Every once in a while, a multiplayer game comes along that has It, with a capital I. So often it’s been a first person shooter, with the revolutions sparked by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or the Battle Royale duo of PUBG and Fortnite Battle Royale, but it can also be something else entirely, from MOBAs like League of Legends to Rocket League. They’ve all got that spark that captures the imagination, and Laser League does as well.
“[Rocket League] is a weird one to compare us to,” Roll7’s John Ribbins pondered. “I’ll happily take it as a compliment, if you compare it to something that has the potential to be successful, that would be lovely. It’s really difficult, because in any thing where you have to describe a game, like when we did OlliOlli, people were like, ‘It’s Super Meat Boy meets Tony Hawks!’ But if you love either of those games and you go an play OlliOlli, you’ll hate it.”
This might be Roll7’s first real multiplayer effort. but they’re a studio that know how to make fun, fast and snappy games. The esoteric controls of OlliOlli have been shelved, the excessive pixel violence of Not A Hero left behind, and in their place is a sharp futuristic sports game that’s all about controlling the arena, using character abilities smartly and neon. Lots of neon.
John explained, “I think you start playing and you literally collect shit and avoid the other shit. That’s all you do, and try not to die and maybe revive the other people on your team. OlliOlli’s really hard at the beginning, because it’s like you wiggle the stick and you do tricks and it’s sweet, but you never land anything and you get a crap score. You literally had to figure out the trick stuff and the timing stuff before you can feel you can be good at this. As much as people said they really, really liked OlliOlli, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who are like, “Really cool game but I didn’t get past level 3.’
“With Laser League we really wanted a game that people could get into and not feel terrible at when you start out. So if you can get in, dodge a bunch of lasers, turn a bunch of lasers on, figure out the wrap around, generally use your ability, and you don’t get a lot of the other stuff, you can still feel like a boss. When you win a point, you can go ‘Woo!'”
The game is pretty simple to grasp. You have two teams of up to four fighting to control a field of deadly lasers that move, spin and shoot in patterns. If the laser is your colour, it’s safe, if it’s the other team’s colour, it’s deadly. The winner of each round is the last team standing.
Of course, sometimes you’ll need to give someone a little push. The six classes each have a unique place in the balance of power, with the Blade the most direct as the class that can down an opponent, Sniper creates a teleport node for a few moments that’s deadly on the path they travel, while Smash sends them flying across the map (hopefully) into waiting lasers. By contrast, Thief is a support, able to steal laser nodes, Shock can freeze enemies in place for a few moments and Ghost is essentially the healer, able to phase through shields to get to allies and pick them back up.
The beauty is that you can quite easily pick up any of these characters and quickly start to learn them, except Snipe. Snipe is really hard. That’s amplified by the modifiers that can tweak the length, recharge or after-effect of an ability. Smash is made nicer by having it make you invulnerable after a hit, letting you pass through lasers for a moment like Ghost, while Ghost can have an instant ability recharge when running over a teammate to revive them. As the game exits Early Access, each has gained a third modifier.
But what are they? Are they humans, robots? the intelligences of time-travelling bunnies transplanted into robot bodies? “You’re the first person to ask a question along these lines,” John said. “OK, so the idea, and obviously it’s a game that doesn’t need a narrative, but it does need a reason. It’s set in 2150, there’s been a third global conflict sometime between now and then, and obviously in the previous mega-conflicts you get big technological leaps as well, and so we started looking at how technology for paralympians had evolved.
“If there’s this global conflict, maybe the paralympians of 2150 would be the main competitors, so they wouldn’t have blade runner legs, they’d have normal legs that run really fast. That was the starting point, so you’d have physical augmentations and you’d just be able to buy that stuff, but then if you were playing sport, then you’d want stuff stripped down for speed, so they might not be as aesthetically pleasing, but they’re incredibly fast or strong, or whatever.”
The arenas are artistic light shows, starting off simplistically with little danger but then quickly becoming death traps that need careful navigation unless you want to end up cornered. Similar to Pac-Man, the walls let you wrap around to the other side, letting you pull off surprise attacks, sneaky steals, or escape danger.
There’s a few new arenas and layouts in the final version of the game – these are to be added on console shortly after launch – with some of the most imaginative and technical arenas. One is an amusing nod to Pac-Man, another a simply insanely deadly map called Jennifer – don’t ask… or do!
“So there was a map in the game called Battlegrounds,” John explained, “and it has these single nodes where, if you collect them, it fire six. Kevin had built it and done this new thing, where he basically put six lasers all on top of each other, so when you hit them, they fire out like fireworks. We were playing it and one of our network programmers was like, “What are those things called that keep killing us?” Nobody answered, so I just said, “They’re called Jennifer,” being sarcastic, and then everyone decided they would be called Jennifer.
“A couple months on from that, a level appeared in one of the other stadiums called Jennifer’s Revenge, which was basically entirely made of these exploding lasers, but Jennifer’s Revenge was too long to fit, so we had to just call it Jennifer.”
Matches are a little like tennis or ping-pong, played to the best of three sets, each of which is played best of five rounds. Rounds can last seconds or turn into frantic battles for supremacy that swing back and forth, pushing a full game closer to 20 minutes in length. With the class-based characters, the team that loses each set is given the chance to change classes and modifiers, letting you try to counter a successful strategy.
John said, “It was originally random, so it used to be that dots appeared on the pitch, you grabbed them and the pattern was whatever the pattern was. It basically seems to happen with every game we ever make, we say it’ll be random and procedurally generated, then we hand build a level and everyone gets really good at the hand built one, because a lot of the fun is knowing the exact spawns. What that does really nicely is enable the thing you were doing, where you’re just, ‘I’m gonna wrap around at the start and grab this thing and you can’t stop me,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I’m gonna do the same thing to your team, and you can’t stop me either!'”
Personally, as we fell in love with Jennifer, the team I was playing in solidified around three particular roles – Blade, Thief and myself as Smash. The learnable patterns of the maps meant that I quickly settled into some opening gambits, wrapping across to the other side to steal one of the first nodes on the other side, and seeing if it could catch them out. Of course, it could see them tussle with me and/or try to repay the favour on our side.
Given the right circumstances, Laser League could easily flourish into something huge, but these are uncertain times for independent devs and the weight of other multiplayer juggernauts threaten to squeeze even tangentially related games. If you like fast, rip-roaring multiplayer future sports full of tense tussles for supremacy and clutch plays to save the day, Laser League deserves your attention when it releases next week.