Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4
LawBreakers is a multiplayer class-based shooter in the vein of Overwatch, which means it has an uphill battle for players and recognition from the very start. The two main ways the game sets out to distinguish itself are:
1) Gravity-defying arenas and abilities
2) Buckets of "attitude"
Of these, the first is much, much more effective than the second. In its current state, LawBreakers is a fast-paced shooter with some exciting new ideas, but it struggles to make its moment to moment gameplay as satisfying or entertaining as its competition. Additionally, the attempts at edge and attitude come off as obnoxious most of the time, with cringe-worthy dialogue and voice acting.
Still, LawBreakers is an online shooter, not a story game, and its shooting action is mostly successful. As of this review the game's launch feels incomplete, as there are only "Quick Play" and "Create a Match" mode, with no ranked play in sight, but with continued promotion and support there's probably enough of a foundation to see LawBreakers carving out a small niche in Overwatch's mighty shadow.
Classes and match types
LawBreakers launched with nine classes, with each class having two visually distinct but functionally identical versions, depending on whether you're playing on the Law or Breakers side in a given match. You don't get to pick which side you'll be on in a Quick Play match, and since basically every character is an aggressive, boasting jerk it doesn't matter that much, but if you get a rare skin for one version of your favorite class you'll be a little disappointed when you have to play as the other side. Classes are distinguished by their weapons, level of health, basic abilities (with one of those usually involving fast or airborne movement), and an ultimate power.
Each side in a match has five members, and there's less importance placed on having a "balanced" team in terms of role composition than we see in Overwatch. Classes aren't clearly separated with labels like "Tank" or "Support," but after trying them all you'll have a pretty good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each. Juggernauts and Titans are effective tanks, with more health than other classes, and the game's Battle Medic and Harrier are support characters. Having a Medic isn't as essential in LawBreakers as it is in other hero shooters, and it's hard to feel like you're contributing in a match if you aren't dealing a good amount of damage. The other five classes are all about dealing damage in one way or another, whether that damage comes from automatic rifles, lasers, or electrified knives.
As of this review classes don't seem to be perfectly balanced, and the sentiment in the game's online chat is that certain classes (notably Assassins and Wraiths) are overpowered. In my games it was rare to play a match without at least one Wraith on both sides, and two a side was a common sight. The classes are also unbalanced in terms of entertainment value, as in my experience about half of the classes are a frustrating mess to play. Your mileage will vary, of course, but for me playing as a Vanguard or Enforcer made LawBreakers feel like a much more entertaining and well-designed game than any match I played as a Titan.
Matches in LawBreakers are focused on traditional multiplayer shooter structures, and offer variations of Capture the Flag, Kill of the Hill, and other modes. There are no pure Deathmatch matches to be found, but getting kills is a big part of success in most game modes. The strangest and most polarizing game mode is Blitzball, which tasks teams with grabbing a ball and carrying it to an opposing goal to score points. This is a fun idea, and I've played a few close games of it, but this mode is prone to really fast rounds in which a team manages to score a goal in literally a matter of seconds. Like much of LawBreakers, Blitzball feels like it needs more balance tweaking.
Low gravity gameplay
The main element that makes LawBreakers different from any other shooter like it is its low gravity gameplay. Every map has established areas where characters can soar around and propel themselves forward with rear-facing blindfire, and certain character abilities can also create temporary pockets of low gravity.
These low gravity areas demand that you pay attention to the world around you in 360 degrees in a way other shooters don't, as enemies can be coming at you from any conceivable angle. Your movement isn't quite as free as you'd expect in these areas, either, and you'll often find yourself falling short of your intended targets until you master methods of preserving and maximizing your momentum.
You'll end up in a few high-flying gun battles in a typical match, and they're usually fun (if often frantic and out of control). That said, most of a typical LawBreakers match doesn't feel that different from a more mundane shooter. It would have been nice if the game did more with its zero gravity environments and abilities, and in the end it feels like we only see a fraction of what a low-gravity hero shooter could have been.
From its first menu screen LawBreakers plays dubstep music at you, and your enjoyment of the game's soundtrack will depend on how much you like aggressive electronic sounds and pounding beats. It's not bad by any stretch, and it fits the aesthetic of the game as a whole.
The character dialogue, on the other hand, is bad. It's over-the-top, irritating, and poorly delivered about half the time. I found myself disliking about 75% of the game's characters on a personal level, and eventually dove into the game's options to see about the possibility of turning off character voices.
Since voice lines can be used to communicate to your team in a match, turning this part of the audio off was a strategic disadvantage, and the fact that I even considered it shows what a drag this part of the game is. I have never once even looked at the corresponding option in Overwatch, but it was something I was debating in my first few hours with LawBreakers.
There are a lot of little aggravating bits like this to LawBreakers, design choices that amount to a game that can inspire enormous frustration when things aren't going well. When an opposing team is running up the score in Blitzball, putting up points every few seconds, I'm being barraged with stupid characters saying obnoxious things, then someone kills me with a kick that leaves a bootprint on my screen...it just gets on your nerves, you know?
Losing a match in any multiplayer shooter can be an aggravating experience, but LawBreakers ends up rubbing salt in the wound in a variety of ways that don't all seem intentional. It's a game that feels full of jarring hard edges, in contrast to Overwatch's smooth curves.
The game's character visuals, on the other hand, are extremely well done. A lot of care and attention has gone into the cast, and the roster is diverse in every sense of the word. The stylistic choices made to distinguish Law and Breaker variants of a class are interesting, and on the rare occasion you get a chance to really look closely at one of your allies or enemies during a match you'll notice a rich level of detail that exceeds the simpler, more cartoony design of Overwatch.
The maps in LawBreakers don't hit the same heights as the characters, and many of them blur together visually into vague industrial/commercial environments. Compared to the enormous visual charm and dramatic differences we see in the maps of Overwatch (or even Quake Champions), the world of LawBreakers offers little to make it memorable.
Loot and customization
LawBreakers costs $30, placing it below the typical price for a AAA shooter, and comes complete with a "stash box" system full of cosmetic upgrades that functions identically to that in Overwatch. Given the game's current amount of content (with only Quick Play and a very limited map pool) more than $30 wouldn't feel right, and the lower price tag may help LawBreakers establish the sizable and consistent playerbase that's so critical to games like these.
Some people are always going to hate microtransactions in games that cost money to play in the first place, but I have no problem with the way LawBreakers hands out its loot. You earn regular rewards just for playing and leveling up, and if you want a specific skin or sticker the prices are low enough to earn it within a few hours of playing. You can also spend real money for stash boxes, if you're that kind of person.
The character and weapon skins in LawBreakers are shockingly good, and are one of the few areas where the game clearly exceeds Overwatch. Each individual character has a collection of intricately designed skins, and there isn't a single character that doesn't have multiple skins as distinct and cool as the best Overwatch has to offer.
Beyond character skins, stash boxes reward you with weapon skins and stickers you can use to further trick out your characters. It's hard to notice stickers in the middle of a match unless you're really looking for them, but having a holographic grim reaper sticker on your laser gun is just about the coolest thing anyone could ever imagine, and it just becomes cooler when you can make that laser gun zebra print or shiny gold.
Where will LawBreakers be in a year?
The big question for LawBreakers, and really the only question that matters, is whether or not the game will have staying power. The game needs players to survive, players willing to forgive a slow start in terms of content and some early balance issues. LawBreakers offers some answers to the "Why would I play this instead of Overwatch?" question, but it remains to be seen whether those answers attract enough players to make this a viable game over the coming months and years.
The team behind LawBreakers has said they'll be adding more content post-launch, and we can expect things like ranked online play to be coming to the game in the near future. There's enough to like about LawBreakers to say that this game could have more longevity than poor Battleborn, but it will need to work hard (and fast) to attract more players. At the time of writing this review the 24-hour player peak for LawBreakers on Steam is 1,550. At the same time, 1,875 players are enjoying Friday the 13th: The Game, 2,169 are playing Gigantic, and 4,220 are playing something called Warface.
LawBreakers isn't dead on arrival, but if its numbers don't improve substantially in the coming weeks, it will be hard for folks to justify spending any real money on digital cosmetic objects to show off in a game nobody is playing. And if the game can't make money off stash boxes, how long can the developers justify supporting and updating it?