Laser League is future sports with deadly neon lasers
In the year 2150, the biggest arena sport is played with light.
"Laser League is a totally new sport we have invented,” said Simon Bennett, founder and director at Roll7. “It’s built to be a fun and exciting original experience.”
Laser League recently launched on Steam Early Access, offering local play of up to 4v4, and online teams of 2v2 and 3v3. “Early Access was a no-brainer,” said Bennett. “We knew this was the kind of game that needed to build a community on launch, and we wanted to refine the experience and work with gamers to make it the ultimate in high speed, competitive joy.”
I jumped into the Early Access build of the game and was greeted with a simple but effective series of quick tutorials going over the basic flow of a match. Players choose one of six classes to compete in three arenas, each with four different laser fields, for a total of 12 different maps.
The arenas are relatively small - I can see the entire field from a single screen that everyone shares when playing local multiplayer. Transparent beams of light periodically spawn around the field. Touching one changes it into my team’s neon-soaked color and expands it into a deadly laser wall, capable of knocking out any enemy players who cross it.
The edges of the arenas wrap around to the opposite side. Running off the screen to the left instantly puts me on the right side of the field. It makes the arenas feel far larger and more maneuverable than they appear, and also much more challenging to predict laser and player movements. Often I evade an incoming light beam only to meet my end on the other side.
The maps determine how the laser walls spawn and move. Some create giant screen-width walls in the middle of the battlefield, others rotate across the field like deadly starfish, and a few fire off a slicing beam of light, creating a labyrinthine field of neon hell. “Some [arenas] are busier and more difficult than others,” said Bennett. “It’s more about your opponents and their strategy that drives the difficulty. If they know the map, and have chosen the right classes to play, then you are going to struggle.”
My first few online matches are an embarrassment. I’m beat to a neutral node only to receive a laser wall to the face. I’m stunned and watch helpelessly as a spinning wall of light steadily approaches to finish me off. One time I’m caught between three laser walls that gradually collapse inward, and it’s all I can do to spin around in circles helplessly.
In that last situation I would have had a chance had I picked the Ghost class. Each class in Laser League has their own special ability that defines their role during a match. The Smasher can charge ahead and stun anyone in their path, quickly closing the gap and racing towards a node or power-up before their opponent. The Ghost can evade enemies and lasers by briefly becoming intangible, and is particularly adept at reviving teammates.
The Shocker is the easiest to learn at first glance, able to stun everyone around them, which serves as a useful defense against enemy Blades.
I enjoyed the devious playstyle of the Thief. The Thief’s ability is to steal an enemy node, changing it from their color to ours. Like other abilities it’s limited to a cooldown. Many times I misjudge the timing, sending my poor Thief to an ignominious death after trying to transform a node too soon. But when it works it’s a great way to force the enemy team out of their defensive positions, granting my teammate the opening they need to unleash an attack or stun.
A team loses a round when everyone goes down. A large part of the strategy in Laser League is rescuing downed teammates, which is achievable by simply walking over their fallen symbol. The enemy team knows to guard these spots like virtual velociraptors, using downed enemies as bait and converging on would-be rescuers with well-timed laser walls and stunning attacks.
Some of the most exciting plays I witnessed were my teammates (or, rarely, I) staying alive against overwhelming odds, successfully reviving my allies, and clawing back from the brink of annihilation. Knowing how the powerups work and when to use them becomes critical in these tense situations.
Power-ups appear throughout a match, and have the capacity to completely shift a match’s dynamic in seconds. The Switch power-up flips all the active lasers to the opposite color, which has an incredible effect against a dominating team. Others affect the players, such as instantly recharging all of my teammates’ abilities, or draining my enemy’s. “Power-ups are a very considered and strategic element,” said Bennett. “Once you learn their effect on a match, you realize that you sometimes need to avoid them, guard them, or wait for the exact right moment to activate them.”
Laser League is a fast game. The average round only lasts about a minute. Teams play a series of rounds in a single match: three series of Best of Five rounds. To balance a particularly nasty combo, the losing team is given the chance to change their class and modifier.
Each class comes with two different modifiers that slightly tweak their skill usage. For my thief I could either Extend my stealing ability to last longer, grabbing multiple enemy nodes, or I could take Surge to lower the cooldown. It doesn’t exactly double the amount of class options, but does provide a bit of personal flexibility when finding your preferred playstyle.
Completing matches rewards experience and unlocks new cosmetic items, not unlike Overwatch, though minus any loot boxes. Bennett is quick to point out that any unlockable items are purely cosmetic, and won’t affect gameplay at all. Players can be outfitted with Kits, which are futuristic sports brands featuring apparel from five different cultures, as well as unlocking portraits, laser flair, and emojis. Rounds went by way too fast for me to ever notice much of a difference in how players appeared, other than highlighting the score screen.
Roll7 is using Early Access to improve networking as well as solicit feedback from fans. Laser League is highly competitive, but Bennett knows not to push any Esports aspects too soon: “Some people have suggested it could do well, but you can’t develop an Esport - that needs to come organically from the players.” Roll7 is still shooting for an early 2018 release, but that will depend on how Early Access evolves.
Sports game are not usually my jam, but Laser League feels much more like a classic single-screen arcade game, eliciting fond memories of high fives and fist slams. Yet it’s also tense, strategic, and stressful in all the right ways. Local couch multiplayer feels like the perfect way to experience it; hopefully that pulse-pounding fun can translate to online matches as well. “I still get so excited playing the game online against good players,” said Bennett. “It is a rush that no other game has quite given me.”