Covering the end of Battleborn: A MOBA with an identity crisis.

I never thought I’d be starting 2021 with an article about a game that’s shutting down. While I’m often behind the curve and don’t play games until years after the fact – some of last year’s posts being about games that are 5-10 years old – this particular game is one of the rare times I was at least fairly current with.

When I’m reminded that a game that I paid money for is shutting down, I might as well give it one last hurrah. It’s a shame the game in question is a bizarre genre mashup, made by one of the more infamous game studios of the 2010s.

If only the game looked nearly as cool as this introductory cutscene.

We’re talking about Battleborn, a game by developer Gearbox Software. At the time, Gearbox was mostly known as the makers of the fairly popular Borderlands series of first-person Diablo-like looter shooters. Battleborn would end up being their first original franchise made by them in the 2010s.

This bundle was released around July of 2016, not long after the game’s release. Being part of the $15 tier, the highest one, was already a warning sign.

My experience with this game was getting this in a Humble Bundle. To be specific, the “Humble 2K Bundle 2,” a collection of games published by 2K, such as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, NBA 2K16, Mafia II and Duke Nukem Forever. Battleborn was unlocked at the $15 or more tier — the highest tier, and a few friends of mine decided to chip in that $15 and give the game a try.

We eventually tried a bit of the game’s campaign mode, then we all dropped the game and moved on to other things. For me, I had forgotten about the game’s existence, even as recent as 2019 when I wrote about a Loot Crate featuring the infamous “Thanos Oven Mitt,” which featured a Battleborn pin as part of that month’s theme. The game just faded away into obscurity.

Honestly, I wouldn’t be writing about the game had the news not broke in 2020 that 2K was shutting the game down on January 31, 2021. In early 2020, they had already shut off purchases for premium currency in the game, and the announcement of the game servers shutting down seemed to feign as much interest as the game did when it was released.

So let’s take a look at the game touted as being “badass,” when in reality it was just bad and ass.

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A lot of action going on at once. Hope you can follow along.

Battleborn is a rather unusual game. It’s a first-person MOBA — think League of Legends or DOTA2 — with some elements of real time strategy and tower defense. 

The gameplay mostly involves killing enemy minion bots and protecting your own minion bots to destroy an enemy sentry drone. Throughout your journey, you’ll kill said enemy minion bots that’ll drop shards which you can use to build turrets or drones, or to upgrade gear to give you and your squad buffs. Defeating enough minions or other players will give you the chance to level up your character with passive buffs for your character’s abilities. Kill enemies without yourself getting killed. Fairly commonplace stuff for the MOBA genre.

These cutscenes really feel like concept art repurposed for the final game.

There is a story mode, split between eight episodes that last about 40-60 minutes apiece, which consist of a bunch of rag-tag soldiers trying to stop an evil villain from destroying a planet for materials. Or something like that, the plot is mostly doled out through an introductory cutscene before the episode starts, and a lot of the plot is told throughout the game, but I couldn’t really tell you what happens in it. All I know that there are multiple enemy types and a few warring factions, which probably remind me a lot of different factions from other games like Destiny 2 or Halo.

The MOBA elements still come in play in the story mode, as you can select a character, upgrade their abilities upon leveling up, and even purchasing a set of gear items with shards that can buff certain character and team abilities. Even the story missions are designed similar to the standard multiplayer, where players are basically defending minions or a boss to get to an objective while killing enemies throughout. 

Players share lives and accumulate points through random crates strewn around the game world, and the points seem to really only matter in giving experience for your character and your overall rank in the mission. Exclusive to the story missions are power-ups you can pick up that can lower your ability cooldowns, boost your overall speed and give you extra shields.

A bit of the “Meltdown” mode in action. Naturally played with bots since finding matches these days is impossible.

Since it’s a MOBA, the game has a versus mode that plays more like traditional MOBAs: Squads of five shepherding minions through enemy areas to destroy sentries, while trying to protect their own. There’s not a whole lot else to say about this, it’s no different than other games in the genre, but it has more of a shooter/slasher bend like Smite.

The main mode, Incursion, is the closest to conventional MOBAs: Choose a character with abilities and shepherd a bunch of small minion bots to an enemy base to destroy the enemy’s guardian sentries to win, while building turrets and destroying enemy turrets.

There’s also a mode called Meltdown where you’re simply shepherding minions to a grind point to fill up a meter, and a conventional mode called Capture that’s more like Domination from Call of Duty. No minions this time, just the Battleborn.

At least it’s better looking than the cel-shaded look that Borderlands does.

If you have played Gearbox Software’s Borderlands games, then Battleborn will be pretty similar in terms of its style. Lots of meta-referential humor, everybody’s a wisecracking smartass, and lots of gratuitous swearing. (The swearing is censored here since the game is rated T for Teen.)

It even tries to mimic a cartoony style like Borderlands by giving the world a look that’s akin to a painting, which at times looked more like something I’d see out of an MMO like the defunct Wildstar than a game like this.

There’s even these cartoon intros that plays at the beginning of every episode, that awkwardly cuts away to in-game intros of the characters your team chose that have a significantly different style to them. It really feels out of place and looks rather unfinished.

There really isn’t a whole lot else to the game. There’s a lot of various characters with abilities that kind of give you an idea of what they are, but only if you look at them before starting a match or going through the rather exhaustive character selection. There’s at least 30 or so Battleborn in th egame, some of which are supporting characters or villains from the campaign, which the game has no issues allowing you to play as, even if that wouldn’t make any sense story-wise.

You may have noticed I’ve only gone into generalizations about the game itself, rather than anything specific. Admittedly, the game itself is rather uninspiring. To me, Battleborn the game is not the thing that makes it stand out. It’s the way that Battleborn was promoted.

Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox, was leaning *hard* into the “badass” part of the marketing, even having sunglasses with those imprinted on it being given away at PAX. Image sourced from Pitchford’s Twitter.

Battleborn was a victim of bad timing, as it decided to release in May 2016 up against a juggernaut that would dominate the rest of the decade: Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch. While the two games only shared some similarities – quirky writing, a diverse cast of characters, a cartoony art style, and shooting a lot of things – to the average person they might as well be rivals.

It didn’t help that Gearbox had done some rather questionable marketing decisions to make Battleborn stand out. First, they tried to posture themselves as a rival to Overwatch by calling out the game on Twitter, complete with various comparisons between the two games by notable YouTubers and Twitch streamers. There was the awkward marketing using the word “Badass” everywhere, something rather juvenile even for the T-rated crowd and something they kept to the bitter end.

Then there’s stuff like this, where Randy Pitchford decided to advertise a Battleborn porn subreddit through his personal Twitter account:

There’s rumors that Pitchford himself made that subreddit, but I find this unlikely. Original tweet here.

Blizzard seemed to be unfazed by Gearbox’s ridiculous schoolyard bullying, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t paying attention. As a cunning plan, Blizzard released an open beta of Overwatch literally days after Battleborn itself launched, which was a massive success for Blizzard. Battleborn basically languished after that, as support and content for the game mostly dried up after the initial season pass push, with Gearbox basically washing their hands of it and moving onto other projects. Even after a pivot from a paid $60 game to a free-to-play title in mid-2017 wasn’t enough to save the game. Overwatch basically won the so-called “battle.”

They even had not one, but two generic soldier protagonists. Guess they had to one-up Soldier 76 somehow.

With the game being shut down, I’ve been playing through the campaign with friends, one of which has been streaming it to Twitch. Throughout, I’d try some of the playable characters that I had unlocked — mostly the ones involving shooting things — and was slogging through the game’s story with minimal interest. 

The most “entertaining” thing that happened was a glitch that ruined game progress. A boss robot that we were protecting was doing a scripted event where he jumped off platforms. Suddenly, it bugged out and fell through the game world instead of heading to its intended destination. The robot instantly died, resulting in a mission failure and a loss of about 20 minutes of progress. We basically skipped ahead to the next episode after that. Thankfully the moment was caught on my friend’s stream, who clipped it so it could be remembered for all time.

In a sense, playing through Battleborn as it’s shutting down was a nice throwback to several years ago when me and my friends first played the game. For a while I played through some of these kind of games with friends — including this group where we played through Borderlands 2 in its entirety many years back — and it felt good to come back to this, even though I still play games with these people on rare occasions. But even between last playing it in late 2016 to now, the game is still as unremarkable as ever.

Some of the bosses in this game look like rejected character concepts from Warframe or Destiny. They just look so… derivative.

What amazes me is how this game is pretty much a melting pot of every popular idea from the mid-2000s to early-2010s, coalesced into this monstrous unappealing blob. The style between the cartoon cutscenes and the rest of the game feel inconsistent with one another. The awkward C-grade Borderlands-like writing that mostly involves swearing and bad jokes without any sort of wit. A gameplay loop that’s more rote and monotonous than fun. The sense of posturing this game as a “badass experience” when it’s anything but.

Battleborn reminds me of a similar game of which I coincidentally wrote about last year: Darksiders. That game too had a similar “melting pot” design of throwing in a bunch of concepts from other notable franchises and seeing what sticks, to pretty good results. I could find the enjoyable charm of Darksiders’ homages to various franchises. Battleborn, on the other hand, is the opposite: It’s trying too hard to be cool and funny, and just comes off as a total dweeb. It’s the equivalent of “How do you do fellow kids,” and it’s pretty embarrassing.

This is the kind of game that I really want to know the behind the scenes history of. Was this gonna be a Borderlands spinoff originally? Was Randy Pitchford really gunning to innovate the MOBA genre? Did 2K step in and ask for design changes, hence the inconsistent design? Who thought all the “badass” marketing was a good idea? I’m honestly amazed Matt McMuscles hasn’t done a “Wha Happun?” video on this game yet, because it totally deserves one.

“Time for me to fly away to somewhere else. Preferably anywhere but this game!”

While I only spent $15 and got a bunch of other, better games out of that Humble Bundle, Battleborn is one of my more regrettable purchases in recent memory. Yet, despite me being so negative about it, I’m bummed it’s shutting down. I’m a big supporter of game preservation, something I wrote about way back in October about timed-exclusive free Sega games, and I’d hate to say it, Battleborn is no exception.

Stuff like this deserves to still be able to be played now or ten years from now, no matter how unremarkable or average it was. These are the kind of games that always have a small, fervent audience of players interested in it, where they’ll occasionally hold weekly game nights to play through it.

I assume the game shutting down is why Gearbox doesn’t really work with 2K much anymore. These days they mostly do publishing work for other companies, such as helping out on publishing the unremarkable Godfall for the PS5 in late 2020. But I could be wrong, the last game they made for 2K was Borderlands 3 in 2019, and that seems to be working out for them.

Battleborn is a fascinating game. Not because the game did anything interesting or unique, but rather because everything around it is fascinating to anyone who has even a passive interest in gaming culture. It’s one of those footnotes that defined games of the 2010s. Most importantly, it’s an embodiment of Gearbox Software as a whole, often being a trend chaser than a true innovator. On the bright side, at least it’s not as infamous as Aliens: Colonial Marines or Duke Nukem Forever were. That’s something Battleborn at least has in its favor.

Shoutout to my friends Bobinator and Eebit for being my co-op buddies through this journey. You can read Bob’s work on Hardcore Gaming 101, and you can follow Eebit’s Twitch here.

B.J. Brown

B.J. Brown is the creator and sole writer on You Found a Secret Area. Casually writing since 2010, Fascinated by dumb things like game shows, music, and of course, video games. Also on Twitter. You can support their work on Ko-Fi or Patreon.

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