E3: How 'Battleborn' was borne of 'Borderlands' cosplay

“Battleborn” gets crazy before the first sword is thrown. Or before the first gun is fired. Or before the first top hat is flipped. Or before the first spell is cast by the quadrupled-armed “chaos witch.” Or before the first mushroom-shaped creature -- a “combat botanist” -- unleashes a cloud of spores.

“Battleborn” is a first-person shooter, essentially. Early glimpses of the game have had some saying its five-on-five multiplayer matches and character progression system more resemble an online battle arena game. Both are right. Neither captures the full breadth of the game, whose campaign can be played alone, or with up to five friends.

“Battleborn,” ultimately, is about characters.

In development by Gearbox for release later this year for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PCs, “Battleborn” is bright, and doesn’t take itself -- or its characters -- too seriously. As far as the game’s large cast goes, its personalities are outlandish. They need to be, for the tone of the game is slightly cartoon-ish. Think more Adult Swim than Saturday morning, but definitely not offensive.

Take Rath. Rath is a red-eyed, deep-chinned swordsman who dresses like an armored vampire. Or Phoebe, a blond-haired heiress with a glowing golden sword and magical abilities. Players can also fight as Marquis d’Caliber, who used to be Phoebe’s butler and today has a pet mechanical owl, or Boldur, a grumpy alien dwarf who insists upon fighting with an ax.

Yes, guns are here, too, but bullets don’t necessarily lead to bloodshed. Instead, there’s often a crystallized glow and a tally of points when an enemy is struck. It’s a look that feels ripped from an arcade from the '80s, and tonally, it’s a definite change of pace for Gearbox Software, the studio behind sarcastic, shoot-up-everything bonanza that is the “Borderlands” franchise.

“This is the game that I'm going to play with my nephews,” says Gearbox VP Steve Gibson.

“I'm not allowed to actually mention ratings, but I'm going to play with my nephews,” he says. “I'm really proud to be able to do that. I feel like this is a game I can share with anybody from any age range. It's not really the intent. It wasn't a conscious choice. It just kind of evolved as we were building this ridiculous universe. It feels like it's more accessible.”

It's a tad corny. Characters, for instance, will make a large door for a computer. The story is rather simple. It’s essentially a large fight to protect the last star of the universe from falling into the wrong hands. But the premise is just an excuse, a reasoning to give the game’s initial 25 characters a reason to run around and cause chaos.

As far as its comic book look, characters are all sorts of out of proportion, as some are big headed with tiny waists, and others have tiny heads and big waists. Gibson credits art director Scott Kestor for imagining a sector of the galaxy in which witches and robots can be seen as the norm. It looks less realistic and more like action figures sprung to life. Hair on some characters, for instance, has a vivid plastic sheen.

“We have a space vampire samurai guy, and we have a mushroom healer guy and Gundam robotech guy,” Gibson says. “We need to imagine an art style where any of these could be suitable and differentiated from each other. That meant the straight-up super realistic art style was out of the question. Can't do that. It also meant that we needed something that could show a high contrast between these guys.”

The inspiration for making a character-focused shooter game came from the success of “Borderlands,” Gibson says. “Borderlands” has its share of over-the-top personalities, and Gibson says the company was surprised to learn that the cast for such a tongue-in-cheek violent game was striking a chord with the cosplay community.

Some of the most popular faces in "Borderlands" aren’t even playable characters, such as one of the titles in-game hosts, Mad Moxxi. Gibson says the way fans took to a character like Moxxi gave the company the idea to beef emphasize personalities.

“We felt like the thing that people attached to most were the characters in 'Borderlands.' If you go to a trade show, be it Dragoncon or PAX, the amount of people who cosplay as 'Borderlands' characters is honestly disproportionate to the number of copies we've sold,” Gibson says. “There's way more people who bought 'Call of Duty,' but our characters are really resonating people. So, I think we're pretty good at that. What if we do even more?”

Surely more is coming. There will be 25 playable characters when the game launches, 10 of which have been unveiled. The wackiest, promises Gibson, have yet to come. So, weirder than a mushroom-faced character?

“When we show off the next 15, there's some creepy stuff. The crazy is still coming.”


Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times