Laser League Beta: One of the Simplest, True "eSport" Experiences
I'm not going to lie to you. When I first looked into Laser League, I wasn't really impressed by what I understood of the game. From the trailer and available information I could find, it struck me as a slow, hyped-up version of laser tag. It's not the late '90s anymore, so I was a bit skeptical. It wasn't until I actually got into a match of Laser League that I realized how wrong my first impression was.
Laser League is born from the same publisher that brought us games like OlliOlli and Not a Hero. It couldn't be more different from both of those games. The immediate comparison that I began to draw to Laser League was a game I haven't played since I was a child: Bomberman.
If you've never had a chance to play any of the early Bomberman titles, as those are my only experiences with the series, they're strategic, maze-based games where the object is to place bombs in areas of the map to either explode the opposing player or deprive them of resources (like power-ups) and eventually choke them out to the point that they run into their own explosion or die to an on-map enemy.
Check out this gameplay from Super Bomberman on the SNES to get a better appreciation for this style of game:
When you compare Laser League's gameplay to what you see in the video above, it's not easy to make many visual connections. You see Bomberman and you think of explosions. One look at Laser League and you're confused by people sprinting around a 3-D sports stadium, activating bright lights that vaporize anyone that touches them. Thematically, both games are very different. At the core, though, Laser League is a more intense, strategic, and exciting version of of the same type of no-contact, maze "combat" that you get from Bomberman.
Laser League is one of the easiest games to pick up and play.
I was fortunate enough to get early beta access to Laser League and play some exclusive matchmaking games alongside some other writers and people in the same field. I went into this playtest a little anxious that I'd be stuck on Discord and in a game that I didn't think I'd enjoy, to looking at the Windows clock and wondering how many more games we'd be able to squeeze in before the hour was over.
Laser League isn't hard to play. I know just reading that is an immediate turn-off to a lot of competitive gamers, but don't make any assumptions. The gameplay and controls of Laser League are both extremely simple to get used to, and that's not a bad thing.
To break it down for you, Laser League is a team-based game (though there is a 1-on-1 mode) where you compete against another team of players to strategically control nodes of a 3-D map. These nodes activate lasers when you or a teammate touches them, and these lasers persist for several seconds as obstacles that the opposing team has to dodge. If they touch these lasers, they're vaporized and knocked out of the round. However, teammates can come in contact with their downed bodies to revive them.
Simple, right? You run around a square map and try to activate more lasers than the opponent. However, the team that controls the most laser nodes doesn't just get a free win. It's a lot deeper than that. Rather then being able to box in players to corners and against walls, the edges of this stadium teleport you to the opposite side of the map. This by itself adds a depth of complexity to the game that allows players to pull off miraculous escapes and insane tags.
That's not it, because I've yet to touch on what I think is the coolest feature of the entire game: classes and loadouts. This is where you might think to yourself, "Wow, this is getting complicated," but it really isn't. Each class has a single special ability that they can perform. It's only able to be used when a power meter (shown beneath your character) is at full charge. This ability can be enhanced by each class using one of two different loadouts.
In Laser League, loadouts are called modifiers. Your modifier affects the special ability associated with your class. For example, the class that I'd suggest new players start with is Shock. Shock's special ability is an AoE stun in a field around your character. When you're in close quarters with an opponent, you can activate your stun to either defend yourself from an expected attack or attempt to stun them to set up a kill with the help of a teammate or nearby laser beam.
Shock's two modifiers are Extend and Daze. If you select Extend, Shock's AoE will last longer. This means that you won't have to be as precise with the timing when you activate it. If you select Daze, Shock's stun from that AoE will be extended. As you can see, both choices are extremely simple and easy to see the benefits of. It's a matter of selecting what fits your playstyle or the requirements of your team composition. Options are good to have.
Laser League can still be very technical and competitive.
While I can't speak on having competitive team-based experiences, I can say that during my time playtesting Laser League, I found myself checking what class my teammate locks in during the lobby phase and making my own selection based on that. I also found myself analyzing and understanding the strengths of these classes and my own personal playstyle. While I wanted to experiment and get a feel for the game in each match, I also had an overwhelming urge to play what I was already familiar with. I wanted to dominate.
By my third game, I had started memorizing the node spawn patterns on the map we were playing. I would begin running to these spawn locations to defend and prepare for them to pop up. It was at that time that it really clicked in my head: this game has a lot of depth to it. You're not just running around and trying to be the first to tag nodes.
You're going to need to know the strengths and weaknesses of each class and their modifiers. You're going to need to understand each power-up and how they'll affect the lasers on the map. Sometimes you might not even want to snag one of the power-ups, like Switch. Switch inverts all laser colors on the map. If your team has heavy control, the Switch power-up is something you might want to defend and play around rather than pick up for yourself.
Another dimension to Laser League are the maps. There are three different stadiums, each with four different maps. Each of these maps has a particular theme. For example, Empire Campus has a map called Spin Cycle. Spin Cycle is a defensive map with long lasers where you'll find yourself falling back and trying to dodge rather than aggressing.
Silvertip Arena has a map named Rotator, which is quite the opposite. It's a very restrained map where you'll always be in close combat with the enemy team. There's a lot of deadzones the create chokes where you and your opponents will find yourselves battling it out using your special abilities.
It's really important to understand and appreciate that the ability to quickly feel comfortable with Laser League's basics doesn't take away from the skill cap and complexity of it. You will be able to tell a player who has played for a week apart from a player who has played for an hour. You can learn the controls and feel like a clever player from the start, but there's a lot of experience required to master this game.
Laser League looks and feels like an eSport should.
This is big to me, because the success of a game like Rocket League is predicated on this. When you say "eSport," it's a game like that which comes to my mind long before the more popular titles like League of Legends and Overwatch.
Laser League's gameplay is very simple to understand at a glance. It's not like DotA 2, where you can't appreciate the highest levels of gameplay without being familiar with the game. In Laser League, what you see is what you get. The clutch dodges and crucial revives are right there in your face. You see it and you know what it is because the game is vibrant and understandable.
The combination of being both easy to get into and easy to appreciate as a spectator is going to do a lot for Laser League. I'm not predicting it to be the next big eSport that you'll see plastered all over Twitch, but I know that there's an audience for unique, sports-like games. It's a really creative title that I think can attract people from all genres of games. It's just fun.
Admittedly, I may not have given Laser League a fair chance if I hadn't been given the opportunity to play a few matchmaking games during the closed beta phase. I'm glad I did, though, because it is exactly the type of game that catches my interest: easy to both pick up and put down, fun to play with others, and a competitive experience.
Laser League's first open beta is kicking off on Friday, January 26th. You can find more information about the game on the official Laser League website.