Lawbreakers alpha: hands-on impressions

Note: an earlier version of this article referred to Lawbreakers as being in beta. It is in alpha. The article has been corrected.

The first Lawbreakers alpha arrived over the weekend, and a few of us at PC Gamer jumped in for some high-octane, low-gravity matches of Overcharge, Boss Key's take on a capture the flag mode. With four characters to play and only a single map—not to mention not a whole heck of a lot of alpha keys out there—this was a bare-bones alpha with a limited player base.

Still, alphas are used to get feedback on an unfinished game, so four of us put some thoughts together on what we like, don't like, and hope to see in the future for Lawbreakers.

Chris Livingston: This weekend was my second time playing Lawbreakers, and I’m still enjoying it a lot, though after my initial sessions a few weeks ago a few cracks are beginning to show. First, I don’t find either of the maps—Grandview, which was available in the alpha, or Promenade, the map I got to play Turf War in a few weeks ago—especially interesting. They’re not terrible, they just feel a bit uninspired, and after a few rounds everyone seems to settle into common and not-all-that-different routes. Plus, when you kick stuff in the lobby while you’re waiting for the round to begin, nothing breaks. You’ve gotta give players something to break with their feet.

Standard movement speed also feels a bit slow. Each character has a special movement ability, but it almost feels like standard movement has been made slower than it should be just to make the movement ability feel faster. I think all of the classes need to be sped up a bit.

Otherwise I enjoyed my time with the alpha this weekend. Shooting over your shoulder is still cool, especially as a way to propel yourself through the zero-G bubbles. I like the Overcharge mode, and think it’s a fun take on capture the flag, especially since one team can own the flag the entire round but still have it snatched away at the very end (it’s especially fun swiping the battery as Vanguard and then rocketing away at top speed). I’m hoping the next alpha session will introduce some new maps, loads more players, and lets us play some Turf War.

Tom Marks: I enjoyed the nugget at the center of LawBreakers, but I don’t think Boss Key has found their footing with the game quite yet. It’s definitely still early in its development, and there are a few kinks the developer needs to iron out before Lawbreakers will stop being “some cool shooter I tried” and actually become a game I want to play consistently. 

Similar to what Chris mentioned, the map and gamemode I played didn’t seem to support the parts of the game that I found most fun. The low-gravity fights and movement are incredibly cool, but the only low-G area on the Grandview map is in the center of the level where very little action took place. I’m not sure how the game would play if the map was entirely in low-G (I imagine it wouldn’t be quite right either) but the scant use of what feels like a core mechanic is a confusing choice.

Additionally, the aesthetics of the game are an absolute mess. Visually, the game is gorgeous. Character animations are well made, ability effects are readable and exciting, and the lighting is some kind of wonderful thanks to Unreal Engine 4, but the actual theme of the game is incomprehensible, a gumbo of ideas. We’re fighting in what looks like a generic near-future facility of some kind, but with a few Japanese motifs like cherry trees and a giant bell scattered throughout, while the whole level is floating in what appears to be the grand canyon. Meanwhile, none of the character designs feel like they have a reason to be there, and the whole “Law” vs “Breakers” thing doesn’t really come through when all eight characters are just shouting eye-rolling insults at each other. It’s just a hodgepodge of styles that don’t ever manage to coalesce in a way that makes sense. 

Style won’t make or break an arena FPS, but I have no idea what Lawbreakers wants to be. Honestly, it feels like it’s trying to be “not Overwatch” without giving too much thought to what that actually means—just what looks cool. As I said before, I enjoyed the actual shooting part of LawBreakers and want to try more of it, but everything around that shooting needs some serious massaging.

Tyler Wilde: I've put about 30 hours into Overwatch over the past few weeks, so transitioning to any new shooter meant I had to tear out and repatch a bunch of mental cables. Why am I moving so slow? Why is the map so small? Where's my ultimate meter? Why does a Genji-Widowmaker hybrid keep killing me in three hits?

Adjusting to a new rhythm was frustrating at first, but I started to really enjoy the heavy rocket-n-lightning character. He's painfully slow, but that meant I had to make considered positioning decisions and consistently nail faster characters with lazy rockets. There’s little room for error, especially when the Genji-like Assassin I mentioned is so deadly (maybe too deadly), and it’s fun to challenge myself to achieve as close to perfect awareness and aim as I can.

But I echo my colleagues' concerns. Some bits of wiring I've taken on as the result of so much Overwatch binging can't easily be disconnected. LawBreakers’ characters are unappealing, for instance, full of the in-your-face attitude Conker’s Bad Fur Day was making fun of in 2001. Overwatch’s characters are pretty dumb, too, but at least they have distinct personalities and aren’t all hilariously uncool misanthropes like Reaper. LawBreakers exclusively gives us the bad guys Reaper draws in his notebook.

And the one map available mostly contained the fighting within small bases, even though as Tom mentions, the cool low-G stuff is in the middle. I wanted a bigger space to play in, the opportunity to flank and surprise, and interesting routes to find, but the level is too simple for all that. Playing the original Quake on our anniversary server yesterday had me zipping through underwater passageways and over lava gaps, so it’s not as if arena shooters don’t support map complexity. In LawBreakers, I pretty much hung out in our base, or next to our base, plodding around waiting for someone to try to steal the objective from us. It’s hardly the excitement of flying under the map in King’s Row and scoring a triple kill from behind the final point.

LawBreakers doesn’t have a choice of competition—it’s Overwatch. The damn thing sold 10 million copies. Maybe it will compete by being grittier and more demanding of basic skills, but it currently lacks any pleasing art to get people in, or the suspense that comes from widely varying possibilities in each match. I got a few good kills, but nothing that felt like one of the heroic moments I’ve had in Overwatch, holding down a point by myself against all odds while my team rushes to help. More characters and maps will obviously help—this is a barebones alpha—but I hope they’re more joyful and twisty. 

Evan Lahti: Right now, LawBreakers is a primordial goo of the things I want. I want it to be an elbow between the athleticism of Unreal Tournament and the more objective-driven design of contemporary FPSes. I want chunky, expressive, over-the-top guns that feel at home in modern maps. I want a skill-driven, fast FPS that doesn’t spoil me like Overwatch does with generous hitboxes and auto-charging ultimate abilities.

The genetic material for a neo-arena FPS is in there somewhere, but Boss Key’s ideas need a few more cycles to evolve and mature. For example, I’m not convinced that location-specific gravity is fun, as much as it makes me unhappy whenever I transition out of low-grav. A few of the guns are underwhelming, like the Enforcer’s totally run-of-the-mill assault rifle, and the puny-feeling grenades. A single map isn’t much to go on, admittedly, but I’m not playing a game like LawBreakers to shoot military-style weapons.

I like that Cliff compared LawBreakers to Mortal Kombat at the PC Gaming Show. One of the things that weakens that comparison, though, is LawBreakers’ seriousness. I wish it was a little more playful or self-aware, a bit more larger than life. If this is Mortal Kombat, what’s LawBreakers’ equivalent of the Fatality?