Battleborn and Overwatch got compared to each other right up until the launch of the former, and it wasn’t really fair to either of them. They may both be first-person shooters, but they attempt wildly different things: Battleborn wants to bring the breadth of styles and permutations of MOBAs to the shooter crowd, while Overwatch takes Team Fortress 2’s frantic teamplay and modernizes it with a larger cast. Overwatch lures you in with its simplicity while Battleborn flaunts its intricacy.
But there’s one area where they both attempt the same thing but take drastically different approaches: getting you to fall in love with their roster of playable characters. And this is where Battleborn most disappointingly fails and Overwatch most brilliantly succeeds.
Both games need you to fall in love with their characters for them to really hook you. They need you to look at the character select screen and see a character you identify with, because the hours you might need to put in to really learn anyone one of them go by faster if you’re having fun just being that character, and in this case, style can inform substance. If you identify with Battleborn’s Phoebe, for example, you might like her look but not how she plays. But after a few matches as her, you might eventually learn how her abilities coalesce and make her unique. This is especially important in Battleborn, where you can’t swap characters and the matches last longer.
Here’s the rub, though. Liking a character is the first step towards buying into the fiction of a competitive game. I don’t mean that you go all-in on wiki entries and such once you realize that you like the way Mei looks or plays. But you do build a small connection to them, and after a while you might be more inclined to learn how she fits into the game’s overall narrative, pulling you further into the game’s world and investing you in it, which might ultimately keep you playing.
Battleborn creates a distance that makes these connection harder to maintain. Like in developer Gearbox’s previous Borderlands series, dialogue between characters and backstories use a lot of modern colloquialisms and terminology.
This undercuts a lot of the underlying gravity of the game. The premise, to cut it short, is that bad guys are threatening to destroying the universe’s only remaining star, and the Battleborn are the only thing to stop that from happening. It’s a grave situation on paper, as even with their inevitably end in sight, factions fight amongst themselves over how to make the best out of a bad situation. But you wouldn’t get that vibe from the story-mode missions. Characters speak not as though they’re fighting over the last remnants of the universe, but as though they’re all roleplaying that scenario. The longest-running joke in Battleborn is “wouldn’t it be funny if the characters reacted casually to world-threatening scenarios?”
This writing occasionally works because Battleborn’s overall tone is lighter than your average shooter’s. But the way Battleborn lightens things up does it a disservice. The navel-gazing humor (like a bit where they talk about how cool a laser grid is as they’re trying to break through it) sounds like comedians doing a bit on Saturday Night Live. Somehow I doubt these characters would be so dispassionate about their situation that they would focus how cool a laser grid is rather than trying to get around it. It’s as though the writers decided to get the cast of Rifftrax to watch the version of the story where all the characters play it straight, then added those jokes to the game itself. They seem to care more about the making jokes than the world they’ve built.
It’s a style of comedy we’ve seen come back in vogue in comedy and sci-fi films (see: Guardians of the Galaxy and the trailer for Ghostbusters). But remember; Battleborn is a multiplayer shooter where you have to connect with the characters for the whole thing to click. And Battleborn doesn’t do enough to humanize its characters outside of those jokes. The game spends too much time laughing at itself and not enough building those connections, so its characters seem less nuanced, likable, and identifiable. I might like how Phoebe plays and looks, but when I imagine myself as her, it doesn’t click.
Contrast that to Overwatch, which plays its premise, characters, and world almost painfully straight. As a game, it doesn’t have any “story content,” but Blizzard has released a number of video shorts highlighting the characters. They don’t have the same edge or awareness that Battleborn’s story do. Rather than try to connect with a jaded, sci-fi fan community by joking about their own use of sci-fi tropes, the shorts embrace the most naive and hopeful version of its fiction.
The latest short, highlighting Soldier 76, could have easily been the lead-in to the latest Pixar film. Its flavor is doe-eyed and sincere, following a girl who sees a group of punks beating up a robot, has her purse stolen, and ultimately saved by Soldier. It’s ultimately marketing material, but you could use it to teach kids a valuable lesson about the dangers of peer pressure.
These shorts, along with the orchestral swells in the game’s music, the typeface of the menus, and the themepark-attraction-look of most of the maps give you the feeling of taking part in a grand spectacle. Characters in the shorts and in-game make jokes, but they never poke fun at how ridiculous the whole premise is. In fact, the shorts take the Incredibles-esque plot rather seriously. And by hiding easter eggs in those videos to make people dig through the videos frame-by-frame and stringing the plot of the shorts together, it encourages players to spend more time thinking about the characters and plot of their world.
Is the whole thing a bit cheesy? Absolutely. The ideas Overwatch plays with are hardly revolutionary. Its earnestness makes it ripe for the exact kind of riffing and self-awareness Battleborn goes for. But Overwatch uses these hammy videos to sell you its fiction for the sake of fostering those crucial connections with individual characters. In his short, Soldier 76 comes off as a bit of a tragic figure, which changes your perception of the character when you actually play as him in Overwatch.
That’s what Battleborn fails to do well; by coating its world in a thick layer of sarcasm and clever wit, it prevents you from putting yourself in the shoes of the characters you play. When I play Battleborn, I feel apprehensive about liking any one character too much, because I feel like the game would just make another joke out of me. Battleborn wants to be above its conventional premise — Overwatch relishes in it. And that’s how the latter gets you to keep playing: by selling you that cheesy fantasy every match.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who totally ships Phoebe/Mercy. He’s written for Zam, Playboy, Paste, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter.