Blizzard’s upcoming release Overwatch has been in closed beta for a few weeks and this weekend boasted the first widely available (but still by invitation only) stress tests. I was lucky enough to be chosen as a closed-beta tester, so I’ve already got a few weeks of play under my belt. So, lets talk about it!
Blizzard first announced its newest title Overwatch a year ago during the opening ceremony of BlizzCon 2014. Since then, the project has become one of the most anticipated PC releases of the decade. It’s a rare occasion when a new IP hits the scene, rarer still when that IP is released by veteran AAA developers like Blizzard. In fact, it’s the studio’s first new IP in 17 years. Blizzard’s massive success with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft demonstrated that every game doesn’t need to be a millions-large multiplayer game. The company has recognized that we live in a post-mmo world. Not every game of theirs needs to be one filled with hundreds of game systems. Instead, what they learned from Hearthstone was “… a design aesthetic, how they think about game design; simplicity with a long tale of depth,” according to Overwatch’s lead Game Designer Jeff Kaplan.
It didn’t start that way, though. Overwatch began life as Blizzard’s second MMO venture known only as Project Titan. That project remained in quiet development for seven years before it was cancelled. Overwatch is heavily rumored to have been influenced by that game’s lore and possibly gameplay as well. But while Titan was to be another massively multiplayer experience, Overwatch is the opposite. It’s very small in scope and tightly focused. The studio may have called an audible when they realized that nowadays, us gamers thirst for more bite-size nougats of gaming. On PC, gamers are trending towards MOBAs and over the last decade, the first person shooter has reigned supreme on consoles. It only makes sense that Blizzard would attempt to capitalize on what gamers want.
A simple 6-on-6 fps affair, Overwatch bears little resemblance to a massively multiplayer anything. It’s a class-based, objective-driven arena shooter, touting quick matches and even quicker combat. The most obvious analogy is Team Fortress 2. Players take the role of anyone 1 of 21 different combatants. Each hero boasts their own strengths, weaknesses, and charming personality. And although this is Blizzard’s first foray into the first-person shooter genre, the gameplay is airtight. The heroes are divided into four different categories: Offense, Defense, Tank and Support.
Players may recognize the tank and support roles from other genres like MMOs or MOBAs. Indeed, Overwatch shares more than just a passing resemblance to the latter. In addition to their basic projectile attack, each hero has several other abilities restricted via a cooldown. Dealing damage, healing, or otherwise effective use of your hero allows you to power up your hero’s ultimate ability. These can range from huge area-of-effective explosives, large team-wide shield buffs, or other equally game-changing effects. Blizzard took Team Fortress 2’s ubercharge and extended the idea to each and every character.
Blizzard has done a fantastic job at creating a lineup that has characters for all types of players. Whether your comfortable with the fps genre or not, there is likely to be a hero that matches your play style and level of experience. Accessibility is something that Blizzard has always sought to achieve, and Overwatch is no exception. The trick will be checking the accessibility box while still offering high-level play and legitimate depth.
If your shooter chops are on point, Widowmaker might be the girl for you. She’s your standard sniper archetype. Her ultimate acts as a glorified UAV, causing enemy combatants to glow red and appear visible through walls to you and your teammates. If you don’t prefer scoped shots but still have good aim, McCree’s sixshooter will probably be your best bet. His pistol shots are high damage and perfectly precise, but the his weapon has a small clip and slow reload speed. The character is the most dangerous in the hands of an fps veteran who can make each shot count. Pharah, a jetpack-wearing, rocket-firing Egyptian, will suite the tastes of TF2 Soldiers or Quake rocketeers.
For those of us less fps-inclined (read: old and slow), robo-knight Reinhardt may be a better fit. His primary attack is a melee swing, and he bolsters his team’s advance by projecting a shield as he marches forward. His skill set doesn’t require much in the way of twitch reactions, but it does require a desire to be a team player. You won’t net many headshots, but if you build up to his ultimate, it can be a game changer. His ult knocks several enemies to their feet with an earth shattering hammer blow, allowing you ample time to swing in and clean up.
Players are encouraged to switch heroes on the fly, creating fast-paced yet dynamic matches. Duplicate heroes are not restricted either, so a match could theoretically come down to 12 space gorillas beating the crap out of each other. Hell yeah. Hero-swapping is a flexibility that has long been a core mechanic of most modern-day shooters. In Call of Duty or Battlefield, players swaps loadouts. In Team Fortress 2, they may swap classes. Cheeky personality and art aside, Overwatch’s heroes are really just toolkits, not unlike loadouts or classes. Swapping from one to another is a totally reasonable expectation. There’s been some vocal resistance to this particular mechanic, but that just indicates a general unfamiliarity with the genre.
The game is still missing a few key features. There is no kill feed nor is there an in-game scoreboard. Speculation says that Blizzard wants their players to feel valuable. While this may be a noble proposition, the truth of the matter is not everyone is always valuable. It may be better to give the players the tools to evaluate their worth so that they can make better in-game decisions. Should I switch heroes? Or tactics? Am I currently doing the best thing I can do to further my team? Currently, we have no way of knowing. Blizzard has a precarious balancing-act to perform. The company does its best to fight the good fight against anonymous internet douchebaggery. But, it becomes sketchy when game-system implementation become restricted as a result.
Another key feature found in all other Blizzard titles is a progression system of some kind. The current Overwatch beta build has no such system. We know that internal builds featured not one but two different iterations on a progression system. Always perfectionists, the devs decided to yank the second iteration only days before the closed beta began. We know that a 3.0 is in the works, but no details have been released. It’s reasonable to expect a Ranked Play system to be a part of that package. Blizzard is well aware that the eSports scene is bigger than ever. I fully expect for Overwatch to be a major player in competitive gaming and for Blizzard to support that it as such.
All in all, Overwatch is a hit. The UI could use some cleanup, but the gameplay itself delivers hard on the team-based shooter genre. The world is vibrant and fleshed out, the characters unique. There are a few question marks regarding what’s next. We can expect the roster to be extended, but by what means? Free updates? Per-hero fees? In-game currency earned through play a la League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm? An expansion pack that contains more than just a handful of characters? The short answer is ‘we don’t know’. The long answer is ‘it sure as hell better not be per hero character fees because the precedent Blizzard set with Heroes of the Storm is unacceptable’. In either case, I will be keeping an eager eye on Overwatch as it works its way through beta and onto store shelves early next year.
Overwatch will be available for retail and digital purchase in Q1 or Q2 of next year on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.