Cliff Bleszinski and I are sitting in the lobby of a Westin hotel just outside this year’s PAX East in Boston. The co-founder of Boss Key Productions, developer of the gravity-defying, team-based shooter LawBreakers, is about as calm as I’ve ever seen him.
Of course, he’s still Cliff Bleszinski. He’s talking fast, leaning into my recorder when he cracks wise and trying to cram as much information into our short interview as possible.
Warming up, he gets a bit distracted.
“That’s a good Mercy,” he says, looking over my shoulder. And he’s right. The cosplayer has captured the silhouette of the Overwatch medic well, from the size of the wings to the height of her bangs. She is, tip to toe, a Mercy.
And she’s not the only one.
This year’s PAX East is overrun with Overwatch characters of all shapes, sizes and genders. You can hardly spit without hitting a Tracer. It’s the kind of devotion that Bleszinski would no doubt love to have for the heroes in his competing game, LawBreakers.
Thankfully his new publishing partner, Nexon, is doing its part to make that happen.
“This is the best booth I’ve ever had at a show,” Bleszinski says. “Between the 3D, green screen camera that’s putting people into our game world, to the stage set up for shoutcasting.
“You know how it is at these shows. You’ve got to hit people over the head with a hammer in order to get their attention.”
Smack dab between the booth for Bulletstorm and Gears of War 4, the LawBreakers setup does stand out. It feels open, with clean lines and a gigantic center screen. The queue around it is around two hours long. A staff of at least 10 is flitting around, checking in with folks in line, helping schmucks like me invert their Y-axis and handing out tons of swag.
After more than four years attending gaming conventions of every type, not once has a booth had my T-shirt size. The LawBreakers booth has a pile of triple-extra large tees more than a foot tall
It’s all evidence that Bleszinski’s team at Boss Key has the resources they need to get the work done, and then some. He says the past few months have been spent adding polish to the game in anticipation of its first closed beta, which begins tomorrow.
“If you look at Gears of War 3,” he says, “in the final game there were these chickens that were out running around in the world. They were little AIs, and you could tag a grenade on one and it would run toward somebody.
“The fact that we had such a handle on that project and were doing so good that a programmer had the time to do that shit? With Lawbreakers, we got chickens now. ... For the first time, instead of like a little tech demo — which is what the alpha felt like — it's really starting to feel like an actual game you can sit down and play for hours.”
From the brief, 15-minute chunk that I played, it certainly does feel like a dense game. Every character feels distinct, from the way that they move to the kind of weapons and alternate abilities that they have. The final game will launch with 18 characters spread across nine different roles. Each will have a primary weapon with multiple functions, a secondary weapon and a series of special abilities. There are combo moves and little synergies between the classes as well. It’s ... it’s a lot. And it’s also incredibly fast.
“There's a lot going on, and we're going to continue to hammer on the clarity of experience,” Bleszinski assures me. Of course, that complexity is part of what Boss Key is going for. He tells me that each character should feel like they could be the lead in their own game. That’s the dream of the trendy “hero shooter” genre.
One thing that his team seems to have pumped the brakes on is the introduction of new classes. There are two more, Harrier and Wraith, that are under wraps and, theoretically, still baking in the oven.
So far, Bleszinski says, each of LawBreakers’ heroes have evolved very organically, almost experimentally.
Take the gunslinger class’s tactical knife. When thrown, it’s an insta-kill if it’s on target. But it also lets nearby players see through walls for a few seconds. That was a very late addition, he says. In the future, his team needs to be more careful and precise.
“A lot of it's been emerging as sort of a happy accident,” Bleszinski says. “Our design goal moving forward with the next couple of characters is to make sure we actually, deliberately intend for that kind of stuff.”
That extends especially to the character silhouettes. For a game as fast as LawBreakers, recognition is key to surviving an encounter.
“If I could go back in time, I'd make the character silhouettes even more different,” he says. “A lot of our characters are kind of base humanoid, so when I pushed for the amputee legs on Hellion, it was to break up the silhouettes so you saw those prosthetic legs on her.”
The closed beta, which begins March 16 and runs for four full days, is as much a chance to market the game as it is to test it, Bleszinski says.
“It's not going to be a huge load test,” he says. “We still want to keep it somewhat exclusive. We equate it to a club opening or Nintendo launching a product where it's like, ‘Did you get one? Did you get one? Did you get it? Did you get in?’”
Entrance will be limited to those who got into the alpha, which ran last year, plus or minus an additional 50,000 players. Over the course of 96 hours, Bleszinski will find out if LawBreakers is living up to his vision.
“Fundamentally, I want to make a character-based first-person shooter with a little bit of that old school DNA in it that is first and foremost for shooter fans,” he says. “I'm hoping that Counter-Strike, Battlefield and Call of Duty players look at this game and go, ‘That's the game for me.’
“You can't deny the success of games like Overwatch. Paladins is pretty cool,” Bleszinski added, referencing the upcoming shooter, which received criticism for its superficial similarity to Overwatch. “But I want to be the super core-shooter version of those games with a bit of a slightly more grown up take on what the characters and the environment are.”
When LawBreakers was announced for Windows PC, it was initially a free-to-play title. It’s not anymore. Blezinsky says it’ll launch closer to the $20-$40 price point. We’ve got our own golden ticket to the closed beta here at Polygon, and we’ll let you know our thoughts next week.