Gearbox and Blizzard have been in something of a dead heat over the past few months over their upcoming FPS MOBAs Battleborn and Overwatch, respectively, to the point that both games are even releasing in the same month (Battleborn at the beginning of May, Overwatch at the end). While it’s clear both companies likely came up with the idea independently (Gearbox as a logical extension of the Borderlands series, Blizzard as a salvaging of their scrapped Project Titan MMO), and while both companies would like for the games to be perceived as more than just FPS MOBAs, the reality is, both games essentially look like a cross between League of Legends and Team Fortress 2, and probably owe more than a little bit to both games. If you, like me, have been confused as to what to think of these games or been wondering whether or not you should be ready to invest in one (or both), this past weekend we got a chance to see first-hand what the answer was, as both games were available to play through open beta tests for a couple days, so players could get a taste of both games and both companies could test for issues. That said, in the event you missed out, I’ve taken the time to spend the weekend with both games, to compare the experiences with each, in hopes it’ll help when you’re trying to make that decision as to what to pick up. In case you were hoping for a slam dunk reaction in one direction or the other, however… you may want to pull up a chair, because at present, that’s almost certainly not going to be the case.
When it comes to making a first impression, Blizzard spared no expense, as Overwatch went out of its way to make me feel instantly comfortable with the experience. When the beta booted up for the first time, it instantly took me into a full tutorial to explain all of the core mechanics, complete with some assistance from de facto mascot Tracer. The tutorial felt quite personable and showed that Blizzard was fully invested in allowing players a good amount of exposure to the game before pushing them into play, allowing even the beta testers a chance to really get a feel for the experience before getting down to proper play. Not only that, once the core tutorial finished up, the game then dumped me into a test arena of sorts that allowed me to test out any character I wanted in a reasonably safe environment, which even included testing dummies to fully allow the player an understanding of how skills and systems truly operate. Honestly, right from the get-go, Blizzard made it apparent that they wanted players to feel welcome and comfortable with the experience, and that was quite welcome, especially when compared to…
When I started up the Battleborn beta, the very first thing it opted to show off was an advertisement advising me that, if I preordered the game, I could get gold skins for a bunch of the characters from jump. This is fine, in and of itself (if perhaps a bit desperate feeling), but once I clicked past that prompt, I was unceremoniously dumped to the dashboard to do… something. Worse, if Battleborn offers any kind of tutorial or explanation of play at all, it wasn’t apparent in the beta, meaning that entry level players were essentially forced to guess their way through the first few hours of play. Now, clearly this isn’t a final product and beta tests are as much for the developer as the player, but something that would aid in easing players into the test would’ve been better than the nothing the game provided. The beta didn’t offer a tutorial or practice arena of any sort to allow players to acclimate to the experience, sadly, and for newcomers that probably wasn’t an encouraging first impression, especially if they haven’t preordered yet.
Aesthetic and Presentation
If you’re basing your down payment on the presentation of the game, let’s get this one out of the way up front: Overwatch takes this category hands down. Part of that is because the visual aesthetic is astounding; the product is full of top quality artistic aesthetic, and you can’t help but be a little impressed with the game every time you jump into it. The game world almost feels like someone involved in the process played Brink and said, “Yeah, we can do that better,” as it very much has that sort of artistic feel, but in a way that’s more powerful and moving pound-for-pound, and I honestly fell in love with it from jump. It also helps that the game has a strong aural presence, as the characters all have excellent voice work accompanying them into battle, and each character sounds unique and full of personality. The combat effects and music also lend a lot of personality to the experience; while the gunplay doesn’t always sound powerful due to the energy weaponry in play, it does fit the tone well, and the music also matches the frantic and powerful pace of the game nicely, even if none of the tracks stood on their own at this point.
The biggest positive to the game’s presentation, though, probably comes from its characters, not only because of their designs, but because of how well they relate to one another. Each character feels truly unique and special, with personality to spare, and you can generally tell what a character is like just from their poses, intros and winning animations, as well as their aesthetic design. Further, the designs relate well to one another, not just because the animation and design style is clean and crisp, but because each character feels like they belong in this world when compared to everyone else. That said, the one downside of all of this attention to detail is that the characters don’t feel like they relate to their world in any meaningful way. There’s no plot to the game to speak of in the beta, and the website doesn’t indicate that there will be any sort of plot-based modes to drive the experience forward, sadly, so most of the world building that’s been done here feels like it’s going to waste. Blizzard has been kind enough to release videos explaining how characters relate to each other, which are all quite cool so far, but for the most part there’s nothing in the beta to showcase this, and the website has given no indication such will change by release either.
This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but Battleborn feels aesthetically like Borderlands in a lot of respects. While the visual aesthetic is a lot cleaner overall (as is befitting of a game set on multiple worlds rather than one junk planet), and while the designs are a bit more angular in comparison, you can definitely see a common element in the aesthetic designs between the two games. That’s hardly a bad thing, mind you, as Borderlands has an outstanding aesthetic, but it’s not one that holds up well artistically to that of Overwatch, as it feels more rough and uneven when the two are held up side-by-side, which isn’t a positive for Gearbox. From the aural side of things, fortunately, Battleborn holds up much better; the voice work is as stellar as it ever was, and while there’s a specific focus on giving some of the narrative cast voicework over the core playable characters, everyone here turns in a solid performance regardless. The gunplay sounds a little more powerful than that of Overwatch, likely due to a heavier focus on explosions and ballistics, and the music is on-par, meaning it fits the tone of the game nicely but nothing stands on its own so far.
The biggest problems from the aesthetic side of things, honestly, come from the fact that the characters in Battleborn feel like they were designed to be cool first and fitting second, which leaves the aesthetic feeling disjointed. You’ve got armor-clad marines mixing it up with sword-wielding space emperors and luchadores with robotic arms, there are elves and dwarves mixing it up with chap-enthusiast robots, and one character is a penguin in a mech suit. To be blunt, there were a few times where I just blurted out “What the hell am I seeing?” at the screen during play, and not in a complimentary fashion. I mean, the designs look fine, but nothing logically relates well to anything else and it makes the game feel disconnected from itself. Further, you can’t always get a feel for what a character is like from looking at them; Miko, for example, is a mushroom dressed like a combat monk, so imagine my surprise when I discovered he was a healer class unit and you’ll be on the right path. It’s fine from a long-term perspective, but between the lack of player testing options and a lack of visible character cues on first sight, it made the first couple matches frustrating. Perhaps the worst part, though, is that Battleborn actually DOES have a narrative built into the game, which is awesome… until you see it and realize it’s the same “HA HA LOOK HOW FUNNY I AM” narrative Borderlands uses, only more forcefully corny, if that’s possible. There’s an entire mission built around how you’re going to sacrifice a Wolf AI Mech to shut down a vortex, and the AI just keeps going on about how it knows it’s going to survive the mission to the point where if it had been funny, it stops being so rapidly.
At its core level, Overwatch feels like a fairly standard FPS, and the controls are well implemented and laid out no matter whether you’re playing with a controller or a mouse and keyboard. All of the functions you could need are mapped to a small handful of buttons or keys, and keybinding is extremely easy so you can set things up exactly as you want. The core complexity to play is in how each character is designed, as characters can have dramatically different setups depending on their role and design for filling that role. Generally, characters have a small set of weapons, often one with a secondary fire or two, as well as a melee attack they can kick off as needed. Characters also generally have two unique skills that can be utilized after a cooldown period, as well as an Ultimate Skill that charges over time and based on damage dealt which is usually quite useful, hence its more complicated delay. Where the game gets more involved is in learning how each character works within their skillsets, as some characters have involved movement mechanics, alternate weapons and so on that can be major game-changers in the right hands. The game is entirely about knowing the character you’re using intimately to achieve the best possible results when utilizing them, in much the same way as something like Team Fortress 2 or Heroes of the Storm. As such, there’s only so much you need to know on a per character basis, but it’s knowing how to use things that makes the mechanics work effectively.
You will almost certainly be unsurprised to know that Battleborn feels more than a little bit like a simplified version of Borderlands; if you’ve played that game, you’ll have a decent idea of how things work here, to the point that shields are even equipped to characters in the same manner. Characters are essentially outfitted in the same fashion as Overwatch, but in a way that’s simultaneously more uniform and disconnected in comparison. Every character has an inherent passive skill and a talent, both of which give them inherent benefits from jump, as well as two general use combat skills that work on a timer and an Ultimate Skill that they unlock after making so much progress in a mission or battle. Every character more or less performs in the same fashion through this design, meaning that while you’ll have to adjust to the specific elements of the character, it’s often easier to jump in and play a character because everyone feels similar enough to work with. Where the game varies things up is in perks that are earned each time you earn a level during play, which can improve skills and base combat in various ways. You’re given a choice of two each time you level up that you can pick one of; these reset at the end of battle, but while they’re active they provide significant boosts based on your choices. Finally, characters can also carry in loadouts of gear earned post-battle that can also improve their stats in various ways, depending on what you have equipped and the character. In other words, so long as you know the role expected of you, the game is as much about advance planning as anything else, and while you can jump into any character mechanically and play fine, knowing your character intimately helps, but more from a pre-planning perspective rather than an “in the moment” perspective.
Characters and Organization
One of the nice things about the structure of Overwatch is that it’s designed with four core roles in mind, and each character is segmented by these roles to give newcomers a good idea of what everyone does before they jump in and pick someone to play as. Characters can play one of four roles at a time: Offense, for front-line damage dealers, Defense, for rear guard damage dealers, Tank, for front-line damage shields, and Support, for healing and buffs, and each character is organized into their category from the main screen, so you know who does what immediately. Additionally, each character is rated based on perceived play difficulty, so you know what the best options are based on your skill level and how effective you’ll be during play as you learn them. Each character feels surprisingly well tuned to the game based on how they’ll be used and their anticipated role in the game world, even amongst their own classes, as each Support unit has far different functions from one another, as an example. The character loadout screen is also nice enough to tell you what’s missing in a squad before you jump into combat so you can fill in your roles as best as possible, to ensure that you’ve got a good mix of members for the mission at hand… or risk some weaknesses to build around personal preference.
Conversely, characters in Battleborn are segregated by no meaningful metric I can discern, though characters are helpfully qualified for players by a perceived difficulty level, as well as two potential roles the character can play on the battlefield. As mentioned previously, characters aren’t dramatically varied from a mechanical perspective, so you won’t have to spend a lot of time learning their ins and outs before you jump into them, but it’s still helpful to know how their skillsets operate and their effective combat range before you take them into battle. It’s also worth noting that, because of the structure of the game, it’s not as much of a concern to learn how specific roles come into play from a team perspective; while it’s helpful to have specific classes in play to perform various duties, the game seems far less interested in making them matter, which will likely be good for more casual players or newcomers to this sort of game style. There’s definitely room for advanced players to have some fun, but the game asks a lot less of players when choosing a character, for better or worse, so you can experiment more than you might in Overwatch.
Beta Play Modes
The beta showcased three training modes from jump to allow players to learn the ropes, in the fully fleshed out Tutorial and character test zone dubbed the Practice Range, as mentioned above, along with an AI vs Humans playfield that allows up to five players to take on AI opponents so you can learn the ropes with minimal risk… or just play casually with friends. Meanwhile, the competitive modes allowed for a simple Quick Play option to jump in and go, a full Competitive Play option for all-out versus combat, Custom Game for when you want to set a game to your exact parameters, and the aforementioned vs AI battle mode. There’s also a Weekly Brawl, which sets up a combat scenario with specific rules and maps for you to challenge yourself with, though it’ll be interesting to see how that works out in the long term; as it seems now, it just seems like a way to challenge yourself beyond simple pick-up play.
From a more advanced perspective, it’s worth noting that Custom Map offers a lot of options, including the ability to change when maps rotate, the order of maps, hero selection options (IE can you have duplicates and are some heroes excluded outright), as well as more aesthetic concerns, such as whether or not players can use skins they’ve earned or whether they can see the Kill Cam on death. There’s a lot here that will probably only apply to a small percentage of players, but it’s nice to see Blizzard catering to those players at all, and they’ll appreciate it a lot I’m sure. On the other hand, so far the beta is only showing off two modes of play: Assault, which is something of a King of the Mountain meets Objective Defense play mode (one team defends a spot, the other attacks it) and Escort, which is a mode where one team attacks a target and the other team defends said target. The modes are easy to understand, but very limited at this point, and there’s nothing else of note in the beta or on the website insofar as play options go, so that’s… not great.
On the other side of things, Battleborn offers no tutorials, but it does offer two storyline missions where five players can take on hordes of enemies for fun and profit: The Algorithm (which is a massive, multi-boss battle mission) and The Void’s Edge (which is the aforementioned Wolf AI escort mission). These missions are quite fun the first go-round, at least, though whether they or the others not included in the beta will have long-term value remains to be seen. There’s also Versus play, which allows for two modes in the beta: Incursion, which is a mission where you destroy targets, and Meltdown, which has you protecting sacrificial targets while destroying the same targets that the enemy is protecting. The concepts of the missions are both a bit more outside of the box in comparison, but they’re also a little weird to get used to at first so whether or not they’ll be a hit with the community remains to be seen.
Both Story and Versus play allow for public and private play, so you can set up a team of just your friends or go in with strangers, depending on preference, without an issue. Versus play also allows you to set up AI bots for play, even to the point where you can play by yourself with a full nine-bot compliment if you’re so inclined (or very bored). Meanwhile, Story allows for multiple difficulty options from jump for those who want to do the missions multiple times for profit, and you can even force a Story mission to start without a full complement of players; you can’t sub in AI bots here, but you can go in with as few players of the five default as you want, or even go in by yourself if you have a death wish. The Versus play modes don’t have nearly as many customization options as that of Overwatch, but again, from a more casual perspective, what’s here works well enough, and you’ll probably be okay with what you’ve got if you’re less experienced.
Odds and Ends
The one thing that’s worth noting here is in how each game handles its Loot Boxes, as both have them and distribute them when you win at stuff. In Overwatch, the rewards pumped out are entirely cosmetic at this point; you can unlock skins, emotes, poses and spray tags from these boxes, but nothing that changes gameplay in any significant way (so far). It’s fine for what it is; this keeps play consistent based on skill level exclusively, and the game isn’t locking away content (so far) in order to encourage random box looting, instead offering up novelties that don’t impact play. How that changes post launch remains to be seen, but so far it’s a fun reward for a job well done and nothing more. You can also unlock these items directly via an in-game currency that’s also rewarded post-missions, which… could be concerning, though nothing so far implies this will be monetized at this point.
Battleborn, on the other hand, also hands out these little cosmetic doodads from these Loot Boxes, as well as through an in-game currency that’s handed out under much the same manner. However, you can also unlock Gear that can be put into your Loadouts from these Loot Boxes, and since many of the aesthetic options for your characters can also be unlocked from levelling up, it feels like the Loot Boxes are geared more toward paying out Gear than anything else. This is fine, to a point, but as these items can potentially improve play performance, there’s a possibility that getting such loot can potentially make for character improvements that unbalance the experience between players over the long haul. There’s also the possibility that players may be able to unlock such Gear through SHIFT codes or (sadly) microtransactions, which could be notably unbalancing in some respects. It’s likely not a dealbreaker, since you need to perform well to unlock use of these Gear options in play, so bad players will still be hampered from using them even if they do get a lot of good ones, but it’s a concern nonetheless.
Honestly? I kind of love Overwatch for what it does, as there’s clearly a lot of love poured into this game from top to bottom. The aesthetics, world, characters and mechanics all show an obscene attention to detail, and they’re outstanding in how they’re set up and set against each other. However, for all of that world building, the game Blizzard is showing off in beta is a game that’s not too interested in doing anything to showcase that world, and is instead tuned toward being another E-Sports ready experience. If the website were even interested in pretending that more options are either coming for the final game or were being planned for future release that might be reassuring, but even a search of the wiki only reveals two more modes: Hybrid, which is a combination of these two modes and not an actual NEW thing, and Control, which sounds like literal King of the Hill. Put bluntly, there’s nothing there that’s exciting, and the game as it is now feels entirely like it’s meant for the sort of players who practice constantly to get really good in a role, and… that’s not me, and might well not be you, frankly. I really hope I’m wrong, but if I’m not, whether or not this is worth your $60 will depend entirely on how dedicated you are to learning and developing your play strategies, because if the answer is “not that dedicated,” this might not be the experience you’re looking for, at this point.
On the other hand, I mostly am ambivalent or hostile toward most of the design choices in Battleborn. Aesthetically, the game looks last-gen and the art style is unpleasant as often as not. The characters look like they came out of a fifth grader’s composition book, the plot is goofy and trying way too hard to be funny, and the whole experience feels very… pedestrian. You’ve seen this before, is my point, and it’s less appealing this go-round. However, the actual game underneath all of that feels more like it’s something a wide variety of people can enjoy; while the game feel is a little also-ran, the actual modes available feel like they’ll be more appealing to players who don’t want to spend a whole lot of time developing their skillsets for competitive play. With an actual campaign built into the game and multiplayer modes that are kind of different, there’s more of a framework here to bolt stuff onto that might appeal to a wide variety of players, rather than just competitive-focused online players exclusively, and that’s surprisingly pleasing. As such, while Overwatch is almost certainly going to be highly appealing to players who have strong competitive skills and interests, Battleborn is likely going to be the game you look to when you’re not that player; it’s not the most pleasing product of the two, but it’s the one that’s going to be more interesting for the casual player in the long run structurally, so far.
We’ll see how those impressions pan out as it gets closer to release, as Overwatch has another public beta coming yet and Blizzard might have something more complex to show off before launch, but at this point, if you’ve missed out on trying either beta out, hopefully that gives you an idea of which game is right for you. We’ll know more once the games launch, of course, so hopefully there’s a whole lot more coming, but we’ll know either way in about a month.
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