Cliff Bleszinski is not scared by the oversatured FPS market at the helm of his own studio, Boss Key Productionsand he has returned with a new IP, LawBreakers.
There isn’t much to talk about in terms of story or lore when it comes to LawBreakers. I know there is something, but I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to find what it was and now I’m starting to question my own memory. Truth be told, it isn’t even that important. Something happened to our planet (we all knew this day was coming anyway) or the moon and as a result the uniformity in our gravity field is pretty much gone. No-gravity zones have appeared serving as an annoyance to the pedestrians but also as a great navigation system in the endless battle between Law and Breakers.
LawBreakers is supposed to be an arena shooter, a sub-genre that was extremely popular at the end of the 90s but it has been in a continuous decline since the rise of Counter-Strike, Battlefield, Call of Duty and other team oriented shooters. There aren’t many games that bear this tag anymore and those that do usually have it at the bottom of a long list of other genres and bear little resemblance to the original concept. The meaning of arena shooters has probably been diluted and the few games that tried to get it back on track have failed lamentably. That’s probably one of the reasons why LawBreakers has took a more modern approach in its design prompting so many comparisons with Overwatch. But while I agree that games don’t exist in a vacuum, comparisons should be made only where they are due. The two games in question share few similarities which are pretty much part of the trending move of the current generation.
LawBreakers’ design philosophy is revolving around hardcore gameplay, the kind of gameplay where even the sky shouldn’t be the limit for the skill cap. This is one of the game’s strengths and probably one of its biggest weaknesses. It follows on the footsteps of its ancestor, Unreal Tournament, a game which Cliff Bleszinski has created. It blends fast movement mechanics with twitch shooting in a battle of skill and wits but with a set objective. This is a pretty difficult combination to put together in the same phrase, yet even more difficult to accommodate to when playing. In order to make this gameplay package more attractive for today’s gamers and add some depth while at it, LawBreakers has adopted a mix between the concepts of heroes and classes.
There are currently a total of 9 classes in LawBreakers. However, the game’s whole conflict is built around a faction duality in some sort of good guys versus bad guys scenario. This means that each faction has its own heroes, one for each class, coming with the quirky personalities and a fashion sense befitting for this crazy dystopian setting. The heroes aren’t really likeable, but for what they lack in personality they make up in gameplay. Each class is equipped with its own weapons ranging from jack of all trades rifles to rocket launchers and even blades (because what kind of future would this be without melee weapons against guns!). Some of the classes use 2 weapons which are meant to be used to even the balance in certain combat situations. While the weapons are different from one class to another, what sets them apart is their unique sets of skills designed to damage and outmaneuver opponents in a spectacular and mechanically unique fashion.
Each class has its own movement enhancing mechanic and a few damage dealing abilities including the nowadays customary ultimate. The abilities can be coordinated into deadly combos which a few classes rely upon. These unique loadouts differentiate the classes so much that there is an entirely new learning curve while switching from one to the other. Each class moves at a different pace on the map and excels in certain combat situations making all of them useful but not mandatory in a team composition. This draws a very thin balance line between classes making it hard to objectively notice if one is overpowered or underpowered meaning that there will always be talks within the community. But the developers are carefully watching and have already addressed the few cases that have thrown the balance in favor of certain classes. One of these changes has prompted a severe change of gameplay which makes me wonder about LawBreaker’s identity as a game.
The combination of classes and fast paced action make the kind that you either love or hate and even if you do end up loving it you might never get good at it which can be very discouraging. In the frenetic battle between Law and Breakers there is no time for accommodation and the game tutorials fail to prepare the players for what can be a stomping beginner’s experience. There is little to no room for camping so the basic strategy of a noob is out of the window as speed and fast reactions trump over the cheap strategy of hiding behind corners. Gaining speed and maintaining the momentum for as long as possible is crucial, requiring a mix of running, jumping, sliding or abilities in synchronization with the map’s layout. But while performing all these actions in a rhythmic manner can be a challenge on its own, gunning down enemies left and right with the twitch reactions and accuracy of a 14 year old is still the focus point. The shooting is solid with most guns being as accurate as one can be and the few that aren’t find compensation in other mechanics of the class that uses them. It’s a necessary compromise to have classes within the game unique and it works out great without diluting the shooting experience. Skill and knowledge are the primary factors while being more tactical is just a way to add finesse. It’s in the nature of the game to have the pace of a NASCAR race while requiring the accuracy of a sniper but this vertigo inducing action breaks when objectives come into play.
Seven maps (now eight) have been put at the player’s disposal specifically designed to complement this kind of gunning frenzy that’s still objective based. Each map has its own no-gravity zone meant to change the basic rules of the gameplay mechanics. It’s a place mixing order with chaos for the benefits of those that adjust in time. Speed can be gained in these areas and momentum can be retained while the shooting goes to a whole other level of skill requirements. A mechanic of shooting behind has been implemented using a scientific principle as a way for players to traverse through the no-gravity zones and having the chance of getting rid of any chasers.
Overall, there would be very little to complain about when talking about the compatibility between LawBreakers’ gameplay, its classes and map design. But at some point in the development, LawBreakers had to become something more than just an arena shooter and that’s pointed by the objective based game modes. I love team cooperation that comes out of fighting for objectives. However, objectives aren’t suitable for all gameplay styles and in the case of extremely skill based shooters they are more a drag than anything else. The fluidity of LawBreakers’ action is undeniably good but it’s incompatible with the current game objective based modes. This ends up creating a schism between the players who want to enjoy the gameplay and those who want to win, further damaging the experience. I would say that a team deathmatch mode would easily solve this problem, but shockingly enough this wasn’t in the game at launch. Luckily for those still playing the game, the developers are committed to improve LawBreakers providing constant fixes and an insight on the thought process behind the changes that are made. The game’s content is also free with new classes/heroes, game modes and maps being already planned for the foreseeable future.
LawBreakers’ visual design is a pot of forcefully mixed ingredients. On the technical side, the game’s visuals are above the average featuring sharp textures, particle effects and detailed models with little to no stiff animations. The level design is pretty spot on as well with a lot of attention going into creating visually unique maps that fit the thematic while still prioritizing layouts built for fluid and fast paced gameplay. The results are some pleasing looking aesthetics that can’t be taken seriously and which is pretty much intentional. The maps are components of a somewhat deranged world and the characters fighting on them act accordingly, each crazier than the last. There is a grown up vibe in the artistic direction which feels rather forced and it often falls flat as unappealing and even cringy which is a much bigger visual problem than the few effects clipping through walls.
There is nothing I could reproach about LawBreaker’s sound design and music aside of maybe being unremarkable which I’m not sure if it is something negative. The sound effects have a good quality to them being distinguishable even during the most chaotic fights and the music is well synchronized with the action and the game’s theme. But you’ll never leave a session of LawBreakers with one of the songs stuck in your head and a compulsive to have it on your player.
As someone who enjoys LawBreakers I would have been glad if the game’s problems would have stopped with the ones mentioned above. But I still have a few grievances about unfixed problems, missing features and practices that we shouldn’t endorse anymore. I’m not going to spend time talking about the annoying queued reload action or the missing ranked and matches’ highlights. But I would like to dedicate a few words to the practice that has gotten some of the more trust worthy critics on the internet quite riled up in the past months; lootboxes. LawBreakers has its own version of lootboxes which greatly resembles the system that was popularized by Overwatch. I used to tolerate this practice a while ago, saying that it adds to the game’s sense of progression and implicitly increasing the replay value. Which is actually true, but at what expense? Lootboxes are a sort of gambling, which is tolerable when using in-game currency, but the developers rarely (if ever) stop there. More often than not actual money are involved, preying on the gullibility of the consumer and their desire for boosters and cool looking skins. It’s unfortunate that I have to lash out in this review since LawBreakers is a damn cheap game and has an option to purchase skins separately with currency gained in-game. But this is about a malignant practice that has now spread to the singleplayer video games and has to be extirpated before it is too late.
Lawbreakers is a throwback to the glory days of arena shooters but with enough tinkering to look appealing in the new age. However, the game’s fresh take on a once popular subgenre hasn’t managed to find its audience. The reasons for LawBreakers’ commercial failure are many. An oversatured FPS market has led many games to ruin as the genre’s giants leave room only for particularly niche titles. And while one can argue that LawBreakers is a niche title itself, the underwhelming marketing campaign failed to set it apart from games like Overwatch. Ultimately, these problems lead to a slow start which rapidly lowered the playerbase keeping potential customers away from the game out of fear.
I’m not sure if LawBreakers can be saved at this point in time, but I don’t regret the many hours I’ve spent with it. I hope Boss Key Productions find a way to revitalize the game and bring more players to it because LawBreakers deserves a much higher playerbase.
(This article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)
+ Frenetic skill based gameplay
+ Unique and fun to play classes
+ Solid map design
+ A few innovative mechanics
+ Good netcode
+ Cheap price
+ Free content
– The incompatibility between the gameplay and objective based modes
– The artistic direction is uninspired at times
– No ranked matches
– Low playerbase
– Loot boxes