imbalanced due to progression systems that imbue longtime players with over-powered unlocks.

    TWINKLE LITTLE STAR
    Battleborn’s unique multiplayer matches and five-player campaign are tied together through a story about multiple factions racing toward Solus, the last star burning in the universe. Every other solar body in the cosmos has been snuffed out by a dark, mysterious force called the Varelsi. This enigmatic threat steadily mounts as the factions fight amongst themselves for dominance over the last solar system. Each faction has its own unique band of champion fighters, called battleborn, united under their respective banners. Gearbox points to the kingdom-based warring of an immensely popular HBO series as inspiration, which also features a mysterious, indiscriminate murder machine primed to obliterate the temperamental factions.

    “One of the really early campaign motivations for creating the factions was Game of Thrones,” says creative director Randy Varnell. “We're all huge nerds for Game of Thrones and have been for years. We love the fact that one of the things that [George R.R. Martin] did with that was he created characters that aren't unilaterally good or bad.

    “There are a lot of reasons for these groups in the kingdom to fight and struggle. Some of it’s for resources, some of it’s personal, and everybody seems to ignoring the big threat up north that’s about to plow over the realm. We got to imagine in the future upcoming ideas of Martin’s they’re going to have to learn to put aside some of those differences and deal with that common threat. Thinking about that has been some really great  inspiration.”

    For now, Gearbox isn’t sharing any further details about the Varelsi’s true intent and exact role in gameplay. However, we know the shadowy creatures play a part in multiplayer and the campaign, offering new enemies to fight beyond rival factions; we can only speculate that the unaligned Varelsi might act as neutral NPCs that players can attack and gain experience from in multiplayer. Given Gearbox’s infatuation with enemies united by a common foe, the Varelsi also have the potential to disrupt matches with surprise attacks, prompting both sides to temporarily unite and distinguish the dark menace.

    The factions vying for the last energy source in the universe are a motley bunch from different reaches of the galaxy. The rush towards Solus has brought together groups of space travelers that may have never crossed paths if all the stars weren't veiled in darkness. This collection of desperate travelers blows the creative doors for Gearbox wide open, allowing them to bring together factions that might not narratively gel well together.

    On one hand you have the L.L.C. (Last Light Consortium), a technologically advanced group mainly composed of robots looking to make money off the war for Solus. These eccentric profiteers are decked out in custom Victorian Age-inspired styles, showcasing their wealth and elitist attitudes. The L.L.C. would fit nicely into any light-hearted sci-fi epic. But on the other hand you have the Eldrid, a faction of woodland dwellers plucked straight from a high fantasy tale. These creatures worship the mysterious beauty of the universe, eager to keep it intact without needlessly exploiting its dwindling resources. Bow-wielding elves and bowler hat-wearing butler bots may not blend well together on paper, but therein lies the strength of Battleborn.

    A SOLAR MELTING POT
    The race to the center of the universe has brought together a rogues gallery of quirky characters. Gearbox is taking the storytelling of Battleborn seriously, but the developer is putting gameplay and fun first when it comes to creating these wildly different interstellar travelers. If someone on the development team has a wacky idea for a new Battleborn, Gearbox bends the fiction to accommodate the newcomer.

    “It’s kind of like grown-up action figures,” Varnell says. “You go to any game developer studio ever and [Game Informer] is probably the same way we put our little icons on our desks of the things we love. There’s always something so powerful about characters. I’ve got my original Star Wars action figures’ Darth Vader collector’s case.

    “They’re very precious to me, but they’re not in great condition. They’ve been buried in sand, molded in clay, and even burnt a little bit. I don’t know how that happened. They’ve been shot with BB guns and everything else. But there’s something so great about that experience we take from our childhood and into our adulthood and just rally around these characters. I think we’re seeing a resurgence in that as adults in video games these days where we gravitate towards these games with strong characters.”

    The merciless Jennerit Empire is host to two archetypal warriors Gearbox wanted to get into the game yet fit into the story in meaningful ways. Rath is an obvious, bad-ass homage to the lightsaber-wielding villains of Star Wars. Early on Gearbox developers stumped themselves trying to decide if the sword-wielding killer should dual wield a pair of energy-infused katanas or lug around a massive sword reminiscent of spikey-haired JRPG characters. The team asked themselves “Why not both?” and gave Rath access to three swords.

    For the other announced Jennerit character, Caldarius, Gearbox started with a simple yet noble blueprint of “Jetpack Soldier.” The team wanted an armored super soldier reminiscent of science-fiction heroes and giant robots from Japanese anime.

    “Caldarius is the iconoclastic, Evangelion, Gundam, space marine, super suit-type guy,” Varnell says. “There’s a little bit of Samus. A little bit of anime and several different things in him.”

    The Rogue faction is a catch-all collection of unaligned misfits banding together so they don’t get steamrolled by the other intergalactic exiles. Reyna Valeria (alias: The Valkyrie) is the leader of the patchwork organization, supporting her allies on the battlefield with heals and buffs.

    Another example of Battleborn’s flexible universe is Montana, an elephant-sized, musclebound, bubblegum chewing commando with a Gatling gun. While Gearbox isn’t commenting on the connection, Montana appears in the trailer for the studio’s canceled Furious Four game. His official backstory isn’t completely filled in yet, but Gearbox’s willingness to emigrate Montana ignites the imagination regarding other possible crossovers. Publisher 2K has a robust catalog of possible characters that would be perfect fits for Battleborn’s character driven mayhem, not the least of which are Gearbox’s own vault hunters from the Borderlands franchise.

    “I won’t say that we haven’t talked about [including vault hunters], but it’s really important that Battleborn is its own universe first and that it has its own tone and its own style and that it can grow its legs,” Varnell says. “But it is a universe. It’s a vast universe with who knows what. It’s set way, way in the future and so I can’t say that [vault hunter characters] would never happen…”

    Don’t let the dire stakes of Battleborn’s cataclysmic premise fool you; Gearbox isn’t eschewing the goofiness of Borderlands for a straight faced space opera. The Battleborn are a colorful bunch brimming with creative insults and comments to sling alongside their attacks. For example, the aforementioned Montana unabashedly loves the thrill of battle with a childlike glee. Get him rolling on a kill streak and he enthusiastically bellows, “I just want everybody to know I’m having a great time,” as he shreds enemies to bits with his Gatling gun.

    Gearbox is taking advantage of all the mismatched characters on the battlefield by implementing unique insults exchanged between specific matchups. Gun down Rath while playing Montana and you’ll hear him brag about killing Dracula. Should Rath get revenge on Montana you might hear him slam all gun users as cowards too afraid to clash swords. The earthly elven archer, Thorn, is the butt of a van-load of hippy jokes, including the promise of sprinkling granola on her grave and that she “smells like camping.” If Borderlands is a rapid-fire barrage of hit-and-miss jokes, Battleborn feels more like laser-focused jabs that punctuate in-the-moment action.

    “We have this humor that just sort of seeps out,” Varnell says. “Early in the project we wanted it to be more serious, but as we got going it’s just too hard not to get some of that humor and amusement back in there. I don’t know that it’s going to be the same type of tone of humor as in Borderlands, but it certainly has a little bit more of that light-hearted attitude.”

    Clever mockery and one-liners are great for making each moment more entertaining, but they’re not the best vehicle for delivering an impactful narrative. Gearbox says the five-player co-op campaign unravels more of the story, including further insight on the warring factions and the mysterious Varelsi threat.

    “We love when players play together, and when players get in that play space together,” Varnell says. “In a hero game a game that has a diverse amount of heroes and RPG loops and all that we want to give you a lot of different ways to play it. Certainly one of the ways we want you to play the game is with people against these galactic foes like the Varelsi and other robots and all sorts of other weird, wild creatures that we can dream up.”

    Further campaign details are scarce, except that Gearbox says it is being “built for replayability.” Whether this means a short, fighting game-esque series of co-op matches against A.I. or something more is to be determined. But from the sounds of it, Gearbox wants to check expectations that the campaign will be on par with Borderlands’ 30 hour-plus adventures.

    ENTERING THE GALACTIC FRAY
    While the campaign remains a question mark, Gearbox is far enough along in development that we played a handful of multiplayer matches. We cut our teeth on the five-on-five, MOBA-inspired game mode, Incursion. The build was up and running on PCs, complete with a wired Xbox 360 controller and mouse/keyboard.

    Forever drawn to the dark side, I chose Rath as my starting character. Teams start out in their base, watching as a door slowly lowers to reveal a lush, green jungle stretching into the distance. This map, Unearthed, is just one example of a variety of battlegrounds Gearbox has in the works.

    “Not only does it have that kind of Avatar type of alien jungle feel to it, we wanted something that was a little more unique in ours,” Varnell says. “We put in these massive golems from an ancient civilization. You’re going to see them starting to almost come alive and power upout of the jungle while spinning, lighting up, and glowing.”

    An on screen minimap shows off the twisting, complex series of paths ahead. Players can also mark enemies once spotted on the battlefield, making them temporarily trackable on the map. For players who struggle in battles against more experienced players, Gearbox is implementing a variety of NPCs to tear up.

     “One thing we realized is it kind of sucks when you’re playing a competitive game and you’re coming in and you’re not at the top of your game,” Pitchford says. “If you’re a new player coming into Call of Duty right now, it completely sucks because everybody on your own team calls you every racial slur and sexual-orientation insult you can possibly imagine if you’re not the best player possible. And then you can’t do anything because the other team is so skilled.

    “The fix for that is this really clever, in my opinion, concept of layering the competitive game on top of the player-versus-environment game. When we talk about the minions in Minion Robotics, there are all these war machines that are fighting and when you play the PvE game you realize there’s a mission.”

    The enemy team’s robotic minions encroach on our defensive spider bot before I encounter another player-controlled Battleborn. I use these short, admittedly adorable little machines as whetstones to get a feel for Rath’s swordplay. Plates of armor dent and fall off of the minions as I get used to the rhythm of his basic dual sword swipes.

    One ability causes Rath to draw back his massive broadsword overhead and pull the camera out to third-person. A targeting aura projects onto the ground, allowing me to aim a strike that smashes into the ground and sends enemies into the air. Mincing defenseless airborne minions is a devilishly fun time, and it’s enough to level up.

    The Helix leveling system makes choosing Rath’s skill augments and new abilities quick and easy, which is important for staying alive on the battlefield. Two columns of available upgrades appear on screen with the push of a button, which can be quickly selected by pressing the left or right trigger. Rath deals devastating melee damage, but inexperienced players (me) run the risk of getting mobbed by the opposing team. After several deaths, I steer Rath away from Helix upgrades that increase power like an attack boost when health is low and toward more defensive perks like increased movement speed when my shields bust. While I fail to become a slicing ‘n’ dicing powerhouse, I help out the team by destroying the enemy’s minions. This lets our own minions fan out around the opposing spider robot, wear down its shields, and deal some damage. It’s a close match, but we lose when the winner is determined by point totals after the 30-minute mark.

    I find better luck in the next round as Thorn. The elven huntress starts off as a fairly unremarkable bow-wielder with slightly increased mobility and a slow rate of fire. Not as immediately deadly as Rath, she becomes a lithe predator on her trek to level 20. Drawing back her bow charges up an arrow infused with curse magic. The longer you charge it, the stronger it gets. Her bow isn’t as user-friendly as a rifle, but getting a feel for the arrow’s arc and plunking off big chunks of enemies’ health is satisfying. Like Rath, players can choose skills that either boost her ability to stay alive or deal extra damage. In this case, I choose to increase Thorn’s jump distance and turn her melee attack into a Force push-like backward boost.

    “Bunny-hopping in shooters has always been an issue, but with her we just embrace it,” Varnell says. “It’s part of how we balance the character. It’s how she survives without a shield and moves around this wilderness.”

    Suddenly I’m leaping through previously inaccessible breaks in the brush, soaring across elevated areas that once required careful platforming, and bunny hopping out of harm’s way when things get hairy. Toss in her area-of-effect curse aura and multi-arrow blast and I’m taking down enemies left and right.

    Racking up kills isn’t a guaranteed path to victory. My team won matches when we focused on protecting our marching minions, working together to take down enemy spider bots, and barking out enemy locations. Support characters like Miko also have vital roles on the battlefield. Montana may be powerful, but his tremendous character model makes him an easy target at a distance. Team him up with the sentient mushroom medic, Miko, and you’ve got a combo that could give the opposing forces a tough time. Even better, Miko can steer away from heal-focused Helix augments and instead focus on boosting allies’ attack power. 

    Battleborn’s diverse characters look and act like they’re ripped from a variety of genres, but even more impressive is the fact that they all control like they’re from different games. Oscar Mike, the consummate space marine, is the perfect starting point for players more accustomed to modern shooters like Call of Duty. His iron-sight aiming, grenade selection, and airstrike special ability make him a familiar yet satisfying point of entry. On the other end of the spectrum, lining up first-person sword slashes with Rath feels more like timing out combos in a fighting game. Launching an enemy into the air with Rath’s ground smash and executing a mid-air finisher is just as satisfying as nailing a flying knockout in Street Fighter II.

    A clean, striking art style unites the charismatic collective under the guidance of Gearbox veterans and a visual-effects legend. Art director Scott Kester, one of the developers responsible for Borderlands’ unique comic-book veneer, returns for this project. He’s joined by effects director Michel Gagne, a film animation-effects veteran with decades of experience including The Iron Giant, Mortal Kombat,  Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the PS3 game Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, and much more. His experience translates perfectly into Battleborn’s clean visuals, accentuated with swirling puffs of smoke and explosions that burst with the personality of their corresponding characters. The colorful, elegant visuals aren’t just attractive, they’re downright necessary for reading the chaotic flow of battle.

    AN EXPANDING BATTLEFIELD
    Gearbox wants all Battleborn characters to start matches at level one to ensure players can match up with their friends anytime, but there are plans for meaningful meta progress as well. A handful of characters are available from the start, but you must work through the cooperative campaign and multiplayer matches to unlock the rest. Gearbox isn’t going into specifics regarding how many battleborn will be available from the start, but hopes to include around 20 on retails discs. Similar to the Borderlands series or MOBAs, Pitchford suggests that more characters will become available as DLC down the road.

    Players also earn in-game currency through playing matches and performing well, which can be used to purchase alternate skill upgrades and character skins. Every battleborn comes with his or her own stock Helix skill path, but purchasing additional abilities lets you customize what powers become available on the path to level 20. Character skins offer a unique look that make your battleborn stand out on the battlefield. Gearbox isn’t sure whether duplicate characters will be permitted on a single team, but purchased skins could help differentiate teammates. I spotted a “Dark Elf” skin for Thorn as one example of an  alternate  aesthetic.

    “We want this to become a hobby for us and for our players, where we’re always developing our player’s profile,” Pitchford says. “The idea of Bad-Ass Ranks in Borderlands 2 is [small] in comparison to the ambitions of what this could be.”

    While not as flashy as new duds or abilities, Gearbox is also taking advantage of the powerful data-collecting tech this new console generation affords to help shape the battlefield to players’ needs. For Borderlands 2, Gearbox subtly tweaked under-the-hood balance metrics without big annoying updates by logging them into the Shift network. Gearbox plans on continuing this trend with dedicated servers, allowing the team to adjust Battleborn’s delicate balance in response to fan feedback and information collected from thousands of matches. Is Rath’s deadly whirlwind attack making players rage-quit? With the new tech, Gearbox can adjust the experience faster than ever.

    The last console generation was a rollercoaster for Gearbox. The inventive Borderlands series solidified the studio as a creative powerhouse, but the team’s struggle to deliver on existing licenses smudged its track record. Gearbox is charging into the new generation with an exciting, original project that’s already a ton of fun at this early point in development. Gearbox is back to doing what it does best: making the game nobody asked for but everyone should want.

    “Battleborn is the biggest thing we’ve ever done by a long shot,” Pitchford says. “It’s the most ambitious thing we’ve ever done. We have more energy, more people, and more mindshare dedicated to this effort than we’ve ever had for any project ever. As a matter of fact I think that by the time it ships, the amount of effort that’s gone into Battleborn will be greater than the first 10 years of Gearbox’s existence all added together.”

    Why Not Make Borderlands 3?
    With 2K Australia hard at work on Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel for last-gen consoles, fans may be wondering why Gearbox isn’t working on a big, bold in-house follow-up for the new consoles.

    “There’s a point where it’s like, ‘What should the next Borderlands be? Should there be another Borderlands, and what should it be?’” says Randy Pitchford, president of Gearbox Software. “We had that discussion and there was this weird mixed bag. On one level it’s like, ‘Woah.’ If you’re going to do something that’s called Borderlands 3 and it’s going to be done in this next-generation environment, there’s a whole bunch of ideas that come around of what has to happen in order for that to live up to what that needs to be.”

    Gearbox rounded up the lingering ideas they had for filling in the Borderlands series’ gaps including telling the villainous Handsome Jack’s backstory and flying the vault hunters to the moon and entrusted 2K Australia with creating the game.

    “[2K Australia’s involvement] did two things,” Pitchford says. “It took care of that real deep interest we had [in continuing the story], but it also changed the nature of the pressure of what Borderlands 3 had to be for us. If there’s going to be a Borderlands 3 and what that would be. We imagine what that might be, and frankly it scared us. It’s like, ‘That’s so crazy and so big that I’m not sure we can succeed.’”

    Gearbox is by no means ruling out Borderlands 3 for this console generation, but for now the developer’s interest is set squarely on making Battleborn the best it can be.

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