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Second Opinion: Battleborn Won

And Overwatch Lost

Hi everybody.  Doctor I Coleman, PhD in something silly, etc.  In the comments of last week’s video, YouTube user Joseph Sabus requested my thoughts on Battleborn, and since I’ve played Battleborn more than any other game that came out this year, I’m more than willing to talk about it.  I was going to leave Overwatch out of this feature entirely, especially since they’re different games with different premises and different playstyles that just happened to look kiiinda similar and come out in the same month.  Then I thought: no.  The Overwatch fandom is the reason Battleborn failed, they’re the ones that spammed the “Battleborn” tag on Tumblr with so much hate that actual fans of the game had to come up with a different tag for fanart. They’re the reason I couldn’t even talk about liking Battleborn on my own podcast without getting laughed at.  So I’m coming for ya.  It’s time to give this whole, bloody, pointless war a Second Opinion.

Hey, guys, you wanna hear a joke? Battleborn.  Oh, hey, look, I just got a million billion views on this video.  Yes, there may have been worse games this year but it seems there’s nothing people love to hate on as much as Gearbox’s take on the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena.  And I get it, I mean, it committed the terrible, unforgivable crime of-

Oh, wait, hang on.  It’s actually good, isn’t it?  Like, really good.  The only reason it failed is because it came out at the same time as Blizzard’s incredibly over-hyped hero shooter Overwatch, and because it was poorly advertised. Everyone thought they were the same game.  If you can only afford to buy one of the two games, like most of us, why wouldn’t you get the one everyone else said was guaranteed to be way better?  Especially considering Gearbox’s history of, um, how can I put this…straight-up lying to our faces? Who’s actually going to take the time to research both games and see which one you’d genuinely prefer?

Battleborn

The truth is the two games are wildly different from each other – they’re not even really in the same genre.  The war between them should never have existed to begin with. Gearbox really, really, should have waited and released this game in a different month. But plenty of people have already talked about the history of the two games and the whole sad story of Battleborn‘s rise and fall. In particular, I think Jim Sterling did a really good job of covering it fairly in his “Battleborn post-mortem” video.  That’s not what I’m here for.  Second Opinion is, at heart, a games criticism show – one which tries to strip away the years of context from entertainment experiences and look at them purely from an artistic standpoint; how good they are to play, not how good their marketing was.  Vulture’s Jonathan Riviera wrote “It’s hard to separate Overwatch the game from Overwatch the phenomenon”, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do.  Plus, I really like playing devil’s advocate, so now I’m going to tell you why in terms of making a good videogame Battleborn won, beating Overwatch in every single category hands down.

And I know Battleborn didn’t really win, commentersBelieve me, no one’s more aware than I am.  Every time I try to log on to my favorite multiplayer shooter I have to wait sometimes up to thirty minutes to get into a game.

So believe me, I know.

Battleborn

Let’s go down the list of things people think Overwatch did well, shall we?  Why don’t we start with story?  Overwatch has gotten a ludicrous amount of praise for its story and lore and that is patently ridiculous.  It’s the same thing we were talking about last week: people think that Overwatch is good and Overwatch has a story, so Overwatch must have a good story.  Well, that’s simply not true.  First of all, none of the story is even in the game, instead being told through videos and comics on Blizzard’s website.  Kinda like some other game I could mention.  Hmm.  What was that.  What was that called…

Sure, that’s a viable way to tell a videogame’s story if you’re lazy and think that writing a book is more interesting than trying to tell story through an interactive medium, but so much of it just doesn’t make sense.  The lore is wildly inconsistent and the timelines don’t line up.  To use one of many, many, many examples, Tracer somehow took part in the Omnic Crisis four years before she was born.  Also, there’s just a cowboy.  No explanation, no rationalization, just a cowboy in the year 2076. Yeah.  Why the hell not.

bbarn2

It might seem petty, but it really is disappointing that the lore stops when the game begins.  At least Team Fortress 2, the game that, hmm, “heavily inspired” nearly every aspect of Overwatch‘s creation, tried its best to represent its story through in-game dialogue between the characters and tie maps, events, and even whole game modes to that story.  Meanwhile, Blizzard’s Team Fortress 3 is supposedly about a team of superheroes re-forming to save the planet from…something?  But it’s actually about a team of superheroes killing the hell out of each other as well as themselves  since there can inexplicably be up to 12 of a single character running around the map.

“The World Needs Heroes”…to kill each other, apparently, and commit temporal suicide, and seriously, does this have anything to do with the game Overwatch?  Anything.  Any one single thing.

Battleborn, on the other hand, has a full-fledged story mode about a group of ragtag heroes fighting an evil alien race called the Varelsi for control of the last star in the galaxy.  From the get-go it is a more interesting premise, focusing on humor and a surprisingly dark narrative which asksd the question of what a post-apocalyptic story would look like on a galactic scale instead of a planetary one.  It has an actual plot, instead of just some light backstory and shallow lore.  Battleborn goes the extra mile to ensure that playing story missions with different characters can lead to different lines of dialogue, making fairly simple plotlines something fun to replay over and over again.  Beyond all that, what I like so much more about Battleborn‘s story is every aspect of it is represented in gameplay.

The dying sun is represented in the star shards that you have to pick up to advance through the game making its energy feel like a precious resource even if you only play multiplayer.  There’s actual reasons and in-game explanations for the characters to be fighting each other and even to be fighting themselves.  They even make sure there’s a good in-universe explanation for the checkpoint saves, something that nobody would have cared if they’d just never acknowledged. Battleborn‘s story feels like an integral part of the universe, and when you play the game you feel like you’re immersed in that world.  Overwatch‘s story feels like somebody’s poorly-researched rarely-updated fanfiction.

Maybe story’s an unfair metric for comparison, since Battleborn has a story mode and Overwatch is multiplayer-only.  Maybe I’m being unfair because the two games clearly had very different focuses.  Ignoring the fact that that’s the entire premise of this video, most of the elements I just talked about are still available even in the multiplayer. This also has far, far superior character banter to Overwatch‘s.  This brings us to the next thing the latter gets praised for which the former does better: character design.

Here’s the thing: to understand this next part, you have to understand where the companies behind each game are coming from.  With Overwatch, Blizzard has done the same thing it’s always done: taken a popular genre, in this case the multiplayer shooter, and distill it into the purest version of itself.  They did the same thing with World of Warcraft and StarCraft II, in both cases making the gold standard for the MMO and RTS genres, respectively.  They copy the best elements of the best games in the genre, obsessively test them, and give them a fresh coat of paint, producing something that’s technically perfect but often soulless.  Listen, I like StarCraft II a lot – I’ve sunk enough hours in it to get to gold league, but every professional StarCraft game plays out the same way, with both players trying to do the exact same series of moves and the winner being whoever does them faster.  Compare that to say, Age of Empires 2, which I consider a lot more fun to watch and play because it has more of an element of randomness.  Here’s an AoE2 game where two professional players happen to spawn near twelve wolves and just start leading them into each other’s town back and forth.  That would never happen in StarCraft II.

Overwatch is the same way – I joke about it a lot but it really is Team Fortress 2 with a fresh coat of paint and a couple of new abilities. The sterility of its design is reflected in its characters.  Somebody sing me a chorus of “Roll Out the Archetypes” cause here we go: there’s the generic soldier for boring people, the gritty edgelord for really boring people, the buff lady with a pink undercut for Tumblr users, the oversexualized purple lady for Reddit users, the oversexualized British lady, the oversexualized healer lady…

…Let’s come back to that.

Contrast this with Gearbox’s approach.  Now don’t get me wrong – I’m no fan of Gearbox in general.  The Borderlands series has yet to produce a game that couldn’t be summarized as “meh” and Randy Pitchford makes the No Man’s Sky dev team look honest and capable.  But from everything I’ve heard, Gearbox is one of the best game companies to work at if you’re a writer.  They really let their writing teams craft their own story and worlds with very little outside influence, and even if I don’t always enjoy the stories they end up telling, at least you know there’s passion behind them.  Somebody cared about them.  With Battleborn, I really think they finally nailed it.

There isn’t a single Battleborn character who’s one-dimensional.  They might seem that way at first: Oscar Mike is the generic shooter guy, Rath is just the Reaper-style edgelord, et cetera. Even if you only play the multiplayer their banter shows that they have a lot more personality.  Oscar Mike, for example, turns out to be a really sensitive and scared clone trying to figure out his place in the world.  While Rath is an edgy vampire, he’s also a parody of himself, a gentle jab at the ridiculousness of characters like Reaper.  Overwatch never has any of that cleverness or subversion.  It’s just one of the warboys from Mad Max and an angsty guy in a skull mask and a cowboy – okay, seriously, cowboy, WHY?  Forget going on a deeper level of characterization, let’s talk about the surface level of explaining why a character exists in a world.

Overwatch doesn’t care about that.  Overwatch is a machine for money, with a handful of popular archetypes designed to appeal to enough people to help make that money.  On that note, can we please stop acting like the game is somehow progressive in its character design?  Sure, Blizzard finally realized that dark-skinned characters exist, but considering that they gave the Egyptian character Native American costumes I don’t think they have even a fourth-grade understanding of how race works.  All the stuff about there being LGBT characters, or about Mei being chubby?  All in your head. Sorry to say.  Seriously, if Overwatch was your introduction to Blizzard games, look up Sarah Kerrigan or some of the history of World of Warcraft and see how much they really care about strong female characters or being progressive.

Meanwhile, Battleborn‘s main character is canonically a black lesbian, who ends up in a relationship with another of the female characters.  There are multiple characters of color, canonically non-binary characters, a really wide array of body types. You know what’s really refreshing?  There is not a single female character who’s sexualized.  Forget over-sexualized – none of them are sexual at all, because they’re too busy fighting a goddamn war.  I can’t remember another game where there wasn’t at least the option to dress a female protagonist in some gross super-revealing costume.

Maybe you think that games don’t need to be more progressive, and that’s certainly not an issue I want to get into in this video, but I think it speaks to the larger disparity in both games’ character designs.  Blizzard’s doing what games have always done.  Gearbox is doing something new.

This brings us nicely to the gameplay.  Overwatch features control points, payload, control points WITH payload, and king of the hill; all game modes which have been staples of multiplayer shooters since 2007.  Once you’ve played the ludicrously sparse collection of maps once with each character, something which takes about two hours, you’ve experienced everything the game has to offer.

Battleborn, on the other hand, does something so many other companies have tried and failed to do: made MOBAs fun.  Now listen, I’ve sunk tons of hours into DoTA 2, League of Legends, and Blizzard’s own Heroes of the Storm, and while I understand and respect that to a lot of people they’re a lot of fun, I’ve always found them to be frustrating.  Battleborn makes MOBA gameplay accessible to a shooter fan like me; blending the two into something that’s both familiar and new.  With lots of different strategies to consider, more heroes than Overwatch, more ways to upgrade those heroes, gear to unlock, loadouts, and more maps and modes at time of writing, Battleborn is a game I’ve played for hundreds of hours without feeling like I’ve experienced all the content. I was done with Overwatch after a couple of hours of playing on a friend’s computer.

Oh, and that picture you’ve seen of the horribly crowded user interface?  It’s from the beta with every UI option turned on and isn’t remotely indicative of the final product.

Did this video make you…angry?  Did you feel like it compared the games based on “how much like Battleborn is Overwatch” and ignored the fact that people can have different opinions and like different games?  Well, now you know what it’s like to be a Battleborn fan.  And at least you can close this video, open Overwatch, and get into a game.  I have to wait until Gearbox finally gives up and makes the thing free-to-play in the hope that attracts more players.  In the meantime, I still believe that Battleborn is an absolute honest-to-goodness masterpiece that deserves to be counted among the best games of 2016 and the best multiplayer shooters of all time.  At the very least, it deserved better than it got.  That’s my professional opinion.

Also, though humor is subjective, Battleborn has the strength of being really funny, while the funniest thing about Overwatch is this sentence from the Wikipedia page:

overwatch-fandom

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct GamerSyndrome.com with years of experience writing for and about games.

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