I wasn’t an immediate fan of Breakaway. The sports game looks to be aiming for a middle ground between the simple elegance of Rocket League and the tactical maelstrom of League of Legends but at first sight it looked to me like a bit of a mess. Then I went hands-on and very quickly I got an inkling of the potential depth in all its systems.
The basics are simple: you win a game of Breakaway by being the first team to score three points. Points are scored by wiping out every member of the opposition’s team before any of them are able to respawn, or by sinking the ball in the opposition’s goal. So, football with a lot more violence.
What initially put me off is that on top of this simple format is a mass of complications that break the game’s momentum and cause pile-ups of players in the centre of the map.
At the start of each game players pick from one of a pool of heroes – legends like the Greek gladiator Spartacus or the Irish pirate Anne Bonny – each of whom has four abilities. On top of their abilities, the heroes are able to use what the game calls 'buildables' - each has two of these, which can be placed in every round and will persist across multiple rounds. For instance the viking hero, Thorgrim, is able to build both one blocking wall and one thumper (which stuns nearby enemies) every round.
You can also earn gold within each game by getting kills, scoring points, and destroying the other team’s buildables. This is turn can be spent on skill buffs, increasing things like your character’s speed, damage, or reducing their respawn time.
As these buildable items and skill upgrades persist between rounds, the simple core of Breakaway becomes complicated. In my early games, where no one really knew what they were doing, this made for some clueless play.
In my first game I played as Anne Bonny, who is a bit of a glass cannon. All her abilities are based around doing a great deal of damage at long range with her sniper rifle. If she gets into melee combat most of the other characters on the field will wipe the floor with her.
With no one in the first match knowing what they were doing, in all three rounds all eight players simply ran to the centre and fought over the ball. One player would pick up the ball, threatening some actual sport, before immediately being whacked and dropping it. Then another would do the same. I sat at the side with my sniper rifle racking up kills and assists, but it didn’t feel like I was adding much to the game or having any strategic impact. There were no tactics, there was no flow, and there was little tension. It just didn’t work.
We won that first game out of sheer luck. Somehow we gained the upper hand in the centre and, moving as a scrum, my team managed to push up the battlefield and plant the ball in the enemy goal.
It was only in subsequent games, as I slowly became familiar with Breakaway's varied roster and many abilities, that the complications started to resemble something more like depth.
Spartacus, for example, is a melee-focused scrapper. On the surface his role is to get into the thick of the combat and chase down the weaker heroes, filleting them for gold and the hope of a team wipe. All of his abilities enable this playstyle, being various high damage sword flurries and swings.
However, using the small pot of gold each player gets at the start of the game I buffed his speed. Coupling this newfound nippiness with one of the gladiator’s buildables, a speed ramp, I was able to launch myself towards the ball in the centre of the map as soon as the first round began. Ball in hand, I dodged and weaved past the enemy players and slammed the ball into their goal for the perfect start.
Between the rounds I took my winnings and buffed Spartacus’ speed even more. Then as soon as the round began I jumped on the ramp that I’d placed in the first round, placed a second ramp where the first one landed me, and again grabbed the ball and sprinted into the other team’s goal. Against players who know the game such simple tactics won't be effective, but they illustrate how Breakaway's abilities and buildables layer over the course of a match.
It was in the third round where everything came together. The opposition, now wise to my plan, started using their abilities to block me. The enemy team’s Thorgrim put a wall at the foot of the ramp up to their base, blocking my clear run on the goal. Their ranged characters were ready for my leap into the centre and slapped me down with a musket round as soon as I picked up the ball (any damage causes the ball to be dropped), giving the melee-focused players enough time to close the distance.
Sure enough, this led to a massive scrap in centre field. Unlike the previous game's directionless brawl, now everyone was playing with more educated purpose. The ranged players were harassing the support classes, which stopped anyone from being healed, while the faster players tried to intercept the ball whenever it was tossed into the air. If anyone got hold of the ball they’d make a desperate break towards a friendly tank.
It wasn’t just me who had been buffing their character's skills. Our team’s tank, a Thorgrim, had buffed his armour and health to the nines. The enemy team’s Anne Bonny, on the other hand, clearly put everything into damage: whenever she landed a shot it would take someone out of the fight.
This switch to full-frontal aggression saw the enemy team wipe us, winning the round while ignoring the ball completely.
Heading into the fourth round I spent the gold I’d earned on shortening my respawn timer and upping my damage. With my speed, damage, and short respawn I went into the fourth round confident of making foolhardy pushes into the opposition’s base without consequence.
The originally bare map now looked like two tightly opposed fortresses. Ours was focused around my speed ramps, with the flanks covered by ballistas and spike traps that would slow down any pushes into our territory. The other team had build a blockade of walls and had put trampolines on their side so they could jump over them on the way to the map’s centre.
The fourth round was the climax. After our team pushed into the centre of the map and grabbed the ball we were able to quickly smash the blocking wall by whacking as a group and push into the enemy base. They tried to get possession of the ball but, thanks to some surprisingly agile dodges from our tank, Thorgrim got close enough to throw the ball into the goal - our third point as well as game, set and match.
When Amazon revealed the game they had two teams of pro players take part in an exhibition match which, unfortunately, was quite dull and scrappy viewing:
If pro players don’t play tactically, instead just brawling in the centre of the map, then what of us mere mortals?
Breakaway’s heroes, skill buffs, and buildables suggest there is potential here for great tactical depth. Each character can be buffed into specialist roles you may not expect: the tank Thorgrim can be built as a speedy wingman, a meat wall, or simply to cause maximum disruption to the enemy team. If players are working as a team, their decisions should complement each other and drive a shared strategy over the course of a match. The potential is real but, until it is in the hands of players, it’s impossible to tell if it will be realised.