Among the avalanche of trigger-happy competitive shooters, LawBreakers is an obvious homage to the twitchy, run-and-gunnners of yesteryear like Quake and Doom. Set in an over-the-top, zero-gravity arena, it encourages and demands from its players a mastery of sharpshooting and bullet-pumping. It’s a pity this may have deterred many aspiring LawBreakers players, and a double pity that the ill-fated studio is shutting down its servers in September. To be at the receiving end of a dizzying, acrobatic assault is the zenith of this breakneck shooter. There’s an artistry to be found in the sleek movements, the speeding bullets, the quick surveying of enemy positions, and the frenetic, instinctive reaction against a flurry of attacks.
Here’s one example. As a tank-like class called the Juggernaut, I was fending off throngs of gunners in one round, frantically throwing up shields while blasting a pump-action shotgun about. Then I spotted him: a stealthy figure, who slid and bounced between the walls and my shield. He wrenched a closely-guarded item from under our noses, shoved a bomb into my armor, and slunk off just as quickly and quietly as he had arrived. Like the uncomfortably prolonged pause that takes place as your life flashes before your eyes, it was two long seconds before my Juggernaut erupted, its body crumpling in the corner of the stage. I stared, mouth agape. A standing ovation must be had, even if it’s just a solitary one, and I stood on my seat, clapping so enthusiastically that my palms hurt.
Such dazzling displays of athleticism are only some of the thrills LawBreakers offers. If you’ve played enough competitive shooters, you know that death and defeat are merely a rite of passage. Thankfully, LawBreakers brims with so much pizazz and nuance that losses don’t feel as repetitive or discouraging. Its carefully curated tension only adds to hard-won victories. It also has twists on traditional multiplayer shooter modes. Overcharge (an intense take on the traditional “Capture the Flag” mode) requires teams to steal a battery from the opposing team and fully charge it at their base to score a point. Since stolen batteries retain their charge, this gives both teams plenty of motivation to wrestle back the item and still win the match at the eleventh hour, making every round one of raw tension. Other modes such as Turf Wars, Occupy, Uplink and Blitzball aren’t that far of a stretch from the classic modes they were inspired by, but they complement and boost the game’s blistering pace just as well.
Of course, its most iconic and lauded mechanic is its anti-gravity, which excels at giving the combat a sense of momentum. The bountiful aerial spaces have strangely been neglected by most shooters, and this is a peculiarity that developers Boss Key Productions were quick to notice. While imbuing its players with greater dexterity, aerial combat also makes skirmish a little more difficult. With ample room for both vertical and horizontal movements, there are plenty more ways for players to plot and refine their tactics. The ‘blindfire’ mechanic also keeps fights invigorating, allowing heroes to haphazardly spray bullets behind them. I’ve not seen anyone be demolished by blindfire attacks, but the maneuver feels handy as a means to propel your character mid-flight. Plus, the bigger your gun, the more force its propulsion offers. With clever use of your firearms, you can adjust and accelerate the intensity of your skyward launch.
LawBreakers does have its issues. And in a genre dominated by the immense popularity of shooter behemoths like Overwatch and Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, it simply couldn’t find its footing, plodding along with a low concurrent player rate and even dipping to below 30 in October last year. Like the equally doomed Battleborn, some have pegged the game’s dismal reception to a combination of dull classes, uninspired aesthetics and steep difficulty — issues that are, quite frankly, also prevalent even in well-received titles.
Nonetheless, these missteps are hard to overlook. LawBreakers might pulsate with boundless energy, zipping between spontaneous movements and on-the-feet strategizing, but this performance is exhilarating mostly on a mechanical level. Talking about its thrills is akin to detached discussions about the smooth handling of a weapon. The contrast between the cast's grey personalities and their colourful capabilities is too apparent to ignore. Most of them are teeming with the same, nearly unbearable braggadocio that makes the lineup so unfortunately forgettable.
On a superficial level, the cast’s lack of charisma and even their shape hindered combat to an extent, since everyone’s silhouette looks almost identical from afar. But beyond this lies a more troubling implication. In contrast to the bombastic personalities of the Overwatch heroes, the LawBreakers roster struggled to stand out, even with its impressive diversity. An exasperating, unhelpful tutorial also makes learning about the classes even more dubious. I skipped it out of boredom to head straight to the live matches, and I'm lucky that I still have a full scalp after all that hair-pulling frustration.
But as LawBreakers jetpacks towards its end in September, the Juggernaut in the room (LawBreakers’ ostensible similarities to Overwatch) becomes harder to ignore. With Overwatch’s massive success, many have already looked to the title as a paragon of what a hero shooter should be. However, from its outwardly colourful cast to analogous set of moves, LawBreakers’ resemblance to Blizzard's game is mostly skin-deep. After devoting only a few hours to the game you'll be able to see how LawBreakers is more influenced by creative director Cliff Bleszinski’s experiences with Unreal Tournament. Distinguishing the intricacies of both games takes time and commitment—which shrinks the already niche audience even more.
There were other excuses. LawBreakers' publisher, Nexon, said that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds may have sealed the game’s catastrophic fate. But this argument may not be entirely accurate, since PUBG Corp's battle royale was released months before LawBreakers. However, it probably influenced Boss Key Productions’ decision to develop their own battle royale title following their unloved hero shooter. Radical Heights was a gameshow-esque battle royale drenched in as much neon as it was bugs and glitches. In reality, it was already half in a shambles when it went into “x-treme early access” on Steam. Following LawBreakers’ failure to find a substantial audience, it was clearly a last-ditch attempt by the studio to stay above water — and it fizzled out. Quickly.
Through a combination of overwhelmingly tough competition, an uninspired roster of heroes, and its reputation as a punishing, skill-based shooter, LawBreakers will soon be joining the ranks of Battleborn and Paragon, banished to the graveyard of videogames for whom Overwatch has seemingly sounded the death knell. Thing is, I don’t think I’ll be ready to let it go come September. Its penchant for pushing its players’ boundaries, as well as bearing witness to their stunning acrobatics and superhuman reflexes, has given me some of the most exciting victories and losses I’ve experienced in a video game. The much-maligned LawBreakers simply doesn’t deserve such an unceremonious end.