Blizzard’s new shooter Overwatch has big expectations to meet.
Since they announced it two years ago, there's been a serious buzz around the developing genre being called "Hero Shooter." People must have gotten tired of saying things like "It's a shooter, but it's like a MOBA, and some RPG elements… oh and card collecting for some reason.” Overwatch being their first new IP in nearly two decades, and it being their first time actually releasing a shooter, I've been following the development ofOverwatch closely. I wouldn’t say I’ve been riding the hype train, but I bought a ticket and I’ve been looking at it just about every day for a year.
I’m more than a little happy to report that Overwatch is good. Really good. But, believe it or not, Blizzard fanboys, there’s some things Overwatch can and should do better.
The Technical Stuff
Before I try and describe how this game performs on my machine, I should tell you that I have a PC that would likely be considered average, maybe a bit more. On my GTX 770, I had just about no problems running this game. My frames stayed between 50 and 60 FPS even when I was streaming on Twitch. Overwatch runs like a dream, and it's one of the many testaments to Blizzard's close attention to the fundamentals of developing a good shooter. With the fast pace of the game at times, having a lagging, or a stuttering game would be a killer to the game's flow.
A look through the settings and you’ll notice that the game has low, medium, high, ultra, and epic preset configurations. As someone using the high settings, I can tell you that the game looks gorgeous. They’ve hit a sweet spot somewhere between Borderlands and actual cartoons that gives the atmosphere vibrancy without adding the overwhelming cell shading cutesiness. Whether you’re on a low-end machine just looking for playable FPS, or Titan X owner that wants to max out every little detail, you’ll be pleased with Overwatch.
Overwatch has a roster of 21 heroes split up into four different classes: offense, defense, tank, and support. Most players are bound to find a character within each class that will appeal to them as each hero within that class fills the same role in their own way. Although, it's fair to point out that some heroes fill their roles much more directly. For example, Mercy is the game's most straightforward healer. She's essentially the TF2 medic with a damage boost on their right-click and the ability to fly/dash towards heroes. Her healing beam can keep a player alive in a fight to give them more than enough time to win a fight and then some.
Symmetra, a hero that’s also classified as a support, will not be able to do anything like Mercy’s healing beam. She has an ability that gives friendly heroes a small amount of shield tacked on to their health and small turrets that can slow enemy heroes, but she is far from a support in the same way that Mercy or Lucio is. Even Zenyatta, who seems to be considered one of the weaker support heroes, has a good single target heal and a great ultimate ability for pushing. This doesn't mean that Symmetra doesn’t have value on a team of six, but it does mean that if you prefer the traditional healer role, your options are a bit limited.
The other three classes have an excellent variety to choose from. On defense, you can sit back and snipe with Hanzo’s bow and arrow, or you can use Widowmaker’s grappling hook to get to a high vantage point and use your scoped rifle for long range kills. Or, in the same category, you can use one of my personal favorites in the game, Junkrat. This psychopath reminds me of what The Joker would be like if he was raised in the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback. He’s similar to TF2’s Demoman only in that his primary weapon is a grenade launcher that can be lobbed over and bounced around obstacles.
I also had fun with offensive classes like Mcree, Reaper, and Soldier 76. They all take on very different aesthetics as well as styles of play. Soldier’s mid-range assault rifle and Mcree’s pistol are good in nearly all situations. Reaper specializes in attacking backline heroes, leaving dependent tanks and twiggy damage classes vulnerable to be wiped. Genji, the ninja of the group, serves a similar purpose, but rather than overpowering you with Reaper’s shotguns, he’s darting around you and chucking ninja stars.
And while we’re on the topic of “darting around,” Tracer must enter the conversation… the pop out of it, then warp back in, then throw a sticky bomb that kills three players, then warps out without ever taking serious damage. Tracer is a new level of twitchy speed that even the TF2 Scout can’t keep up with. She doesn’t have the steady run speed, but her quick blink ability allows her to vanish in front of your very frustrated, confused eyes. She’s not easy to use, but a good Tracer can make the enemy team miserably distracted and open for bigger attacks.
This variety of heroes is crucial to what Overwatch is trying to accomplish. Each one has to play in a very distinct way because the game modes simply don’t have that much variation to them. Capture point, payload, or a combination of the two, that’s what every map in the game has to offer. A typical match will run about 10 minutes. If things get pushed into overtime more than once, you’ll get a round that’s about 15 minutes. If players are looking for replayability, which I don’t think this game lacks, they won’t find it in the game modes. The good news on that point is that each hero really does feel distinct from the other. Overwatch's heroes, other than being perhaps the strongest part of the game, are also where players will find that replayability.
I found it pretty common for my team to identify one theme to our failure in a game, and the solution was often a simple rearranging of our hero lineup. Being able to hot swap heroes mid-game means that your overall strategy, whether on offense or defense, can change at any given point. I really enjoyed this mechanic because of my negative experiences in games like Dota 2 and Heroes of the Storm. In these games, if your team composition doesn’t mesh or match up well against the enemy team, there’s just so little you can do to make up for it. In Overwatch, if you see the team is set up to counter what you do best, you can counter them right back with a hero switch.
There is, however, one small snag in that system. The way your ultimate ability builds up charge is by doing damage to the enemy team (with a few exceptions), in addition to a passive generation of the skill. But, upon switching heroes, your ultimate charge is put back down to zero percent. This flies right in the face of what the game wants you to do, which is to always have a fluctuating team of heroes throughout a game. Do I want to pick up a different hero for a slight advantage, or do I want to hang onto my game-changing ultimate ability that could potentially wipe the enemy team in one shot? It seems to usually make more sense to keep the ultimate. This may be something they tweak in the future, but it may be a difficult system to balance out.
The overall experience of each round of Overwatch can be defined by what hero you happen to be playing. For this reason, it’s not so easy to define how Overwatch plays. If you’re playing as a Bastion, you’ll be spending most of the game in turret mode while holding left-click and dealing massive damage. If you’re Reinhardt, most of your game will be standing out front protecting your team with a giant shield. If you’re playing as Roadhog, you’re just on the peripheral of the action, yanking enemies out one by one with your hook and dropping them with your shotgun. Virtually every play style is represented in Overwatch, and Blizzard has made them all more than interesting enough to at least try out.
Personally, I think using Roadhog’s hook is one of the most fun things I’ve done in video games. You’ll have a Tracer zipping around you, thinking they’re cute as they pepper you with their little SMGs. And then you line it up just right and snag that little brat before pulling them in close and eliminating them in one shot. It’s an incredible moment.
From what I’ve heard from other players, everybody has that thing they love doing in this game. Everyone has a role they love to play. This also means that everyone has a hero that drives them crazy. Believe me, few game characters are as annoying to play against as Mei. I wouldn’t say she’s overpowered, but I would say that I no longer have a fully-intact “Enter” key on my number pad.
The Progress Since Beta
Unfortunately, we at OPNoobs weren’t cool enough to receive an invitation to the highly coveted Overwatch beta. I, however, was just lucky enough to participate in the two beta weekends they held, and it would be difficult for someone to say that there have been many changes since beta. They’ve done a good job of balancing out classes and tweaking heroes to better fit into the game’s style of play, but nothing that drastic has been added or removed from the game.
For months now, I’ve been telling people something like “the foundation for Overwatch from a gameplay standpoint is about as strong as they come, I can’t wait to see what else they do with the game when they launch.”
The reality is that the big addition I was waiting for never showed up. There doesn’t appear to be any maps that I didn’t encounter at some point in those two beta weekends and the game types don’t deviate from capture point, payload, or a combination of the two. I was really hoping for a game type that was distinctly Overwatch, something that other games like this either weren't doing or weren't doing nearly as well. They've said that new maps and heroes will be added as a part of free updates in the future, which is better than nothing, but I was hoping for something totally new from Blizzard. At the least, I want to play something that is not based on standing on an objective. I would even settle for a fun Overwatch spin on capture the flag, but I digress.
One thing I enjoyed most about my time playing Dirty Bomb was the inclusion of secondary objectives into the game. If you were having trouble getting to the primary objective, you’d be able to go plant a bomb at a back door to shorten your route to it. This gave the defense more than one location on the map to pay attention to, and it gave the offense another way to infiltrate. I think a mechanic like this can have a place in Overwatch in the future, but we’ll see what direction Blizzard decides to push things over the next year or two.
The Lone Wolf Should Beware
I could, and will in the future, gush about the impressively smooth nature of Overwatch’s combat for a long time to come. But the glue that holds all that fantastic combat together is the coordination of the players. And without that glue, you just have a mish-mashy pile of enemies getting away with 7 HP and people shouting “where the f*** is our healer?!” While the game supports voice chat, and a good one, it just doesn’t seem like it’s used all that often by players.
From what I can tell, this can be attributed to three primary factors:
First, there is no ranked or competitive game mode where winning or losing matters. This means that people of all different levels of competition (and competitive spirit) are playing together. The people looking for a few casual matches often don’t care to coordinate in chat, and they’re playing alongside people that are looking for a more serious, strategic style of play. As a result, neither side gets exactly what they’re looking for in the game. This may be remedied with the addition of some social features, as well as ranked play, which is said to be coming out around the end of June. For now, though, those features are not available.
Second, there will always be the ghosts of the internet. The people that don’t even bother buying a microphone because they desire nothing even resembling human contact. You weirdos that would rather repeatedly die in team fights than say “I’m going in” into a $12 microphone.
I’m lucky enough to have more than a few friends that have been and will be playing this game a great deal, but not everyone is so lucky. For the sake of my review, I decided to walk two miles in the shoes of that lone wolf Overwatch player, I played for a few hours all by myself. No Discord channel or anything to help me look for a group, just me and the push-to-talk button on my mouse. I’m a bit sad to report that the game just doesn’t have the same appeal when you’re alone. My attitude going into games was that I was going to be communicating and coordinating. I was going to force my teammates to talk and work with me on capturing objectives. Mostly, I was met with silence. There were a few times where I got two or three other players calling out who's doing what, but it was definitely more often that it was one other guy complaining about how no one else on the team was trying to actually work together and me.
To be fair, I consider myself to be someone that particularly enjoys the social side of gaming, but I still think this is a legitimate knock on what is an otherwise fantastic game. If you don’t have many friends buying Overwatch, and you don’t feel like making any, Overwatch could be a solitary and frustrating game for a lot of people. In comparison to TF2, Overwatch’s casual play doesn’t deliver the same kind of silly, wild fun. Things feel like they should be more tactical, but they’re not when nobody wants to put in the effort.
The items you’ll be unlocking in Overwatch are entirely aesthetic. Each hero has a number of skins, sprays, voice lines, and more that are unique to that individual. You obtain these cosmetic upgrades by opening loot boxes which are earned by gaining experience and leveling up. You may also buy loot boxes with real money. Every box contains four items that vary in rarity and how different they are from the original character skin. Some are a simple recoloring, others are fantastically different.
Nothing about the way they’ve monetized the cosmetics seems terribly evil. The base game is $40, so they can’t go too far with the paid content without ruffling my feathers. I would definitely like to see more (and more interesting) ways to earn these items. They do a good job of keeping rewards a non-factor in gameplay, unlike the system in Heroes of the Storm that will incentivize you to play a particular type of hero or class. But, really, I'd like them to go a little further with the unlockables. What that means, I’m not entirely sure, but the game’s progression system leaves a bit to be desired.
As I’ve mentioned in other articles, Blizzard has a way of boiling a genre down to its most fun elements and keeping an intense focus on those facets throughout development. Overwatch is no exception. There isn’t much going on in Overwatch that shooter-enthusiasts have never done before, but there’s a decent chance that they’ve never played anything that's quite this polished.
I have real concerns for the people that bought Overwatch without friends going into it. They may just get turned off by the lack of team play and write the game off as fun, but not quite what they want. These players may not realize that the Overwatch experience is designed around six players closely coordinating together. That’s where the game shines its brightest. There’s too much going on in a match for one person to keep track of it all, but when the rest of your team can fill in the blanks, everything feels more manageable and enjoyable.
Perhaps where Overwatch succeeds most in its outstanding execution of the fundamentals. The flow of play is fluid and satisfying in a way that doesn’t require much complexity to keep you interested. Overwatch may not be pushing the FPS genre to all new levels, and it's not revolutionary or groundbreaking, it just does all the most important things well. And the end result is an addictive game that's fun, only limited by the team that surrounds you. I'm still crossing my fingers for a content update that provides a little more variety to the game modes, but what they launched with is a brilliant start to a title I know I'll be playing for , at the least, the next few years.