Overwatch was the Game of the Year in 2016. Or at least that’s what many claimed, including Geoff Keighley’s The Game Awards (not that The Game Awards is an end-all metric to go by). It certainly was the most talked about game of last year, from arguments on whether or not D.Va was under or overpowered, to the celebratory reveal of Tracer’s significant other. But this cultural phenomenon that has spawned comics, fan fiction, and pornography didn’t just come out of nowhere. Overwatch, as Blizzard does best, refined and re-popularized an established genre; in this case, it was the Team Fortress 2-styled character team based shooter. Overwatch’s heroes are striking and easily legible, its support characters are surprisingly fun to play, and the game offers a rare balance between approachability and depth that is typically only seen in Nintendo multiplayer games.
Overwatch has left a mark on the industry this generation that impossible to ignore. So much so that it’s paved the way for other hero-based multiplayer games that once only interested a niche audience and, of course, would-be Overwatch imitators that are trying to help this tide raise more ships. Two games that are expected to release here in 2017 ostensibly fit these descriptors: Motiga’s Gigantic and Hi-Rez Studios’ Paladins. Both are gearing up to be incredibly well-made character-driven multiplayer games, but do either of them have the chance of being as fun and joyful this year as Overwatch was in 2016?
MOBAs are tricky when it comes to drawing in fresh blood. This is often done by delivering inspired hybrids such as Gearbox’s ‘hobby grade’ title Battleborn, or simply Trojan horsing MOBA traditions like what we’ve seen in Epic’s Paragon. Neither are completely successful in garnering new interest, as Battleborn struggled to stick its landing on all fronts, and Paragon still doesn’t make MOBAs all that accessible by simply pulling the perspective behind its heroes as SMITE did. Other games play a little nicer with newbies such as Killstrain and Dead Star, but none are as playful, liberal, and quite frankly, as fun, as Gigantic.
Gigantic seemed as if had disappeared years back along with the likes of BattleCry, and came off as ‘just another one of those’ when MOBA-likes were on the rise. But the public beta released on Xbox and Windows 10 late last year proves that it was gestating out of sight until it was ready to be tested in a public domain. Gigantic can be appropriately called a ‘free-form MOBA’, as it unshackles itself from players having to abide by rigid tactics through strict coordination. In Gigantic, your ‘base’ is a massive beast that stands guard on your team’s side of the map, and can only become vulnerable once the opposing team racks up enough points to expose them. This can be done by killing other players, killing enemy creatures, or collecting orbs that are generated from said creatures. There’s no last-hitting, jungling, or lane-specific roles to worry about, but that doesn’t mean that Gigantic is without strategy.
Gigantic organically draws players into combat with creatures that add cool dynamics to battles. Creatures act as Gigantic’s ‘towers’, and are chosen by the player who makes their way over to their spawn point. But they don’t explicitly block your direct path; rather, they award double the points for a player kill, which brings your team closer to exposing their beast.
Each creature provides a support and offensive role whenever members of either team are present, such as healing teammates and revealing enemy locations, or just simply defending themselves when they’re attacked. When combat ensues, Gigantic plays like a third-person shooter/action game akin to other games like Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. So instead of locking character attacks into a slow and deliberate rate like other MOBAs, heroes with machine guns and quick melee attacks feel immediately responsive and appropriately satisfying.
Virtually all types of third-person action play are represented here. You have your heavy-hitting CQC brute, your transforming robot that provides suppressive fire, your nimble archer that inflicts high damage from afar, and your agile assassin that will cripple you from up close. Each character ability can be upgraded and complement one another, such as Mozu’s Arkane Vortex that can be augmented with the ability to bend her shots around corners. So just like a good MOBA, mixing and matching character abilities leads to some neat in-game discovery.
What’s just beautiful about Gigantic is its sense of scale (no pun intended). Maps are massive with enough complex topography to lend an advantage to the diverse hero types that populate this game. But unlike traditional MOBAs, all characters can sprint and jump, which makes Gigantic even more accessible than most entries in the genre. It feels great being able to run around these sprawling arenas, with movement that’s governed by a relatively generous stamina meter. But Gigantic is defined by the moment you’ve scored enough points to expose the opposing team’s beast. Your towering creature howls as it darkens the sky flying to the opposite side of the map to put your opponents’ beast into submission. When this happens, your entire team is rewarded with a speed boost as you all make haste to wound the crippled creature while the other team desperately tries to defend it.
Gigantic is within striking distance of the quality and accessibility of Overwatch. It plays by its own ruleset that still resembles traditional MOBAs, and it does so in a way that’s unique and immediately impressionable. All of that makes for a successful new IP, which is why it’s surprising that Paladins, a clear Overwatch competitor, comes damn close to replicating the experience that Blizzard had established.
It’s tough not to cringe at Hi-Rez Studios’ claims that Paladins’ parallels to Overwatch are nothing but a coincidence, considering the 10+ characters that are painfully similar to those in Blizzard’s shooter. If the theories of Hi-Rez’s shooter being a mere clone are true, Paladins shouldn’t be good. Imitators often miss what make their source material a classic, and simply rely on cheap aesthetics that get in the way of core concepts. Paladins, however, manages to avoid this by maintaining what makes Overwatch so good: contested stand-offs between a wide range of uniquely playable characters.
Your Soldier: .76, McCree, Roadhog, and Pharah “clones” provide a jumping off point for Paladins’ hero selection. Hi-Rez was careful not to completely duplicate the design and mechanics of each character from Overwatch, but instead create classes that mix different abilities with character models, all of which stand alongside unique heroes that represent Hi-Rez’s original ideas.
For example, Fernando uses an overpowered flamethrower as his ultimate instead of smashing the earth like Reinhardt does in Overwatch. Ruckus may look a lot like D.Va, however he never leaves his mech, and his abilities are much more effective in mid-to-long-range encounters (Hi-Rez also states that Ruckus was one of Paladins’ original characters the same year Overwatch went into its first closed beta). Characters like Ying and Buck represent some of Paladins’ fresher ideas, however. While Ying might bare some resemblance to Symmetra, her cloning support abilities are fairly original. Buck is a new concept from top to bottom, with his devastating shotgun and heroic leap, and overall fits well into this hero shooter.
But Paladins also tries to fill in some of the blanks that are missing from Overwatch. If you’ve ever seen a Paladins match, you’ve likely laughed at the stiff horse-riding animations as all the characters gallop their way to the payload. This, however, actually alleviates the long trek to the objective that feels punishing after dying in Overwatch, and gets you to the battle much quicker.
The biggest addition Hi-Rez adds to this formula are card loadouts. These allow you to use cards that are character buffs, which can be collected and arranged to customize your class abilities in various ways. For example, I’ve equipped my Victor (this game’s Soldier: .76 equivalent) with the Predator card that allows him to tag enemies through walls. But Paladins also adds another layer to this system in which you can adjust the potency of each of the cards. At base level, Predator only tags enemies for .5 seconds – my loadout has it adjusted to 2 seconds in order to track my targets longer. This, of course, is limited by your hand, which can only hold up to five cards, with each that are capped at level four.
Even with Paladins being in closed beta on consoles now, there’s still a lot of work to be done. At the beginning of every match, you have to adjust your controller settings to your liking as it’s never saved, and you can’t pick different characters upon death, let alone loadouts mid-match. But what’s most concerning thus far is that the game’s support characters aren’t nearly as diverse or fun to play as they are in Overwatch. Lucio, Mercy, and Zenyatta are immediately distinctive and enjoyable to use in their own way. Unfortunately at the moment, Paladins’ support cast hasn’t quite reached that mark yet. Here’s hoping that Hi Rez make appropriate adjustments before release.
Both Gigantic and Paladins are very promising character multiplayer games that undoubtedly benefit from Overwatch’s existence one way or another. While Gigantic marches to its own beat by building a more casual, but no less fun MOBA hybrid, Paladins has Overwatch square in its sights by lifting characters and rulesets straight from Blizzard’s phenomenon and mixing them with what Hi-Rez believes will make a better character-driven shooter. Neither will likely reach the cultural resonance that Overwatch has, which managed to penetrate multimedia in ways that we haven’t seen since Halo, but both games have the potential for being equally, if not possibly more, fun to play than 2016’s most talked about breakout hit.