"Part of it might be to do with me being raised in America, and being surrounded by Hollywood gun culture," Cliff Bleszinski tells me, when we sit down to discuss his new game, LawBreakers. "I don't want to get into the big gun debate, though, because I do have a lot of respect for guns. That's a conversation for another time."
Bleszinski's respect for firearms might go some way to explaining why they've featured so prominently in his previous games. He was co-designer on Gears of War, and lead on its two sequels proper (to date). "Being raised in America, particularly in the north east (he's from Massachusetts), which is all 'manly,' you watch all of these movies like Commando, Rambo, and even something like Demolition Man. And you learn that the psychology of the gun is very powerful, that in itself it represents power."
We're talking inside a massive warehouse space that also houses the offices of Bleszinski's new studio, Boss Key Productions, which he founded in 2014. Raleigh, North Carolina is where he now calls home, where he's set up his current venture. It's a university town of a sleepy disposition during weekdays and a population that is amongst the friendliest and most welcoming of any urban landscape I've experienced in the US. Walk down any street here and you'll receive your share of "good morning"s.
It's hardly the kind of setting in which you'd expect to find a video game company specializing in shooters. But with Bleszinski's former employers Epic Games (Gears of War, Unreal) and Red Storm Entertainment (Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon) also in the area, the region is used to unloading virtual bullets.
The Gears of War and Unreal series, and 1994's PC platformer Jazz Jackrabbit, might be how Bleszinski made his name in the games industry, but LawBreakers represents a completely new start for him. A multiplayer-only, first-person shooter coming to PC later this year, it'll be his first game since ceasing work on Gears of War amid rumors that he'd completely retired from the games industry.
Today, Bleszinski is firmly focused on making sure that LawBreakers doesn't follow the tried and tested patterns that so many of its predecessors have subscribed to. First-person multiplayer games, in particular, are notorious for their staunch adherence to genre stereotypes and clichés.
"A lot of people think that you have to a sniper, you have to have a medic, you have to have a capture the flag mode," laments Bleszinski. "Do you? If you do have that stuff, then you're just making the same shit that everyone else does. Why not have a vision for what you actually want to make, and come up with something different and unique instead of just iterating off other people's stuff?"
Bleszinski is aiming for individuality in an already crowded marketplace—before LawBreakers comes Overwatch and Battleborn, multiplayer FPS titles from Blizzard and Gearbox respectively—through a process he describes as "consuming everything and then regurgitating it back into something that is your own." It's a method born from his belief that as you get older you start to learn "that everything is a fucking remix." Making that remix different from the others is what's important.
But on paper, LawBreakers comes across as a fairly typical game of its kind. Two teams of five—one known as "Law," the other as "Breakers"—face-off across a series of game modes. Different characters have different traits, and those traits must be used wisely in order to fulfill your team's potential at any given moment. Yet dig deeper and deviations from the norm do begin to emerge.
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Character classes have yet to be finalized, but those I play at Boss Key fall into a range of categories that are unusual for a game of this type. There is a sword-wielding, grapple hook-swinging individual who is low on health but high on speed, capable of traversing the map by swinging through the air, so long as you've the input dexterity to achieve it. Then there's the assault rifle carrying, grenade-throwing hipster with a jetpack, briefly propelling him forwards in an inhuman sprint. Other characters have rocket launchers, and the ability to slam into the ground from great heights.
A realistic shooter, then, this is not, an impression reinforced when you see certain areas of the maps affected by gravity distortions, which will suspend your character in mid-air. Quickly reacting to these fields is essential when it comes to keeping your head in the heat of a match.
The "Law" and the "Breakers" feature aesthetic differences, but their abilities are identical. Bleszinski explains that the original idea was to make each side unique in terms of which tools and weapons are available to them, but he and the team quickly realized that they simply didn't have the manpower to tackle this approach.
However, the symmetry that exists between the two sides has helped Bleszinski align LawBreakers more directly with one of his other loves: sport. Growing up in Boston, home to the New England Patriots, Boston Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics, the young Cliff was not short on sporting options to draw inspiration from.
"Most video game creators—not all, but most—aren't big sports people," he says. "But there's a lot to be learned from the rule sets of sports, and the last minute action they create. There are complex things going on in sports when you first start to learn the rules, such as offsides in (ice) hockey or what icing means; but it's important to remember that people will take the time to learn those complex rule sets. When you look at these sports that have existed for many years, they have made their rules so airtight that they very often end with a lot of drama. That's the thing that grabs me about them."
LawBreakers promises to feature many game modes, but I've sampled only one, dubbed "Battery." The concept, as per Bleszinski's theory of consumption and regurgitation, is something of a mix between the capture the flag modes seen in any number of shooters since the dawn of time, and Call of Duty's ever-present "Domination."
A battery is positioned in the center of a map, with each side having to grab it, take it to their base, and protect it until a meter reaches 100 percent. Once the meter is filled, a 20-second cool-down timer is triggered, upon which time a point is earned. The first team to score two points is declared the winner.
In a nod towards the sports that Bleszinski loves, the entire concept is built around facilitating those moments of drama in the dying seconds of a match. Reaching 100 percent charge, only to have the battery stolen during the cool-down period, is legitimately both painful and exciting; as are those 20 seconds that lead to eventual victory, during which you never quite know whether you're going to successfully protect your prize.
The official gameplay reveal trailer for 'LawBreakers,' from August 2015
"There's a big final 'push' [at the end of matches]," Bleszinski explains, grinning. "But I hate to use that term, because it's so associated with the MOBA genre. I feel we have something in common with MOBAs in terms of the character classes, but we don't have the towers and the minions, and that sort of thing."
Say "MOBA" and immediately the brain conjures images of DOTA 2, League of Legends and, more generally, eSports. Does Bleszinski want LawBreakers to earn a place amongst the eSport elite?
"Yeah, I'd love it to be an eSport, eventually. That's the goal. Everyone wants to be an eSport, everyone wants to be shown on television networks and everyone wants to see kids playing their game and they want to make millions of dollars. Yeah, we want that. Who doesn't want that?
"At the end of the day, though, you have to start with certain core pillars that will allow you to eventually get to that situation, way down the line."
And all anyone outside of Boss Key has really seen of LawBreakers, at this point, are those core pillars. Prior to its release, more game modes, maps, and character classes will be revealed, which should help diversify the offering and attract the attentions of a bigger audience. Right now it feels like something aimed very much at the "core" shooter player.
To start with, though, that might be enough. Setting out to secure the most dedicated players first, before spreading to encompass a more casual audience, has worked wonders for the MOBA genre, as well as the likes of Hearthstone and Counter-Strike: GO. So there's no reason why it can't work here, as that first pillar that ultimately holds up a larger offering later on in the game's lifespan.
Plus, it has guns in it. Bleszinski might assign his interest in them to growing up in an America that informs itself through Hollywood's output, but the fact is that almost everyone enjoys shooting guns in a safe, digital space. That, combined with the Bleszinski name, the Bleszinski brand, might just be enough to guarantee LawBreakers that all-important initial impact, from which it could prove a powerful contender.
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