LawBreakers (LB) is the first project from “legendary” game designer CliffyB and his newfound company Boss Key Productions, so it goes without saying the outspoken studio head and Twitter comedian has some pretty big expectations to meet after departing Epic Games and the Gears of War series. Having spent time with LB since its first alpha tests, I’ve witnessed it come into its own as a genuinely unique competitive first-person shooter worth losing yourself in if you’ve got a penchant for the ballet of comedic destruction that is multiplayer shooting. While frequently compared to Blizzard’s 800-pound gorilla, Overwatch, as well as upcoming hybrid arena shooter, Quake: Champions, LB is a more aggressive and pernicious beast. LB derives its inspiration from odd corners of the gaming landscape and into an often overwhelmingly fast experience that will quickly get its claws into you if speed is more important to you than tactical deliberation. Its game modes, twisted renditions of genre staples like CTF or Domination, are potent breeding grounds for canny strategy and see-sawing dynamics. It’s had a few problems with matchmaking and low-player counts, along with issues of taste and character – but dammit, you should play it anyway.
LB’s story and its central theme is right there in the title, in characteristically tawdry fashion. Anything less from the man responsible for such dignified phrases like “Nothin’ but bits!!” and “THAT’S FIVE MOTHERF*CKER!!!” from his previous games would be a gross disappointment. Never change, Cliff, never change. At a point in the distant future, the laws of gravity on earth have been broken by a calamitous incident on the moon – resulting in the planetary satellite splitting in two. The ‘law’ also refers to the side of the police who are locked mortal conflict with the ‘breakers’ – criminals. It’s stupidly simple, and aside from the glib pun of the title, you’d be hard pressed to get to know anything about the world or characters from playing the game.
It’s also important to note that LB was produced on what has marketed as a “AA” budget, meaning less money has been spent on marketing material than your typical major release. As such, LB doesn’t have any more than a singular “proof of concept” cinematic, or any web comics tying into its release to help flesh out the world and characters like in Overwatch. To me, this isn’t an issue, but the folks over at Blizzard know that keeping players invested in their games means more than giving them fun things to do. People expect to able to identify with the digital action figures they use to dismember, puncture and brutalise their friends with these days, and LB’s characters are lacking in the expected dimensions. They are, however, kinda funny. LB doesn’t do a great job of painting histories or relationships into banter between characters or use the world to tell of important events that have unfolded. Instead, characters will boast to themselves and belt out potty-mouthed, cheese-laden catchphrases. I like my cheese out in the open where I can smell it though, and the things they say are so gleefully dumb you’d be hard pressed to want to take any of it seriously.
LB differs in gameplay from its peers with a design philosophy focused less on MMO-ish roles and sub-classes and instead on characters who can keep up with consistently aggressive gunfights reminiscent of old school arena shooters. The founding design principle of this philosophy is the use of zero-gravity in each arena’s central zone. Once entered, players’ weapons and abilities can be used to accelerate themselves through these zone with exhilarating haste. There are also globes in this central zone with their own miniature gravitational fields to be used as slings or vantage points if you choose to float around their orbit. The primary means of getting yourself places quickly is the universal blind-fire ability – hold down the button (left control on PC), and your current weapon will boot you through the air when in low-grav, or mid-air in other zones. Yes, you can damage other players with blind-fire, but you’ll need precognition or a boatload of Adderall to come close to pulling it off. Add on top of this double jumps, sprints, leaps, dashes, grapnels, jetpacks and hover-packs depending on which class you choose, and you have a level of freedom in how you navigate a map that will have strafe jumpers and Tribes-skiing champions of old salivating at the bit. For everyone else, LB literally is faster and zanier in how it moves than any shooter you’ve ever played.
Outside of the assured chaos of the central zones, the individual mechanics of each character gets to shine, and firefights take on different dynamics. There are nine classes in LB, with one character for each faction, so 18 characters in total but only nine sets of abilities/weapons. The classes are Titan, Enforcer, Gunslinger, Assassin, Vanguard, Wraith, Harrier, Battle Medic and the Juggernaut. Every class is fitted with three abilities aside from their weapons; each fitting into a fundamental purpose and operated on a cooldown timer. One will be a traversal ability, whether that be a sprint, a ground-pounding leap, a dash, slide etc. The next is the equivalent of a tactical piece of equipment that helps with crowd control, and often affecting enemies’ abilities, or in the case of the battle medic and harrier, laying down support. Lastly is an ultimate ability, often taking the form of a devastating attack or very useful support ability. Additionally, everyone’s basic melee attack is a kick replete with a customisable boot sticker to demean your enemies with upon landing a killing blow with it. So far, so very hero-shooter. However, as I mentioned earlier, LB’s classes are a bit unconventional; more so with the traversal dynamics thrown in.
The Titan and Juggernaut are tanks, yes, but the situational mutability of LB’s gravity dynamics means that the rocket-wielding Titan can go from a slow-moving sentry to functioning as aerial artillery in low gravity, moving quick enough to be difficult to aim at. The Juggernaut’s shotgun and armour-enhancing ultimate outwardly makes him good for defensive in-fighting, as does his extra melee attack (used for fighting-game like quick-string combos), but his traversal mechanic allows him to both sprint and make heroic leaps, making him also viable as a hit and run attacker when executing a well-planned flank. The level of mobility the sneakier, squishier classes have then is just insane, but not to the point of imbalance. The assassin can literally swing around and under the void-filled boundaries of each map and the Wraith has a slide kick that will reset his triple jump, allowing him to travel the length of entire map in seconds when used skillfully. Lastly, there are no real support classes in LB, as both the Battle Medic and Harrier are fitted with enough offensive ability as to make them both consistently viable even in the most heated scuffles in most matches. Whatever preconceptions you have about player classes in shooters, LB will likely defy them, and you’ll love it. Trying each class for the first time and trying to find your feet is a simple joy, but know that as odd as this bunch of classes is, there is more than enough variety here for everyone to find something that suits them.
One bone of contention that’s hard to disagree with is the level design, which, unfortunately, fits the ‘kitchen-sink’ mould where each map has to support every game mode, and some do this better than others. As mentioned earlier, the game types are variations on CTF and Domination modes. Of the CTF types, the two best are Overcharge and Blitzball. In Overcharge, both teams vie for possession of a single battery, which then needs to brought back to their base to charge to score. Once fully charged, the battery needs to be held in your team’s base for twenty seconds. The catch is that if the enemy team gains possession of the battery, the charge remains and they can pick up where your team left off. The potential of last minute upsets and dramatic clutch plays in this mode are consistently heart-in-throat type moments and will keep you coming back for more. Blitzball is grid-iron with guns and is by far the fastest mode, as well as the easiest to be overwhelmed in if your team isn’t working in unison. On the Domination type front is Turf War, and this is your typical three zone game type, with one simple twist used to encourage more desperate tactics and aggressive approaches. All three zones are opened up in time restrained rounds, and once captured, a zone is then locked out from possession to the other team. It only takes about ten seconds to capture a zone with a pair of players, so rounds move quickly. Once the round has ended, a short intermission follows and allows players to reposition themselves in preparation for the next round. It may sound contemplative, but this mode moves at such a clip your hands will be shaking with adrenaline once you come through the thick of it. Once you’ve tried these game types, you’ll wonder why nobody tried to make them staples in other major shooters before.
Speed. Aggression. Desperation. Potty-mouth. These are hallmarks of an older, often nostalgically idealised generation of shooters. LawBreakers brings these ideals into form with the expected complexity and dynamism of a modern competitive shooter and succeeds in creating shootouts that, once experienced, can’t be compared to anything else. I’d say I was addicted, but unfortunately, it has been tough finding matches in LawBreakers with any regularity. Not enough people have bought the game, and there are so many other shooter time-sinks out there that people may already be attached to, they might wonder why they should bother. Because it’s so damn fun, is why. Even without an exciting world or memorable characters, or the most consistently excellent level design, it will still leave you with white knuckles, and your neighbours pissed at all the smack-talk you’ve been making into the wee hours of the morning. Get your mates to get a copy, and get fragging.