Hands On: Lawbreakers

Earlier this month, we sent Rob Zacny to the offices of Boss Key Productions in North Carolina. The studio are working on their first game, Lawbreakers, a multiplayer action game from a team led by Unreal’s Cliff Bleszinski. Approaching with a healthy dose of skepticism, Rob spent some time playing the game and learning its secrets to see if it could win him over, and to find the answer to his initial question.

Who, I wondered, is going to give a damn about Lawbreakers?

Twelve years ago, hearing about a new arena shooter from Cliff Bleszinski on PC would have had me rushing to the bookstore to buy every PC gaming magazine on the shelf, so I could pore over screenshots and memorize features lists. Now, Bleszinski is a designer whose primary impact on PC gaming was a wave of clumsy, plodding Gears-imitators with inexplicable cover mechanics. News that he was making an arena shooter — named Lawbreakers, no less, which sounded like it belonged on a sticker affixed to the back of 7th grader’s Trapper-Keeper — struck me as a project out of its era from a designer getting past his sell-by date.

In short, I went to Boss Key Productions’ offices feeling skeptical at best and smugly cynical at worst. Bleszinski did nothing to assuage my concerns when he address the tiny ballroom full of reporters to explain that Lawbreakers was a grittier, more mature take on team shooters than Overwatch, for example. Lawbreakers, he said, is “more Quentin Tarantino than Pixar.”

My skepticism didn’t go away when I started playing. After taking my place at one of the long tables with 5 PCs to a side for head-to-head matches, the first thing I saw was a woman wearing bulky power armor. Next to her was a guy in giant bulky power armor, another guy wearing even bigger, bulkier power armor in addition to a weird squid-liked gladiator helmet that looked like a leftover costume from a swords-and-sandals epic. Then there was another, slightly-built woman with swords who looked like Tracer in Overwatch. I felt my heart sink lower. The match began.

Fifteen minutes later, I was leaning forward so far in my seat that my forehead was nearly touching the monitor. My jaw hurt because I’d been clenching it for about ten minutes, hell-bent on turning this match around and increasingly furious at a couple teammates who were SCREWING AROUND and TAKING NOTES while the rest of us were trying to WIN A GAME OVER HERE. For a game I hadn’t cared about, winning this match had suddenly turned into the most important thing in my world. I’d lost all perspective and turned into the Mr. Hyde of the LAN. I felt great.

Lawbreakers crept up on me. There was no immediate revelation when the match started, no moment where I felt unbelievably tight controls, or witnessed amazing character abilities, that made me sit-up and take notice. Lawbreakers didn’t win me over with an onslaught of charm and character the way Overwatch did at Blizzcon a couple years ago. Even its trademark gimmick, a part of each map where gravity is removed or changed somehow, didn’t make much of an impression at first.

What turned me around on Lawbreakers is its structure. It’s a multiplayer shooter that’s designed to play and feel like a sport. I don’t mean “Lawbreakers is the next great esport!” I mean that it’s built to create the kinds of clutch plays and teamwork that made Rocket League an instant-masterpiece. Lawbreakers isn’t about gravity mutations, nor is it beholden to its forgettable backstory about anarchists battling police in attractive, faux-dystopian theme parks. It’s about offense, defense, and turnovers.

I’m the kind of person that is fascinated by competition. I once stayed up all night because I stumbled across a women’s volleyball championship in China that was one of the most intense, high-skill things I’ve ever seen. I am to competition what Sky Masterson is to gambling. That’s my bias. And that’s the button that Lawbreakers pushes.

At the start of each match, and between each score, a battery is placed at the center of the map. The goal is to take it back to base and slap it into a charging station where it will take a few minutes to charge up to 100%. It can be stolen at any time, and will retain its charge all the way back to the enemy base. It never resets. After it charges to 100%, a short countdown occurs before some kind of EMP bomb explodes and the team that controls it scores a point. Then the process starts over again, and best two-out-of-three points wins the match.

With the battery in the enemy team’s hands, and our third match tied 1-1, I was like a shark smelling blood. This completely arbitrary set of rules in this first-person shooter I’d only just met became the most important thing in the world. And that’s when I finally started treating my character not like a shooter character, but like a running back or a striker.

My character was a Vanguard, and her power armor was angular and faintly avian because she uses a jetpack. It applies thrust in the exact opposite direction you are looking. If you’re level with the ground, it provides a sustained burst of speed. Look straight up, and you’re taking off like Superman. She can’t fly for long, but she can zip across the map faster than almost any other character.

She also has two other abilities worth mentioning: she can throw an Iron Man like punch using a palm-mounted thruster. It throws her backwards at the same time it knocks back anything in her path, including rockets, and it does damage if enemies are close enough. All of that ties into another thing I came to appreciate about Lawbreakers: it doesn’t make a huge deal out of its physics, but there’s a satisfying (if exaggerated) Newtonian logic to everything.

Her final ability, her ultimate, is a kind of dive-bomb attack. Once fully charged, she can lock onto an enemy or group of enemies and use her thrusters to land a hammer-blow landing on the ground near the target. It’s like a small bomb going off, and can insta-kill group of opponents if they bunch up near her.

My team was making a final push to retake, but we were having trouble breaking their defense. The EMP site had multiple entrances, but the room itself was a shooting gallery. Every time our characters died, we had to wait five seconds to respawn but spent about twenty seconds transiting across the map. The defenders have a much longer respawn counter, but start only a few seconds away from their own bomb site. We were fighting each other to a stalemate. We could storm the site effectively but couldn’t clear it, and we’d inevitably get cut-down trying to take the battery while their survivors took potshots at us from the catwalks.

With the bomb at 90% and counting, I hung back while my team entered the site, watching from the tunnel as they fought, and occasionally contributing a burst from my machine gun. The real key to our lineup was an Assassin who’d quickly figured out how to play his character, and was becoming a thorn in the side of the other team. While our other Assassin perished quickly, and our Enforcer (standard shooter rifleman with iron-sights and an autocannon ultimate ability) traded away her life, our Assassin kept darting around knifing people. The other team got frustrated and came down off the catwalks to corner her.

That’s when I triggered my ultimate and pasted the last defenders standing. For the first time, we had control of the site. I got on the bomb as it topped 98%, and the first of the enemy were starting to respawn. The Assassin got to work, using her grappling hook to zip onto the catwalk encircling the bomb site and start harassing them while I peppered them with fire.

“Take it, take it!” he shouted from the other end of the row.

The shields went down and I picked up the bomb. Another teammate, our Enforcer, appeared in the tunnel back to the courtyard outside the enemy base and stood there waiting to escort me.

But my jump jets were charged, and rather than go the long way around with my team, I jet-packed straight out of the chamber through an open window, with hostile fire landing all around me.

“Where are you going?!” someone yelled at me.

It was a fair question, because nobody had really used the Vanguard as a flight-suit yet. But now I was really moving. I hit the zero-G anomaly at the center of the map and pumped the jump jets again to go vaulting all the way across the map and back to the entrance to our base in about 5 seconds. I dropped the bomb into its socket and waited.

The last moments of a Lawbreakers point are excruciating, because once that 20 second timer starts, you know if you lose the battery it’s over and there’s no coming back. Likewise, that timer usually means the attacking team has just enough time for one last attempt at a steal, but everything will have to go exactly right.

I discovered I like making situational character choices on respawn. After dying on defense, I’d often switch to an Enforcer or a Titan, where the extra hit points and DPS were ideal in the close confines of the bomb site. But every character has offensive and defensive purposes. The Vanguard’s rocket-slam is just as effective denying a steal as it is breaking a defense.

It’s the instant flip between offense and defense, and the occasional battles for possession in no man’s land that make Lawbreakers more engrossing than it might otherwise be. Attack-defend modes turn into grueling stalemates in other shooters, and things like domination or CTF both lend themselves to runaway victories where it feels like it’s hardly worth riding-out a bad match. In Lawbreakers, there’s always a way to come back, and the game can always turn around in a heartbeat.

The enemy took a last stab at coming back, but there wasn’t enough time on the clock. They killed our Assassins and rushed the bomb site, but our Titan was just blasting the site with his rocket launcher while I just held-down the trigger on my MG. The timer went to zero, the bomb went off, and we’d eked out a 2-1 victory, the first win for our team.

With that, the play-session was over and we were free to hit the bar for beers or coffee, or chat with the developers who were wandering around. But to my surprise, I found that after a few minutes of chatting, and learning more about how the characters work, I was dying to get back into another game.

I played for over an hour, and had to force myself to switch from my favourites to play with other characters in order to learn about how they worked. I didn’t care about learning the basics, I wanted to get better with my Vanguard and Enforcer play so that I could keep winning. Writing about it now, I’d happily play it again. It’s the playoff hockey of shooters.

If there’s anything that gives me pause, it’s this: one reason this resonated so much with me is because both in terms of the way Lawbreakers feels to play, and the way our teams competed, the entire preview event felt like one of those long-ago LAN parties at the games store near my school. There was an energy to playing together in one place that is hard to reproduce online, and I do wonder if I’ll find the two-way structure of each match as compelling once I’m playing Lawbreakers alone in an office.

On the other hand, when is that last time I felt that way? The fact that Lawbreakers got me flashing back to Facing Worlds in Unreal Tournament, or the Bouncy Map in Quake 3 Arena tells me that something special is going on there. I went into Lawbreakers thinking it was a game stuck in the past, but left feeling like it was a game unencumbered by the present. It started as free-to-play, now it’s a normal, single-purchase game. It’s twitchy, fast-paced, and aerobatic, because it’s built to take advantage of mouse and keyboard. Lawbreakers might be a old-fashioned but, in its modern context, what’s old feels new again.


  1. Jakkar says:

    Suddenly I’m interested.

    Then I remember.

    What killed the spirit of these games wasn’t a change in the games themselves. The games remained, although their popularity with publishers and funders decreased over the years.

    It was the players who changed, as PC gaming became more affordable and culturally acceptable to the mainstream. Less dysfunctional but intelligent geeks, more intolerably aggressive, self-centred, bullying school children.

    If the kids I’d known locally here in Wales, who couldn’t imagine what a PC was and still felt a Playstation was the state of the art by the era of Unreal Tournament 2004, had been playing with me, it would have felt like the worst of the smacktalking, exploiting hell of modern shooters.

    Playing LAN games at local game shops with staff and older geeks on their way to Games Workshop, with friends and tech-minded strangers, that had a charm. Playing online with people who were still to some degree pioneers on the frontier of a relatively young arena, there were some standards of behaviour.

    Today, I tend to feel quite badly depressed by online gaming due to the sheer weight of abuse and lack of any cooperation or meaningful/helpful communication.

    I’d like to play this, but can any multiplayer shooter overcome the nature of its own players?

    *hopsinto the RPS Mumble to comfort himself there are good gamers in the world*

    • dsch says:

      It was the players who changed

      Great observation. I would just add that the change in the players does not go unaccompanied by a change in the games themselves in a dialectical process. It is conceivable, for instance, that games could have remain niche, nerdy activities, and indeed, some genres still are (PDX comes to mind). Certain combinations of local factors have propelled other genres to popularity and the prospect of profit.

      • Jakkar says:

        Agreed, of course – nothing that changes something is unchanged in turn, and you could chicken-egg the issue your whole life without discovering anything useful.

        We can’t, and shouldn’t need to gate our games. Sadly, the crudest voices are often the loudest, and a community tends to corrupt rapidly once it opens beyond ‘beta’ or some other niche-inducing status. It sounds elitist, but to me it feels quite the opposite – not the exclusion of everyone but the best, but the desire to accept everyone but the worst.

        The worst, however, tend to multiply, as the vast majority of players, or people in general can be as good or as bad as their influences, lacking any particularly intense ideology or attitude but going with the flow.

        Regardless, what we have is a largely rather noxious community, when it comes to esports-oriented games in particular. I recoil from RTS, MOBA and most shooter crowds as though stung by the words ‘git gud u skrub LMAO’, akin to the experience of accidentally walking down a club street on a friday night after a long day, being hit by the wall of noise and the smell of vomit and turning 180 or leaping spreadeagled onto the bonnet of the nearest taxi to gurn pleadingly through the windscreen D:

        • Rizlar says:

          True that, immediately brought to mind Dirty Bomb which was a lot of fun when I had a chance to play at the end of beta. Went back to it on release and the population had massively shifted to campers not wanting to play the objective and witless shit talking. It felt like a totally different game.

          I’m sure there is still fun to be had in these games but yeah, communities have changed over the last couple of decades and this sort of competitive multiplayer shooter really seems to bring that bad stuff into harsh focus.

          • dsch says:

            I still play Dirty Bomb a lot. (It’s still officially “beta.”) I find that the community is actually relatively fine. There are of course assholes, but in general I don’t find it toxic, at least not in casual games. They’ve recently introduced minimum level 20 servers, so people generally know what to do there.

          • Rizlar says:

            Ah right, guess I must have been playing at the end of closed beta moving into open beta (did wonder about the lack of publicity at the time). Glad to hear the community has sorted itself out!

        • Crane says:

          We can’t, and shouldn’t need to gate our games.

          Sounds like what we need is a gamergate, eh?
          Eh? *nudge nudge, wink*

          … I’ll show myself out.

    • Philopoemen says:

      ^ this.

      CS and Unreal were a staple of my university years, living in a share house where Cat5 cable snaked it’s way throughout, and LAN parties were a weekly thing. Talking to team mates = yelling loudly at each other from another room. I occasionally played with folks online, but we were on dial up…

      I’ve obviously played multiplayer throughout the years since, but never enjoyed it as much as those LAN days. The attitude of the random internet teenager is what puts me off now. “Ragequit” is something that I find baffling, and the stream of abuse from your *teammates* makes it a chore to play.

      From the sounds of it they’ve created an amazing game for the gaming culture (and gamers) of the late 90s – be interesting to see how 2016 embraces it

      • Jakkar says:

        Upon viewing some gameplay footage, I’m not so sure… It looks fairly modern, in all the sluggish, bulletspongey class-based ways I’ve come to expect. The grappling hook does look lovely though… At least they don’t have the bloody translocator teleportation device from Unreal Tournament, that thing murdered fun in cold blood.

    • Morgan Joylighter says:

      It’s certainly not a perfect system but I feel like Bungie is onto something with their extremely restricted voice chat and partying options in Destiny, which encourages players to communicate outside the game and/or only with their own friends. It makes things feel far less hostile than a typical FPS situation.

      • Jakkar says:

        Like a gated suburban community with guards and spiked fences. You’ll never make friends spontaneously in that situation, it’s more likely to strangle any chance of community building and social interaction than encourage it.

        What needs to change, if it could, is the culture – not through more systems to protect, but through education and incentivisation.

        Encourage community and cooperation, make it unfashionable to be a toxic little git online. Continue to mock the ‘xbox live noscope pro’ archetype through comedy and show that there’s a better way to play games and treat other players.

        Idealistic, but realistically speaking it’s the only chance we’ve got, I think, short of radical depopulation ;)

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      One shift in the industry imo when it comes to multiplayer games, that has increased “the asshole effect” a LOT, is the shift to public matchmaking and away from community servers and a server browser. In the past you played a bunch of servers, found one with likeminded people where the idiots were kicked by mods who were usually playing all the time, you favourited that server, joined that server in the future and played with a similar group of people each time. You would actually get to know people on the servers you played regularly.
      That is gone now, it’s all public matchmaking, being thrown in with 9 randoms who don’t care what they say or do because they won’t be kicked or punished in anyway, so now instead of logging on and joining one of my preferred servers where I know I’m likely to find a good game with people who aren’t annoying, it’s now a 50/50 chance at best that my upcoming game will be ruined by some random asshole.

    • Dingbatwhirr says:

      This whole thread is really interesting. I started off disagreeing with the original post, thinking it was just the usual cry of ‘o tempora! o mores!’ which always gets sounded as times change, but on reflection, I think you all have very good points. I’m not sure what’s caused the fashion for hostility towards other players, but has certainly increased. I think it may well have something to do with the broadening of the community, and also something to do with anonymity: as communities get bigger, the chance that you’ll run into someone twice is greatly reduced, which gives people less of incentive to act like decent human beings. (Afaik, smaller communities tend to be less hostile in general, although then there’s the problem of elitism towards ‘outsiders’) There’s also the culture of celebrating ‘trolls’ as comedic geniuses, rather than the community-poisoners they really are. The sociology of gaming communities would be a fascinating topic for an academic to explore. Sadly outside my discipline, otherwise I’d definitely give it a go.

      It may not be directly related to arena shooters, but I can’t help but think of the world of multiplayer ‘survive-’em-ups’. The chances of anyone being friendly on first meeting are so ridiculously slim – you’re more likely to be shot on sight or have abuse hurled at you. I might play them more often if there were actual opportunities for meaningful human interaction. The fact that devs have to incentivise not mowing down everyone you see is quite sad.

    • sosolidshoe says:

      Honestly, there’s a rosy hue to your analysis. My first thought when I was reading it was “Yeah, bloody right, kids these days, back in my day everyone said ‘GG’ because it was just a polite way of expressing you had fun playing, but now half the other team all respond with ‘nuh-uh, BG, *&^%^%^&!’ or the like!”…

      Then I remembered what a total fucking cesspool the chat could be in BF: Vietnam, how it was 50/50 playing Wake Island in 1942 whether you’d get a game or a teamkilling festival at the aircraft spawn, and how I actually learned the slur “faggot” and what it meant during a UT game.

      In terms of proportions, I don’t think there are any more arseholes today than there were back then, there are just more in absolute terms because there are so many more gamers, and we delude ourselves into thinking modern gaming is more “toxic” because arseholes are always the loudest in any group and it’s nice to feel smug occasionally even if it’s not particularly justified.

    • bill says:

      I wouldn’t really know, because I’m antisocial, but wouldn’t the secret be to find a good community/group to play with?

      The RPS forums have loads of groups for almost every game, and they’re apparently all really nice folks.

      If I were ever to venture into online multiplayer, I’d start there I think.

  2. Voidlight says:

    You had me at “Sky Masterson”

  3. Herzog says:

    Regarding to movement physics – what’s the nearest comparison? UT, Quake, TF2? Anyways this preview makes it sound fun. A new arena shooter with advanced movement physics, fun weapons, nice team play modes and a healthy player base would be something good. Been waiting for over a decade now.

  4. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Great writeup! I can almost feel the adrenaline pumping, coursing through my body.

  5. Gabbo says:

    It sounds like CliffyB ended up taking bombing run and making a full fledged game out of it. I am a lot more intrigued thanks to this write up.

  6. Jakkar says:

    Unfortunately I’ve lost that spark of optimism after viewing IGN’s gameplay footage.

    It looks so sluggish and soft. None of the agile precision of Cliff’s origins with Unreal. I was never a fan of Quake, but adored Unreal for its complex acrobatics, rich colours, varied but cohesive characters within its stylised universe (compared to Quake’s ‘guy from quake 2/doom, spikey monster, eyeball on legs, demon clown’ random selection)…

    It feels, watching it in play for a while, like it sounded to most of us when we first heard about it – stylistically a desperate and outdated attempt to appeal to a youth culture who all grew up ten years ago, while in gameplay an unoriginal MOBA-eSport-Overwatch-TF2-Monday Night Combat mix.

    Something about it looks incredibly soft, imprecise, sluggish, unresponsive. Like watching footage of Halo 2 multiplayer compared to footage of the original UT.

    Like the game is trying so hard to be a sport, it has neutered every weapon and function in the name of balance to create a desperate scramble to make annoying, limited tools work ‘well enough’ without ever being ‘good’ in a way that would annoy the victim.

    Just an impression, of course – and a reflection of my utter disinterest in ‘sport’ games.


    I’ve no shame for this. I just really enjoy direct competition where the meat of the experience is murder, not distraction, tanking, buying time, harrassing or otherwise wasting time in order to achieve some nebulous and arbitrary objective involving balls or flags or boxes.

    It’s important to have some kind of unifying goal, yes, but not at the expense of gameplay. It should exist to focus the gameplay, not completely define it. This is where Tribes and Unreal Tournament both left me cold – when ‘elite’ players began focusing so hard on mobility skills, throws and tradeoffs of objective devices using vehicles, teleportation and movement tricks like skiing, rocket and grenade jumping, bunnyhopping and so forth, they never actually shot anyone.

    I want a solid game about killing people. Once I have killed all of the bastards, I will take the flag. They will respawn and chase me, as my own team fight them off or take the flag from my corpse if I succumb. That’s good fun, that’s tension. I am far less interested in jumping and climbing with guns and tools designed only to ‘harrass’, ‘deny ground’, ‘debuff/buff’, or knock enemies around, while focusing chiefly on hurling myself around in an unpredictable manner so no-one can possibly shoot me.

    Am I the only one?

    *makes gun shapes with hands, and mutters ‘pew, pew’*

    • jbb060 says:

      Sounds like you need Red Orchestra 2/Rising Storm. No flags but the gameplay consists of getting enough bodies inside a sensibly defined cap zone to outnumber the defenders of said cap zone. There’s a little meta as commanders can call in artillery strikes and recon from radios, but none of the modern MOBA faff. The joy comes from the loving recreated weapons and realistic damage levels. One well-placed bullet will kill, which makes sneaking around the jungle or charging frozen, shelled-out emplacements incredibly tense. It doesn’t have the pace or aerobatics of UT or Quake, but the lethality scratches that instagib itch and similarly rewards good gun-play in a way few games do.

      Finally, the killing is very, very good. It’s satisfyingly solid and opening-ten-minutes-of-Saving-Private-Ryan harrowing throughout; dying troops on both sides will cry for mercy, home or their mothers, just to bring the horror home.

    • Touchstone says:

      It seems you want a slow game with little complexity and only DM or TDM. The moment you add increased mobility, weapon/ability/environmental complexity, and objectives is the moment good players (meaning people that win) take advantage of them and move away from the basics. “Sport” games are inherently competitive ones that utilize everything possible to win.

      Your issue is more with (truly) objective-based gameplay rather than anything else. I don’t have a long history with shooters. Earliest MP shooter I played was probably UT: GotY in a LAN in school a few times. I definitely feel the difference between it and many of the shooters coming out. However, Doom MP fits that archaic pattern quite well, at least in the beta.

      I think the issue is that people get bored of simple, static things. Games that start complex and grow from there help maintain interest. I can see your issue with most of the current releases, but the model you are interested in does not hold value with very many people today as it did years ago.

  7. simulant says:

    This may be the game I’ve been waiting for.

  8. GWOP says:

    “more Quentin Tarantino than Pixar”

    Oh Clifford, never change.

    Really glad it turned out great.

  9. Benratha says:

    Just seriously impressed by the level of commentary on this page. It’s what makes RPS as a website stand alone (I think). Hopefully Cliffy B will give some thought to the whole design of the server architecture.
    Otherwise – anyone for an RPS group?