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Hands On: Lawbreakers

A sporty shooter, but not an esports shooter

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.

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Rob Zacny