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'Battleborn' mashup of styles doesn't quite come together

"Battleborn" weaves together first-person combat, RPG-like character upgrades, and the kind of wide cast of playable characters and overall pacing of a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena.)

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By CHRISTOPHER BYRD | Special To The Washington Post | Published: June 3, 2016

Under the shadow of terms like mashup lies the understanding that spirited things can happen when once-separated elements are knotted together. When the union is a happy one, new genres can spring forth. (Funk is a good example.)

But when a matchup is less than ideal, the results can be akin to a dry elevator pitch: “Well, market research shows that a lot of people like X and a lot of people like Y so imagine the loot we’ll generate if we fuse the two together!” Alas, “Battleborn,” the new game from Gearbox Software, slots into this category.

“Battleborn” is, in the words of Gearbox Software’s Creative Director, Randy Varnell, a “hero shooter.” The game weaves together first-person combat, RPG-like character upgrades, and the kind of wide cast of playable characters and overall pacing of a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena.) Although MOBA might not be a household word, the genre’s standard bearer, “League of Legends” has claimed one of the largest and most loyal fan bases throughout gaming over the last several years. (MOBA’s do well in China.) As would be expected, other parts of the industry seek to replicate their success.

“League of Legends,” similar to its popular competitor “Dota 2,” operates on a free to play (F2P) model. After an account is set up, a player has access to an array of avatars, each with their own specialties. One competes in matches against others to accomplish a series of smaller and greater goals, such as the capturing and retaining of territory.

The action on the screen is seen from an isometric or not-quite-top-down perspective. (Think “Diablo.”) Players have the option to pay for cosmetic upgrades to their characters, which many do. And MOBA’s have been embraced by the eSports community, which provides its own lucrative opportunities.

It’s been reported that in 2015, Riot Games, the maker of “League of Legends,” netted well over a billion dollars in revenue. As Harold Goldberg points out in his monograph “The League of Legends Experience,” the game’s structure was ripe for the financial era in which it was introduced. “In 2009 at the height of the recession, a constantly morphing, ever challenging, free to play game was what players needed and wanted.”

“Battleborn” is not free to play, so it struck me as slightly gauche that after firing the game up for the first time I immediately saw an advertisement for a season pass. (The game also has a marketplace where one can spend real-world dollars on loot packs.) A slick animation prologue sets up the wink, wink, knowingly half-baked narrative about the disintegration of the universe and the convergence of multiple alien races on a star where all they do is fight.

“Battleborn” is divided between three different multiplayer sections and an eight chapter story mode. It features a roster of 25 playable characters, which includes gunslingers, fantasy characters, many-limbed mutants, and robots that look like refugees from an anime cartoon series — a hodgepodge of archetypes plucked from all corners of geekdom.

The only aesthetic principle that unites the characters and binds them to the environments in which they compete are saturated colors. Seriously, aside from the characters’ fluid animations, the most striking visual components of the game are not architectural or background flourishes but the game’s riotous color palette, which will be familiar to anyone who has played Gearbox Software’s “Borderlands” series.

At the start of the game, one has access to only a handful of avatars. Additional heroes can be unlocked by completing challenges, like killing a number of a certain kind of enemy and ranking up one’s overall career statistics or Command Rank, as well as running through story missions.

Over three long evenings I went through the story mode with my cousin. I can’t imagine how tedious it would have been to go it alone or with random strangers. In spite of the game’s scattershot humor, which trades on a wide range of references but has little bite, I found the moment-to-moment gameplay rather flat. I attribute this to the campaign’s over-reliance on wave-based enemy confrontations where the game routinely places you in a bottleneck area in which you must withstand the barrage of three waves of enemies.

Such tasks are eased by using collectable resources to set up defensive measures like repair drones and environmental traps such as flame-shooting fountains. Aside from difficulty spikes in the third chapter and at the end I found the combat to be a homogenous experience that never got my adrenaline going.

Similar to other MOBAs, in “Battleborn,” you begin each multiplayer match or story episode as a level-one character who has the opportunity to rack up an additional nine levels, each of which provides access to different perks. Leveling up a character from scratch didn’t bother me in the multiplayer portion of the game because one is normally squaring off against a new set of opponents. However, I found this mechanic unwieldy in story mode since it undermines any sense of continuity between chapters.

Speaking of multiplayer, “Battleborn” offers the usual territory-control feature as well as two other modes that emphasize the shepherding of minions, or non-playable characters, to specific points on the map. In Meltdown, the goal is to guide your minions to an incinerator, where they sacrifice themselves for your greater glory, while trying to prevent the competition from following suit. In Incursion, you try to lead an army of minions to destroy an enemy sentry.

In the matches I played, I saw very little tactical thinking on the part of my teammates — people seemed preoccupied with shooting the nearest threat. I couldn’t blame them since the game’s first-person perspective isn’t as conducive to surveying the playing field as the isometric perspective of a traditional MOBA.

Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this game. Its humor goes nowhere — it has none of the cultural sting of something like “Grand Theft Auto V” or “The Magic Circle” — and while the game does offer players a slew of fighting styles to choose from, the thought of tackling similar objectives over and over to unlock new avatars leaves me numb. “Battleborn” is an OK shooter but it’s certainly not a memorable one.

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Official website: battleborn.com

Ed Asner on the set of "Bennie's Gym," an indie sitcom pilot that filmed in Columbia, Md., in May, produced by three men who are new to show business.
BONNIE JO MOUNT/THE WASHINGTON POST

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