LawBreakers sits in a weird place in my heart.
I often find myself hesitant to talk about how fun it is, thanks to an embarrassing dubstep soundtrack, gunmetal-on-everything design and the “#SkilledAF” marketing hashtag. But beneath all that junk hides a game that is a blast to play when it isn’t actively sabotaging itself.
LawBreakers is the first game from Boss Key Productions, a studio led by Gears of War and Unreal Tournament veteran Cliff Bleszinski. His penchant for injecting extreme ideas into the shooter genre is evident within moments of booting the game up for the first time. But even if Bleszinski’s aesthetic bugs you, his pedigree really shows; Boss Key has created a game that unites the past with the present and adds its own unique twist.
To make a game that feels both classic and modern at the same time, Boss Key designed LawBreakers to be equal parts old school arena shooter and modern day hero shooter. A third dimension perfects the cocktail: verticality by way of anti-gravity. That means you’re not only rushing into combat, you’re flying above it.
The game is light on lore, but in the world of LawBreakers, the planet was hit with a seismic event called The Shattering which caused the Earth to develop pockets of anti-gravity. Using this as a basis, Boss Key designed its game to make use of both horizontal and vertical space in combat. Throughout the game’s battle arenas are anti-gravity rooms tucked in the center of most maps. These areas comprise most of the kill zones in the game. I needed to learn to track enemies both above and below me as I flew around in zero gravity.
It might sound dizzying to keep track of your enemies in all of 3D space, but LawBreakers introduces a simple enough solution for that. All enemies are outlined in red, which makes spotting them at a distance much simpler. This is a wonderful and honestly downright necessary feature, because the character designs are so bland, it’s often hard to tell who you’re shooting at from a distance.
And character design is the biggest strike against LawBreakers.
Browsing through the roster of nine classes, each with two playable characters, it’s really hard to tell them apart. Even if you were to look through all the character kits and watch all the class-specific tutorial videos, first-time players will scratch their heads trying to figure out the core differences between classes.
Since the character’s designs and their personalities are so weak, it’s best to think of classes as different weapon kits, as opposed to unique characters. These roles took some time to learn, because the class names didn’t always match up to what I expected. For instance, when I wanted to go for kills or play support, then Assassins and Battle Medics perform exactly as I imagined. But if I wanted a character with fast mobility, it wasn’t the Harrier class, as I initially thought; it’s actually the Vanguard. Their differences weren’t apparent until I actually spent time with some of the cast.
These slightly unclear classes would be less of a problem, except that LawBreakers doesn’t offer much space to figure them out. You could discover the nuances between roles in live matches, but I wouldn’t recommend it. LawBreakers offers a sandbox mode where you can switch between classes and test them all out, which is a welcome addition. However, the execution isn’t great.
In LawBreakers’ sandbox mode, the game scatters a series of harmless robots around a map for you to test your weapons against. They’re fine as stationary targets, but since they don’t move, you don’t get the opportunity to refine the game’s most important skill: tracking enemies mid-flight. Not only that, the training robots don’t die and respawn once you deplete their life. They just stand there. That isn’t really helpful when you’re trying to test out the damage output of various weapons. It’s a weird oversight.
While it may not be great for combat training, the sandbox is a good training ground for experimenting with the unique movement options of each character. Movement talents are what make each character feel special, and, honestly, what makes LawBreakers feel different from the average competitive shooter. Some characters can triple jump, slide, teleport or even use jetpacks to float around or fly like rockets. These abilities are what breathe life into the game. The most rewarding moments in LawBreakers won’t come from simply scoring kills, but from the intricate path you take through maps to find your enemies.
LawBreakers launches with five modes, each playable on every one of the game’s eight maps. In theory this could be great, but in practice, it leads to levels that feel straightforward at best and completely unbalanced for some game modes at worst. Weirder still is how there is no way to choose the type of game mode you want. All five modes are in a single matchmaking queue, and I was never sure which combination I’d get as I queued up.
The game modes themselves all feel a bit familiar, but they harbor a few new twists. Overcharge is a tense take on capture the flag, where players must charge a battery at their base to 100 percent and then hold it for 20 seconds to score. However, the opposing team can steal the battery at any time, and it maintains its charge.
Other game types are straightforward, like Occupy, which is a king of the hill clone, and Turf War, which is a lot like domination. For the most part, the eight maps at launch are serviceable. But for other game types like Uplink, LawBreakers’ version of attack-and-defend, some maps feel incredibly unbalanced. Building a single map to accommodate five different game modes is a tough challenge and it feels like Boss Key painted themselves in the corner with that decision.
LawBreakers feels backed into a similar corner with its loot system. As you level up, you’ll earn Stash Boxes, the game’s form of loot, pretty regularly. While the option to shell out real-world cash for more exists, I haven’t really felt the need. Mainly that’s because the loot you get isn’t all that exciting. Some character skins try to explore fresh takes on existing designs, but considering the game’s aesthetic, I wasn’t excited to try on new skins once I unlocked them. You’ll also get weapon skins, character icons and something called Kick Decals — which are huge tags resembling different kinds of boot prints that take over your enemy’s screen if you happen to kill them with a melee attack. For how often you get these decals in stash boxes versus how often you actually score a melee kill, these just seem to be wastes of space.
A handful of the ideas in LawBreakers seem like concepts that are past their sell-by date, from the dubstep soundtrack to the cyber soldier aesthetic. That’s a genuine shame because beneath all that, is a mechanically exciting game. The aerial combat feels fresh, and the twists on standard shooter game modes are solid attempts at flipping the script. But LawBreakers’ confusing hero design, poor tutorial system and unbalanced maps all sabotage an otherwise good game.
LawBreakers was reviewed using a final “retail” Steam download code provided by Boss Key Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.