LawBreakers first look

After only a few minutes in the Boss Key studios it’s clear they’re people who like stuff. From the statues and paintings of game characters decorating every shelf to the pride with which they present their office — a restored building dating back to 1903 — they want to live the look they believe in. Every member of the team has a desk littered with loot — there’s a lot of video game history in there. Which makes sense: LawBreakers is their new first person shooter, Boss Key the new studio of Gears of War developer Cliff Bleszinski. Much of the talent there are people who’ve worked with Bleszinski for years, mostly on titles that made him the common name in shooters that he is now.

Still from Lawbreakers (pre-beta)

So it didn’t surprise me to see how the team’s very physical, grounded focus comes across in the game when I sat down with LawBreakers last week at the Boss Key offices. Compared to this year’s other upcoming class-based shooters, it has a more realistic, muted tone. Guns are sized to a character’s frame, studded with details and sci-fi doodads, yes, but not so large as to dwarf the person carrying them. Much of the game looks like something you could actually hold.

LawBreakers isn’t quite to beta yet, but its core gameplay concepts are there. It’s a close-quarters five-on-five team shooter. Players are one of five character classes, each with different special powers and weapon loadout. The game’s got very standard shooting and movement, but character powers and map environments can change gravity, lending sudden strangeness to how even veteran shooter players interact with environments.

The map they were showing off was a good example of both the game’s design and artstyle: a duo of high-tech buildings on either side of a serene Japanese-style garden. While LawBreakers doesn’t have the pastels and neons of other shooters coming out this year, the artists are doing a lot with a ‘standard’ palette. They know how color works, and the maps pop despite the comparatively muted tones. In the map I played, the greys-and-blues of industry flowed well into the greys-and-greens of a stone garden, set off by the red-painted wood, jade statues, and twisting sculpted trees.

A lot of this world’s looks come from the mind of Jay Hawkins, Boss Key’s senior concept artist. Hawkins is a sharp designer who knows what his audience wants. He came up with the iconic Lancer — Gears of War’s chainsaw-bayonet assault rifle. I spoke with him while he was mid-project on the game’s just-announced fifth character type, a kind of gunslinger whose work-in-progress role name is “Scout.” The Law version of the character is an angelic looking, sleek killer. The other, for the Breakers side, is infected with a sort of technological virus, and has a strange horn-like visor — a bit of a demon look.

“Every character has to have two models, because even though there’s symmetrical gameplay, each class is a different person on each team,” said Hawkins. The design for the scouts started with an off-the-wall idea from Cliff Bleszinski, Boss Key’s CEO.  “The other day Cliff B comes in here and says he wants the guy to have horns. Like a demon. So I went to Tramell [Isaac], our art director, and told him that.” Hawkins rolled his eyes, but it’s clear that the sudden disruption is something he doesn’t mind. “The horns turned into this kind of pointed visor he’s wearing. I’m not sure what it does, but it looks pretty cool.”

For all the stylization, the characters are much the ones you’d expect from Bleszinski and his team. They’re still interested in the same kind of characters he’s always liked to play with: Criminals, law enforcement, drug runners, vigilantes. The game’s basics, too, feel right out of 2004. You’re pretty slow at your base speed and you can’t rely on dodging enemy shots. The weapons are assault rifles, missile launchers, machine guns. All skill shots, but pretty hard to miss if you’re at least pointed the right way. Standard shooter gameplay, most of the time, and at a pace you’re familiar with.

That’s not to say it’s dated. The suite of character powers gets the basics you’d want in a modern game. Everybody has some kind of speed boost, whether it’s Maverick’s literal jet boosters or one of the rocket-toting heavies leaping through the air for a shockwave attack. Even the Enforcer-type characters, the Assault Rifles & Ironsights guy, can pop out a personal bubble of sped-up time to kick it into high gear.

Still from Lawbreakers (pre-beta)

The mode we played was about retrieving a battery and charging it up at your team’s base, then defending it for twenty seconds. During that process, it could be stolen and returned to the enemy base, but it retained its charge either way. It was a twist on single flag capture the flag that provided lots of moments of tension and adrenaline. Stealing the battery when the enemy team gets it to 100% charge then blitzing back to your base for a point was a real rush.

Where LawBreakers really gets going is when the gravity turns off (or backwards, or down, or just weird.) Parts of each map are bubbles of lowered gravity, where a simple jump sends you to the second story and firing your gun behind you sends you rocketing forward. (There’s a button for that, and yes, you can get kills that way.) Some classes also do things like pop out a bubble of nullified gravity, where firing your weapon at an enemy will just send you spinning away from them. All that comes with a suite of impressive animations and deaths the Boss Key people were thrilled to show us. And, to be fair, the zero-G blood trail from a shot enemy is pretty cool.

It’s delightfully frenetic gameplay, all about seamlessly switching roles to what you need on attack or defense. Have a handful of seconds to snatch the battery before your enemy gets a score? Go for the afterburners and jet in with a minigun. On defense? Maybe you should put your TF2 skills to work with a rocket launcher. Vying for map control? The Assassin has rope swinging skills that put Spider-Man to shame. That said, if you prefer one class you’ll spend time feeling worthless as you hump your way across the map at low speeds.

It’s very different from the class-based shooters other studios are releasing this year if only because it doesn’t feel driven by the interaction of gimmicky, battlefield-warping abilities. Every character requires solid shooter skills to play – even the melee ones need to know when to pull out the shotgun — but those skills come from different sources. It makes the game pretty accessible for a dabbler in shooters like myself, though, because I can pick a character that uses the skills I learned in my Team Fortress 2 days and go up against someone with a more Call of Duty-style shooter sentiment. I felt like I could contribute while I learned other characters. I expect that the pros will be racking up quad-kills on day one – they’re well versed in every game type LawBreakers draws from — but I held my own. That said, high level play won’t have room for specialists in just one class — saying “I only play Enforcer” will probably lose your team the match.

Still from Lawbreakers (pre-beta)

Building that community of gravity breaking strategists will take time and a live play environment. For example, the Assassin has a grappling hook that’s like a whip. You can attach it to an ally or enemy to pull yourself right to them. That takes a charge– and the weapon only has three at once. Enter clever beta testers, who figured out how to attach a chain of Assassins to each other. That way, nobody but the first character is using their whip to travel quickly. Everyone else gets pulled along having used only one charge. “We never saw that coming,” said a Boss Key designer. “But once we saw them do it, well, we made sure it worked well.”

I had a similar experience in fiddling with the toys in LawBreakers — I figured out that if I used Maverick’s afterburner blast on an incoming opponent, I could push them back into a low gravity or zero-g area nearby. They’d conserve their momentum into that special physics zone and go flying, turning the power’s usual moment’s respite into thirty seconds of relaxation while my abilities recharged and I reloaded.

That much variety out of a game with only four playable character classes was impressive – more impressive than I’d expected LawBreakers to be. So far, it’s a good classic shooter with the best bits of modern mechanics cherry-picked for the top. If the execution keeps up at this rate, LawBreakers will be a beautiful blend of familiar play and gravity-defying twists. That said, it has stiff competition. Other class-based shooters are simply flashier, or more accessible, appealing more quickly to players with a limited skill set. Whether this island of tradition can get noticed in a sea of innovation remains to be seen.