The landscape of online, competitive multiplayer has never been so vast or varied. Virtual marketplaces heave as developers seek the next “lightning in a bottle” product, to set the next industry trend or, at the very least, mimic the success of those that have.
For some, this breeds an uninspired working mentality; countless iterations of the same piece unchanged for years, ultimately growing stale. For others, it pushes them to innovate, think outside the box and deliver something original.
Firmly in the latter category: Laser League, the latest offering from British studio Roll7 (OlliOlli, OlliOlli2) in partnership with 505 Games. A top-down perspective, class based, arena combat game where two teams of up to three players (four in local multiplayer) fight for control of the level.
The gorgeous 3D art style marks a departure from much of Roll7’s past portfolio and immediately conjures feelings of 1982’s “Tron”, all bright neon outlines, laser blades and energy beams. It’s a kind of Cyberpunk game show and whilst there’s no real lore, I’m interested in the setting and wish the game told you more. The different character kits bear company names and limited descriptions. It’s intriguing in its futuristic, dystopic quality.
Macabre thought: in the world of Laser League, are the characters fighting to the death in each match? I think they might be, for a paying audience no less.
At the start of a game each team rushes to claim “laser nodes”, colourless points that erupt in your teams shade of energy as you pass over them. You’ll run harmlessly through lasers of your own colour, but contact with nodes claimed by the enemy means instant elimination. When this happens, a marker replaces your body at the point of death. If an ally touches this marker, you’re resurrected and back in the game.
Claiming nodes forces your opponents to move, limiting their options of play and
each of the 19 maps’ nodes behave differently. They’ll shoot across the map as projectiles, and create moving walls of energy in differing forms and shapes etc. A team’s claim on any node carries a time limit, requiring constant movement to capture, recapture and avoid the enemy.
The arenas on offer provide a decent amount of variation and replayability. Strategies for one map won’t necessarily translate to another and you’ll quickly develop favourites (Megaplex: Warzone, my current go-to).
Matches have no overall time limit but nodes will appear more frequently, and in greater number, to the point where elimination is unavoidable, especially if one team is dominating the territory. The result is a fast paced style of play. Rounds don’t drag and, for the most part, barely ever reach the minute mark. The off-shoot is that rounds can feel frenetic and out of your control in the later stages.
There’s so much happening on screen at one time. It’s almost impossible to focus, as more lasers fill the screen and 4-6 similar looking avatars (it’s easy to simply lose track of who you are controlling) rush around trying to resurrect fallen allies, avoid enemy lasers and smash each other to bits with energy swords.
That you’re required to react and adapt so quickly is part of the fun, but too often I found myself cheesed by an unfortunate, unavoidable node placement. Overall, the gameplay is exciting, simple to grasp and very accessible to new players. Jump into a random match and you’ll quickly learn the basics – delve slightly more and you’ll find some surprisingly deep systems at play.
Roll7 seem to agree with the game’s ease of access (fair) because the tutorial segment is awful (not so fair). The scant few, poorly executed lessons do little beyond teaching you the bare minimum (and I mean bare) in a roundabout way. At the very least I’d have liked a basic, short playable tutorial for each of the 6 classes. Instead you’re effectively told, “You’ve played the tutorial, if you’d like to know more, there’s an index at the main menu for you to read”. Roll7… come on. It’s not a deal breaker but it feels lazy in comparison with the rest of the game.
Relying on laser nodes and enemy missteps only gets you so far in the world of Laser League as a class system offers six options to choose from, each playing their own distinct role within matches.
The Blade, a purely offensive class, dispatching foes outright. The Ghost, more support-centric, limited invulnerability rendering lasers obsolete, as you hover lazily around the arena resurrecting fallen allies with ease. Smash, Snipe, Thief and Shock round out the roster respectively, each with vastly different styles of play, catering to the archetype you favour most.
They’re all interesting as separate units (apart from Snipe. I still can’t find a use for Snipe…), but it’s their application as a team that really sets Laser League apart. There are so many combinations and tactical possibilities. Stun the enemy, ready for a follow up Blade strike. Steal an enemy node just as an opponent is tackled into it. The most effective tactics require specific squad make-ups and efficient teamwork. Trying to “lone wolf” will see you trounced quicker than most other competitive titles and that’s not a bad thing.
Each class specific ability (one per player) comes with a couple of “subclass” options such as increased power at the expense of duration etc. and is activated when your energy bar reaches capacity. It’s down to you to time strikes effectively. As Smash, a missed lunge leaves you open to a counterattack. Activating your ability as Shock with no one around is a complete waste of time.
It’s another layer of tactics to the fast-paced action and both teams have visible energy bars. It’s tense when a fully energized player runs toward you with clear intent, but satisfying as you dodge them successfully.
Personally, I’m a Smash fan, armed with a huge energy, riot shield. With the tackle ability, barging into enemy players is a blast, sending them sprawling into allied lasers.
There’s also a neat addition to level traversal in that none of the four outer walls are solid.
Run into the centre top wall of the level boundary and you’ll emerge from the centre bottom wall. It’s handy if you’re hemmed in, by players or lasers; just be mindful of your exact exit point. More than once, so concerned with escape, I failed to spot the enemy nodes on the opposite end of the level, obliterating me instantly.
Random power-ups drop incrementally during rounds, switching up the gameplay even further. Potential effects range from beam division for increased manoeuvrability, draining the enemy energy bars and even a full team resurrect for your allies. They’ll often tip the scales dramatically in your favour and it’s worthwhile to grab them before your opponent does.
As you play matches, you’ll increase your player level in the pretty expansive progression system. There’s a bevy of unlocks including different suits, portraits, emotes and more.
Reminiscent of Psyonix’ Rocket League, it’s mostly there to give your profile a personal touch. If you don’t enjoy customisation then it probably won’t enrich the experience for you. I’m still excited to jump back in and see if I can unlock a new, sweet looking kit for my… avatar? Contestant? Agent? Need that lore, Roll7.
There’s nothing quite like Laser League on the market right now and the polish may make you forget that Roll7 is still a relatively small team with indie sensibilities.
Original, clever and innovative, Laser League is a gameplay experience worth your time and shows that we don’t have to settle for the same old, annually cloned dross again and again.