What is the biggest shooter in the world these days? Call Of Duty has held that mantle for years, based on sales figures, cultural cache and column inches. But as its popularity wanes, does Destiny now have a shout for the top spot? How about Overwatch, surely the most talked about FPS in the past 12 months?
From a global point of view, CS:GO probably takes the title - no other shooter commands prize pools and audiences in the millions. Then again, Warframe has an enormous audience. And hey, how about Battlefield?
Wherever the answer lies, the truth is there has never been a stronger time for the genre, and while the market may seem saturated, it's also splitting into its own subcultures. That's what Cliff Bleszinski and his new studio Boss Key is banking on in their own claim to the crown in this game of pwnz.
LawBreakers, in alpha for an eternity and briefly in open beta this past weekend, certainly carries the pedigree and polish needed to make a dent in this world. The setup is familiar, and the influences clear. Two teams of five do battle across a variety of maps and modes, and there's more than a hint of Titanfall in LawBreakers' movement and Overwatch in its heroic character classes.
Yet, over a weekend of heavy play, it was one of Epic's old standards that kept coming to mind - specifically, Unreal. Something about the wiry, slender character models, the pace of the action and that always-important time- to-kill will feel like home to those bred on Unreal Tournament.
LawBreakers may share some DNA (and creators) from that classic series, but there's no doubt it is a staunchly modern shooter. Players pick from 18 heroes across nine classes (different characters for each side, the opposing teams hilariously named 'law' and 'breakers'), all of which have three special powers on a cooldown, unique weapon sets, and reasonably defined roles.
Bleszinski has always worn his heart on his sleeve and built his own identity and career on design choices that could either make or break a game, as anyone who remembers his fervent (and historically correct) argument to keep Gears' chainsaw guns in the game can attest.
Here, Cliff and crew are hanging their hats on an idea that has destroyed many a lesser game, zero G. Each map contains one area, typically central, that has no gravity, or at least has a very video game version of no gravity. Once inside, combatants can move in full 360 degree motion, using jump to propel themselves around, or brilliantly firing their weapon behind themselves to gain velocity in an inspired piece of true absurdist flair.
It's in these aerial encounters that LawBreakers finally stands out and finally crafts its own identity. You know how some games have such flawless controls that it makes everything seem effortless, but in reality has taken some searingly talented designer or programmer years to get just right? Think Mario's jump or, for something more relevant, Titanfall's incredible wall-running. These swooping, soaring mid-air dogfights left me constantly dumbfounded, partly because they're so intensely compelling, and partly because there is a large part of my brain that is so sure they shouldn't work.
Yet somehow LawBreakers manages to bring it all together - it makes sense almost immediately, and maintaining accuracy while concentrating on movement is totally feasible, even within the first few games.
And it leads to some amazing moments, even with matches full of lost players wading their way into the open beta. The feeling of chasing down a fleeing opponent in an FPS is always thrilling, but when that pursuit abruptly shifts axes and you're now hounding an enemy upwards, around buildings, through cover... it feels so new. It's telling, too, that a good 60 percent of the game is still played on the ground - you'd assume there are prototypes lying around Boss Keys' old hard drives where entire maps were anti grav, but by limiting and focusing its core feature, LawBreakers has just enough restraint to make every skyward encounter feel new. At least for the time I spent with the game on beta weekend.
It needs it, too, because the remainder of the package definitely lacks a bit of spark. Of the nine classes, I cannot remember a single one of the character names without looking them up multiple times (hey Axel, how are you), and the class names are so generic they almost come off as parody. Vanguard. Titan. Assassin. Wraith.
To say LawBreakers lacks Overwatch's personality would be like saying that Hanzo is mildly irritating. Everything is cobalt blue, brown and grey, the characters feel like they all belong in a b-grade PS3 action game from 2009 and the maps in the beta basically all look the same. In fairness, though, there aren't many games, especially shooters, that get anywhere close to Overwatch's tone and charm, and when you're in the thick of the action it matters far less than you think.
Even from a weekend's worth of beta, LawBreakers may owe a lot to Overwatch (or even the much maligned but not all that bad living meme that is Battleborn), but on the field this is a far purer shooter than Blizzards tour de force. Every class, battle-medic aside (and even they can dish out a fair amount of damage) exists to kill the other team. The weapons, like a COD or probably more accurately a Halo, primarily function to kill the opposition. There's less variety and complexity than Overwatch but LawBreakers doesn't want to offer that same interwoven team-based strategising for its moment to moment play. It wants to get you in, get you focused on the objective at hand, get you killing and feeling good about it and then get you back out again with a loot box in hand and a hankering for another go. And from what I've experienced so far, it's doing a pretty decent job.
What will be fascinating is playing the final code, delving deep into every mode, experimenting with each class and figuring out if the anti grav gameplay has legs (not that it needs them), how the classes interact at higher and deeper levels, and if the smattering of modes in the beta are indicative of the entire final suite. In a year that's already been impossible to keep up with, I'm pretty confident LawBreakers is worthy of your time - especially as it's only £25. We will find out for sure next week.