It’s a close game of Blitz Ball, one of the game modes in Boss Key Productions’ LawBreakers. Each team of five must fight over a ball that spawns in the middle of the map and carry it across the opposing team’s goal and right now I’m trailing behind a rather zippy Assassin class player that is sprinting towards the end point. I’m playing a Juggernaut character, and am a bit slower. Using the class’ sprint ability is keeping the runner in sight, but I’m not catching up enough to be able to stop and take a shot. The ball carrier is close, with only a corridor a few feet long left to go. The ball itself is sentient and literally calling out for help. Thinking quickly, I toss up a barrier directly in front of the two of us. It stops him dead in his tracks (I didn’t know it could do that!). I heard an exclamation confusion, which I promptly cut short with a couple of shotgun blasts. A good multiplayer competitive shooter provides ample opportunities for moments like this. A great one is designed so that these moments are what sticks in the player’s mind over any frustrating missteps and mistakes that were made. LawBreakers is a great one.
Cliff Bleszinski, the gaming mastermind most known for the Gears of War series, had taken some time off from the industry to relax with his riches. Apparently, that gets rather dull in short order and he has decided to come back. The concept of LawBreakers was a driving force behind this decision. The idea of gunplay in zero gravity appealed to him and that is one of the major differentiating factors in this entry. Each stage has a large pocket of space where gravity doesn’t apply. Jumping carries the player up, and using blind fire to shoot behind the back propels the player forward. Hilariously, this works in reverse, something that was discovered when mowing down a player to the front, only to be propelled well over the side of the map.
The pockets of low gravity is an interesting enough concept, but more needs to be done to give this game its own feel. What Boss Key went with was emphasizing skill over everything else. Other competitive titles of this ilk offer a certain degree of forgiveness, be it with hit boxes, aiming assist (even on PC) or the ability to soak up the bullets before it’s just one mistake too many. Here, aiming depends entirely on the player, rocket jumping requires precision and even the most heavily armored character can be cut down in less than a second under concentrated fire. This might seem normal to the Counter-Strike set, but the aesthetic and gameplay feels closer to a mixture of Quake and Overwatch than a true tactical combat shooter. This is what truly gives LawBreakers its own unique taste.
The Overwatch comparison is apt, whether intentional or not on the developer’s part. There are a total of eight classes, with two characters per class, one for the Law side and the other for the Breakers. Each class goes in with two abilities tied to either a short cool down period or a fuel meter. Items like the Harrier’s laser boots (which are rocket boots where the back blast comes in the form of lasers) or a Vanguard’s throwing out a handful of micro explosives help to give each character their own flair, and can easily trip up an enemy. There is also a primary ability, much like Overwatch‘s ultimates, that can change the tide of a match completely. Many of the heroes come with secondary weapons and all weapons have an alt fire.
Utilizing all of these moves could become overwhelming, but the developers stuck closely with the established control mechanics on PC. Everything works smoothly and exactly as one would expect with each action easily at hand. The PlayStation 4 version does suffer slightly in this regard. The addition of the “behind the back blind fire” move is important for this game, but it is also the one extra input that falls off of the amount of easily reached buttons. By default, this move is down on the D-pad. This can be changed, but some sacrifice is going to be made.
This isn’t the only sacrifice that the PS4 version makes. A game like this, where movement can change based on whether or not the player is inside a zero gravity space and based on the abilities the character class has, requires quite a bit of practice to pull off some of the more skillful maneuvers that will earn the edge. The PC version does pack in a sandbox mode for precisely this reason, allowing the player to practice, while Sony’s console is left by the wayside. Yes, these are skills that can be gained over many hours of playing the game, but the chance to master them without worrying about becoming a stain on the wall is something that renders the console version inferior.
LawBreakers doesn’t skimp on the gameplay modes. The various game types help to avoid the potential of tedium that can lead to player drop off. Of the many, my personal favorite is the previously mention Blitz Ball, which is kind of like football with guns or without any of those wimpy “downs.” There is also a turf battle mode where players vie to take control of three points on the map. This might sound familiar, but once the point is taken, it’s locked and cannot be retaken by the opposing team. Once all points are taken, a short intermission takes place where players jockey for position to try to take the points again. This keeps going until the point limit is reached. For those that are interested in this mode, but prefer to just get right to the “chaotic mosh pit” part, there is Occupy. Basically a King of the Hill mode, each team runs to a point on the map in hopes of being the only team inside of it. The points are earned by keeping the other team out. Then the point disappears and spawns elsewhere on the map. Apparently, the in studio name for that play type is “Cluster%^&*” as it used to play havoc on framerates as everyone tries to occupy the same space.
The final two modes come in the form of Overcharge and Uplink. These are quite similar. Overcharge requires each team to capture the sole battery and take it back to their base while it charges. So it becomes Capture the Flag and morphs into a defend (or offend) mission. Uplink is the same in concept, except the base becomes the “battery.” The team captures a satellite dish and runs it back to base where a download starts. If the dish is captured by the opposing team, the base maintains the data that has been downloaded. So, if one team steals the dish from the opposing team’s base, the progress that opposing team won’t get lost, even if a point is stolen. Between the Overcharge and Uplink, the latter is much more interesting to play, as there is a better chance for an underdog team to make a comeback.
Part of the reason that titles that rely solely on multiplayer can maintain lasting power comes in the form of a reward system and LawBreakers packs a familiar one: Stash Boxes granted each time the player “levels up.” Each of these crates, appropriately adorned with a handlebar mustache, yields four cosmetic items (or in-game currency) to customize the player and characters. Items such as animated account portraits, character skins, weapon skins and stickers to slap on the weapons are unlocked via these crates or purchased with currency. There is no microtransaction system in place at launch. I did inquire about this and received this response: “LawBreakers features a variety of cosmetic-only items (weapon/character skins, stickers, account portraits and more) that are provided via in-game ‘Stash Drops’. Stash Drops are awarded to players naturally by playing the game and progressing through levels, or purchased in a variety of quantities. ‘Soft Currency’ is also in LawBreakers, and this in-game currency can be used to purchase specific cosmetics. The Soft Currency is only awarded via Stash Drops or when a player gets a duplicate item in a Stash Drop, the soft currency value is added to the player’s account.”
Personally, I would prefer a system where the player levels up the character, opening up progressively more extravagant options. This allows the player to become more invested in that character type and can add a bit of a psychological component. Seeing an opposing player with a high level skin that you know they earned will instill an element of fear and respect when compared to “oh, that person got lucky when they opened a box.”
One element that could have used a bit more work comes in the form of character personality. As someone who disliked Overwatch‘s style of play, I could at least concede that the characters were indelibly interesting. LawBreakers has the opposite problem, though it’s not from a lack of trying. The heroes are prone to spout one of a handful of one-liners during the course of a match, which becomes grating rather than endearing. Attempts were made to create a unique look for each hero, too, and that is reflected further in the many different skins available. Yet, I cannot remember the name of any of the heroes available despite all the time I spent with this title. Fortunately, the classes themselves are much more memorable, which is more important.
The final quibble comes in the form of the map design. Designing maps that are fair for each team, and works with the game modes, cannot be an easy task. The maps here do pull it off. Still, though, while they work, they aren’t interesting in general, relying heavily on symmetrical design with a large space in the middle. There is one that plays around with a large gap between the rest of the map and where the battery, ball or satellite uplink spawns. Beyond that, it feels like Boss Key played it just a tad too safe. Fortunately, the gameplay and gravity mechanics makes up the difference.
With eight different classes that feel completely unique from each other, and the zero gravity mechanics that can yield firefights the likes of which have not truly been seen before, LawBreakers makes a mark of its own in an increasingly crowded genre. Character action shooters aren’t in short supply right now, but this one absolutely deserves attention. The high skill threshold and the interplay between classes actually makes this the first game I’d be willing to watch in eSports. This is despite the developers not pushing the envelope in other areas. Considering there are untold amounts of quality gaming to be found here at a reasonable launch price, LawBreakers is an easy recommendation for anyone that truly wants a competitive game with which to test their mettle.