Gearbox's Battleborn and Blizzard's Overwatch are games that offer comparable experiences. Both are team-based, objective-focused online multiplayer shooters. One, Battleborn, has a more obvious story to it courtesy of a campaign mode, but Overwatch isn't short on lore, as a cursory poke around its official publicity materials reveals (not to mention so many environmental clues). Both games are deliciously colourful and feature a wealth of stylish characters to choose from, each engineered to feel like a proper individual, rather than a simple reskin of a repeated class.
Gearbox's game came out first, on May the 3rd, and was the best-selling title at retail in its first week; but it's Overwatch, released on May the 24th, that's received the better reviews and appears to have already stolen a commercial march on its closest genre rival. While Battleborn's parent publishers Take-Two are "encouraged" by its sales, but add that "it remains to be seen how it performs", reports of Overwatch's performance at the tills are already very positive. GameStop's COO has said that the game "exceeded our expectations", and it was temporarily sold out on Amazon (US).
VICE Gaming editor Mike Diver and contributor Sean Cleaver have been playing both games, on and off, and proceeded to have a little chat about them.
Mike Diver: Sean. I've just played a story mission, co-operatively, in Battleborn. The objectives kept changing. The messaging was all over the place. My teammates seemed very much in it for themselves. I outscored them, but the teamwork wasn't instinctively there. The communication throughout the experience seemed very muddled. That's if I even got into a game – I've had a fair few massive "disconnected!" messages on account of not enough players being in the same place, at the same time.
The games I've played of Overwatch, so far, have been just the opposite. Even when playing with groups of strangers, there seems to be clearer communication, a sharper focus on objectives. The matches are shorter, and getting into them much quicker than what I've experienced in Battleborn.
Before we even discuss how these things play, look, sound and what the future for them is, does my experience ring true of yours? Right now, if I want to rush about in an online multiplayer shooter, it feels like Overwatch's streamlined approach to getting in, having fun and then bailing out is the superior option of the two.
Sean Cleaver: This is something that always bugs me about multiplayer-only games. You need a set amount of people to play them and something simple so that you can't get it wrong when you do get a match. It's one of the reasons that Call of Duty has done so well, because it has a very simple premise. But as soon as you start asking more of people, like Halo 5's Warzone mode, things just get messy and people revert to type: just kill everything.
Everything about Overwatch does feel very clean. It doesn't faff about with things like selectable or amendable maps, complicated levelling or multiple objectives that take you out of the action on screen. It just gives you a target and then says go.
Nobody's spoken to each other in the Overwatch games I've had. But it just seems very easy to read what's going on in the game, and what is required of you; when the best time is to change a character over, and so on. I certainly haven't gone in to a game yet of Overwatch thinking that my team were poor because they didn't get what was happening, or the game itself confusing things for the players.
I do wonder how much the teams behind the games have informed this difference in play. The full on, everything-going-mad-for-the-sake-of-it experience does seem like a very Gearbox thing to do, after the Borderlands series, whereas the simple things done well is very much a Blizzard modus operandi.
MD: Yeah, I suspect the Borderlands Effect is to blame for Battleborn being quite as bombastic as it is, somewhat to the detraction of the experience. In as much as, I wonder if a proper Borderlands-themed shooter in a Battleborn guise would have been more... approachable? That it'd have clicked quicker with the public? I don't know.
SC: Well, one thing you can't accuse Blizzard of is recreating the same thing between games, which kind of feeds into both your points here.
MD: As for communication, I'm right there with you on the "nobody's talking, but we all know what's going on" thing. I wonder why that is, versus Battleborn? Is it simply down to much clearer objectives? Protect this payload, hold this area, and so forth. Battleborn's story missions flit from point to point, pushing you around large maps, but the rhythm to them doesn't feel natural.
Both games give you an almost overwhelming number of characters. How do you feel about this degree of choice? Overwatch's roster is kind of intimidating at first, isn't it? Who did you click with first – and how long did that take?
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SC: The Gearbox style very much informs Battleborn, from its characters to its gameplay, and I worried at the time I was playing previews that there were too many characters for the sake of there being a varied choice. You have so many that all have unique traits, but I felt very few of them helped to affect the game and how you play it.
Whereas I've found with Overwatch that the characters are built around what they can do in the space and the different types of games, rather than just having a cool gun to kill people with. Everything about them feels functional, so you don't feel as overwhelmed as you initially might have when starting the game. So everyone has a role and that communication is evident in what happens in a match rather than direct chatter.
Personally, I like Reinhardt. There's something about raising that shield once you've rushed a point and blocked damage so your team can regroup after deaths that's very satisfying. Plus, when you nail someone against a wall with the rolling attack. I quite like supporting teams, so him and Mercy have been natural choices for me – affecting the game without having to lose years of my life to perfecting shooting. So it happened rather quickly.
Have you found that in Battleborn? A character or class choice that allows you to play the game in a fulfilling way to you, rather than just the achievement of winning?
MD: I've not played Battleborn quite so long as I have Overwatch, and I fear I never will, but in that time I've not felt that the class of character has a great bearing on the DNA of a team – at least, not with the same obvious balance that Overwatch presents, upfront with its advice on the make-up of each team. The characters are individually very different in Battleborn, and I've definitely got a soft spot for Oscar Mike, who runs about daring other players to "rage quit"; but the game lacks Overwatch's match-making clarity. It's just that much slower, too, from the menus onwards. Okay, so there aren't that many people playing it, but still, I'm surprised at just how tough it's been sometimes to not get kicked out of a lobby for having too few players.
I haven't really got along with Reinhardt yet. I'm more a fan of the nimble characters. Tracer's an early favourite, and I expect that's echoed across a large part of the player base. Her time-reward special is a vital get-out-of-shite-fast power for newbies like me who are still learning the maps. I've not played much with support characters yet, but I've been on the receiving end of some great Mercy support. I have my time with Bastion, too, and Pharah, D.Va, Soldier 76 and Hanzo. Those have been my early go-to choices. But I'm really still feeling my way into it, trying to find who's "me".
I think most of my deaths have come from snipers, though. Those players that have learned the maps and can find those sweet lines of sight. I hate them, already. Do you have any fear that Overwatch will quickly become a place for elite players?
SC: I don't think my biggest worry is the potential of elite player groups. I believe that the matchmaking is done by locale and availability rather than skill level. My biggest worry is that it just drops. Because it always seems, on console at least, that the player base drops once something else comes out.
But this is where Overwatch's marketing may be an excellent turn. Because they've made their story the key in their virals and their animated shorts, while Battleborn had to work harder to explain and sell itself because the expectation wasn't there, nor does the company have a fanbase comparable to Blizzard's.
It reminded me of Team Fortress 2 in that way, as well. TF2 used to have animated shorts that were humorous and advertised the game, and were then just made for fun. But by introducing the characters via YouTube in interesting ways, you already made your cast and your product relatable.
I'm not sure I've seen a game that's had this kind of social buzz in recent times. Probably Grand Theft Auto V was the last where people were enjoying the adverts, and having them build their anticipation for the game.
Actually, there's another thing that has helped people just slip into Overwatch like a familiar smoking jacket and enjoy it like a fine whisky in front of a log fire and smoking a pipe: the beta. Yes it was a test, but it's arguably the biggest demo this console generation has had, with over nine million people playing it, and it put the game front and centre of people's minds.
MD: You mention a console drop-off. Is that because this type of game is naturally engineered for a keys-and-mouse approach, rather than a controller?
SC: I think controllers have come on so much that this is as close as it can be, between them and a WASD scheme.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Overwatch does the simple things well. It doesn't jerk around on screen. It doesn't freeze or stick you in frame-rate hell, or piss about with secret numbers. You aim, you shoot, you use your abilities wisely. It's a game that gives you the tools to enjoy yourself, rather than it creating and guiding the whole experience for you. Which obviously a lot of online games do, but very rarely successfully.
I actually believe it's well balanced, too. I've not had a game filled with Bastion or even encountered an all-Winston monkey party yet. I do see how overpowered some characters are but I think the game gives you the ability as players and a team to notice that and creatively overcome it.
MD: Oh, Sean. He's an ape, not a monkey. Hah. But yeah, I'd read the stories about certain characters being overpowered, too dominant in matches. But largely I've not seen the evidence – save for a lot of Torbjorn "plays of the game" Because Turrets.
With Overwatch putting Battleborn in its shadow, what does that mean for other multiplayer shooters of this year, and most likely next? I'm looking at the number of players Overwatch is probably going to have, long term, and not seeing how the LawBreakers of this world are going to put a dent in them. Should other devs doing this sort of thing just back off and have a retool?
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SC: I think the worst thing that could happen is that this becomes The Next Thing and everyone tries to follow suit. Much like TF2 and CS:GO, Overwatch is obviously designed for longevity, and it works. Unlike Evolve, arguably Battleborn and others that came before it, it has a long-term plan and not your standard one- or two-year release and cash in cycle.
MOBAs were another example of everyone trying to jump on the League of Legends wagon, and look what happened there. Bioware axed a game they announced in 2014. Fable Legends is now gone, it seems. Then you've got games like Smite and Gigantic fighting it out in a really crowded marketplace.
Sometimes people need to put their hands up and say, "Yup, you guys nailed it, so you can have that one." The conversation needs to be: "Can we better Overwatch while not adding things that make the concept convoluted and difficult." If the answer is no, then bin that idea and start something else. That's my opinion, of course, but devs should ask themselves that before they attempt their own shooter of this ilk.
You'll always have the multiplayer modes that capture millions of players, like those in the CoD and Battlefield, but other than slight differences, these have kind of become recycled memes – and I mean the proper meaning of that word, not the internet picture thing. They're in desperate need of some originality. If anything, Overwatch's critical success, and design success, should help inform and inspire developers for better things in their own games. Arguably the only one that has evolved to try new things has been Halo 5. While the player base might not have been there, the modes and the ideas were good.
Overwatch will certainly keep going on PC for years, and Blizzard are no strangers to supporting their products with great and regular content. I'm confident that I could be happily playing this game in a year's time, and I haven't ever thought that about a multiplayer game.
MD: I'm feeling that I could feel the same way. Come and speak to me again in a week, when I've got more Overwatch hours under my belt. What's certain, though, is that Battleborn is on the back foot – price reductions across the board are an obvious sign of its publishers taking the only positive action they can against the juggernaut of Blizzard. I hope the game doesn't vanish, because it's certainly got potential and it is fun, when everything clicks into place. But so far as this spring's content of the so-called "hero shooters" has gone, it's been quite the bloodbath, but one contestant has remained remarkably spotless.
Both Battleborn and Overwatch are out now for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
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