Lawbreakers is everything Gears of War isn't

In his first major release since completing Gears of War 3, designer Cliff Bleszinski opts for fast-paced action, wild traversal tools, and deeply distinct character classes.

It's generally a bad idea to jump off the edge of a multiplayer map. Generally. If you're using Lawbreakers' Assassin class, however, diving off the map might actually be a winning strategy. Rather than plummet towards a lower kill/death ratio, the Assassin's grappling extensions allow you to soar over gaps no other class can clear, meaning you can drop into battle seemingly from nowhere, slice up your opponents with a couple of sci-fi machetes, and be out again just as quickly. That kind of creative, high-risk strategizing is exactly what Lawbreakers is all about.

The first game from Gears of War mastermind Cliff Bleszinski and Killzone overseer Arjan Brusse's new studio Boss Key Productions, Lawbreakers is a class-based, multiplayer-only first-person shooter inspired by classic arena shooters like Unreal Tournament. Two teams of up to five players face off in a variety of objective-based modes and kill/die/respawn until the match is won or lost. Both sides -- the Law and the Breakers -- have access to the exact same classes, though the actual character models differ. Unlike most online shooters, though, Lawbreakers' classes offer far more than varied weapon loadouts.

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Boss Key Productions

As I discovered during my recent hands-on time, each of the four currently available classes provides a totally distinct set of skills, which ultimately helps produce four distinct gameplay experiences. The Assassin, for example, not only has futuristic machetes with built-in grappling hooks for challenging but potentially lightning-fast traversal, she also has a "Matrix"-like dodge maneuver; a potent, chargeable shotgun; a non-lethal grenade that knocks enemies and projectiles away with a burst of energy; and a frenzy mode that's slow to activate but extends with every kill.

Every one of those weapons and abilities is specific to the Assassin and, for the sake of balance, cannot be swapped, adjusted, or upgraded. The same can be said for the chaingun-wielding Vanguard, rocket launcher-toting Titan, and assault rifle-armed Enforcer. In total, each class has two weapons and three abilities, including class-specific traversal tools such as jetpacks and Hulk-like leaps.

Many of these even hide alt-fire functions and secondary options that should add an extra layer of nuance once you uncover them. The Titan's rockets, for example, can be detonated midair if you right-click before they reach their intended targets. Some, like the Assassin's shotgun, even manage some risk/reward gameplay: do you fire off three quick shots or charge up for a single superpowered blast?

Characters' size, health, and movement speed vary by class as well, so if you're defending an objective near your spawn point, you can switch to the slow but sturdy Titan before your next respawn. Or if you're racing across the map in hopes of snatching imminent victory from your enemies, you can swap to the fast but fragile Assassin. But Lawbreakers' strategy goes deeper than that. In many ways, you can't even play it like a traditional shooter. The guns are punchy and fun to use, but if you just run around waiting to pull up your iron sights like Call of Duty, you're probably going to lose.

In reality, it's much more important to put yourself in the right position so your character can utilize their unique talents, which are generally far deadlier than guns alone. Sticking with the Assassin class: she is both incredibly lethal and fragile, with less health than any other class. If you run straight at an opponent, you'll get gunned down every time. Use the Assassin's grappling hook to suddenly swing in behind someone, however, and you'll be able to slash 'em up and swing away almost unnoticed.

By contrast, the Titan has plenty of health but a lumbering movement speed. Open areas mean exposure, and the Titan can't readily retreat. But if you learn the maps and position yourself to intercept enemies in tighter areas, you're practically guaranteed a kill streak, especially if you trigger his lightning-infusing, Brick from Borderlands-esque rage mode. The more I played, the more I learned to use class abilities in tandem, employing multiple complementary tools in rapid succession to achieve maximum impact.

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All guns seem to have infinite ammo, meaning you'll have to reload but never restock.

Boss Key Productions

Beyond the character classes, there's one final twist to Lawbreakers' already intricate action: gravity. Many of Lawbreakers' tools, and even certain areas within its maps, mess with gravity in one way or another. For example, the Titan can't speed up, but he can slow others down with his Neutron Mine, which drastically increases the gravity within a discrete area for a short time. The Enforcer, on the other hand, can briefly deactivate gravity entirely with his Distortion Field, leaving enemies floating aimlessly.

One low gravity area actually proved central to my hands-on experience. I was only allowed to play one map and one mode, but the mode -- which challenged both teams to fight over a single battery that could be charged at either team's base -- always spawned the battery in the middle of a large, central low gravity area complete with crazy moon physics. Watching people floating majestically while blind-firing backwards in order to propel themselves through the air faster was somewhat awe-inspiring and, occasionally, hilarious. I only hope future maps contain more and different gravitational anomalies since the idea currently feels slightly underutilized (one low gravity area isn't nearly enough).

Despite the massive variety of mechanics at work in every Lawbreakers match, I was actually able to feel out the game's rhythm relatively quickly. Early on, the frantic pace spelled many quick deaths, and I actually had trouble distinguishing allies from enemies. However, I went from feeling overwhelmed to knowing exactly what I could do differently after just a few rounds. Instead of dying and respawning over and over, I found myself running to health stations, which made for sudden moments of tense defensive play that contrasted nicely with the rest of the gameplay.

I do wish the guns had a bit more impact, though. I sometimes found it hard to tell if my shots were landing, especially since combat moves so fast. This is a minor and easily rectified gripe, though, especially considering I was playing a pre-Alpha build. According to the developers, there's plenty more content still on the way. While this build did not include any kind of leveling or progression system, the devs haven't necessarily ruled the idea out. They also teased a fifth character class: a recon-type fighter who dual-wields pistols and, according to the team, will be the closest thing Lawbreakers has to a sniper.

And of course, you can expect more maps and modes to be announced as development progresses, though you shouldn't expect a single-player campaign to magically materialize before the game launches. The exact release date remains unannounced, but when it does launch, Lawbreakers will be a Steam digital exclusive at a sub-$60 price point. $40 seems like a safe bet, but we'll have to wait for Bleszinski and Boss Key to lay down the law later this year.

For more on Lawbreakers, check out our extensive interview with project lead Cliff Bleszinski: Cliff Bleszinski talks moving on from Gears of War and starting fresh with Lawbreakers

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