Developer Boss Key Productions
The mid-1980s: a young boy sits on his parents’ front lawn in Boston playing with an Optimus Prime figure, completely unaware of the horror that’s about to follow. Out of nowhere, the hit her to-unwavering attractive force that keeps everything on the floor goes topsy-turvy, and the kid finds himself grasping for handfuls of grass as he’s pulled away from the ground, desperate to keep himself from tumbling up into the atmosphere where he’ll likely freeze, suffocate or burn to death. This recurring nightmare plagued Gears Of War designer
Cliff Bleszinski’s childhood, but his traumatic vision also helped to inspire his new studio’s first game, LawBreakers.
Set in 2098, society is 25 years into rebuilding itself after a cataclysmic event known as The Shattering. Shady government experiments on the lunar surface went spectacularly awry, causing the Moon to explode (a setup which lends itself, Bleszinski says, “to some pretty nice skyboxes”), and in turn triggering devastating earthquakes on Earth. It’s a frothy spin on the dream, of course, but the result is a world in which gravity behaves unpredictably. It’s also one where a resourceful population has learnt to harness gravity, controlling its strength and building equipment that can subvert it on demand. But despite such an industrious, can-do attitude, the Moon isn’t the only thing that has been fragmented, and society has split into two factions – Law and Breakers – both locked in a war over a new breed of drugs that effect superhuman powers in users.
Don’t worry, we didn’t take it all in at first, either. Fortunately, this is simply the catalyst for a smartly balanced five-on-five firstperson arena shooter in which variously equipped combatants ‘beat gravity into submission’. Both the Law and Breakers sides have access to variants on the same five categories of specialist (though only four are accessible in the alpha build we play), all carrying two weapons and with three cooldown-limited special abilities.
We play on the Law side, and the first of the classes, the Enforcer, proves the most
traditional. Carrying an electroshock handgun and a moderately powerful rifle with comfortingly familiar ADS when you right click, he makes for a good on-ramp as you acclimatise to Boss Key’s idiosyncratic take on the genre. His shoulder-mounted missile launcher spits out a barrage of homing projectiles, while an Electromag Charge acts like an EMP which inhibits other players’ use of their abilities. The Distortion Field mapped to the Shift key functions almost like a traditional sprint, delivering a temporary kick of speed that also increases the movement, firing and reload speeds of any friendlies in the vicinity.
Things get more eccentric once you venture into other categories. The Assassin, for example, wields a pair of blades, devastating up close, and can quickly dart about the place in short bursts. Right clicking fires an energy-based grappling hook which can be used to pull yourself in close to enemies, or swing quickly around the level. Other abilities allow her to shunt aggressors away, deflect incoming projectiles, and enter a frenzied state in which all enemies are visible through walls and she can be healed from kills (ordinarily, all characters can only heal by using medical stations).
Then there’s the Titan, LawBreakers’ tank character, who can leap large distances and crash down on opponents, enter into a berserk mode and shoot electricity from his fingers, and throw mines that increase gravity and slow down faster-moving opponents. Finally, the Vanguard can fly for a time using her jetpack, crash into the ground and lower gravity around her in the process – sending combatants flailing through the air – and channel afterburner fuel into a beam of hot death that will incinerate anyone in the way and send her flying backwards out of danger.
That it’s taken three paragraphs just to lay out the basics is indicative of the steep learning curve that lies in wait for new players. We continually reach for traditional control mappings and find ourselves accidentally unleashing an unrelated ability, and getting a handle on just one character takes several rounds of experimentation.
“At the beginning that learning curve is pretty tough,” Bleszinski admits. “But, I mean, parkour wasn’t a thing until Assassin’s Creed made it one. When you’re putting features in your game that you think you need because other games have them, you’re not making stuff that makes you unique. You’re like, ‘Well, we have to have CTF, or a medic class…’ Why? ‘Because other games have it.’ Who the fuck says that? If we have a sniper or a medic in
Getting a handle on just one character takes several rounds of experimentation
this game, it’s going to be a very light version of it, but it’s not going to be one of these games where you spawn, walk five minutes, get shot by someone in a ghillie suit, and then do it again. For me, that’s not fun. Maybe [we could do] a character that can occasionally zoom across the map with one of their powers and snipe. Or one who has a burst that heals their whole team and then they get back to shooting – is there something different we can do? I think we’re making some of our own archetypes in this game.”
We put these archetypes to work in a mode called Overcharge, which sees each side trying to take possession of a battery that spawns at the centre of the map. The cell must be brought back to your base in order to charge it, and the round is won when it’s full. The device retains its charge even when moved, which means it’s possible to steal from the opposing team at the last minute and snatch an extremely cheeky victory. The first team to two charges wins.
Our first session is a tense, close-run match that sees the battery move back and forth as each team’s best efforts to defend the prize come unstuck. The charge ticks up into the 90 per cent range while the battery sits in the enemy’s base, and several concerted attempts to take it back fail. At 99 per cent, we launch one last-ditch assault against a dug-in and confident team, using the Vanguard to quickly get across the Yakuza-owned Grand Canyon-based map, Grandview. But this means that when we reach the base we have no boost left to power a dash out of there, and waiting for the cooldown timer will see our opponents take the victory. We accept inevitable death and defeat as we walk towards the battery amid the chaos of a battle that rages around us, and somehow deplete its defensive shields and begin the walk out of there unharmed. We still can’t dash, but the exit’s in sight, and suddenly the impossible seems in reach. We stroll out of the base under the protection of our allies and use the blind-fire skill (available to all characters and activated with control) to shoot over our shoulder, providing additional suppression fire and propelling us through a low-gravity area of the level in the centre. We return the battery to our base and take the point, winning the match in the process. We feel battered and out of breath, as if we’ve just survived a sky dive with a failed parachute. “That was crazy!” art director Tramell
Isaac offers after watching our unlikely steal. “At the end of other FPS games, it’s like, yeah, your team won, but I never feel like I actually
did anything. But regardless of how many people you killed or how many times you died, in that match you were the guy that scored the last point, and that’s the thing that makes people feel special. And that point was so contested – it’s a moment you’re going to live with for a while.”
“My mantra to the design staff was to make game types that end in drama,” Bleszinski explains. “In the last few years I’ve really become a fan of American football, where it just ends with these exciting moments. Overcharge is a mode that ends with a lot of last-minute upsets and a lot of last-minute steals.”
Boss Key may have moved to a grittier visual style to distinguish itself from the new wave of candy-coloured shooters, but
LawBreakers already stands apart thanks to its unconventional ideas and bold rewiring of traditional character classes, modes and even controls. The result is a game that doesn’t immediately click in the way of firstperson shooters that operate within an established template, and one that will likely have new players floundering for a time. But that also makes it feel refreshing in a genre that so voraciously recycles ideas.
“We’re finding these things, twisting them and making them our own,” Bleszinski says. “Which in my opinion is just good game creation. It’s hard, but we can do that because we’re small. One of my programmers codes up a new character class over the course of a week, and then we’re in the lab testing him. He gets feedback, goes right back to his desk, fixes and modifies it; I give my feedback; next thing you know we have a character ready to go into our production pipeline. Between myself and everyone on the team there’s like 1,000 years of game development experience. We’ve done this before. We’re still learning things about monetisation and the new world order of games as a service, but we know how to make a cool game. We’ve been doing it for years.”
In Overcharge, batteries must be powered up in giant chargers like the one you see here. This battery is fully charged, and in seven more seconds our team will take the point. If we can defend it
Art director Tramell Isaac previously worked on Fallout
Titan-class Chronos prepares to discharge while Vanguardclass Maverick swoops in for the kill. You can change characters between rounds, but it’s worth sticking with each for a while in order to master their various abilities
TOP LEFT Batteries appear under the bell in the centre of this courtyard. The gravity in this space is much lower than in the rest of the level, meaning encounters mostly take place while airborne.
ABOVE Like the new Doom rocket launcher, the Titan’s projectiles can be detonated at will in order to catch out enemies who manage to clear its direct path
LEFT While both teams are made up of the same type of specialists, encounters are often asymmetrical, as fastmoving characters clash with slower ones, and handheld weapons vie with ranged tools. Understanding every character’s prowess and limitations is essential