Gearbox Software enters the age of Battleborn

The maker of the Borderlands series is back with a brand-new sci-fi shooter. Here's a first look at Battleborn.

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Jeff Bakalar
4 min read

Gearbox Software

In 2009 Gearbox Software embarked on what would become gaming's most recent cultified franchise. Actually, "cult classic" might be an understatement. Borderlands, and its even more successful follow-up, Borderlands 2, have cumulatively sold around 18 million copies -- and that's not even including the overwhelming amount of downloadable content also available.

Last week Gearbox Software CEO and president Randy Pitchford was in town to show off more of Battleborn, the company's brand-new property that, at first glance, resembles a lot of what made Borderlands so great.

With him, Pitchford brought the game's writer, lead artist and creative director, among others, to help introduce what's been nothing more than a debut teaser that hit earlier this summer.

Pitchford sat legs crossed on an oversize ottoman, hunched over like an excited child who could barely keep himself still. It's understandable, though, as he and his Texas-based team have been hard at work on a follow-up to a series that he openly admits performed far beyond anyone's expectations.

After two months of keeping quiet, it was finally time to lift the curtain on Battleborn.

Gearbox Software

The game takes place in a galaxy where all the local stars have darkened except for one. The last star, Solus, is being fought over by five factions, for what's ultimately survival. Players will be able to choose predesigned characters within these classes and can swap out as the game moves on. You're never stuck with a single character.

Stylistically, Battleborn borrows from the Pixar and Dreamworks animated features of the last decade. It's a departure from the aesthetic of the Borderlands universe, which has a hand-drawn style that became synonymous with the series. Its environments are lush and diverse, some brimming with neon color palettes and others shaded in dark crimson. At times they resemble a scene from "Avatar" or a page out of the Saga comic book.

That Pixar influence carries over to the tone of the game, which features a similar lightheartedness that Borderlands thrived on. Juxtaposing a bit of humor against a catastrophic storyline has seemed to pay off for Gearbox so far. Its writer draws inspiration from science fiction hallmarks like "Futurama" and "The Fifth Element."

Gearbox Software

As successful as Borderlands 1 and 2 were, it puts a lot of pressure on a studio's follow-up effort. It looks like Gearbox has learned a lot from the Borderlands experience, but finding the right balance of building upon that framework, while introducing fresh ideas that more advanced consoles can handle, is a difficult task. Where Borderlands is an "M"-rated game, it feels as though Battleborn will be aiming for a more accessible "T" rating.

Borderlands mashed up genres that historically had no business being together. Rolling out an action-RPG as a first-person co-op shooter seemed like a gamble at the time, but that's now an industry staple. So how does Battleborn let Gearbox take the shooter to the next step and carry the developer forward? Rapid leveling up.

Where in traditional RPGs, and even the Borderlands games, leveling up is a slow grind, Battleborn will introduce players to a style of gameplay in which characters level up with great celerity. Within any given mission, a character can go from the minimum level to the maximum in a short period of time, like a half-hour. Each skill is decided in a "this-or-that" fashion within an innovative helix-tree design. It's this kind of instant gratification that Gearbox believes will separate Battleborn from other titles.

Gearbox Software

Of course, co-op play will be a major focus of Battleborn too. Not only will players be able to team up on campaign missions, but they'll also be able to participate in a fully fleshed-out multiplayer mode as well. And for those who like to game alone, Battleborn should have an answer for that as well.

I didn't get to play Battleborn, but I did get to see a lengthy chunk of live gameplay. It's quickly apparent that this is a product of the Borderlands team -- from hovering health meters and numbered damage points to the colorful commentary that each character spurts out while reloading. Even the map is marked with a diamond-shaped objective waypoint. What's crazy is that the action in Battleborn feels even more over-the-top than its spiritual predecessor's.

In describing Battleborn, Pitchford says it's the studio's most ambitious endeavor yet. On paper that reads like a cop-out, but not until the developers began taking questions from the attending press did I realize the overwhelming number of variables that really need to come together for Battleborn to work.

Gearbox Software

Because players can choose different characters which may all be at varying levels of progression, there's a dizzying amount of balance that needs to be programmed into the game. Each character has different skills and attributes that all need to be taken into consideration as well. Then throw in the mountains of mythology being written for this universe and combine that with a campaign that anyone can just drop in and start playing at any time.

It's a massive undertaking to say the least, and something Gearbox is well aware of. "We want this to be a dynamic process," Pitchford said. "We want to hear from your readers."

Battleborn, not to be confused with Bethesda's Battlecry or From Software's Bloodborne, is set to hit sometime in 2015 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

Gearbox Software