Every year, there are those huge summer blockbuster movies. Some are going to be terrible, you can tell from the posters; others you’re invested in thanks to previous installments. And others come out of nowhere on the wave of sudden, completely saturating advertising hype and despite your initial misgivings, you walk out of the theater with a big, stupid grin on your face, ready to head right back in.
Welcome to Overwatch.
Blizzard’s first new property in 17 years, Overwatch is at its core a 6-versus-6 arena shooter, featuring a cast of 21 unique heroes. It’s very much a Blizzard take on Team Fortress 2, and in the Blizzard tradition of readapting, repackaging, and ultimately elevating the ideas it coopts, Overwatch manages to do enough new things – and to do everything so damn well – that it would be malpractice to call it mere mimicry.
On paper, the game is a bit threadbare. There are the aforementioned 21 heroes, each imbued with some X-Men type power, and twelve maps, each of which has an assigned mode – assault, escort, a hybrid of these, and control. Hit Quick Play, and you’ll be matched up with a group in the midst of a map playlist that’ll drop you all into a random map (and its associated mode) with each new round. There’s no capture the flag mode, or even team deathmatch. What gives, Blizzard?
The thing is, Overwatch has been built around the concept of character synergy and cooperation. It’s an idea that’s been fundamental to the two most popular games in the world right now, League of Legends and Dota 2. The focus here isn’t on kill/death ratios, it’s on working as a team to secure or defend objectives. It’s about learning the strengths and weaknesses of each character so you know not only how to play well, but also who to bring to the fight.
And here’s the really smart bit: You can swap out heroes any time. Say Bastion, a rapid-fire robot who can transform into a more-rapid-fire turret, is giving your team trouble at a certain choke point. No problem – switch to a sniper character, like Widowmaker or Hanzo, and you’ll be able to get an angle on that bucket of bolts. This hero-switching-on-the-fly mechanic is absolutely central to Overwatch’s gameplay, and understanding when and how to use it will be the first Big Lesson you learn.
It’s hard not to get attached to your favorite characters, though. They all play distinctly, even among those in the same broad “class,” such as assault or support. Pharah has a rocket launcher and a jet pack that lets her boost up to high vantage points, while the cyborg Genji tends to stay closer to the ground, taking out enemies with shurikens and deflecting projectiles with his sword. As is customary these days, each character has an “ultimate” ability, although the cooldown on each is unique to the character, and recharges based on damage dealt instead of a timer. These can be devastating when used properly: playing as Hanzo, the bow-wielding samurai for the first time, my team had nearly pushed our payload to its destination, but ended up with stiff opposition from the opposing team: their Widowmaker and Pharah were keeping us pinned down from above, and a dug-in Bastion finished off anyone who made it around the corner they were guarding. My ultimate finally charged up, and I dashed into the open and let Hanzo’s “Dragonstrike” loose – I was cut down by Bastion’s barrage, but I watched as the twin spirit dragons corkscrewed through the enemies’ last line of defenses, letting my team push forward the last few feet and win us the match.
It’s moments like that – a lot of moments like that – that have pushed Overwatch up into classic territory. I confess that, after playing a few rounds during the Beta, I wasn’t completely sold on the game. Yes, I thought, this is a perfectly competent little arena shooter with a kitchen sink cast of characters, and I’m sure people who like this kind of thing will like this one too. But the more Overwatch I played, particularly since its official release, the more I’ve realized how masterfully it’s been made.
Maybe it’s all the years Blizzard has spent balancing their games, tinkering with damage levels and spawn timers, adding new units or spells or cards, adjusting as they go… whatever it is, they’ve managed to get so many little details right in Overwatch that the thing feels nearly perfect. Environments are – in addition to being lovely to look at – easily readable. You can tell at a glance where you can go and not go. Simple things like that go a long way, particularly when you have characters who traverse the maps in importantly different ways. Other quality of life improvements include keeping the time between launching the game and actually playing the game to an absolute minimum: they’ve even ditched the usual Blizzard splash screen. You launch the game and are immediately searching for a match to join in two clicks. Rounds don’t drag on for interminable minutes as you drum your fingers waiting for an inevitable defeat, nor are you ever left for very long waiting to respawn after you’re killed. The theme for Overwatch is go, go, go.
Not even story gets in Overwatch’s way. There is a story to Overwatch – it’s about a (surprise) elite international fighting force reuniting in the face of evil in a world where humans and robots have to coexist – but hardly any of it actually lives in the game itself: that’s all lore you can find in comics, animated shorts, and presumably other media that Blizzard’s busily been publishing for the past few months. Instead of absorbing this top-down version the narrative as scripted in-game story beats, players will talk about Overwatch’s near future civil war between classes or at coffee breaks, or on the sofa with loved ones after a couple heated matches. It’s a ballsy move, sure, but there’s enough backstory lurking behind each crisp, colorful hero portrait that this will surely provide the jump-off points for many a playground, “Who’d win, Soldier 76 or…. Reaper!” discussions, the kind that never really end, just slow down into an uneasy armistice when the toybox is closed for the night.
Tonight I’ll fly as Mercy, my favorite support, who can heal her teammates or buff their damage. In the right circumstances she’s literally a lifesaver, popping her ultimate ability to resurrect dead companions right where they fell (good Mercy players are often thanked profusely at the end of the match).
With the dense cast of characters to learn, your first couple hours in Overwatch can be disorienting – just remember to do a lot of experimentation, and stick with your team. You’ll gradually find yourself sinking into match after match, slipping into Widowmaker when another sniper doesn’t show up, but seeing a powerful Winston jump on theirs. “Ah tonight will be a fight,” think as you ready your grappling hook and rifle.
You slink out into the darkness, above the streets below, listening for the telltale sounds of your enemies – talking to each other, giving out warnings, or grunting as they run up a hill. A high vantage point, and suddenly, THERE! Bastion is setting up a trap behind that gate. I should make short work of that… and with Bastion gone, your team floods into the zone only to meet one of Mei’s ice walls. That could only mean – yes McCree and Reaper pinning them from the sides! It’s a trap! You can hold off McCree but what if Reaper hits Mercy with his twin shotguns from the shadows when she arrives?
Discovering how each of these characters works with each level and each team lineup will be the bulk of the metagame in Overwatch, and its immediacy will keep players logging matches. There are, it must be said “loot boxes” to be earned whenever you hit a new global experience level, and these contain new character skins, sprays, victory poses, and quotes. They’re all completely cosmetic and optional, but they could be appealing for certain players. Plus, if this is going to be a game Blizzard plans to keep supporting well into the future, a steady influx of cash couldn’t hurt.
And it might actually bother me if they had done anything to really throw the cash store right in your face or nag you about it persistently, but nope – it’s just back there in case you really need to spend a few more dollars dressing up your favorite Overwatch character.
I like Hanzo right now. We’re buddies. I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t measure up to his legendary archery skill, but as he’s taught me, it’s about being in the right place more than shooting the right way that’s important. But I also want to get to know the tough-as-nails Zarya, who carries a particle cannon and can manipulate gravity itself. Seems like she’s been through some tough times, too.
Overwatch is a carefully curated ship in a bottle made from some of gaming’s best new ideas. Pulling in the classes and the objectives from Dota 2 or Smite, but stripping out the lanes and towers that have defined the Moba genre, and working carefully on multilevel, multi-path levels that offer something for every means of traversal, has left the perfectly crystallized version of Team Fortress 2, one for a brand new generation of players.
Being that this is Blizzard, as well, it makes sense to treat this as a beginning. I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot more Overwatch over the next few years. See you out there.
Overwatch was developed by Blizzard Entertainment and published by Blizzard Entertainment in conjunction with Square Enix. It is available for PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4 for $39.99, or for $59.99 “Origins Edition” which include exclusive skins and goodies for other Blizzard titles. A copy of the Origins Edition was provided free from the publisher for the purpose of this review.