The arena shooter genre is a tough nut to crack. Over the years many a small upcoming studio has had a go at carving themselves out a corner of a genre that has the potential to elevate a developer operating successfully within it. Therefore the mixture of big budget behemoths and punchy indie offerings makes for a competitive marketplace, nevertheless that's where Cliff Bleszinski's Boss Key Productions decided to make their first stand after the former Epic man set up shop as an independent developer (in this case, with support from Nexon). Based on what we've seen so far of the studio's debut game, Lawbreakers, we have every hope that this sci-fi shooter is going to thrive and survive.
We say "what we've seen so far" because at this stage it's hard to make statements with any certainty. Games in the online shooter space can grow, like Rainbow Six: Siege has shown, while seemingly surefire hits can tank like Battleborn did; success very much rests in the hands of the communities that build around these games. What we can say at this stage, however, is that the groundwork that Boss Key has laid down should ensure that Lawbreakers has every chance of staying the course, because the studio has crafted a very good game, even if the offering is a little on the lean side at launch.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the slow start to life endured by the game following its release. The player count is on the low side, and this results in sluggish matchmaking, and even if you do get a prompt game, you'll often find yourself warming up while you wait for additional players to make up the numbers. This is a shame because apart from the relative lack of content (which we'll come to shortly), this is the only significant complaint we have. Boss Key has laid out a great buffet, but it seems as though not everyone fancies the zero-g flavoured sandwiches.
In a way, it's a debut that reminds us of Titanfall, in that it feels a little barebones when considered against the quality of the overall production. Like Respawn's first title before it, this is clearly the work of capable studio finding its feet, and that manifests itself with a launch offering of nine playable classes and just seven maps. There's no wave mode, no campaign, just objective-based matchmaking across five different game modes. For those looking for something a touch more "complete", that might be an issue.
The twist here is that the combat is built around zones on each map where the laws of gravity have been tweaked to allow for floaty battles and long distance jumps. The gravitational pull in the majority of areas is normal, but somewhere around the middle of each map there's a zone where the change in momentum forces a tactical rethink. It's a clever mechanic, building on what we've seen in a couple of other shooters in the past (Bungie's flirtation with the concept in Halo: Reach springs immediately to mind), and it changes the feel of the action and helps set Lawbreakers apart from its contemporaries.
Just as important when it comes to defining the personality of the game are its various classes. There are nine to choose from, and they range from nippy melee experts to hulking tanks with heavy weapons. We tended to gravitate (pardon the pun) towards the hardier classes while we learned the ropes, but there are squishier options for those more skilled than us, and we reckon there'll be something that will satisfy most players regardless of the function they like to fulfil on the field of play.
As with similarly styled hero shooters Overwatch and Quake Champions (to name two), each of the classes come with a specific weapon, every one of them feeling unique and well-weighted, and there's a real kick behind each pull of the trigger (or stamp of the boot, if you can land one). There are satisfying shotguns, rifles and rocket launchers, all of which are complemented by a trio of abilities that further differentiate each role from the others, and everything felt pretty balanced during the matches we played (although undoubtedly there's a game-changing meta already evolving around the best players).
Every character on the roster looks good too. There are two factions, and both have their own version of each role, and you can customise these characters with skins unlocked via loot boxes (that you earn as you level up, or buy with real-world gold). While there's nothing that feels particularly brave or bold in their individual designs, their overall quality is high and each character is well animated. Perhaps more purpose and personality would have come from a better fleshed out backstory, but this isn't Lorebreakers, and if you like to discover more about characters away from the arena (something that Blizzard has done brilliantly for Overwatch), you won't find the same hooks here.
While there are plenty of stats to track and crates to open over time, it's the variety found from playing the maps, modes, and classes that will keep you entertained, or not as the case may be. The modes in Lawbreakers riff on popular pre-existing game types, with little tweaks that tie into the zero-g setup, but they're all straightforward and easy to engage with. It doesn't take long to learn the tactical shift required for each mode, and the feel of a map changes a little with the different objectives. Our favourite was probably Blitzball, but the king-of-the-hill, domination, and capture/defend variants are all good, and despite that fact that we usually enjoy a straight up deathmatch mode, we didn't miss one here.
A few extra maps at release would have been better, but this is one area that Boss Key is planning to expand post-launch, and the fact that all future maps (and modes and classes) are going to be included in the upfront cost of the game is a good move that should hopefully allow the player-base to grow in the longterm. More to the point, though, we wanted more because the ones here are decent, with multiple levels, a nice blend of enclosed and open areas, and features built in to accentuate the zero-g gameplay. The varying traversal skills of the different classes also feed into the clever map design, changing each arena according to whichever character you're playing at the time. It's just something else to think about and get accustomed to as you play.
Thanks to the clever implementation of gravity-defying combat and some satisfying and responsive shooter mechanics, we've enjoyed our time with Lawbreakers thus far. While it goes without saying that there is plenty of room for the game to grow and flourish into something bigger and bolder than it is shortly after launch, what it needs most of all now is players. Of course, additional content is required to engage players and therefore establish the game in this competitive space, but that won't happen if there aren't enough bodies coming through the door. Boss Key has laid down some solid foundations in this succinctly composed sci-fi shooter, but for it to succeed and grow a community will need to form and build on top of them.
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