Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PC, Xbox One
Before we go any further, can we just clear one thing up? “Overwatch” is a terrible title. It’s the kind of name that makes you think of a bland military shooter from the mid-2000s. Hell, the word is literally a part of modern military terminology. Whatever possessed Blizzard’s marketing department to decide to stick to that non-entity of a title will forever mystify me. Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft; all these titles at least attempt to communicate something about the game you’re going to play. Overwatch communicates boredom.
Fortunately, Overwatch is anything but boring to play. Coming in slightly late to the party worked wonders for my first few hours getting to grips with the game. Most of the earlier, exploitable gimmicks have gone, and, whilst the game continues to undergo scrupulous tweaks, as characters get buffed and nerfed, it’s in a fine state to play.
Overwatch is arguably the spiritual successor to Team Fortress 2's addictive multiplayer experience. The core gameplay is remarkably similar, with two groups of players duking it out with various classes as they fight over objectives.
Blizzard’s strengths as a developer are apparent the moment you first boot up the game. Overwatch’s character design is fantastic and something the developer frequently excels at. I’d go as far to argue that there’s not a single dud in its (currently) twenty two strong roster. Many of its cast, whether it be cover girl Tracer or robot suit-wielding D.Va, look like they’ve been pulled straight from a Pixar movie.
Blizzard have always had a strong grasp on how to create characters that look fun to play, are visually engaging and also communicate their gameplay through those visuals. Overwatch is a prime aspect of this design philosophy. One look at Reinhardt, the game’s most straightforward tanking character, and you know, instantly, that his is a guy who’s built for taking hits. Likewise, Tracer’s pixie hair-cut and rapid fire quips almost sum up her gameplay even before you’ve had the chance to check out her move list.
Each characters move list, on the surface, is surprisingly simple. Most characters typically gets a typical left and right trigger variant for their basic attack. For instance, Mei’s left trigger shoots a stream of frost from her gun, capable of freezing enemies for a short time, whilst her right trigger fires a hefty icicle capable of taking out many foes in one shot.
In addition to their weapons, each character gets two different abilities, sometimes three, alongside their ultimate attack. Reinhardt comes packing a hulking great shield, alongside a speedy charge capable of pinning foes into the wall. Torbjorn meanwhile, compliments his simple rivet gun with the ability to construct a defensive turret and dish out armour packs for his allies. It’s the way that Overwatch’s characters interact, both opposing one another and in terms of their inter-group synergy that makes for many of the game’s most fascinating moments. It’s the rock-paper-scissors aspect of Pokémon battles, mixed with more traditional first-person shooter mechanics.
Overwatch inserts its hefty cast roster into four general roles; offence, defence, tanking and support, with the general idea being that you want a broad mix of each class in your six-person team. On a basic level this means at least one of each class but it’s a testament to the game’s surprising depth that, whilst characters are pigeon-holed into a group for simplicities sake, many of them blur the lines when it comes to their roles. D.Va is a tank in the broadest sense, she can take hits well thanks to her mech, but she does even better on the attack, bullying the enemy team’s flanks. And Tracer, for all her lightning speed and rapid fire weapons for assassinating support units, does a fantastic job harassing enemy players and when she’s on defence.
If the core gameplay of Overwatch is the hero interaction, then the levels and objectives are the valves and levers that Blizzard use to alter the focus of each game. Some matches have one team on defence and another one attack, with the attacker sometimes having to push a payload towards a particular point, or simply occupy a specific location. Others are more basic, “King of the Hill” encounters, with both teams attempting to hold onto an objective for a specific length of time.
There’s a distinct “pace” to every Overwatch game, and it has a lot to do with each character’s ultimate ability that charges up over the course of a match. Some ultimates do damage, typically in an area-of-effect, whilst other may protect or revive fallen team mates. Regardless, they almost always result in the ebb and flow of each match as one team unloads an ultimate or two, forcing the opposing heroes to respond. Rarely will these game-changing abilities determine a match on their own, but they can be crucial at set points in a game, allowing the attacking group to go for a push, or the defending force to get hold of the game once again. Some can be annoying to fight against for sure, (cough...D.Va, Junk Rat...cough) but they’re the final spark that Overwatch arguably needs to keep its matches feeling fresh, and are responsible for the general pace that each game plays at.
Loot boxes are the reward for levelling up in Overwatch, providing each player with a handful of cosmetic items, whilst extra boxes can be purchased with real money. Blizzard have learnt from Hearthstone here, the loot boxes have the same distinct tactile feel that makes cracking open booster packs so satisfying. And, whilst I can’t think for the life of me why anyone would put down money just to have a different costume, so long as Blizzard don’t have the money aspects of the game affect the core matches in anyway, they at least provide an incentive to have invested players continue to grind away for those free loot boxes upon level up.
This is perhaps the biggest catch in Overwatch’s grand plan. The game’s simplicity and surprising depth are what make it so fun, not to mention so frighteningly addictive, but there’s the question of how long the game can maintain this momentum as it ages. Will the game still have the same sense of fun six months from now, or a year later? For all there strengths as a developer, one of Blizzard’s weaknesses is how they struggle to focus their games. Is Overwatch primarily a competitive title that wants to build upon its basic gameplay in a more strategic fashion? Or is it more about playing casually, allowing the simple controls and fun designs to have people dip in and out of the game?
The answer to this longevity issue is the commitment to constantly release new (free) heroes to expand the game’s burgeoning roster. Whilst new characters will help, by far the most important improvement would be to the game’s maps and game modes. Even after several hours, the meagre handful of capture points and payload maps begin to get repetitive. Overwatch is so invested in its core hero-on-hero gameplay to the point where that the surrounding design can seem like an afterthought, or rather, much further down the agenda. Compared to the game’s characters, its locations and game modes are frankly dull, and not all that different from one another. One area with two flanking routes looks like any other area with two flanking routes.
Solo players will clearly be the ones to tire more quickly, and any recommendation I give to Overwatch is given with the caveat that people playing alone will likely not get the absolute most out of the game. There’s nothing more frustrating that playing with a bunch of strangers and getting paired up with the guy that keeps claiming he “mains” the bloody cyborg ninja, (maining is a stupid concept in a game built around reacting to team compositions), even though he’s a terrible choice at that particular time.
All that being said, Overwatch is still a remarkably fun game, regardless of how many people you play with. Whether played for fun or as something more competitive, there’s enough depth here to satisfy serious players, whilst the simplicity of the basic mechanics lends itself to casual play.
The core design is slick, polished, and whilst the long-term appeal of the game remains to be seen, this is still easily a potential new benchmark for modern arena-based shooters.