The one message that was repeatedly hammered home at this year’s BlizzCon, particularly from Chris Metzen, vice-president for franchise and story development at Blizzard, was how refreshing it was to go back and pounce on an idea that was fun.
It wasn’t and isn’t that Blizzard doesn’t try to make their games fun, but more an admission that the company was working too much within their comfort zones.
“We almost became the World of Warcraft studio for a few years there,” Metzen added. That was the problem seemingly faced by Blizzard’s cancelled project Titan – it was six games in one, effectively trying to be all things to all people.
Overwatch has no such issues. It’s the result of Blizzard developers, in their time off, sitting around, playing games like Team Fortress 2 and saying, “Hey, we could do that better.” It’s that same base question that brought World of Warcraft and Hearthstone to life, and with a heavy dose of Pixar-inspired visuals, something the cinematic trailer makes abundantly clear.
Two teams of six characters are split between attackers and defenders, with the former tasked with capturing point-to-point objectives, again reminiscent of Team Fortress 2. The defenders have a minute or so at the start of each round to establish themselves and after each round, both teams switch sides.
Characters are split into four archetypes – attack, defence, support and tank – although Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director, stressed the roles were “loosely defined”. You’re not restricted in what heroes you can choose either, with the entire roster – 12 heroes were available in the demo build – available at any time, irrespective of what your teammates and enemies are playing.
Each hero has two unique abilities and one ultimate that charges up through gameplay, like Bethesda’s upcoming Battlecry. Some characters are also more agile than others: Reaper can teleport to a certain point; Tracer has a short-range blink; Widowmaker, the resident sniper, has a grappling hook; other characters can fly or are equipped with jetpacks.
Understanding the situations best suited for certain abilities is part and parcel of Overwatch. In one map, Temple of Anubis, all attackers are forced to funnel through a single gate to capture the first objective point. The defenders can establish a series of turrets beforehand, with Symmestra, Bastion (a robot who can self-repair and turn into a fixed turret), and Torbjorn, the closest Overwatch has to TF2’s Engineer.
But as useful as that defensive firepower is, there are plenty of countermeasures. The two tanks, Reinheart and Winston, both have shields that can protect teammates and themselves for a short period. Tracer’s ability is great for blinking past fixed positions, while Reaper’s Wraith Form turns him into a shadow, making him briefly invulnerable but unable to return fire.
Without the class restrictions of TF2, much of the helplessness that arises when your class lacks the firepower or utility to break through a certain situation is gone. It’s a uniform flexibility that gives everyone options to respond to any opposing force, creating a constant flux of strategies and counter-strategies.
It helps that everyone has unlimited ammo – if they’re using a rifle or pistol – and most abilities recharge within five or six seconds. Enemies are easy to spot and identify, even at distance, and the maps offer a great deal of vertical movement, offering some alternatives to players frustrated by the chokepoints objective-centric shooters tend to rely upon.
The only major flaws I can pluck from the wings of Overwatch at this point are the way it was demoed and the fact that the gameplay is a retelling of existing games, rather than a wholly unique take on team-based, objective-focused shooters as a whole.
Games like these are usually better with a team, especially when the situation demands a certain level of coordination. Waiting in line with hundreds of rabid Blizzard fans might engender the room with a high degree of passion, but it doesn’t guarantee one iota of teamwork and most of the problems I encountered or witnessed revolved around players who struggled to adapt or refused to change their playstyle to account for their team or their enemies. When the beta launches next year, chances are you won’t have that problem.
The other fault is that Overwatch doesn’t really reinvent the genre. Anyone who plays the Battlecry beta in early January will immediately see some similarities between the two games – even if the genesis of Overwatch is much more rooted in the cancelled Titan project, which was in development for over half a decade. The same could be said for Dirty Bomb, the upcoming team-based, objective-focused shooter from Splash Damage.
But neither of those developers have the goodwill or track record of Blizzard and they certainly don’t have the eye-catching, Pixar-like appeal of Overwatch, despite this being Blizzard’s first attempt at an FPS in their long history.
Most importantly of all, Overwatch fulfils the first remit of any game: it’s unabashedly fun. There wasn’t a single member of the press that didn’t line-up for at least a second or third playthrough of Overwatch at BlizzCon, despite our nightmarishly busy schedules, and I managed to squeeze out the time for six sessions of my own.
That’s partly down to Blizzard’s excellent organisation – one representative said they had 600 PCs just for Overwatch, out of 2500 playable PCs on the show floor – but also a testament to the game’s variety and addictive nature, despite only having three maps and a roster of just 12 heroes.
A closed beta for Overwatch kicks off next year for Windows PC; you can sign up through the Overwatch website.
The writer attended BlizzCon 2014 at the invitation of Blizzard Entertainment, who paid for flights and accommodation during the event.