Laser League Review
Blink and you're dead
Online multiplayer has been a big part of console gaming since the advent of Xbox Live back in 2003. Before, everything was relegated to couch play, but the simple ability to take to the internet and find an opponent at any hour of the day was a revelation for solo players. Now when a game was made with a strong multiplayer focus, you didn’t need to skip it if your friends were out and about.
Laser League is a game that heavily focuses on its multiplayer component to the complete abandonment of any traditional single-player mode. There is an offline bot-match option available, but clearly the goal was to make the best possible multiplayer competitive game out there. Exhibiting shades of Rocket League and taking inspiration from the aesthetics of Tron, Laser League makes a great first impression.
Upon booting up the game, you’ll be greeted with a simplistic menu that does nothing to establish what anything is in this world. Laser League has teams from different countries competing in some kind of competition, but you aren’t getting loads of backstory or cutscenes that clue you in to anyone’s motivation. This is a game in the vein of arcade classics, where gameplay and fun factor played a far bigger role than narrative draw.
At least you don’t need to immediately jump online to figure everything out. Laser League has a brief tutorial that decently explains how the general gameplay works. The game is a competitive arena brawler with a style similar to Rocket League, just that you’ll be using humans instead of driving cars. Each player takes on a class (of which there are six available) which has specific abilities that allow them to dispatch each other or capture points.
Points are earned by eliminating the opposition. You can do this by outright killing them with your abilities, or by capturing laser gates that will collide with them and do the job for you. Laser gates can be either static or have pre-defined movement paths; leading to an extra layer of strategy should a player be familiar with the arena. That is where the Tron inspiration factors in, because Laser League could be mistaken for that film’s signature “Light Cycles.” Even the general art style looks like Disney’s cult classic, sporting very clean, defined lines and bright, neon colors.
Each of the classes in the game centers on a different aspect of team play, with two directly offensive roles and a couple of support roles. I have a particular fondness for the “Thief” class, which can activate an ability to steal laser gates from the opposing team. The only downside would be that the tutorial doesn’t properly introduce the nuances of each class, opting to limit you to solely the “Shock” role and then relegate everything else to text.
These classes all have modifiers for their abilities that slightly tailor them to your specific style of play. The “Blade” class, for instance, has an ability where its blade will charge faster or one where it will instantly recharge upon killing a foe. If you’re good enough to accurately hit people, Blade can become a force to be reckoned with in the thick of battle. It won’t dramatically change how each class is played, but it does promote a different approach to dealing with opponents.
In addition to all of that, Laser League’s different arenas occasionally drop power-ups that will alter the laser gates on the field. Things like “Speed Up,” “Steal,” and “Reverse” are pretty self-explanatory, but there are also ones that will pause the gates’ movement, activate them all at once and even swap team activation of every gate. It can be very chaotic when you’re in the middle of the arena and surrounded by your opponent’s gates with nowhere to run.
While there are certainly elements of luck involved with how power-ups will fall, Laser League is a very skill based affair. If you fail to understand how your class works, you’ll be a detriment to your team. You can win rounds without actually utilizing your class specific abilities, but making clutch plays where you activate a rush, slash or steal at critical times can be a matter of winning or losing. I’ve made some incredible plays just by remaining calm and having keen awareness.
Thankfully, the netcode for Laser League is pretty solid. While I did encounter some issues in one match, pretty much every other game I played was free of lag. Since your online competition will be limited to either 2 v 2 or 3 v 3, there aren’t a lot of players cluttering the screen and causing any kind of hiccups in performance. Everything remains rock solid and losing feels more like a consequence of your actions instead of input delay.
That being said, there are some issues with collision detection on the power-ups and gates. There are more than a few times where I swear I’ll run into a gate only for it to not activate. Worse still, I will clearly be away from an enemy gate, but will still die since the game couldn’t interpolate my position accurately. I suppose any game with an online component can’t be perfect, but it does suck when you die from the game’s failure to gauge distance instead of your own ineptitude.
This can be mitigated if you decide to play the game solely offline, which is at least an option. I didn’t get to test out how many local players you can have, but you are able to set up AI matches with 4 v 4 rules. Getting eight bodies in an arena is pure chaos; often times being too much to keep track of. Sadly, you cannot take local players online with you, which would help with the matchmaking service.
And that's the only real blemish on this whole package, in that Laser League’s community is pretty dead. A mere two weeks out from release, I could barely find matches with all human players. I would end up waiting for around four minutes before even getting connected to anything, only for it to be completely populated with AI. The AI is mostly competent, but I really want to test my mettle against humans instead of CPU.
A quick glance to the leaderboards shows that the PS4 version has around 2,700 players, which is pretty paltry. Laser League does not feature cross-network play, so unless the user base starts to grow, I’m not sure I would recommend grabbing it on consoles. The PC version has seen better success, so you’ll likely have a greater chance of battling actual humans on there.
I’m also not sure how I feel about the unlock system, which requires you to grind through level-ups to grab gear and portraits. It can be a tedious slog, but everything is purely cosmetic. At least you won’t be unlocking game altering items and people with more time will not have an advantage (apart from skill).
It would be nice to have a different art style for the various arenas, too. Everything is just neon colors and black surfaces, which certainly looks futuristic, but starts to feel samey. I can appreciate focusing on gameplay to make sure you nail the basics, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to stick with Laser League when everything blurs together. I’ve had some intense moments, but I can barely remember what arena they were on since they all look similar.
Those nitpicks aside, Laser League is a fairly unique and gripping game. It doesn’t have a whole lot of options, but the game is a rare multiplayer title that demands skill and rewards players for making risky plays. That it looks like Tron is also neat, since I do love the art of Disney’s computer world. Hopefully the PS4 version gets some more players, because I would hate for it to die off on consoles.