It’s hard not to get excited about LawBreakers' [official site] simple hook: flying military grunts with rockets strapped to their feet zip around zero gravity arenas dodging grenades and pumping bullets into each other. I'm happy to report that it's as fun as it sounds, and its ideas set it apart from other games in the genre. Yet what has impressed me more is how polished it is away from those aerial segments, which actually only make up part of the action. Far from a one-trick pony, LawBreakers is a rock solid shooter with game modes that necessitate team play, and although it's not fully complete yet (there's ranked play coming soon) it's got enough variety to keep me coming back for more.
But let's start with the zero G bits, seeing as they're the standout feature. In each of the game's eight maps there's a sector, normally bang in the middle, where the laws of physics are suspended (or broken, hence the game's title). Now, I’ve never been good at movement-focused shooters, bouncing off the likes of Tribes: Ascend and losing countless matches of Quake because I couldn’t handle the fast pace, so I thought I'd be similarly stumped here. But LawBreakers is accessible, and slower than it first looks. The controls are basically WASD in 3D, and are therefore easy to get the hang of. You hold W and move the mouse to glide in the direction you're facing: point up and you’ll rise to the sky, face down and you’ll float to the ground. Simple enough.
There are some fine points to master, naturally. Working out momentum is the big one – you don’t immediately switch direction when you turn your mouse, and I consistently overshot my marks early on. You can press Ctrl to shoot behind you too, which gives you a bit of a forward push. The nine classes each have a movement ability as well, which consume fuel to give you a speed boost. An Assassin can dash forward a short distance while a Vanguard has afterburners to zoom around for as long as her tank lasts, for example. They’re easy to understand, and combined with the intuitive WASD controls I had the general idea down within the first hour. When the bullets were flying I found I didn't have to think too much about my movement, which is a good sign.
And those fights really are spectacles: you'll often get both teams of five airborne, some wielding rifles, some rocket launches, some swinging around with a knife in one hand and a grappling hook in the other. The challenge is tracking your enemies while staying agile: even random movement is normally good enough to throw off an opponent's aim. Rockets and grenades are difficult to land, while hit scan weapons are more reliable but do less damage. You'll always find something to point your gun at, and timing your boosts to slip through narrow gaps or under bridges feels great, especially when you're chasing down an enemy for the kill.
These fights aren't happening in abstraction, either, and they're only part of LawBreakers' appeal. Its game modes, based on old-school favourites like capture the flag, utilise the whole map, often shifting the action from the zero gravity segments to firmer ground and then back again. In Overcharge, my favourite out of the five modes available, teams battle for control of a battery at the centre of the map. If you can grab it and bring it back to a base near your spawn then it will start charging. Once it hits 100%, you get a point. The other team can steal it back at any time and the charge is shared, so even if you hold on until it hits 90% you risk getting gazumped by a sneaky foe that slips in and yanks it away for a quick win.
It’s got a lovely rhythm to it, starting with an initial jockey in the centre of the map. That’s where the anti-gravity fun happens. Then the fight moves to one of the teams' bases, where gravity is back to normal (although some heroes still have boosters to fly around). Then, someone might steal it away, prompting a chase through the anti-gravity section as the battery carrier dodges bullets and rockets, bringing their charge home to their own base.
It's in these more confined spaces that the most frantic firefights happen, fuelled by character's unique abilities. In addition to a movement ability (dash, hover, etc) each character has two other skills, including one ultimate ability that’s on a longer cooldown. I spent most time with the Enforcer, who’s a good all-rounder with an automatic rifle. His Shift ability is basically a sprint, but also grants a speed boost to nearby allies and makes him fly through the air faster. Press E and he’ll lob an EMP grenade that disables enemy abilities, while his Q ability (the powerful one) is a lock-on missile strike.
Because LawBreakers focuses the action in small areas – whether it’s at the battery charge station or the lone, mobile capture point in the Occupy mode – your allies will instinctively group up and work together. And when two teams clash there's fireworks, with abilities flying everywhere. Admittedly these indoor fights are not as flashy as the aerial ones outside, but they're still impressive. Guns are punchy, movement is responsive and animations are slick. And because of the small team size you can have a real impact: a well placed EMP from the Enforcer can really halt an enemy push, for example.
Admittedly, the firefights are a tad more impressive than the maps themselves. Away from the anti-gravity bits they're the same mixture of choke points, flanking routes and open spaces that you've seen in other shooters, and they look a bit bland. However, there’s enough variety in the playlist to stop you getting bored. One map is completely anti-gravity, which is a real test of skill. One swaps out anti-gravity zones for jump pads and air streams that keep you bobbing up and down around a central capture point. Some have globes with their own gravitational pulls, so you can orbit round them without pressing any buttons, or use them to bend your flight for the perfect push onto the central control point.
That variety extends to the classes, which are different enough to feel fresh every time you swap. I’ve spent a lot of time with the Combat Medic – the only class that can heal (there are health packs and health stations on the map, too). He's never out of the action for long because all the healing is done by drones, deployed by pressing E, and his grenade launcher can really do work. If I just wanted to focus on kills I picked the Vanguard, who can chase enemies down with her on-board rocket boosters and gatling gun.
But while Lawbreakers' firefights will keep me coming back, there’s one thing that could the game crashing down to earth: the matchmaking. Other than playing custom games with friends your only option to find a match is Quick Play, which endlessly cycles through the various maps and game modes. It’s perfect for learning the game, exposing you to everything it has to offer. But, like almost every quick play mode in shooters, there are drawbacks.
Players can and regularly do leave games without punishment. Once one person leaves it’s hard to avoid a downward spiral where your team is dominated, and more players drop out. Its biggest problem is its lack of meaningful progression system. You gain XP and level up as you play but all that does is give you loot crates with cosmetic items. A ranked mode that gives you something to play for and filters out potential leavers is desperately needed.
And, thankfully, it’s coming. The developer’s plan is to see how the game pans out, listen to feedback, balance game modes and maps and then implement ranked play. That sounds good. But it means that the game is basically unfinished. As fun as its combat is, there's nothing to keep you coming back consistently. As I write this, LawBreakers’ peak player count is falling every day (currently around 1,300), presumably because players have drunk their fill and are losing interest. If developer Boss Key Productions wait too long to introduce ranked matches then there won’t be a fan base left to play them.
That would be a real shame, because LawBreakers is more than good enough to foster a large community. Its zero gravity segments offer something that no other FPS can, and everywhere else it’s a solid, polished shooter. If you like the sound of it then I’d jump in now and build up some experience. That way, when ranked play launches, you’re ready to blast off.