Lawbreakers Hands-On Preview: Return of the Arena Shooter

Cliff Bleszinski will probably never fully escape the Gears of War legacy, but Lawbreakers feels like one hell of an attempt to. While it shares certain passing similarities including eye-rolling profanity and chunky splashes of blood, it almost feels as if the former Epic head founded a new studio just to break that mold. The very conceit of its central philosophy is about weightlessness, the world is colorful and alive, and it intends to welcome in newcomers with its fast pace and intuitive structure. 

Law and Breakers

Even the name asserts this refreshed identity. Lawbreakers has a double meaning, referring in one sense to the factions. They're literally called "law" and "breakers" in a cops-and-robbers-style competition. Each of the classes, four so far with more to come, has its mirror image on the other side. During my time I was able to choose from the all-around Enforcer, the specialist Vanguard, the nimble Assassin, or the hulking Titan. No matter your preference, the characters play identically on either side, resolving one big design and balance problem from the start.

The second meaning derives from the central conceit, which all the play revolves around: alterations to the law of gravity itself. Following some cataclysmic event (ominously called "The Shattering") that has left the law of gravity in random flux, each of the character classes has their own distinct ways of addressing it. The Vanguard has a rocket pack, the Assassin can swing from a grappling hook, and so on. That makes the combat take place vertically, and not just in the usual sense of a sniper perch or elevated platform. The arenas are large and wide open, and the mobility means attacks can come from any angle.

Assault and Battery

If that sounds akin to an old-school Quake or Unreal game, complete with jump pads, you have the right idea. In fact, by recognizing it, you may be the perfect target market. The experience felt like a very conscious throwback to the 90s-era shooter, dressed up with modern trappings like familiar but retinkered multiplayer modes.

For example, the one game mode I played during my hands-on was a twist on the classic Capture the Flag. In this case the flag was a battery, and rather than one for each team, we were both competing over the same token. The battery slowly charges, and once it's up to capacity a countdown begins. If that reaches its conclusion, the team scores. The uniqueness comes from the fact that the battery remains charged, leading to tense moments as our teams would snatch it away from each other, hovering ever-closer to victory. It's the kind of mode that encourages big risks and wild last-minute shots that can swing the game the other direction, giving it an definite eSport feel. 

All of the demo took place on Grandview, a base built into the Grand Canyon in the aftermath of the Shattering. Boss Key showed designs of other locales, like Mount Rushmore or downtown Los Angeles, and each of them feature a unifying design concept. This is post-post-apocalypse, a period that shows signs of progress and rebuilding after an earth-shaking event. It's simultaneously apocalyptic and hopeful in a way that I found refreshing.

"We wanted to get away from ‘we’ll never get better, we just gave up.’ That’s not really how it works," art director Tramell Isaac told me. "We wanted the world to reflect the real world. When things happen--9/11 for example--buildings were destroyed, but we rebuilt. There’s something new there."

Through several matches, I found myself leaning toward the Titan class. A large part of that was my seeming inability to fully grasp the mobility tools, and the Titan is the one class that relies on them the least. It's actually a very solid, grounded character, meant mostly for defensive play. Whether the learning curve is actually a steep one or if I'm simply better with both feet on the ground is hard to say given my limited time.

To its credit, though, high-level play is truly thrilling to watch. Boss Key developers held a sort of exhibition match among themselves, and it's as if I was watching an entirely different game. One player, who the other devs assured us was the best among them, could use the Assassin's grappling hook to traverse the entire map in moments by swinging along the outside of it. (Naturally, his job at the company is an environment artist.) Again, the potential as an eSport was incredibly apparent.

Floating the Idea

Lawbreakers does occasionally slip into familiar tropes. It really doesn't need to be destined for an M-rating, and some parts of its punchy visual aesthetic actively work against that impression. It seems to want to be a more grown-up challenger to games like Overwatch, but it may not need that to be its differentiating factor. The fluid, gravity-based gameplay is an homage to the games that helped create the multiplayer shooter genre 20 years ago. That should be sufficient to set it apart, both from competitors and from Gears of War.

This Lawbreakers preview was based on a pre-release PC demo of the game at an event where transportation and accommodations were provided by Nexon.

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