I find it quite interesting that the two best episodes, in terms of pacing and design, are the two first ones, that were also in the open beta. It is likely because Gearbox spent the most time on these ones, and if that is true, it shows. Looking back, it is a tragedy that we were not given a chance to test and critique some of the poorer missions a long time ago, when they could have been changed and made better.
So, why are these the best two episodes and why are quite a few others tedious and, in my opinion, poorly designed?
Let’s focus on The Algorithm, since I think it is the best overall. In this episode, you continually advance through the mission while the antagonist, Magnus ISIC, taunts you and sends hordes of minions after you. It has some of the best dialogue and since you know something about ISIC as he is playable, it feels more involved and he is more engaging as a villain. There are three boss fights on the way to Magnus ISIC (H3nchm4n, Geoff, The Galactic Emperor), all of which have different mechanics and serve to break up the episode nicely. I am glad Gearbox took the criticism of players well and made The Galactic Emperor fight less tedious, as that was the only major flaw. Magnus ISIC himself is pretty neat as far as bosses in Battleborn goes, as he has some raid mechanics not seen in most boss fights which are generally just straight up brawls. The generally bad boss fights is another thread, though.
I feel the best part is probably the bridge fight, which places your team at one end and a good mix of minions between you and the objective, including some snipers up in the towers. It manages to be tactically interesting without forcing a team to defend anything in waves. And that is one of the main keys: you are always advancing, not waiting around, not mindlessly killing waves of enemies. It feels more like a dungeon crawl, and this is where Gearbox went wrong with almost half of the missions in the game by making them “defend” missions.
The Regenade/Experiment/Saboteur feel slow, plodding, and tedious. They also feel largely like copies of one another, particularly since three missions like these out of eight total is far too high of a mix. Is there fun to be had? Sure! But looking at them in the context of a mission like The Algorithm, they feel lazy. Move the players from one spot to another, make them fight it out for a few waves, and repeat. It doesn’t help that the villains in these episodes are abysmal (Jailer Hylis is a terribly boring fight, The Experiment’s Conservator is lacklustre, and Foreman Grall just shows up without developing any narrative).
Gearbox needs to focus on providing more episodes that have a flow to them, with multiple, unique, and varied boss fights, snappy dialogue, and a villain with some personality that is developed as you progress. We have five more coming for sure, and I am hoping that at most one, preferably none, will be “defend” episodes. It is not like they cannot make good episodes - The Algorithm shows they can - but it is going to mean they are going to have to put the design effort in. It is easier to make an episode that recycles bosses or has only one, reuses combat arenas, and pads the time out with waves of enemies. However, what is easier is also boring, and given how often I see people vote for The Algorithm when it comes up I think it is telling that this episode is the most effective and thus should be more what Gearbox goes for.