The arena shooter subgenre died an unfair death after its heyday of the glorious Quake III era and a few years beyond. But just like the inexplicable birth of the hero-shooter subgenre from different developers, there are a few different devs eager to drag the arena shooter out of its dormant state. Epic Games is rebuilding the classic feel of an arena shooter for the Unreal Tournament reboot. id Software has spliced together contemporary mechanics and arena-shooter design for Doom’s multiplayer.
And Boss Key Productions is plugging away on creating the next step in the evolution of the dormant old-school gaming subgenre. Ask anyone at Boss Key, and they won’t flat out call LawBreakers an arena shooter; instead, they’ll say it has arena shooter DNA. It’s a wise distinction, and it’s true both in terms of how LawBreakers plays and where it began.
In the beginning, Boss Key started out as a low-gravity arena shooter: players spawning on equal footing, with weapon drops scattered around the map, in a completely zero-g environment (think Shattered Horizon). As development progressed, Boss Key moved away from the pillars of the arena shooter and created something quite unique. At its core, LawBreakers is a team-based competitive shooter, where playable characters are distinct across the two factions, but opposing classes are identical in terms of how they play.
So while the class composition lends itself to imbalanced encounters if, say, you charge your squishy Assassin character head-on at a heavily armed and armoured Titan, you’re on equal footing if you play as Enforcer Axel on the Law team and come up against Enforcer Kintaro on the Breakers side. That’s not to say you can’t find success of lighter classes against heavier foes, but there are class-specific tactics that ensure the best results. The intention is to emphasise player skill over everything else, and to incentivise players to match classes to situations.
“We want to make this game that’s really skill based,” said Boss Key founder and COO Arjan Brussee, “and not go down the route of, ‘I have all of these crazy things that are purely win buttons or win abilities.’ I can’t kill people without skill involved, so it needs to be always super skill driven. You need to aim; there’s no auto-aim. There’s no magic area-of-effects things. We really want people to learn the game and get better at it long-term. It’s a hardcore game and we’re not making excuses for that.”
We played on a single map (Grandview) and mode (Overcharge) for our pre-alpha taste of LawBreakers. While we dedicated a full round to playing as each of the four current classes, that’s not the ideal way to play the game. It’s best to match your team’s needs to shift between offensive and defensive roles. “We think that players will be shifting around based off what the game needs because the [Overcharge] game mode is attack and defence simultaneously,” said senior game designer Dan Nanni. “You can only be on one at any given time, unless it’s neutral at that point.
“You wind up seeing that players are going to potentially take a character class like the Titans and maybe use that to lock down a little bit, but maybe when they’re trying to be aggressive to take the battery, they’re more comfortable taking a fast class. It really comes down to the player and individual players.” Overcharge is based on the foundation of a single-flag CTF mode, except teams are competing for a battery.
The battery has to be returned to a base for it to charge, and once it hits 100-percent charge, it has to be held for 20 seconds of overtime before the securing team can score a point. First team to two points wins, which means there’s a maximum of three phases per round. Things are mixed up a bit, though, when you realise that the battery retains its charge, and those 20 seconds of overtime are purpose-built for last-minute upsets against an enemy team that’s been otherwise dominating battery possession.
On top of this, the battery is captured from a central section of the map, which exists in a permanent zero-gravity state. This adds a whole new meaning to verticality, as players can potentially attack from any angle within this section of the map. On top of this, some of the classes have gravity-manipulating abilities that, when executed with perfect timing, can turn the tide of battle.
Those playing LawBreakers like a contemporary shooter and sticking to the ground made easy targets for the arena-shooter veterans who used class-specific abilities to throw off predictable movement patterns and retaliate from unexpected angles. None of this is particularly novel, but what is unique is the inclusion of a universal blindfire option.
The name is ripped straight from Gears of War, but its application is more geared towards movement rather than frags (though the latter is possible), given the visibility restrictions of the first-person perspective. Whether wielding an assault rifle, a rocket launcher or a shotgun, players can tap the blindfire button to shoot directly behind them. Its best use is for traversing the zero-g section at speed, with each round or rocket offering a considerable speed boost across the space.
It means that the heavier-armoured classes with slower movement speeds have a better chance of making it back to the base with the stolen battery by cutting across the zero-g centre. In the same breath, it doesn’t take long to anticipate this tactic and send a zippier class to cut them off at the pass, and when that class is a sword-wielding Assassin, being cut becomes more of a literal affair.
There’s also the reality that each class has an incredibly powerful special attack that can force an entire enemy team to nervously stare at the respawn counter. Titans fire powerful lightning, Enforcers use a lock-on multi-rocket launcher, Assassins enter a frenzied state where kills regenerate health and prolong the special, and Vanguard performs a devastating area-of-effect ground pound that creates a temporary low-gravity bubble that launches players into the air. They’re all awesome abilities that still require skill to be executed effectively.
We were initially disappointed that it wasn’t a classic arena shooter, but after coming to grips with it in the first round, we were quickly won over. There’s a reliance on tight teamwork and the strong emphasis on skilled shooting means there’s a punishing learning curve for non-hardcore shooter players. That said, once you get what LawBreakers is all about and start to get a feel for one of the classes, the appeal is impossible to deny.