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LawBreakers is a master class in arena shooters from the guy who invented them

Fresh out of high school in the early ‘90s, he joined Epic Games where he laid the groundwork for competitive first-person shooters with the Unreal series, and then defined a generation of cover-based third-person shooters with his Gears of War franchise. Few designers have maintained such a high profile for so long in the gaming industry.

“My life has been pretty crazy,” he confessed to Digital Trends in an exclusive interview, “basically from my 20s into my 40s now.”

In 2012 he shocked the gaming industry by announcing his departure from Epic in order to “chart the next stage of his career.” Two years of silence later, he came back to announce a new indie studio, Boss Key, and a planned return to the genre that kicked off his career: the first-person arena shooter.

That game, announced as Project BlueStreak, is now LawBreakers. Backed by Korean publishing powerhouse Nexon, Bleszinski and Boss Key are firing on all cylinders to make LawBreakers stand out from the crowd of emerging, class-based, first-person arena shooters, such as Battleborn and Overwatch. To Bleszinksi, LawBreakers is all about GGG: “Guns, gangs, and gravity.”

We recently visited Boss Key’s studio in Raleigh, North Carolina to go hands-on with an early alpha build of LawBreakers and speak with Bleszinski and his team about the game.

After decades of non-stop work for major studios, Bleszinski was ready to take a break and assess what kind of games he really wanted to be making at this point in his career.

“Honestly, 80 percent of what the game is was in my original slide deck, and that’s the beauty of having a year and a half to think about it, when I was off from Epic,” Bleszinski told us. Although it would take several months for the game’s theme to come together, he knew from the start that he wanted to return to first-person shooters:

“First person was always in my heart. Nothing is quite as fun for me as looking down the barrel of a weapon when you’re playing a first-person shooter like that — flowing through the environment and seeing it through the character’s eyes, jumping into the middle of the map and blind-firing, then hitting the enemy’s base like ‘What’s up, bitches!’ It feels good to be back.”

Not just any kind of shooter would suffice, however. Bleszinski has a long-view perspective on the industry, and frankly just isn’t that impressed by a lot of the shooters that have followed in his footsteps.

“I played some of these [arena shooters] that came out, and I’m not gonna name names, but they felt paper-thin…I’m bored of most AAA games. I beat Superhot and I fucking loved it — it’s everything I wanted it to be and I didn’t want it to end. I’m playing some Overwatch right now, but honestly everything is boring the crap out of me, which is why I’m making a game. There’s a lot of games coming out for consoles right now, $60 games, that just feel desperate to not be traded in.”

A diverse and tactically-interesting range of weapons is one obvious way for the man who brought us the chainsaw bayonet to breathe life into a repetitive genre. A creative take on standard gameplay modes is another.

The matches we played were all in a mode called Overcharge, where both teams vie for control over a battery, fighting to steal it back to their respective base and charge it to full, earning a point, with the first to two points winning. The battery retains charge when stolen, however, leading to tense endgames and sudden swings of fortune. Bleszinski said that creating the space for this kind of drama up until the final moments of any match has been a driving design principle for LawBreakers.

Two factions duke it out across the game’s post-post-apocalyptic arenas: the vigilant Law, and the nefarious Breakers. Unlike the colorful characters of Overwatch  or Team Fortress 2, the world of LawBreakers is marked by gritty realism. “I often joke that we’re the anti-hero-based shooter. I don’t want to get lumped in with all the other character-based games which is why we’re a little grittier. We’re not full grimdark Lords of Hell, but not like super-bright Pixar stuff, either.” Early previews of the game were in fact a bit more colorful, but surveying the emerging competition led Bleszinski to recently shift towards a more mature aesthetic in order to stand out.

Although each side features a cast of unique characters, Bleszinski was careful to emphasize that the opposing factions are symmetrical, with equivalent classes on either side. Each class features two weapons, both of which have alternate fire modes, a movement ability, and two additional special moves that generally operate on cooldown timers.

The classes feel fundamentally different in the way that they handle as soon as you jump into a new one. I spent most of my demo matches, for instance, as the nimble Assassin, a fleet-footed striker who wields two knives and swings around environments like Spider Man with a retractable grapple. Her fluid movement had a parkour-like quality to it, allowing me to rapidly flow across the level with incredible efficiency once I had a sense of its layout.

Conversely, when I jumped into the lumbering Titan on a subsequent respawn, it felt like I was wading through molasses. Instead of a grapple, the Titan can charge up, leap, and crash down on enemies with a devastating shockwave. The class is much more directly aggressive, but not nearly as useful for traversal. Soon after switching, I found myself in the enemy base with the battery, immediately regretting all of my choices as I tried and failed to shake off much faster enemies while slowly working my way back home.

The high variability in speed, mobility, firepower, and ability to absorb damage between the characters encourages players to be strategically complementary, while being flexible enough to not require that every role be filled at any given moment. Anyone can change classes whenever they respawn, allowing players to respond to their team’s needs at any given moment.

At the start of my second match, it was apparent that I wasn’t the only one to gravitate to the Assassin, because our entire team had selected them. After catching our opponents off guard with one daring raid, however, they caught wise and tore us apart with heavier firepower, forcing us to balance out our roster.

The game is set in a future after a cataclysmic event called “The Shattering” destroyed the moon, which sent the Earth’s gravity into chaos. The dust has settled and society has rebuilt, but gravitational anomalies are now commonplace.

Starting with the knowledge that he wanted to return to arena shooters, LawBreakers really began to take form for Bleszinski when he started to think a lot about gravity. The eponymous Sandra Bullock film was one of numerous sources he cited for inspiration, but the seeds were planted much deeper, back in the era of arena shooters he kicked off with Unreal Tournament.

Before Call of Duty grounded shooters in cover mechanics, the genre was much more anarchic and vertical, with players rocket-jumping around to get the literal drop on one another in fast-paced deathmatches. More recent AAA shooters like Titanfall and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare have reintroduced that sort of mobility, but Bleszinski called foul on studios treating these features as revolutionary. As a designer that helped introduce that style of play back in the day, now he wants to teach a master class and take it to the next level.

“There keeps being this trend where, like, the latest Call of Duty will take a feature that was in Unreal Tournament 4 and pass it off to this new generation of kids like it’s new, and I’m like “double-jump? A double-jump, really? They’re all excited about this? A dodge? Really? UT had a dodge.” And I’m like, “You know what? I bet I can introduce zero gravity to a whole generation of fans and they’ll hopefully like it.”

The central plaza of the map on which we played, Grandview, was engulfed in a zero-G sphere. In general, threats can come from all angles in LawBreakers, but this was doubly true in zero-G, where both teams had to scramble and grab the battery at the top of the match or after scoring. Specialized movement abilities, like grappling or jetpacks, are amplified in areas of reduced gravity.

Making these moves look right isn’t easy. A Bossy Key animator broke down all of the component movements that went into characters look natural in zero-G, but also telegraphing clearly to other players which directions they are moving and aiming. Balancing aesthetic and practical concerns is just one of the areas where Bleszinski’s strong, guiding vision for Boss Key becomes apparent. The team thrives on close feedback with technical and creative artists that all wear many hats.

There’s nothing quite like getting repeatedly fragged by CliffyB in the game he’s created, in the genre he pioneered. The tentative first games of journalist-on-journalist teams felt fairly balanced, but once Boss Key staffers jumped in, the action skewed very much in their favor. With its specialized characters, LawBreakers is a game that very much rewards mastery. Struggling to achieve the occasional moment of grace with the Assassin over a few rounds gave me a much greater appreciation of the balletic performances turned in by some of the studio’s deadlier players in a show match at the end of the day.

LawBreakers is currently in early alpha, so the level of polish and thoughtfulness it currently features bodes very well for its ongoing development. What is yet to be seen is whether there will be room in the crowded, emerging genre of class-based arena shooters for it to stand out. Bleszinski is aware of precisely this challenge, however, and has an undeniable genre pedigree that positions him better than anyone for success.

LawBreakers is coming exclusively to PC, though a console release is possible if there is sufficient interest after release. Interested players can sign up now for the first public alpha tests on the game’s website.

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