Boss Key's gravity defying shooter is fresh and familiar all at the same time.
We've seen some notable examples of zero or low gravity in video games. Dead Space immediately springs to mind. Super Mario Galaxy. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Then there was that level in Call of Duty: Ghosts that had you floating around an imploding space station orbiting Earth. Gravity Rush did it better than most. However, discounting Unreal's anti-grav boots and barring any gaps in our memory, our first real dip into the world of gravity affected multiplayer was in the Halo: Reach maps Zealot, Anchor 9 and Condemned. Now, several years later, Lawbreakers is here and it's scratching a very similar itch.
In fact, when looking back at Bungie's final Xbox exclusive, in hindsight it's clear to see that in many ways Halo: Reach was slightly ahead of its time. Yes every spartan was a faceless super soldier hidden behind a metal mask, but the introduction of different abilities such as the Jet Pack, Armour Lock, and Active Camo gave players a predefined role on the battlefield. We're not saying that it was the first, or even the chief inspiration for games that would follow - Overwatch, Evolve, Black Ops 3, or even Destiny - but it was certainly a part of the foundations upon which many others have since been built.
Which brings us nicely to Lawbreakers. The new arena shooter from Cliff "Cliffy B" Bleszinski's new studio, Boss Key Productions. It's a game that we've written about before, but recently the studio has been trying things out in a more public forum via invite-only alpha testing. This weekend past we got to grips with a title finally out in the wild, albeit in alpha, and found a shooter that fuses a mixture of polished class-based multiplayer with low-grav gunplay. Not only does it mix these things together, it does it well.
At this stage we've experimented with four different roles (playable across eight different characters) on two different maps, all focused around the Overcharge mode. The four roles are occupied by two characters a piece, one on each side of the Law-Breakers divide. It's a binary split in terms of morality, a straight up cops verse robbers theme that we've seen many times before, but it makes little difference as the roles fulfilled by the opposing characters are the same. It doesn't really matter whether you're a law maker or a law breaker, you still come to the battlefield sporting a particular skill set. We're not going to repeat things that you can read (or may have already read) in our first hands-on preview, but we will say that the four classes feel really distinct.
We got on quite well with the rocket launcher wielding Titan, and the mini-gun firing Vanguard, but the more squishy (but deadly up close) Assassin with her twin blades didn't do much for us. However, considering how many times she had us spewing expletives as we were sent to the respawn screen, we have to concede that the class is extremely effective when placed in capable hands. (There appears to be five classes, and we only saw four in this latest alpha, so by the looks of it there's more to come in the future, to be revealed further down the line.)
More important, at least for our purposes here, was the new map and the low gravity combat that unfolds within. The map that came with this latest alpha weekend - Promenade - follows one that we'd already seen during earlier hands-on, Grandview. Both are decent, and they offer up plenty of opportunities for a mixture of standard class-based shooter fare, and chaotic floaty combat. In Promenade the low-gravity zone is the centre piece, an area that wraps around a giant globe, and it's here that much of the action takes place.
The planetary statue also houses the battery that players tussle over in the Overcharge mode. At first it's a straight up race and battle over the centre ground, before one team grabs the battery and takes it back to base. Once it's safely in position it charges up over an extended period of time, meaning you need to defend it from your opponents who'll try and steal it away. And here's the kicker, the battery retains its charge, so you might defend it valiantly all the way up to 99%, for the enemy team to snatch it away and hightail it back to base for the final 1%. Once fully charged there's another short timer (that resets every time the battery is moved), ensuring a last ditch turnaround is always possible, but there's no room for error once you get to the endgame.
It's a neat mode, but it's not groundbreaking in any sense of the word. Thus we'd like to talk about what Lawbreakers does best. First there's over-the-shoulder shooting, which would have been a great feature had we managed to do anything meaningful with it during our time. We assume it's a clever trick that pros and more experienced players will utilise more effectively than the rest of us cannon fodder, at least at first. Then there's the special attacks, which in themselves aren't particularly innovative, but we challenge anyone not to enjoy firing Force lightning out of their fingers, or slamming down onto an enemy's head from a great height with devastating effect.
But even all the tricks and gadgets and big-ass weapons play second fiddle to all the gravity defying action. The low-grav areas seem to be the centrepieces of the maps, natural meeting points surrounded by twisting tunnels and more open areas on the periphery. Players waft in and out of battle, jumping over heads and using vertical movement to outwit their opponents in new ways. The action is frantic, and coupled with the aforementioned special abilities, there's potential for genuine chaos. In a good way. These areas are large enough, but not so big that they dominate the whole map (though we'd like to see one that's completely gravity free, that'd be fun).
It's this low-grav gameplay that defines Lawbreakers, and adds a layer on top of the experience that differentiates it from games that more closely resemble its component parts. On one side it's a slick arena shooter with aspirations of esports glory, and on the other it walks the increasingly congested path of hero-driven online multiplayer. Lawbreakers plays both of these roles well enough to make it a genuine contender, and it does so with an ace up its sleeve. Then again, it's entering into an arena with some serious heavyweights, and success is far from assured. However, we like what we've seen thus far and we're eager for more, and given the fact that we've only seen a sliver of what the final game will launch with, at this stage that's endorsement enough.