“Cheers, love! The cavalry’s here!” – Tracer, Overwatch
In 2016, it feels as though first-person shooters have had a massive presence. For example, EA’s double-pronged assault of Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 on the undeniable genre megaton that is Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. They’ve generally been notable in their look – sure, Battlefield 1 has the WWI setting to contrast to the sci-fi tones of the other two, but they all seem pretty serious and “gritty” (ah, that word again). This all makes the shining light that is Overwatch all the more satisfying in its ascent. Blizzard’s multiplayer hero shooter has colour, character and most importantly, a sense of undiluted fun.
I Need a Hero
While it certainly isn’t lacking on the gameplay front (we’ll get to that shortly), perhaps just as important to Overwatch is its presentation. The roster of characters, led by the cover star Tracer (above), are key to what it is and why it works as well as it does. Upon booting up the game, the scientist gorilla (go with it) Winston explains that Overwatch is a set of heroes that worked together to protect the futuristic version of Earth.
They became defunct and disbanded, but with new disasters befalling the world, he wants to rally them back together. Overwatch is a competitive FPS, but behind each character is a rich story. Blizzard released many promotional videos showing this off, most notably the animated short films (seriously, check these out) that add a huge amount of context.
The thing is, they aren’t crucial to understanding the game. Overwatch can be enjoyed as a shooter as it is, but the designs of the characters shout loudly with their creativity and diversity – you’ll likely find yourself wanting to know more about them. The shades of colour are bright, the maps you play on wide and varied. One minute you’re in atmospheric London streets, the next in the rich orange cliffs of Route 66 in the US.
This is reflected in the characters as well. Reaper is a dark, brooding, close combat shooter in a skull mask and black hood, while Mei is adorable in her winter coat and Pharah, disciplined with her military background (she can fly, too, because why not?). The community that has rallied around these characters and this world is extremely devoted and the backstories are what keeps them coming back to what is, just as importantly, a majestically crafted shooter.
Watch and Learn
Overwatch is an incredibly focused game. Other than simple matches against AI, this is an entirely multiplayer affair. You’ve got your wide selection of heroes, each categorised as either attacking, defensive, a tank or healing-orientated and the option to play a match with them. Essentially, Overwatch is a series of playing matches online; don’t think Overwatch is anything but a game with plenty to do, however. Just like Blizzard’s online card game Hearthstone, which has risen to immense popularity in recent years, Overwatch uses a ground-level gameplay structure to hook you in before letting you work out the details.
Actually, the introduction to this may be where the only notable flaw of Overwatch lies. There’s a vast range of play styles, with each character having majorly different abilities and you are understandably introduced with the most, for a lack of a better word, generic of the bunch. Soldier 76, while a decent character design in his own right, has the sprinting, assault rifle, rockets and healing ability that are pretty identifiable to any regular FPS player. You’re also introduced to the ultimate moves, which charge over time but can be devastating upon deployment. So, you run through the tutorial, learning his abilities and how the surface level of the game works, and you enter your first game with another character.
Personally, one of the first things I tried to do was sprint. When there was no reaction, I thought I was doing something wrong – but no, sprinting is an ability and one unique to Soldier 76. As you learn the things you cannot do compared to the tutorial, and start to understand that characters are very different, then the sense of discovery takes over. Nevertheless, it’s quite a jarring way to transition you into the game and one that could have been better explained (even if it was just with some simple on-screen text prompts).
This is a minor flaw and as just mentioned, one forgotten upon the realisation that there is this wealth of characters to learn and play around with. Some lend themselves better to beginners, such as the understandable nature of Bastion – essentially a living machine gun who can move and heal himself – and Tracer, who is all about moving fast with teleports and unleashing damage quickly. All types of play are accustomed for, though. Like to snipe? Try Widowmaker, who can also lay mines and grapple to vantage points. Want to help your team by being a tank, and using a shield alongside your melee? Try the massive knight, Reinhardt.
The start of every game is crucial, as players select their characters to fill out the 6-player side. Overwatch informs you of how your team balance is shaping up, which brings us back to the simplistic genius of the categories. You may be low on the ability to deal damage, so players can choose attacking characters instead. Or maybe you’re missing that crucial healer to keep you all in the game – just watch someone switch to Mercy, the angel character who can heal and boost damage of nearby players with her staff.
See, Overwatch can really punish you for not sticking around. Spawn times are masterfully timed so that you can’t rush back in without the penalty of a time delay. You often spawn a fair distance away, disadvantaging slower tank characters if their plentiful health falls to zero. It always feels painful to leave your team behind, knowing they have to complete the objective without your support. If it wasn’t apparent, the seemingly basic game-to-game nature of Overwatch has a huge level of depth to it.
In Quick Play, which may be the mode players use most, there are randomly occurring game types that switch up play styles. None of them are particularly revolutionary – capturing a point and holding it, or escorting a payload by claiming the area near it are pretty much it – but that works for Overwatch. It’s a team game and with a couple of easy to understand objectives, everyone knows what they have to do. From there, you can keep your attention on how your team will work best together.
Accessibility is the name of the game and much like that old saying goes, it has that Nintendo-esque feel of “easy to play, hard to master”. One of the most important factors is that this isn’t about kill-to-death ratios at all. It’s about contributing to your team. You don’t get kills; you get Eliminations, which you are rewarded even if you contributed. If an enemy is weakened and then they run around the corner into your team-mate? You can turn and focus on the next guy, because your team-mate might finish him off. It’s so freeing to not have to worry selfishly about your own scores, as you know you will get what you deserve. If you’re playing as a healer, for example, XP will be received for performing well as your role of the medic. You have a way to block attacks? The amount of blocked damage is racked up in your stats.
Over and Out
A game like Overwatch would be lacking without another way to reward the player – and that’s where Loot Boxes come in. Every time you level up (there’s no cap) you get a Box, which can contain new Voice Lines, Emotes, Sprays (for stylishly signing the environment), Skins and more. You also occasionally get currency and duplicates have their worth added to that number, so you can save up for a particular unlock if you like.
It’s all cosmetic, meaning that there is no substitute for skill while playing (sure, you can pay for more Boxes, but it won’t give you a gameplay advantage). With such an eclectic and likable set of characters, kitting them out in new gear is very satisfying. Playing as your favourite character gets even better when you can show your love with a rare skin (D.Va all the way!). [Editor Note – That’s not how you spell “Zenyatta”]
A master-stroke on this front is the Highlight Intros. At the end of every game, there is a “Play of the Game/Match”, showing a clip of what the game thinks is the best, well, play during that game. There’s an eSports feel to it all and it is the place where you can show yourself off a little bit. These can be dominated by the characters with lethal ultimate moves, but getting your name and character up there is a fulfilling feeling.
Highlight Intros let you have custom introductions on these clips, only enhancing them further. Sharing these to your friends is possible too, as the game saves even your personal best plays of your recent games. An efficient way to upload these online – say, directly to YouTube – in good quality (personally I used PS4 Share) is strangely missing, however.
Once you hit Level 25, Ranked Play opens up. This is where you can prove your Overwatch talent, with matches that determine your place on the ladder and then the ability to push up the ranks. When players start really integrating top-level strategy, Overwatch gets brutal, so this will conceivably keep you busy for a long time. At the end of each Ranked Season, there are rewards of profile pictures and more, so it’s also a good way to earn some more cosmetic rewards.
Other than Quick and Ranked Play, the other major section is the Arcade. This is where special game types reside, such as only-McCree in Route 66 (a cowboy in the US, how trite, eh?), random character selection, or even more wacky game types in seasonal times – take the snowball fight going on for Christmas this year! You can gain a maximum of 3 extra loot boxed by winning in this mode before it resets, so it’s a neat way to gain some more bonuses.
Overwatch is a reminder that shooter need not be deadly serious. There is a sense of joy to proceedings, whether it is in the way Blizzard has created a unique world, the very much differing characters, or the absorbing FPS that brings it all together. Overwatch is a exemplary example of game design in 2016, taking the very best parts of the genre and giving them life in a way not seen before. Blizzard is getting rather good at making long-running multiplayer games…
This is a shooter with an influence that will be felt long beyond 2016. Tracer’s right; the cavalry is indeed here and it’s breathing new life into a genre.