Lawbreakers is an uncompromising, vicious take on the hero shooter

11 months ago by Bruno Dias

It steps into an arena dominated by Overwatch -- and does something entirely different.

The word that comes closest to summing up Lawbreakers, after the limited time I’ve spent with it during its open beta, is “uncompromising.” The bones of the game are familiar: this is a team-based, class-based shooter, like Overwatch and Team Fortress 2. But the meat that’s been thrown on those bones is very different. Expectedly, given that this game is Cliff Bleszinski’s comeback tour, that meat harkens back to Unreal Tournament. It harkens back to Quake, and Tribes; it rescues the bunny-hop and the rocket jump from the past.

This is a game where every single class moves differently. More than that, the maps include zones of low gravity where the usual physics of running and jumping become distorted; you can fly around in those zones, avoiding being pinned down on the floor. There are “gravity spheres” on the maps that you can orbit or slingshot around. At times, it’s reminiscent of the Tribes series, which took bunny-hopping to its logical conclusion so that players could have jetpack dogfights at speeds previously impossible in the tight spaces of the FPS genre. Lawbreakers doesn’t have that scale, but there’s a lot of flying around. The maps are open-ended; often, it’s possible to surprise enemies by going around the notional outside of the map, or under it, or above it.

On top of that, Lawbreakers layers on Overwatch-style abilities. It’s matching the speed of Quake to the complexity of Overwatch, so at first, fully understanding what is going on is daunting. There are debuffs, there are barriers, there are surprise weapons and attacks. Most enemies you face are capable of more than it seems at first glance. Overwatch does a lot to limit how confusing its profusion of abilities and powers can be, carefully signalling everything, lining up mechanics across classes. Lawbreakers seems much less concerned about complexity. This is a game where there are four different things that might happen when you press space in mid-air, depending on the class you’re playing, and they all interact differently with the microgravity zones.

In Overwatch, weapon-switching is vestigial, used only in classes that need a non-attacking weapon of some kind to perform their function; by and large each class is defined by the behavior of their one weapon. By comparison, most classes in Lawbreakers have two weapons they switch between. There are a lot more options in how to approach each encounter, and you feel less like there’s a prescribed way to go about things.

There are resource trade-offs; the more mobile classes use their mobility both to move around in combat and to get around the map quickly, and choosing whether to spend those resources getting to the frontline or being more effective when you’re there is by itself a complex tactical problem. Knowing when to go for rapid bursts of damage and when to ration out how you’re using ammunition matters too. The Assassin, for example, naturally wants to use her swords to deal damage, which heal her and hit very hard. But knowing when to give up on closing the distance and switch to the secondary shotgun is a crucial skill. Weapon switching even brings back weapon heckling, the art of moving around between ranges to keep an opponent from making an effective weapon choice.

Perhaps most emblematic of the design approach in this game is the fact that the Enforcer’s secondary weapon is a shotgun with an alternate fire that switches between two different spread patterns. This game happily lets players try to get tiny edges by switching between them appropriately!

All of this combines to give the impression that skill ceilings in this game are stratospheric. One of the much-touted unique features of Lawbreakers is “blind firing.” That is, if you hold ctrl, your character fires their gun behind them. In microgravity, this actually speeds you up; you can propel yourself around by using your gun like an improvised jetpack. But blind fire isn’t actually that blind; you fire the gun exactly behind you, so it can be aimed.

High-skill players with a lot of map knowledge can predict where enemies chasing them will be and aim blind fire accordingly. One of the classes in this game dual-wields guns and they can blind fire one gun while shooting the other gun ahead of them. The mind boggles at the things that high-level players might be expected to do in this game. It’s a game all about tiny advantages, and one that puts twitch movement and aiming skills front and center.

Overwatch made big concessions to players that weren’t interested in the aim and precision-intensive gameplay of traditional shooters, and preferred to focus more on the tactical aspects and team coordination, Lawbreakers has none of that. Everyone is expected to perform in similar ways. None of the characters are focused on their abilities; the gun (or sword) is at the center of everyone’s gameplay. Area of effect attacks are limited; because a lot of the fighting happens in midair, sometimes rocket and grenade launchers are more skill-intensive to use than direct fire weapons.

In spite of this traditionalism, Lawbreakers is hugely ambitious. It’s a big bet on the fact that all those systems and mechanics can be made clear and accessible enough to find an audience that can sustain this kind of game in 2017. That people can effectively learn to read what is going on in this game enough to play it, and to enjoy watching other people play it. Obviously, this is already being positioned as an esport, in the forced way the industry likes to do with new releases. It’s undoubtedly a passion project grounded in a very specific sensibility, but it needs to reach people who aren’t already totally attuned to that sensibility.

Does it succeed at that? I don’t really know. The life cycle of a big multiplayer shooter is such that, to succeed, they need to function as some players’ first shooter. I have more than 600 hours put into Team Fortress 2, though I haven’t played it in years. I’ve accumulated 100 hours in Overwatch, and I only regret the last 80 or so. The perspective I’m bringing to Lawbreakers is that of someone who’s been steeped in those mechanics for an entire month of continuous time. If Lawbreakers is to find an audience, it has to appeal to people who don’t have 700 hours put into the most obviously similar games that existed before it.

But still, in my limited time with it, I’m happy to report that Lawbreakers strikes directly at many of my frustrations with Overwatch. Some of this is undoubtedly new game smell, but I can’t help thinking that losing in this game is less frustrating. I feel like I have more options, like I’m less dependent on my team. There’s less pressure for each team to include a healer, and overall team composition seems less prescribed. Tanks are not meat shields who provide most of their value by absorbing bullets; healers are not fragile, thankless supply carts following their teammates around. There are no hard counters, so every encounter is winnable with enough skill. Some players will doubtlessly feel like the lessened focus on team dynamics and class match-ups diminishes the experience for them. This feels less designed as a game to play in a group with your friends.

In capture the flag game modes, there’s only one flag, which can’t be picked up immediately after it’s dropped; it has to be slowly retaken by standing near it for a while. This is an inspired change; every time the flag is dropped, it immediately becomes a zone of control that has to be fought over until it can be carried again. Teams have to keep the flag in their base for an extended length of time to score. It cuts back on the chaos and slapstick of capture the flag; every time the flag is moved, it’s as the result of a skirmish. The central battleground of the map moves at a pace that allows players to rush towards it and fight over it.

In the sole control point game mode, instead of the tug-of-war or designated attacker/defender formats, there are three points: One in the middle of the map and one in each team’s base. They are all in play at the same time, and once captured, they become locked. After all three zones are taken, they reset a brief “intermission” happens, and the zones reset back. Instead of a tug of war, what emerges from this is a freeform skirmish, a team deathmatch with just enough structure to make it interesting and purposeful. It also enforces a certain closeness in the score; taking all three points in one round is hard, and can’t be done consistently even if one team is dominating the game.

The common thread through all of the game modes is give-and-take. Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch ended up favoring game modes that function as a tug of war, where one team is ahead and the other is behind, or where attackers make inexorable progress towards beating defenders. By contrast, Lawbreakers works more like soccer or basketball: once points are scored, there is a reset of sorts. Games feel close even when they’re not very close; the disappointing sensation of being curbstomped seems attenuated. In games that stop short of a complete shut-out, the losing team gets to score some points. Matches that actually are close feel nerve-wracking and tough all the way through.

I hope Lawbreakers succeeds. As a beta, it still needs refinement in terms of user interface, balance, and in how it communicates its mechanics and the game’s situation to the player. The feedback from taking damage is too subtle for me; waypoint icons showing where to go on the map are opaque, and can obstruct my view of enemies; it’s not entirely clear how capturing flags works. Balance is definitely off, as you’d expect from a beta, though the game is so complex it’s hard to tell exactly how.

Lawbreakers enters into a world where it’s impossible not to heavily compare it to what came before. If it can find an audience, it won’t quite be the same audience that made Overwatch so successful. This is definitely a more niche product, a game built less for universal mass appeal and more for a certain type of genre enthusiast. It doesn’t slow itself down or sand off sharp edges. It remains to be seen whether Lawbreakers can balance itself in a way that will appeal to players at all levels of skill and involvement, and whether an actual esport can emerge out of it in a super-crowded field of competing attractions. But the largest outstanding challenge, for Lawbreakers, is to build something that fulfills that uncompromising vision without cloaking itself in a shroud of elitism.