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PAX East: ‘Battleborn’ Hands-On and Interview

On Saturday I was able to get access to the 2K booth at PAX East 2016 and play the upcoming Gearbox game, Battleborn, coming out May 3 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

The mode demoed was Meltdown. I was able to play as Rath, an arrogant sci-fi samurai (voiced by Christopher Sabat). Rath has very few range attacks. But close-up he could be a chaotic and brutal fighter, especially when you use his super, turning him into a Tasmanian Devil-tornado. In the five on five match my team was initially getting wrecked, but 20 minutes later we managed to pull through and just barely win by only two points out of the 200 needed.

Of course, I will not call myself my team’s MVP, much to Rath’s own voiced displeasure after a few deaths. I decided to adjust strategies and try to protect our base from enemy Minions. Even the most hopeless of little brother players, or in my case, RPG gamers, can be directed to assist somehow in Battleborn. It was a wild melee of special attack effects, different characters with varied abilities and play styles, and good old-fashioned FPS combat with a strategic edge.

Batteborn-Rath-Orendi
Rath and Orendi showcase their different fighting styles.

After the demo, I was able to speak with the game’s Creative Director, Randy Varnell. In the interview, he goes through the design philosophy of Battleborn, how it grew out of Borderlands, and admits that he is going to play a bit of Overwatch when it comes out.

Can you describe Battleborn for us? What are you trying to accomplish with this game?

Let me explain Battleborn by going back to Borderlands. When we made Borderlands, we wanted to really mix up the first person shooter genre. Borderlands was a shooter and an RPG mixed together, something strange popped out, and people liked it.

When we came to Battleborn we wanted to take the same kind of thought process but add a different mix to the stew. We really wanted to come back to competitive gaming for the first time in awhile. We have a full single-player campaign in Battleborn but when we looked around at CS:GO, at MOBAs, at other competitive shooters that are out there, and wanted to take some of the things we loved from those. It’s a little bit first person shooter, a little bit RPG, a little bit tower defense, a little bit MOBA, kind of all mashed together into a new game.

Can you tell us a bit about the character roster?

Really at the heart, Battleborn is about the heroes, the roster of 25 characters. We loved making unique characters in Borderlands, but with Battleborn, we can go places that we couldn’t even go in Borderlands. We can fully explore things.

You played Rath today, he’s a full-on melee character. Really, really different stuff. But we also have a dwarf with an axe, a monster that pounds things in the ground. There was Orendi, she’s a chaos witch with four arms and shoots shadow magic. We have the shooter tropes too. There’s Oscar Mike, the basic soldier with the assault rifle. We really wanted to mix things up a lot. There was that guy on your team who was playing Benedict, we was the Falco model, he was a hawk with a rocket. He can fly across the battlefield, and place down rockets.

You have twenty-five characters right now. I’m guessing that’s not the full roster, right?

Oh no, we’ve already announced plans for five characters coming after launch. And they are free. They are coming to all players no matter how you buy Battleborn, so that will take our roster up to thirty. Then we’ll kind of gauge things. If things go as they went with Borderlands, they people really enjoy the game, we hope to make a lot more. We are not by any means out of ideas.

You mentioned Orendi. Whoever was playing that one was really kicking my butt. I wasn’t doing too well with the PVP. But I noticed I could still help my team by attacking the minions. I feel like there was some design decisions that helped me along the way here, can you describe those?

There’s some designs in the MOBA form that actually contribute to the team winning this mode. The mode you played, Meltdown, the whole goal is about getting the minions through the recycling points. If you’re like me, I’m not a great FPS sniper anymore, but I love to sit in the back and kill minions and collect shards and build buildables.

We have support characters specifically, like the mushroom character you’ll see on the posters, that’s Miko. That has the heal beam that you’d recognize from the Team Fortress 2 Medic. Miko can do good damage but is really a healing character.

But the mode allows for players of different skills to contribute. We’ve had players win every single PvP encounter but still lose the mode because they weren’t paying attention to escorting their minions. This isn’t just an FPS, you have to use strategy to win your matches, and that can make for very close and exciting battles like the one you had.

Can we talk about the campaign story a bit?

We’re going for a Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy-style story. Those are a bit of sci-fi and fantasy together with big multiple cast member stories. The setting of the game is that all the stars of the universe have gone out, except one. The Battleborn are actually heroes who have set aside all their old wars and factional differences to band together to save that last star.

We have a full campaign with a set of missions, and they’re all designed with couch co-op in mind, sort of casual play. So 30 to 55 minutes in each mission, they’re like a TV episode. All the missions together tell a story of this arc of the Battleborn working together to save the last star against these people who want to speed up snuffing out that last star.

Oh, by the way, the single-player campaign is up to five-person co-op. We did what we did with Borderlands where we scale up the difficulty and the number of creatures depending on how many players you have.

Battleborn-Coop
Battleborn features co-op with up to five players.

You mentioned episodes, about how many are we looking at? How long is this campaign?

One run through of the story will be about what you’d see with Call of Duty or Halo. There are about nine missions and relatively 10 hours depending on how fast you go.

We have designed them for replayability. You can think of them almost like World of Warcraft raids. Each time you play one, you can set a hard mode and a hardcore mode that can turn off respawning, you have to keep everybody alive sort of like old school Left for Dead. There

There is loot and gear in the game. It’s not as predominant as Borderlands but it’s still there, tens of thousands of pieces of gear items to min-max your character.

That min-maxing with gear, is that going to affect the multiplayer?

Yes. Gear is used everywhere. We spent a lot of time thinking of ways to balance that. One of the ways gear is spent in multiplayer is while you have the Gear, you can only bring three pieces in a match with you. So you have to really think about what your loadout is.

You pick that loadout, but the gear does not start active. You actually have to activate in the match by collecting those, you saw those little yellow crystals in the match, you spent them to activate your Gear. Common Gear has a lower effect that comes quickly but Legendary Gear has a greater effect that comes more slowly.

I actually think it’s a good strategy, I often run with a couple pieces of Common Gear and one Legendary because I want my effects right out of the gate to get me going and one big boom at the end that’s a tiebreaker.

So the Gear is not just boosting your stats, you can use it to customize your style of play?

Absolutely. It is very stat-oriented but if, say, you really want to focus on shields, then you should think “I should get Gear for my shield points or my shield regen.” For some characters that makes a really big difference to have those additional combos off max-shield capacity or max-health capacity or whatever.

When you start getting into the rare or Legendary Gear, you start getting into weirder stuff. We do have a custom Legendary Gear for each of the 25 characters that you can unlock by playing challenges with the characters.

The mode I got to play was Meltdown. What are the other online modes that you’re hoping to implement or are implementing?

So there’s three competitive modes at launch. Meltdown was the one you played today, yesterday we featured a mode called Incursion. That’s a mode where basically what you have is massive almost mini-boss creatures called Spider Sentries. There are two Spider Sentries on either side, making Incursion a more narrow map with a sort of tug-of-war-type thing. What you’re trying to do is break through and kill each Spider Sentry on either side.

The third mode we have is something very familiar to FPS players. It’s a three-point capture mode. It’s just called Capture. You just want to capture the point, hold the point, three points on the map, and you gain points for as much time you can. It’s a much shorter mode, it’s a much more brawly team deathmatch. I think it’s a great mix of using attacking characters, defending characters, and support characters to try to dig in and hold the point for as long as you can.

One final question: Are you worried at all about Overwatch?

(Laughs) I’m actually flattered that they have done a lot of things to market right on top of us. They started their open beta like right on our release date. And it’s a tactic that Blizzard has used for over a decade. I remember back when I was an Everquest player and World of Warcraft beta went live on the Everquest 2 launch. Blizzard does a lot but I’m extremely flattered they think we’re a competitor. I think we’re both nominated here at PAX for Game of Show.

But Battleborn and Overwatch are different games. I think ultimately if you play both of them you’ll see the difference. With Overwatch —  I love Team Fortress 2 — I like that they’re taking that kind of classic formula and bringing it up to this generation’s quality. With Battleborn though, we’ve blended in a few other things. Overwatch is just switch in characters like TF2. Battleborn, though, wants you to really dig in deep with your character and master it. You need to customize that character for all the challenges that are ahead.

We have our campaign which they haven’t even touched yet. I think we have something new and different to offer, even with the similarities of our games. Even with both going for big rosters, if you play both games, I think you’ll find they part ways there.

I’m going to play some Overwatch, I do think it’s a great game. If one of us is the Call of Duty and the other is the Battlefield of this generation I think that would be awesome. There’s a lot of room for both games.


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Eric Fuchs

Eric Fuchs is the name his father gave him. "BlueHighwind" is the User Name he gave himself. He has been an user on Wikia since 2007. He's an Admin on the Final Fantasy Wiki, and has attended several Wiki events across the country, include E3 and PAX. Eric is based out of the New York area (but secretly it's New Jersey), where he has run his own blog Planet Blue for six years, reviewing movies and video games. He was also a part of the 2014 New York Film Festival Critic's Academy in collaboration with CriticWire and NYFF. His first Pokemon was a Squirtle, he owns a katana, and a has psychological disability where he would rather watch 'Gods of Egypt' over the newest Terrence Malick movie.

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