Very rare is it that a game has a rabid fan base before it even launches. I guess it’s a testament to the quality of Blizzard’s marketing department as well as the developer’s storied history that Overwatch had a dedicated following almost as soon as it was announced. Multiple positive beta tests only further solidified people’s expectations for the shooter. But with these types of expectations and the anticipation of Blizzard’s first new IP in 18 years, Overwatch had a lot to live up to. And while it doesn’t redefine the first person shooter genre, it does refine it into a product with an undeniable level of quality.
Overwatch is a multiplayer only “hero shooter” in which the player chooses from a large pool of characters, each with their own unique abilities and weapons. In that way, it is easy to think of this game as a progression of Team Fortress, and that’s not entirely inaccurate. In fact some of the characters might feel completely ripped from Valve’s popular shooter. The first time I saw Torbjörn pull out a hammer and hit his turret in order to upgrade it, I couldn’t help but think of the engineer from TF2. And while that’s probably the most glaring example, it’s not the only one. Mercy shoots a heal beam to her teammates in a similar manner to the medic, and Junkrat shoots bombs and throws mines like the demoman does. So what makes Overwatch special if it just steals a bunch of ideas from a nine year old free to play game? And in this ever growing, poorly defined genre, why is this the game that everybody is so excited about? The truth is that an incredible amount of polish goes a long way towards helping Overwatch rise above the crowd.
Overwatch features a roster of twenty one characters at launch, with more promised to be coming down the line. The cast is diverse, with no two characters looking or playing the same, but at the same time cohesive. The beautiful art style is a big reason for this. It’s hard to make a cowboy, a cyborg ninja, and a space gorilla all make sense in the same universe, but Blizzard somehow manages to pull this off. The personality on display here makes each of these characters memorable, despite almost no story material being implemented in the game. Everything from appealing designs to the disappointingly rare but always delightful pre-game chatter endears me to this cast. It makes me wish that each character had a short campaign you could run through to get some backstory and learn their play style. The game feels complete without it, but the possibility for story based content could be very promising.
What separates one character from another gameplay-wise is the abilities that they can use. Whether they grant added movement opportunities, enemy disruption, ways to ensure your own safety, or something completely unique, all of the abilities are fun to pull off. The reason for this is because the abilities are implemented in a way that allows you to use them exactly the way you want to. Let me use Pharah as an example. Pharah has both a flight mechanic as well as a concussive blast that allows you to knock opponents backwards. The most satisfying thing do with her is to fly up into the air and then use the blast to knock opponents off of cliffs. It’s hilarious the first time it happens, but then you realize it’s not a fluke. The maps are designed in a way where there are almost always cliffs to knock people off of, and the blast is strong enough to where you don’t have to manipulate the physics in order to make it work. And this is just one example. Whether it’s Reinhardt’s charge, Roadhog’s hook, or Tracer’s ability to blink and then rewind time, these abilities work in a way that I would never expect to see in a first person game, especially a multiplayer one. And the differences go further than just these abilities. Different weapons and movement options make each character feel unqiue. For instance, the lack of screen shake when Lucio runs makes it feel like he’s skating around and is in stark contrast to the heaviness of Roadhog.
When Overwatch was first announced, it drew comparisons to MOBAs. I don’t think these comparisons are completely valid, but I do see where they come from. Each character has a set of abilities with cool downs as well as an ultimate which charges throughout the game. You only get to use your ultimate once or twice per match, but it can turn the momentum to your side very quickly. For a few examples, Hanzo fires spirit dragons that kill everything in their path, Zenyatta puts out an aura that makes him invincible and all his teammates heal, and Mei launches an area of effect that freezes trapped enemies. If used properly, and if the rest of your teammates take advantage of them, these abilities can be the difference between capturing a point and not capturing it.
This brings up a concern that many people might have going in to Overwatch. Do you need to be on mic with people or have the perfectly built team in order to win? I’m happy to say that after playing over 100 matches with mic chat disabled, I have won more games than I have lost. This might help you and would be required at a higher level of play, but if you’re at that level then you probably don’t have those concerns. Having a well built team is more important, but not some sort of end all be all meta-game that you have to play. The game separates its heroes into four easily digestible categories: Assault, Defense, Tank, and Support. Besides the questionable placement of Symmetra in the support category, this helps you get a basic idea of how to assemble your team. If a six person team has at least one of each of these, then they should probably be fine. But the game actually does even more to spell out team balance for you. For instance, if you are on defense and don’t have a sniper or builder, the game will tell you so. You should definitely abide to these guidelines as much as possible, but you don’t have to pick a hard counter to every opponent. They exist, and the competitive scene will flourish because of this, but if you just follow the tips the game gives you on the player select screen you should be fine.
One of the things that makes all of this work is the sound design. Just by listening to the game, you can tell what’s happening. All of the characters have dedicated sounds that go along with their ultimates as well as sometimes their guns and regular abilities. When you hear D.VA yell “Nerf this” or Bastion sing his little song, you know to get out of the way of their ultimates. When you hear consecutive shotgun blasts, you know that there is a Reaper behind you. When you hear Lucio say “Turn it up”, you know that you are being given a health or speed boost. Little things like this help obfuscate some natural frustration that comes with such a complex game. When so much can be happening at one time, it is hard to keep track of things. These audio cues help immensely with this.
At launch, Overwatch has 4 modes stretched across 12 maps. The modes include one in which the attacking team has to take two consecutive capture points from the defense, one in which the attacking has to escort a payload, a combination of the two, and a king of the hill style mode. All of these are fun in their own way, although I found myself preferring the latter one. It is a bit of a bummer that I can’t just choose a playlist with those 3 maps, but the rotation ensures that you will always have the highest possible amount of matches to join. As of now, the community on PlayStation 4 is thriving, server issues are minimal, and I have no problem finding matches almost instantly. We’ll see how this holds up overtime, but these are definitely positive signs.
In addition to the general quick play mode, there is the option for custom matches as well as the weekly brawl. Blizzard has also said that a ranked mode will be coming soon, which will be a good way to minimize frustration from both good players playing with bad players and vice versa. The custom match feature is surprisingly well done. You can customize pretty much everything you want down to which characters people can and cannot play as. I don’t see this being anybody’s main focus with the game, but it will be a nice place for people to run some wacky experimental matches. The weekly brawl is also an idea with a lot of promise. These are playlists which change the rules of the game and only last for one week. The three examples we have seen so far are randomly chosen heroes, a decrease in cool down timers, and the current one in which you can only play as Hanzo or Genji on Hanamura. These are a good way to keep things fresh and play a mode in which people aren’t going to be as worried about winning. It could also present great opportunities for Blizzard down the line. For instance, when they introduce a new character, they can make it so you can only chose that character, thus giving people a chance to learn how to use him/her. These modes don’t change things dramatically and won’t be the main focus of Overwatch, but they are nice to have as options to play around with.
Overwatch maintains a level of intensity throughout its matches, because a match is never truly over until the end. Even forgoing the momentum shifting pushes that can turn a match on its head, the game is designed in a way that will always create tension. A big part of this is the overtime feature. At the end of a match, if somebody is contesting a point or on the payload, the match won’t end when time does. Instead, it gives the attacking team time to complete their objective. And as long as you consistently have somebody attacking the objective, the overtime meter will never run out. This means that even if you have ten seconds left and have only pushed the payload halfway towards its next checkpoint, you can still put together a concerted push that ends up winning the game for you. The game also ramps up the intensity with its placement of spawn points. In the beginning of a match, the attacking team will always have a spawn point closer to the objective. This changes when they reach the end though. The defending spawn point is always just outside the final capture point or payload checkpoint, and it allows for an exciting match flow that is pretty consistent. Early on, the fight is usually even, but as long as the offense is trading blows with the defense they will be able to dominate the early parts of the game. But then, the defense is able to coalesce around the final point while the offense gets severely punished for bad play and poor planning. I can’t count the number of times that the attacking team pushed the payload all the way to the end, only to have it stagnate for the next 8 minutes resulting in a defensive victory. This match flow might become tired and contrived after a while, but so far it has been nothing short of exhilarating, and it makes the rare moments of domination on either side that much more impressive.
A staple of first person shooters over the past decade has been the scoreboard. At any point you can pull up a menu that shows the kill/death ratio of every player in the match. This ultimately just leads to you feeling guilty when you’re in the bottom part of the list. Overwatch doesn’t have that, and it also doesn’t obsess over kills. Overwatch in fact does away with the kill and assist stats in favor of an all encompassing elimination stat. No matter how much damage you do to an enemy, you get credit for the elimination. And at the end of the game, you are able to give players props not only for eliminations, but also for healing, damage blocked, and other character specific stats. Basically if you’re really good at something, the game rewards you for it. But at the same time, it never punishes you for being bad. This bit of positive reinforcement is probably going to get a lot of players to keep coming back and also does away with the unhealthy obsession over kill/death ratios.
What Overwatch also lacks which a lot of shooters have is an addictive upgrade system. You level up by playing well and winning matches, but you don’t unlock new weapons or abilities. Not only would this break the balance of the game, but it is also nice to see a shooter where people play it for the gameplay and not to watch numbers go up and collect rewards. However, with each level you are given a free loot box. These will contain various cosmetic items such as skins, sprays, and highlight reel animations. You can also purchase these boxes if you want. This meaningless purchase is fine by me if it allows for a lack of gameplay related microtransactions and free content down the line. Some of the skins are really cool, and I get why people would want them. This makes it a shame that you have to take your chance with loot boxes to get what you want.
Almost everything I have said praising Overwatch can be said about other games. Overwatch in no way re-invents the wheel, it just makes it rounder. It takes what a lot of other games are doing both in and outside of the first person shooter genre and improves upon those ideas to the point where I would recommend Overwatch over any other shooter on the market right now. Cancelling Titan must have cost Blizzard a lot of money, but they have taken its ashes and managed to create what has the potential to become another one of their pillars. There are spots where Overwatch could expand and improve, but what is there is undeniably great, making those shortcomings feel more like possibilities.
Final Score: 5 Stars