Online shooters can be intimidating. New players wanting to break into the online scene can be stymied by their learning curve (try flying a jet perfectly for the first time in Battlefield) and a rabid player base hungry for new meat. Veterans of the Battlefields and Call of Dutys have gotten so good over the years that I count my blessings each time I survive longer than five seconds. These shooters also glorify success, hoisting players that earned the most kills or objective points while the rest of us shiver from the bitter darkness of their shadows. And were it not enough to simply lose terribly, the more obnoxious players delight in throwing shade for your lack of skill. I remember trying out Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer and my very first match ended on the player selection screen. Apparently the host wasn’t happy with the totally random character class I happened to pick and kicked me from the game. And not before voicing his displeasure in the most condescending way possible.
Situations such as these can make it hard to stick with a game. There’s a seriousness that permeates these kinds of games I have trouble adapting to. When Team Fortress 2 came out in 2007, I was attracted to it’s cartoony spirit and slick animated shorts. It was a multiplayer game with a sense of humor that distanced itself from gritty realism. Valve clearly had fun creating personalities for their cast of characters: a pyro found a happy place filled with puffy unicorns, an Australian sniper that weaponized jars of pee, and a spy found love across enemy lines. Backstories presented via Pixar-quality animated cartoons went a long way to build its fiction, even if it never manifested during the actual game. Stylistically speaking, Overwatch stands on the shoulders of Team Fortress 2. Through its own set of character stories, a cinematic trailer, and the game’s opening cutscene, we get a glimpse into a world cared for by a global protectorate called Overwatch. Each of the game’s characters had their own reasons for joining the group and thrived as peacekeepers until the populace turned against them. Like Team Fortress 2, the character backstories don’t quite carry over to the matches you’ll play and instead, serves as a means to bring Overwatch’s eclectic mix of characters into one arena.
Such narrative quibbles, however, are easily forgotten when the game begins. Where Overwatch succeeds over other like minded games is how it completely changes the nature of team-based combat. In most class-based shooters players can choose to take on one of the cardinal roles: Tank, Support, Defense, and Healer. Beyond class-specific kit, there’s nothing stopping a medic from taking out a vehicle or an assault classes from providing backup. For Overwatch, choosing the right character and class is vital to the success of the group. This is a game that strongly emphasizes the team’s dynamic, it alerts the group when deficiencies, like not having a healer or support character, are detected. Not only that, but the nature of battle is fluid and ever changing because players are allowed to switch characters when they die or reach a safe zone. I’ve never seen unpredictability like this before. One moment the fight could be going your way and then the other team shows up with brand new characters to snatch an impossible victory at the last minute.
Player class isn’t the only thing that matters in Overwatch. It’s WHO you play. Included in the $60 version of the game are all twenty one characters spread across four combat roles. Each hero is designed to counter the abilities, strategies, and ultimate attacks of specific characters. The best way to describe this is to explain how the game’s mascot, Tracer, acts in battle. This spunky, adorable, and thrill seeking woman can “blink” - that is, teleport in any direction in short bursts - across the map. She’s the kind of character you want performing hit and run tactics against enemy groups and defenders, literally stirring the hornet’s nest until the cavalry shows up. As a counter to Tracer, Roadhog can use his Mad Max-inspired meat hook to grab Tracer at a distance and pull her away from the target zone, bringing her in close for a devastating close range attack. The dance goes on like this, with numerous characters coming in and out of play whenever the need arises.
Knowing who to bring into the fight is what makes Overwatch so incredibly fun to play. Battles are never dull because they are always in flux. That said, the game is at its best when you’re playing with friends. You could certainly play with pick up groups but at this early stage of the game’s release, I’ve had situations where people force a game of team deathmatch, and Overwatch doesn’t come with a traditional deathmatch mode. Instead, the four primary game types are designed around capturing and holding special zones. There’s also an Escort mode that involves a supply vehicle that only moves when friendlies are nearby. On good days, players will use chat or the in-game emote wheel to issue commands, direct forces, and coordinate defenses. On bad days, herding cats is easier than trying to win. There was one day that saw me lose every single match because the rest of the team weren’t playing the objective. Still, every chance to play is an opportunity to learn the characters. The game encourages first timers through a very rudimentary tutorial but the best thing to do is just get out there and experiment.
When a match ends, the post-game report de-emphasizes the number of kills earned in the round. Instead, it presents you with how well you played your class. Mercy, for example, earns experience points based on the efficiency of her healing skills. Additionally, both teams have an opportunity to vote on the player that performed the best, with the winner earning additional experience points. Should your in-game performance be so spectacular, you’ll be featured in the game’s highlight. This is a fun and fair way for people to see great plays that they may have missed. Leveling up rewards loot boxes filled with a random assortment of cosmetic items like sprays, alternate voice taunts, victory poses, and character skins. These cosmetic goods range in value a la Blizzard’s five color rarity system. This is one of the smartest parts of Overwatch’s design. There are no additional weapons or abilities to unlock through loot boxes. Everything is provided at the start which creates an even playing field with no surprises and overpowered weapons.
Blizzard has always had a strong eye for art direction and I’m confident in saying that Overwatch represents their best work. Much thought went into designing the characters and I love that their abilities and attitudes are reflected in their outfits and demeanors. There are so many great examples to pull: Mercy is the quintessential healer, using a pair of golden wings to help her zoom across the map and heal or boost a player’s damage with a special staff. Lucio, also a healer, is a groovy, futuristic-looking DJ who runs on rollerblades and uses music to heal and speed up all friendlies in his vicinity. The game’s playable maps are tasteful caricatures of real world locations such as Hollywood, Russia, China, and Mexico. Each are designed with the player builds in mind and chock full of alternate passages and natural choke points.
I’m really excited to see where Blizzard plans to take Overwatch. The concept of free updates combined with Blizzard’s history of substantially supporting their games holds the promise of an exciting future. I knew I was obsessed with the game when I found an excuse to incorporate it into my job and bought a copy for the PlayStation 4 so I can play with my brother and other friends. This is a game that constantly nags at the back of my mind and doing stuff like working or writing reviews takes away precious time to play. While games like Call of Duty and Battlefield make you feel like a warrior, playing Overwatch feels like joining the Avengers. Hell, that’s pretty much what Overwatch is: a loose collection of heroes with special powers in battle. With a good team, skirmishes can play out just like the Battle of New York sequence where Captain America calls out targets and attack patterns. Every character brings something cool to the table and I love the freedom to switch between them anytime I want. It’s not like, say, Mortal Kombat, where you would stick with one person and memorize their moves. This is a game of experimentation, of trying out different people out before committing to four, five, or six to use exclusively. If you’re looking to get into online shooters but don’t think you’re quite ready for the aggressiveness of Call of Duty, then Overwatch is the perfect gateway game. For everyone else looking for something a little different, don’t hesitate to jump on the Blizzard train.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.