A new Gearbox Software game. Brand new. No numbers following the title, or any nonsensical subtitles oh, hey Borderlands: The Pre Sequel, didn't see you there. This is a completely blank slate for the Texan developer, a chance to flex its creative muscles and pursue a vision without worrying about upsetting existing fans. The result? A five player co-op, competitive multiplayer RPG,MOBA,shooter by the name of Battleborn. And not a Claptrap in sight.

You’re confused. How would such a barrage of genres play as one experience? Is it like Borderlands ? What in cel-shaded Hades is a MOBA ? In that order, and briefly: we don’t know yet, a little bit, and Multiplayer Online Battle Arena a scaled down strategy game in which you control just one character working in a small team. What we  do know is that in amongst that divisive art style that seems to be targeting a youngish demographic is a game with some exciting ideas that’s still, at heart, a shooter.

The setup: the distant future. Terrible, nasty idiots known as the Varelsi have extinguished all but one star in the universe for reasons best known to themselves. With almost all organic life eradicated, heroic types from across the galaxy gather in the last habitable corner of space and join forces against the Varelsi, hoping to stop them before they snuff out the last star, Solus. They are… *turns dramatically to face the camera* …the Battleborn.
Okay, it’s safe to say Gearbox isn’t trying to out Dickens Dickens with this game, but the backstory does at least tee up one of Battleborn’s most important elements: its massive roster of playable characters. We’ve seen just a handful so far: Rath the quasi-vampire, walking bicep depository Montana, and Marquis the gentleman death-bot join a mushroom, a combat droid, and an elfish lady with a thing for bows in this pre pre alpha version.

While all characters have broadly the same combat options one primary attack and a couple of specials the variation between attack types and equipment is huge. Montana is shamelessly lifted (presumably using an industrial crane) from Team Fortress 2 and its Heavy, carrying with him a minigun the size of King Kong’s pepper mill. He’s packing Hailstorm ammo for a special attack that slows enemies, and has an ultimate ability called Mansformation which transforms him into a hulking great juggernaut for close range damage.

Conversely, the aforementioned mushroom Miko’s attacks are largely spore-based, either sending out a spray of toxic fungus or deploying healing mushroom matter to help out allies. His ultimate ability, Fungus Among Us, does both simultaneously. Each of the other characters is as different again, which makes combat in Battleborn resemble a hybrid of Valve’s TF2 and BASEketball. Weaponised objects of varying absurdity fly this way and that, abilities form domes over their affected areas… it’s quite something to behold.

Rather than the wide open spaces of Borderlands, Battleborn’s actual battles take place in arenas, connected in the larger game world via corridors that allow time for a spot of banter between teammates. And as you might expect from Gearbox at this point, the banter is right on the mark. It’s hard to be genuinely funny in a videogame, and Battleborn does it without coming across as try-hard. But its unique approach to level design, along with the pacing of enemy appearances, is markedly different to PlayStation’s current crop of shooters, and it’ll take many hours of play to determine whether this experimental blending of FPS and MOBA genuinely works to create something better than both.

Battleborn’s combination of long-term and mid round character levelling will also play a big part in that experiment. In every battle you gain points to spend in the Helix Menu, offering a binary choice between more ammo or faster running speed active for that one skirmish. Above that there’s a deeper, persistent upgrade path to chip away at long term, and above that there’s a long game to be played in upgrading yourself, the holder of all these characters, to get perks that benefit all your Battleborn.

We’re not really sure who this game is for right now there’s a suggestion of depth and strategy that’ll appeal to the hardcore, but a danger they could be turned off by the Pixar-esque art direction (we’re 50/50 in the office) and the fact that they’re throwing a mechanical owl at a fighting mushroom. It’s very early days for the project, and there’s plenty of time for it to find its footing as Borderlands did
over a protracted development period. Gearbox’s last game might have disappointed (hi, Aliens), but this has so many new ideas we’re hopeful it’ll shine.