The online, multiplayer, first-person-shooter genre has always been an interesting case study of successes and failures. It can be a tough to predict which games will sell well, which will quietly come and go, and which ones will have staying power. There are always a few surprises such as the longevity of Destiny and the relatively short lifespan of Titanfall. Although Overwatch got a lot of press due to being a Blizzard release, there were initially a lot of questions about the game’s ability to capture a public audience. Has the game been successful on that front? Absolutely. The bigger question now is whether or not the game will have the legs to stay in public consciousness.
For those of you who just managed to stumble onto the internet today (welcome!), Overwatch is a class-based, online, multiplayer, first-person-shooter set on a fictional, near-future planet Earth. The heroes within the game come from an established task force initially formed to save the planet from artificial intelligence. Although the story is not the best, it is functionally benign in that the only purpose it serves is to establish a sense of atmosphere and provide back-stories for the twenty-one characters present in the game.
The heroes within Overwatch are one of the highlights as each one of them is very unique in mechanics, abilities, personality, and appearance. Whether it’s the hyper-active, time-traveling Tracer, the compassionate, snow-boot clad Mei, or the hulking, scientific gorilla Winston, the beautifully modeled and rendered characters are bursting with style and personal identity. It’s not terribly unique to see great attention to detail in character-driven games, but it becomes apparent each one was crafted with care through their personality, background, and even the way they interact with one another. For example, McCree isn’t just a rough-n-tumble cowboy; he’s a former member of a gang who was given a second change and has a problem with the way Reaper, another character, mishandles his guns.
This care extends to the gameplay as each hero’s ability is different from the next, and has multiple counters leading to a great sense of balance. The characters are divided into four subclasses: offense, defense, tank, and support. Everyone has a primary attack, two special abilities, and an ultimate; several characters also have a secondary attack and/or an alternate means of mobility. For example, Widowmaker has a gun with two firing modes (assault rifle and sniper rifle); she also has a proximity mine, a grappling hook, and her ultimate gives her teammates the ability to see enemies through walls. Although many of the characters’ abilities initially seem overpowered, especially when paired with other great attributes, they each have their strengths and weaknesses. Whereas Bastion’s sentry mode initially seems unstoppable, playing as him and getting repeatedly destroyed by a highly mobile and skilled Tracer shoots several humbling holes in that theory. Hell, even the support classes feel meaningful as they are both offensively capable and have multiple personal and team oriented abilities, which is very rare. A great example of this is Lucio; his primary weapon is capable of tagging people for a decent percentage of their hit points while his abilities provide both his team and himself either a speed boost or health regeneration based on an area-of-effect.
Although the characters are very well balanced, not all is equal as the game modes have well-known balancing problems. As of right now, there are only four modes within the game that each pit two teams against one another. Control consists of both teams attempting to capture the same area or point of interest. Assault uses a similar concept but with an offense attempting to capture two consecutive points while a defensive team attempts to stop them. Escort has an offensive team act as ushers as they move a payload/vehicle from one end of a map to another. And the last mode, titled Hybrid, is a combination of the two previous modes wherein the offensive team attempts to capture a point currently occupied by the payload before escorting the vehicle to the end of the map.
Where the modes become arguably unbalanced comes down to the offensive versus defensive roles. In Assault, the defense clearly has a tactical advantage as they can post up with several relatively immobile yet highly powerful characters while the offensive team attempts to reach their goal. In Escort, the offense has the advantage due to the fact that they can then have their turn at defending a point as it progresses through the stage, thus making the defense consistently and repeatedly adjust their location and strategy. None of this is aided by questionable spawn distances on some maps. As players get better at the game, these slight imbalances becomes much less of a problem but they can, at times, be frustrating as your team attempts to squeeze through a choke-point.
The choke-points in Overwatch are numerous to the point that they are a centerpiece in map design. Naturally, much of the combat surrounds these areas resulting in a composition that some players will absolutely loathe while others revel in the mayhem. These areas often have several vertical elements and flanking routes adding to the potential strategy and depth of combat. The concept often lends itself to character advantage as some heroes become incredibly appealing when considering necessity. For instance, Reinhardt’s massive shield is a big staple in both public and professional eSports matches as he plays a pivotal role in leading his team through a choke point while snipers are influential when overlooking the combat. The map design is great yet not without flaws. There are a few choke points with no real flanking options and an occasional, odd dead-end.
Although there are a few flaws within the game, none of them negatively impact the aspects that perhaps matter the most: strategy and teamwork. Teamwork is emphasized in Overwatch to a colossal degree. If you do not play together with your team, you will not win often and likely not have as much fun. The game lives and dies by enmeshing teamwork into the fabric of strategy. You likely need a healer along with a tank. The game does a great job of emphasizing this point through gameplay as well as in-game notifications. When selecting characters, the right side of the screen gives useful hints such as “NO SUPPORT HEROES,” which help considerably in motivating players to pick roles they typically would not. That self-inflicted obligation actually goes a long way to making the teams more balanced and competitive without the game telling players they are playing incorrectly.
One aspect that was questioned prior to the game’s release was Blizzard’s competency to create an enjoyable first-person-shooter. I come from a long history with first-person-shooters – more precisely the competitive, online, multiplayer side of the genre – and Overwatch is some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time. The movement feels weighted and perfectly conjoined to the environment and character animations. The shooting feels precise and tight and weapons control as you would imagine based on their aesthetics and attributes.
I believe a large part of my satisfaction with the game is the way it takes influence from just about every important game in the history of shooters. Blizzard developers have talked about previously going to other developers to seek out information and learn about aspects of the genre. This is not only present in the gameplay but also within the game’s netcode. The “favor the shooter” emphasis for coding the game’s player interactions helps make your efforts feel precise as the onscreen representation of your actions are carried out as you would expect. This is also aided by having so many characters not dependent on precision shooting. In this regard, the game sounds less competitive but Overwatch manages to keep its gameplay completely accessible while also offering a high skill ceiling. This becomes obvious when analyzing the metagame in professional competitions compared to standard online matches.
In the beginning of this review, I mentioned the importance of Overwatch’s longevity regarding its current popularity. Knowing Blizzard’s history, they will likely support the game years after release, keeping players invested. It also looks like the eSports scene is welcoming Overwatch with open arms indicating longevity within the competition crowd. What is most incredible is the game’s ability to appeal to long-term fans of the genre and also more casual players who want to feel as though they’re contributing without the requirement of high level skill. It’s an impressive, concise, labored, and sculpted FPS entry that I anticipate will have an ongoing presence similar to Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike. If you haven’t already, spend some time with Overwatch and good luck not getting sucked in.
"Heroes Never Die"
Whether you're new to the genre or a seasoned veteran, Overwatch provides a well-designed shooter that's easy to get into and difficult to put down. Just about every individual component stands on its own, but as a package, the game is arguably the best online-FPS on the market.