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Is Breakaway Appealing To More Than Streamers?

More than the sum of its parts

It was announced over two years ago that Amazon were going to make PC games, but we had no idea what kind until last week. At TwitchCon, the company announced three games and let people play one of them, a four-on-four called Breakaway.

I was there, to play the game, to talk to Patrick Gilmore, studio head of developer Double Helix Games, and to feel out of touch while not recognising a single one of the Twitch streamers surrounding me.

They were surrounding me because the event began with a livestreamed stage conference, during which the game was first announced and played. I was in the crowd as Patrick Gilmore explained that his team’s goal is to combine the “hair-on-fire intensity of fighting games” with the “competitive element of streaming.” The screens behind him triumphantly illuminate, showing a harlequin crew of characters and the game's title, Breakaway. A young woman somewhere behind me half-whispers “Oh my gosh is it like Overwatch?” and I smirk, having had that same knee-jerk reaction.

We’re introduced to seven individuals ripped out of mythology and fables. There’s Spartacus, the close-range scrapper; Alona, a healer who looks like a Mayan priestess; Thorgrim, a tank who can stop players’ momentum; Anne Bonny, a pirate who can wreck you from afar; the Black Knight, a tank who looks incredibly similar to Overwatch’s Reinhardt; Morgan Le Fay, a witch who can weaken her opponents; and Rawlins, a gunslinger clad in sunglasses.

I prepare for the reveal, fully expecting a first-person shooter and am pleasantly surprised when Breakaway is shown to be equal parts MOBA, tower-defense, and soccer -- er, football, um, foot-to-ball. 4v4 matches task players with grabbing the Relic in the center of the maps (which are always small enough that you can see every visual element on the field at once) and running it to the enemies’ base, or killing the other team before they can respawn. Between rounds, buildables such as cannons, healing shrines, speed boosts and cages can be placed to further complicate your opponents’ endeavors. These buildables persist between rounds, making the back half of a match look like a post-earthquake Disneyland.

Over footage of the game, Gilmore elaborates on how Amazon Game Studios ensured that Breakaway would focus on Twitch broadcasters (reminder: Amazon bought Twitch two years ago) with four new features. Broadcaster Spotlight alerts players when they’re in a match that’s being broadcast, and then allows them to follow with one click. Metastream enables streamers to customize their broadcasts with real-time stat overlays. Broadcaster Match Builder lets streamers invite followers to their games, which Gilmore suggested could lead to scenarios where top broadcasters could “coach their own teams and lead to tournaments.” Stream+ gives streamers the ability to interact with their viewers with polls and place wagers with an in-game currency that can unlock in-game rewards.

Gilmore calls out two teams of four players, all of them Twitch streamers that earn rapturous applause as they grin on stage. They have names like Darkness and Vicious, and we watch a video of them describing how they became Twitch partners, complete with dramatically tragic piano music. One of them dropped out of school and turned to streaming after “running out of options.” Another fostered a love for competitive gaming in arcades as a child. One streamer’s mother fell ill and he stepped up, finding that being with Twitch was what gave him the strength to press on in the face of adversity.

After the introductions are finished, the eight players take their seats and we finally get to watch a real match. Sajam and Rip, two shoutcasters that I should probably be aware of but instead Googled later, commentated as the two teams ripped into one another. The audience was instantly engaged, hooting and hollering each time something exciting happened -- a fumble! Oooh! A kill! Wow... A scored point! A veritable stampede of smashed-together palms -- and I found myself swept up into the storm of excitement.

Cover image for YouTube video

A quick memory blossoms in my skullspace: a fellow writer telling me never to clap during presentations, as it wasn’t professional to applaud as a journalist when being sold something. I remind myself of this each time a team employs a clever strategy, fending off their enemies at just the right moment. Curmudgeonly-me has been reluctant to watch any form of e-sports, but Breakaway is more easily parsed as a spectator than most.

When one player grabs the Relic, he’s unable to use his attacks, instead only able to pass or use a dash move. The references to fighting games earlier wasn't all talk, as the dash has invincibility frames. Last-second passes have everyone gasping, shouting, and jumping out of their seats. The camera jumps around frantically, always seeming to capture the most intense events on the field. In the final moment, the Relic is caught in a furious back-and-forth, and the blue team makes a beautiful pass, scoring the game-winning point. All around me, the crowd goes wild... and I clap.

Later into the night, I sat down with an exuberant Patrick Gilmore to learn more about Breakaway’s creation. Because I’m a jerk, I asked if he was pissed when he saw that Overwatch’s Reinhardt was so similar to the Black Knight. “It didn’t really register with me! Everyone has big tanky characters and how far can you go...” Gilmore said.

I wanted to know at what point the Relic had been added to the game, as I had a feeling that it was a later addition to what was most likely a simpler MOBA in its inception. The game “started as an idle conversation... Like, what if we did the Sack of Troy? What if you burst out of a trojan horse and your whole goal is to get as much stuff as you possibly can?” Gilmore recalled that the original concept was actually more focused on raiding and pillaging, tasking players with breaking into a stronghold and stealing something to bring back to the base. In that way, the Relic was always there. But the team realized this made the game lopsided, and on a whim tried making a symmetrical map with the Relic in the middle. It blew the team’s mind when played like this because offense and defense were suddenly no longer separate, and led to more interesting counterplays.

The studio is 60 folks strong, with people on the team who “are on their fourth or fifth game together” and have a deep sense of trust. (Previous games include initial work on the Killer Instinct remake, co-development duties on Strider, and Silent Hill: Homecoming). When I asked if getting Breakaway into a playable state lead to an in-house sense of fierce competition, he said through laughter, “The guys you saw on the stage earlier would play against the dev team and everyday, at 4:15, if I’m on a conference call I’m gonna have to close my door because there’s hooting and hollering.”

I told him that I’ve heard of teams whose productivity tanks once the game is competitive and playable. He didn’t have the same experience, saying “It’s magic. For the longest time it was just Spartacus and Anne Bonny, and it was fun... But when we added in other characters the dynamics completely changed and it started rocketing forward because of all the new ideas we had.”

On the topic of characters, I wanted to know more about what types of characters we can expect. Gilmore said they’re all “the greatest warriors of myths and legends, but that is a very, very broad category that doesn’t exclude modern or even futuristic characters. Where we start with characters is a milieu. What it does it mean to be a flying ace? Or a Victorian hero? And then we say, what’s the ultimate expression of that?” Even though there are only seven heroes at the moment, we can expect many more, though price and how these characters would be released wasn’t something Gilmore was ready to discuss.

When I had a chance to play the game, I chose Rawlins, a cowboy, and mostly focused on setting cage traps and running for the Relic. I was immediately pleased with the direct control I had with a mouse and keyboard. Instead of moving by pointing and clicking like most MOBAs, it felt more akin to an actions/sports hybrid. I had five abilities like dodge rolls and pistol blasts, and I always felt I had something to contribute.

Playing with the Relic was easily the highlight for me. The instant sensation of fragility that comes with losing your skills combined with the thrill of knowing you could be the one to score a point is deliciously tense. Passing and dodging become your sole abilities, but they’re more than enough to make you feel like the star of the show. Tossing the ball is as simple as aiming your camera and clicking, though the other team can easily intercept the Relic in a split-second. I saw an Anne Bonny throw the ball upwards, use a skill that launched her into the air, catch it high up above everyone else, and toss it into the goal. I can imagine this is only the beginning of the various synergies we’ll see as Breakaway progresses.

During the matches, you can also accrue currency that’s strewn about the map and purchase speed, defense, and damage buffs. One of my teammates played as the Black Knight and started building him for speed instead of the expected defense for a tank, and my mind started picking apart all of the characters and thinking of all the various ways you could kit them out. Even with seven characters, I’m fascinated by the choices available and wanted to keep playing for hours to tear into various builds.

The traps themselves add more to the strategy than I had initially expected. My team was focused on driving the Relic to our opponents’ base so we were passing it back and forth and dodging all willy-nilly. The other team instead decided to spend their time using buildables to fortify their base, barricading us out. By the third round, there was a minecart rolling explosive barrels towards us, healing shrines protecting them, cages capturing us, and a laser beam burning our flesh. Surprisingly, none of these felt unfair. For once, I’m actually excited to watch other people play just to see the difference between good offense and solid defense.

And though Double Helix are building Breakaway to appeal to streamers and those who watch streams, the game also has the same pleasing friction and pick-up-and-play immediacy of a game like Rocket League. I had anticipated being terrible at Breakaway, but instead in my first match I scored two of the three points necessary for my team to win.

At first glance Breakaway seems merely like a cacophonous trend-vomiting combination of League of Legends, Rocket League, and Overwatch, but I think it has potential to find its own feet alongside its inspirations. The small arenas belie impressive depth: upgrading your character between rounds, setting traps, passing the ball, and using character-specific abilities combine to give you umpteen avenues in each match. If it can offer that while remaining accessible as both a new player and viewer, then I'm interested to both play and watch more.

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Zack Furniss