If the FPS was a middle aged male, it would currently be cheating on its wife, considering investing in a bright yellow sportscar, and simultaneously experimenting with combinations of boyish perfume and Just For Men.
To say the genre is having a mid-life crisis would be an understatement, and LawBreakers is arriving at a period when ability-based mechanics are being toted as an anti-ageing antidote for one of gaming’s oldest genres.
So, along with the likes of Paragon, Overwatch and Battleborn, LawBreakers adds a dash of MOBA mechanics to its shooty-shooty action. Unlike those other games, though, LawBreakers is being developed by Boss Key, the studio run by the notorious Cliff Bleszinki of Unreal Tournament and Gears of War fame.
So will it stand out in this suddenly overcrowded arena-shooter, umm, arena? I went hands-on to find out.
It's a class war
LawBreakers is set in a not-so-distant future where a catastrophe referred to as “The Shattering” has devastated the landscape and torn apart gravity itself.
Contrary to the laws of physics this may be, but it provides the game with its principal theme: that which goes up… will probably float there for a few seconds, career downward with a rocket-fuelled jetpack, and then explode.
All the classes of the game utilise some kind of gravity-based attack and the environments feature sections in which the normal laws of motion don’t apply.
During the demo four of these gravity-bending classes were available to play: Titan, Enforcer, Assassin, and Vanguard, each sporting their own set of unique talents.
Unlike a game such as Black Ops III, in which the only real differences between classes are their single activated abilities, every member of the cast of LawBreakers is designed to play very differently to every other.
The Titan is a hulking tank with a hefty health bar and the power to slam the ground with terrible force, whereas the Assassin is a melee glass cannon who can swing her way quickly across the map using an electric lasso. Each possesses a primary and secondary weapon as well as three other attacks that are mapped to shift, Q, and E.
Healer? Who needs a healer?
Classes include the Titan, Enforcer, Assassin and Vanguard - but there's no healer
In most class-based team shooters every class has a highly specific purpose. In Team Fortress 2, for instance, the medic heals, the heavy pushes objectives, and the engineer fortifies locations. The makeup of classes in LawBreakers feels less directly focused on the objective of the game and more related to just doing super awesome kablammy death stuff.
Every class is offensive and ultimately designed to create as much carnage as possible, whether it’s the Enforcer’s Bloodhound Launcher, which fires heat-seeking rockets, or the Titan’s Berserk mode, which allows him to fire streams of deadly electricity. At this stage of development, LawBreakers doesn’t even feature a healer class, instead players can only top up their health at healing stations dotted around the map.
As a result, LawBreakers feels far more like a traditional arena shooter than any of the other MOBA-influenced ilk out there.
Running and gunning at it's finest, there
Upon release LawBreakers will feature multiple game modes, but I was only able to try my hand at one: Overcharge.
The mode’s basic premise is a lot like king of the hill, but with a twist: the hill moves. In the centre of the map is a battery that teams must seize and return to their base - so far, so capture the flag. But when the battery is secured in either team’s compound it slowly charges, climbing from zero to 100%. Once full charged is reached, the first team to hold the battery for twenty continuous seconds wins.
What that means is that it doesn’t matter which side charged the battery, just who manages to keep it for long enough once the 100% charge mark has been reached. The win is always up for grabs, then, as there is always the possibility that some wonderfully devious player on your team will slip in, snag the battery and scuttle away.
Honestly, this unpredictability makes for a refreshing change. In many modes in many other games (Payload in Team Fortress 2 for example) victory or defeat can be seen a mile away. Overcharge keeps the tension high and the anguished expletives on standby. “Bring that battery back you [expletive deleted]!”
Death strikes from above
A lot of attacks come from above, and that can be a bit annoying
Because of its gravity-bending shenanigans LawBreakers is a more vertical affair than other shooters. I spent the majority of my in-game time in the shoes of the Assassin, who can use her high mobility to reach vantage points and then blade-strike from above.
The Vanguard class must also constantly consider height for the use of their ultimate attack, Starfall, which causes them to career toward the ground with shattering force. Height is almost always advantageous.
Whilst it’s great fun to plunge downward on an unsuspecting enemy, being on the receiving end of an attack from above can sometimes feel unfair. Shooters tend to respect the horizontal because that’s how human eyes scan the space in front of them - I’m unsure whether constant worry about threats from every conceivable angle adds to the fun factor or is just a source of stress.
The map I played has a large zero-gravity area, which sounds cool but was so tricky that most players avoided it entirely
LawBreakers even goes as far as to throw the rules of gravity to the wind completely in certain areas. The single map on which I played Overcharge was a Japanese reimagining of a fractured Grand Canyon, and featured a large zero-g bubble between the two bases.
Weightlessness and a first-person perspective are often awkward bed-fellows, and I found the same to be true here. Sometimes I managed an elegant hop from one side of the bubble to the other, but more often, especially during combat, I found myself desperately swivelling to find my opponents while simultaneously struggling to move myself in the desired direction.
I’m not the only one to struggle in this area: most of the other players during the hands-on session also tended to avoid the zero-g area completely. This definitely needs some design attention before the game’s release: having a signature feature that everyone actively avoids makes no sense at all.
"Esports? Don't talk to me about esports!"
Every aspiring multiplayer game these days feels the need to talk the esports talk as a matter of course, with promises of pro-gaming tournaments that will set the world aflame.
Boss Key Studios appears to have no such plans. Cliff himself very vocally banned the topic of conversation during our visit to the studio. Rather refreshingly, the company doesn’t seem to give a monkeys about pro-gamers, and is instead focused on making a fun, frenetic shooter, without the concerns of absolute game balance and pleasing spectator modes.
LawBreakers: the early verdict
So far Overwatch feels a more compelling game than LawBreakers, but there's time for that to change
LawBreakers is, as it stands, an odd mix of FPS tradition and the current zeitgeist. The game’s frenetic pacing and anti-gravity shenanigans deliver a distinct flavour of Unreal Tournament, which isn’t a huge surprise given the involvement of one of that game’s lead designers. But when it comes to the game’s ‘class-based’ aspects, I can’t help but feel that Blizzard’s upcoming shooter Overwatch is so far the more compelling offering, from character design to the inventiveness of its abilities.
I certainly enjoyed my time with LawBreakers and it’s got some very neat ideas, but since the hands-on session I haven’t found myself itching to get playing again.
It could yet become a must-have, though, and making ‘normal’ gamers the priority over the esports scene gives it the potential to be a mainstream hit - albeit only on PC for now. With any luck there’ll be an open beta before long so that we can all find out if it flies (maybe that should be ‘floats’) when unleashed on the masses.
If beta testing isn't your thing then you won't have too long to wait for the full LawBreakers package as the game is currently scheduled for a summer retail release, exclusively on Steam.