When Lawbreakers works, it really works.
This isn’t to say that it always does. The matchmaking system isn’t perfect, for instance, sometimes leaving you in completely unbalanced matches. It takes time to attune to what this game wants from you, and until you do, it’s fairly bewildering. The exacting, fluid movement makes mistakes feel miserable; I’ve always had a particular distaste for getting stuck on map geometry while moving in a shooter, and this game has plenty of slamming into a wall then getting shot to death.
But sometimes you slingshot around the zero gravity section of a map and land exactly where you need to be to take someone out. Sometimes you grab the blitzball and zip your way past the opposing team to score in a matter of seconds. Sometimes you grab someone from across the map with one of the handful of long-range weapons, and they just detonate into red gibs in the distance. In those moments, Lawbreakers evokes a little of the spirit of Quake.
Nevertheless, it won’t be for everyone. Even Team Fortress 2 had options for players whose focus wasn’t on fine aiming; Lawbreakers has none. All of the classes are different, and they have a different mix of skills, but movement and aim are core to every single one. It innovates the shooter, but it doesn’t try to broaden it. I can’t help feeling like that should be enough. I do, after all, like this a lot more than I like Overwatch. That game felt clumsy, overambitious, the product of a studio with a lot of resources and not enough institutional knowledge on how to make a game like this. Lawbreakers is a little bit more modest in its ambitions, but it evinces a depth of craft that is almost virtuosic. Ideas from the whole history of first-person shooters are found here, but recombined in new forms that seem both like fascinating novelties and like they should have been around all along.
More focused on individual skill, Lawbreakers is also more enjoyable as the better player in a clearly losing team. Overwatch rewards playing with friends so heavily that it makes solo play feel unpleasant. Playing Lawbreakers as a solo, I felt like I was getting one of the core experiences the game wants to give players, as opposed to a mode of play that isn’t really intended but is included by rote.
Coordination still wins matches, but there aren’t large advantages to be gained from trivially coordinating with your teammates. If everyone is keeping their eye on the ball and making good choices about where on the map to be, a team will be reasonably effective, at least at a casual level of play, even if they’re not extensively talking to each other.
And, really, there’s hardly time to talk. Lawbreakers is blindingly fast. The Assassin, the game’s most mobile (and fragile) class, moves so quickly that calling out her position can seem pointless. Everyone has some kind of enhanced mobility, usually limited by a fuel meter. All of the classes move differently, which gives the maps a lot of texture; different characters are more or less mobile in different areas and at different times. The Gunslinger has no real way of crossing the map quickly, but a short-range teleport makes him very hard to pin down. The Enforcer replenishes fuel by dealing damage, and treats his mobility more as a combat buff. The Assassin has a grappling hook that lets her swing around the map at enormous speed, but forces her to keep her melee weapon out. There are truly no hard counters; every encounter is decided by circumstance and player skill, not by class match-up.
No matter how good your aim, there’s a huge difference from attacking when you’re in a good position and have resources, and attacking when you don’t. All-out assaults are liable to leave you depleted and vulnerable, even if you win the fight. You can leave yourself in a position where you’re several reloads and a significant wait away from being back at full potential. There’s genuine tactical complexity to uncover here, besides the demanding aiming and movement mechanics.
Each of Lawbreakers’ maps also has areas of normal gravity and zero gravity, and in zero gravity, you can effectively fly around. Aiming in zero-g is a game of balancing trying to control your motion and trying to hit enemies; and your gun interferes with your momentum, acting as a sort of jetpack. Indeed, you can fire backwards if you want to, either to harry pursuing enemies or simply to accelerate. And “gravity orbs” can be orbited or slingshot around. Zero-g is truly used as a core mechanic here, not a gimmick or an incidental treat.
The game modes are designed to really showcase the maps, moving the front lines frenetically across them. Lawbreakers lets you play any game mode on any map, greatly increasing the longevity of those maps and the game in general. It’s a little baffling to me that both capture-the-flag variants, Uplink and Overcharge, are still in the game; during the beta, I assumed one would eventually be dropped because they’re so similar.
But there’s a general maximalism to the design of this game that keeping both variants aligns with. This is not a prescriptive game about how you should play; the classes aren’t split into categories at all, nor is there a prescribed team balance. Healers are effective damage dealers in their own right. The metagame still has a long way to evolve, and questions of team composition are very much not settled, but it doesn’t feel like you absolutely need a healer right now.
While the characters all play very differently, they’re not as visually distinctive as Overwatch’s cast. Part of this is a deliberate stylistic choice; Lawbreakers has a colorful and over-the-top aesthetic, but it conforms to fairly realistic (and similar) proportions for all its characters. Naturally, in a game that is so much about aiming, balancing around some characters being huge and others being tiny would have made Boss Key’s job substantially harder. Combined with an extraneous-feeling loot crate system that lets you deck out your character in all sorts of neon colors, it can be hard to distinguish one character from another. The saving grace here is that all of the classes move and behave very differently, letting you tell them apart by their animations, weapon effects, and sometimes sound cues.
In a curious choice, each side in Lawbreakers has its own version of each class. They’re identical in gameplay, but distinct characters in the fiction. This means that if you become attached to a character, as opposed to that character’s class, you won’t be able to play them every match. But I don’t think people will latch on to the characters in Lawbreakers as much as they did with previous hero shooters. While I don’t find them bland or uninteresting, they’re not the most immediately recognizable character designs, and the dialogue is relatively minimal and tends more towards action-movie-esque quipping than towards character development. I’m not ashamed to admit that the dialogue had me laughing a couple of times; it’s often very, very silly, but in the specific way that bombastic action movies are silly. And I never heard anything that veered into being mean-spirited.
I also appreciated that the cast is genuinely diverse as a matter of course. Sunshine, the “Law” variant of the Harrier class, has a (relatively) girly look and a chipper attitude, which works well precisely because that character doesn’t have to carry the weight of being the only woman in the cast. Lawbreakers is a throwback in a lot of ways, but it’s definitely not blind to changing attitudes in videogames or to who the audience for games really is.
Ultimately, Lawbreakers isn’t trying to be something it’s not; it doesn’t want to act as an introduction to shooters for players that aren’t into them, but rather as a refined and innovative iteration of the genre. In this, it mostly succeeds: it’s fast, challenging, and rewards good play. It’s a game for people who pay real money for a mouse and have opinions about keyboard switches; it makes no excuses for that. But it feels like it’s that out of a genuine love for the genre and people who appreciate that genreI -- it’s not fueled by empty elitism or a mistaken belief that everything was better when Quake was king.