We went to North Carolina to check out Boss Key's debut shooter.
It often astonishes us how effective a healthy competitive market can be. Consumers have clearly been itching for a new colourful arena shooter, and now we're getting games like Battleborn, Overwatch and Lawbreakers to scratch that itch. Competition is ultimately good for the consumer, because it forces the developers to deliver a quality product in order to achieve success. Additionally, it means that each game needs to offer something unique, so it stands out from the crowd. Cliff "Cliffy B" Bleszinski is a veteran in the industry who has worked on some hugely successful franchises, like Unreal Tournament and Gears of War, and he clearly knows what it takes to achieve success. Lawbreakers is further evidence of this. It's a hectic, fast and different arena shooter that ought to make the competition nervous.
Recently the news broke that Lawbreakers would not be employing a free-to-play model (as previously announced) and that it would also aim for a more mature artstyle. The move away from free-to-play is a result of Boss Key not feeling right about putting price tags on characters and arenas. They didn't want the game to feel pay-to-win in any way. They arrived at the simple conclusion to charge for the entire game up front and let all characters and arenas be free from there on, without the need to pay anything extra in order to be successful. According to Bleszinski, you will be able to pay for new skins, but nothing that'll give you a gameplay advantage. The reason for the move towards a mature artstyle is described by Bleszinski as a need for "less Pixar, more Tarantino", when playing an arena shooter. He wants to see the blood splatter after he kills someone.
There is another reason for the bloody approach that's not lost on Bleszinski: esports. It's no big secret that Boss Key Productions would like to enter the esports scene with Lawbreakers, but as it was put to us: "show me a developer making an arena shooter who wouldn't want to be played in esports tournaments". The question is not whether they would like to push towards esports, but how they can achieve this. Bleszinski thinks success in that area depends on one important element: the golden moments. Moments of pure chaos and unpredictability that makes audiences sit on the edge of their collective seat. It's moments that can't be programmed or planned; you can only give the players different mechanics while playing the characters and hope that they make them happen.
How does Boss Key Productions try to facilitate this? The moon has been blown up after a failed experiment, which in turn brought about earthquakes and destruction on our blue planet. Luckily, the game does not take place on another brown post-apocalyptic world, where everything is trying to end you. Quite the opposite, the game is set after society has been rebuilt, so we get to run around killing people in places like a colourful Japanese-inspired house with waterfalls and greenery all around. But Earth will never go back to being what it was, because after fragments of the Moon hit our planet, there are small areas where gravity doesn't quite work as intended. In the arena we played there was a battery in the middle of the map that both teams were trying to capture - think of it as capture the flag with the added task of charging the battery fully to score a point. Surrounding the battery was a field of low gravity, which enabled even the biggest titan to float weightlessly above everyone else. It's a scary sight, seeing such a huge and powerful warrior fly above your head, but also an entertaining one, which is exactly what Bleszinski was talking about when he mentioned those golden moments. We managed to kick an assassin away from us and into the zero gravity field, after which we shot her several times in the head and had the pleasure of seeing her body slowly drifting away while the blood was dripping from the hole in her cranium. Tarantino would have been proud.
At the core of the game you find a classic cops and robbers scenario, here they're called Laws and Breakers. The same characters are playable on both sides, so it doesn't matter if you're Law or Breaker; you will still get to play as Enforcer, Titan, Vanguard and Assassin, without there being any difference to them other than their personalities. More characters are bound to be revealed when we get closer to release, but for now, these were the four we were allowed to play. Enforcer is the classic shooter character with some accessible mechanics, which will make him a favourite with beginners. He's equipped with a gun that works well at medium range and should the enemy get too close, he can quickly shift to his secondary pistol that does a lot of damage up close. With your Bloodhound Launcher - that needs time to recharge after use - you can send missiles after your opponents. They rarely miss if you manage to lock onto your target.
The Titan is a slower character, but it's possible to fly swiftly through the air if you know how to use him properly. Every character has the opportunity to put their weapon over their shoulder and shoot backwards, which can be effective if you try to flee a battle and recover your health, but for the Titan especially, the backwards shooting contains extra value. If you jump into to a field with zero gravity and shoot backwards, the weapon will send you speeding forward. Conversely if you shoot forward against an enemy, you will fly backwards, something you have to get used to playing the Titan. Vanguard and Assassin are faster characters with less health, where the Assassin in particular demands quick reactions with her two swords and nimble feet. Equipped with a grappling hook, she is able to swing herself like Spider-Man, or connect her hook to an opponent and fly towards them.
However, how they work individually is not the full story, you also need to factor in how they work together. As the Titan we managed to steal the opposing team's battery in their base, but had trouble running out without getting killed. A Vanguard teammate came flying to our aid, did a Starfall - he plunges towards the ground and creates a small area of zero gravity - which gave us the opportunity to ascend above the heads of our enemies and then run away with the battery. It's times like these where Bleszinski's words about golden moments ring true and you see the esports potential of the game.
As fans of the first-person shooter genre we have played a lot of titles over the years, but Lawbreakers still managed to give us something we hadn't experienced before. We have been trained to check our surroundings horizontally in countless shooters, but in Lawbreakers you have to be aware of the vertical too. It may seem like a small detail, but it makes a world of difference when you have to look up and down, as well as maintain focus on your sides. It's proof of Boss Key Productions' hard work that the game never got confusing, not even as we were floating in zero gravity with enemies attacking us from above and below. Some players are likely to find it confusing and frustrating at times, but we managed to fly in and out of zero gravity with a full sense of our surroundings.
When we read the game would aim for a more mature look, we feared that the blood splatter would be the only thing separating Lawbreakers from Overwatch. Having tried the game we're confident that this is not the case. Blizzard are still masters of their craft, but it would be foolish to underestimate Boss Key Productions. Lawbreakers has moved away from any sort of pay-to-win scenario, the characters complement each other well, and zero gravity makes for a vertical arena shooter unlike anything we've tried before. Those golden moments arrive constantly, and therein lies the potential for success, both with with gamers and in the pro scene.