Last week I went down to Boss Key Productions in Raleigh, North Carolina to check out a pre-alpha build of their inaugural game Lawbreakers. For those not in the know, Boss Key Productions is a studio started by Cliff Bleszinski in 2014 after leaving EPIC games back in 2012. So as it’s CliffyB we are talking about here there is certainly a fair amount of hype.
What’s Lawbreakers About?
Lawbreakers is a first person arena or ‘hero’ shooter. And if that sounds familiar it’s because they are all the rage these days, with Gearbox’s Battleborn and Blizzard’s Overwatch arriving to market shortly. But Lawbreakers doesn’t quite follow in the same vein of these contemporaries. Instead of featuring a large stable of heroes to choose from, Lawbreakers takes a much more focused approach with a small number of different playable classes. I was able to see and play four of them and each one of these has two different associated characters, the ‘Law’ and the ‘Breakers’, which are meant to symbolize the light and the dark. When asked about this more focused take on the genre Cliff Bleszinski said,
“Less is more, as much as I love Overwatch, my first user experience with that is, holy shit, just give me the shooty guys. Let me learn a couple of those characters before you go to everything else. So the goal for us at least is to go deep with less characters, that way it’s also easier to spot who’s who.”
Cliff went on to hammer on the point that too many characters can lead to more confusion, and he wants Lawbreakers to be more “readable.” It’s a simplistic approach in a day and age where in game customization is staggering. For me it turned out to be exactly what I needed, as my inexperience with PC shooters should’ve left me overwhelmed but when all was said and done I was able to hold my own.
Before I get into the gameplay guts of Lawbreakers I want to talk about the history and story. The game takes place in a future earth, where an environmental incident called the shattering has occurred. This event caused earth’s gravity to go into flux. Lawbreakers will take us to real places, but reimagined in this dystopian future. Places like the Santa Monica Pier, Mount Rushmore, and the Grand Canyon, but all with a low gravity post-shattering take. Although this is a multiplayer only game, the locations are all used to tell the story, and when asked about it Cliff Bleszinki said,
“Basically we are learning a lot from Ken Levine and kind of the passive storytelling of Bioshock. Where you go in this room (and you ask) what happened here? You hear a PA announcement you see a sign; you see there’s a monument in the Santa Monica map to the shattering. The Ferris Wheel at the Santa Monica Pier has been re-imagined.”
Not only are the places unusual but so are the characters. Unlike the cutesier approach of a game like Overwatch, Lawbreaker’s is trying to appeal to an older audience. They are considerably more vulgar and mature. When talking about the character designs Cliff said,
“The tone is going to help separate us from the other games in the space right now, and (we are) going with something that is more mature, and seeing blood in 0 (gravity) which should be pretty interesting too. These are characters I aspire to play as in this kind of fiction, a DEA agent, an ex-con, Yakuza assassins, these are the characters I find cool. I think we can take these traditional archetypes and find way to twist them. Like take an assassin girl and her robot legs.”
The real thing that separates this world from our own is the gravity. Certain areas feature zero gravity pockets and it is constantly changing. This means that during gameplay there will be sections of the map that are zero gravity, allowing your character to float and move in completely new ways. It’s the aspect of the gameplay that really allows Lawbreakers to differentiate itself from other games in the genre. Even on a fairly flat map, the gameplay can become quite vertical. While I was far from able to master this new gameplay element in my time I saw the potential. Certain people I played against would get up to the ceilings and shoot down on everyone, essentially flanking you but from above. It’s actually very clever, as the lack of classes makes Lawbreakers easy to get into but things like the zero gravity make it a very high skill cap game which ensures longevity.
In order to reach this high skill level, you will have to master a class. I was able to play with four classes, there are some others that I got some glimpses at but nothing concrete. Each class has different weapons, abilities, movement variations, and what I’ll call Q abilities. Q abilities use the Q button on the keyboard (thus the name) and are like super abilities from Destiny, in that they have long cooldowns and are quite powerful. The classes are: the heavy, the vanguard, the enforcer and the assassin.
I’ll kick it off with the Heavy. As implied by the name it’s the slow moving tank character. The Heavy uses rockets and its boost is more of a vicious melee attack then a movement option. Since this is the case getting from point A to B take a while, and the only way to speed up is by firing a rocket behind you in zero gravity. It’s Q ability basically turns you into Darth Sidious, as you spray everyone with electricity. Not going to lie the heavy was my favorite. As someone who is less experienced with PC shooters rockets were easier to use than other options.
The Vanguard class is one I would classify as aerial. It uses a machine gun and has a very potent boost allowing you to put yourself into advantageous position while in zero gravity. The Q ability is perhaps the coolest. It’s called Starfall and has you float up in the air and tomahawk down onto enemies killing those you hit and unleashing a zero gravity bubble. This allows you to completely change the landscape of the battle offering some interesting tactical options.
The Enforcer is a class for the experienced player, as this class is the only one with iron sight options. The Enforcer is kind of a jack of all trades class with an assault rifle, a short range pistol and a Q ability that allows you to shoot and use homing rockets at the same time. For a game with a lot of weird classes the Enforcer probably feels more familiar than the others.
Finally, is perhaps the most popular class used throughout the day, the Assassin. The Assassin is incredibly fast and mobile but has very low armor. This class uses a sword and close range shotgun, with the Q ability allowing you to see players through walls and gain full health on kills. The real thing that makes the assassin so appealing however is the grappling hook. You can attach it to walls and enemy players to pulls yourself towards them or you can aim at ceilings and high walls to swing through the map like Spiderman. While I was truly awful at it, some of the developers were excellent showing what could be achieved with this kind of character.
Instead of playing simple deathmatch we played a mode called Overcharge. Overcharge is a unique take on Capture the Flag, where there is one battery in the center of the map you are trying to get back to your base. Instead of scoring once returned however, it will charge at your base. The goal is to charge the battery to 100%. The catch is your opponent can steal it from your base and bring it back to theirs, charging it there. The team that has the battery at their base when it reaches 100% wins. This mode was really fun; as massive fights would break out in both team’s bases. Once you started to coordinate both your attack and defense of said bases it was obvious how important strategy was. Boss Key Productions stated at the beginning of the day that they didn’t want the regular cookie cutter modes, and that sentiment certainly showed with Overcharge.
It’s clear that Boss Key Productions is taking a less is more mentality with Lawbreakers. The HUD is very crisp and there is no radar, leaving you to focus on the environment and not the mini-map. There are no names above enemy’s heads, instead they’ve used lighting effects to identify players from afar. No signals pop up when you’re doing damage and there’s no low health indicator. It’s very simple and that was kind of refreshing.
These are all just first impressions of a pre-alpha build, there is still a lot to learn and things need to be taken in stride. This is a sentiment Cliff Blesizski shares when referring to lawbreakers. When asked what in game incentives Lawbreakers will have to keep people playing Cliff said,
“It’s all being planned and worked on it’s just not available for primetime right now, it’s like I always say you gotta nail the 30 seconds of gameplay, the 30 minutes, the 30 days, which is what we are showing off right now, then eventually you can get to the 30 years and 30 months. That said some of these games have gotten awfully grindy lately, and I want us to do our version of that in kind of a fair way.”
It’s the same thing he says when it comes to esports, saying he thinks there is room for a game like this in that scene but that he won’t force it, and the first focus is making a good game. There are a lot of directions Lawbreakers can take after release and for now we’ll have to wait and see what happens next. That being said the gameplay is excellent and the future could be bright for Lawbreakers.