With over 10 million copies sold (and counting) Overwatch might just be the most successful game launch Blizzard have had in the last decade. Strange, then, that from all of Blizzard’s output during this period Overwatch is probably the Blizzard title I like the least.
It’s probably worth stressing that “like the least” wording, as it’s very different from active dislike or even ambivalence. Overwatch is a decent enough game, which in itself is kind of impressive for something that rose from the ashes of Blizzard’s failed Titan MMO, and doubly so considering that Blizzard have no prior experience in the FPS genre. It avoids these obvious pitfalls as well as the not-so-obvious ones, deftly blending together the fast-paced team- and objective-based multiplayer gameplay of Team Fortress 2 with a much broader set of playable characters with skills and abilities that are, mechanically, straight out of the playbook for something like League of Legends or Dota, and it does this without feeling like the misshapen Frankenstein’s monster of a game it could have easily turned out to be. I’ve sunk a dozen hours into it so far and — final hour aside — I don’t feel like that time was wasted at all. It is interesting, though, that the point where Overwatch started to lose me was the point where I felt I’d started to fully understand the mechanics and characters, since it was also at that point that I understood exactly what the limitations of the game were.
At the time I started writing this review Overwatch consisted of one game mode, Quick Play1. There is no server browser and no choice of which map you want to play, just a button to toss you into matchmaking. After a minute or two of waiting around you’ll be informed that the matchmaking algorithm has successfully managed to construct a game and you’ll enter a loading screen telling you which map you’ll be playing on; Overwatch’s maps all have a specific cultural theme — there’s the Russian map, the Japanese map, the Greek map etc. etc. — but while they strike me as being competently designed in terms of geometry layout they’re also almost perfectly bland and unmemorable. Certainly there’s no contenders for the next dust2 in here. Anyway, the map you’re playing will determine what your objective is, and these are similarly quite unimaginative — there’s King Of The Hill, where you stand on a point while stopping the enemy team from doing the same, sequential King Of The Hill, where one team is designated as the attacking team and has to capture points one after another, and Payload, which has been 100% ripped off from Team Fortress 2 as you stand next to a bomb to move it through a level to its destination while the enemy team tries to stop you. In other words, nothing I haven’t seen roughly a thousand times before.
The first point where Overwatch starts to get interesting is the character select screen. TF2 lets you pick from 8 classes, but Overwatch massively outstrips it by offering a selection of 21 characters to choose from. Once again there are many, many aspects of these characters that have been lifted from TF2; I don’t think there’s a single TF2 class mechanic that doesn’t make an appearance in Overwatch in some form. However, in Overwatch these mechanics have been remixed and matched to new heroes with other new abilities to produce something that feels genuinely fresh. Take Overwatch’s Medic analogue, Mercy. Just like the Medic, Mercy fires a healing beam that tops up the health of anyone it’s pointed at, and she can also use the alternate fire to boost their damage output. She’s often played in much the same way as the Medic by latching on to a heavy Tank character and keeping them alive while they barrel through an enemy strongpoint. I certainly played her like this in my first couple of games with her. This is something of a mistake, though, since it’s not making the most of Mercy’s Guardian Angel ability which lets her use her jetpack wings to jump to any friendly teammate in her crosshairs; this allows her to quickly flit around healing multiple members of the team in a very short span of time, and it also gives her a much-needed escape when she’s in trouble — if she can find a teammate to escape to, of course.
It doesn’t seem like that significant a change, but it ensures that Mercy feels very distinct from the TF2 Medic. The same goes for Tracer, who is the closest thing Overwatch has to the Scout; like the Scout she’s meant to flank and harass the enemy backline, but unlike the Scout she has a short-range teleport that allows her to move quickly and get to hard-to-reach areas, as well as an ability that lets her rewind her own personal timestream to the location — and health pool — that she had a few seconds ago. The same goes for Pharah, a moderately tough assault character who carries a rocket launcher as her default weapon but doesn’t give a shit about rocket jumping like TF2’s Soldier class does because she has an actual honest-to-god jetpack that renders it redundant. Sometimes the abilities have been split out across different characters; Torbjorn has received the Engineer’s ability to build a large upgradeable sentry turret that spits hot lead at anyone who ventures into its line of sight, but teleporter construction has gone to Symmetra. Torbjorn makes armour packs for teammates while Symmetra boosts their shields. Symmetra can also deploy up to six tiny turrets that individually do naff-all damage but which can be placed on walls and ceilings and which can start racking up the kills when clustered together in a blind spot – above a door, say, causing any enemy that wanders through it to be doused in the infamous “car wash” of laser beams.
Overwatch isn’t content to simply remix ideas from class-based first-person shooters, though. It’s also taken a heavy dose of inspiration from MOBAs, both in terms of specific abilities and more generally in the way the abilities are structured and activated. Most characters have a primary ability activated by the Shift button and a secondary ability activated by E. Doing useful things for the team – killing enemies, healing people, capturing points — will charge up an ultimate ability to 100%. Once it’s full, the ultimate can be deployed by pushing Q. Each character has a different ultimate, but it’s here that I feel Overwatch’s ability design makes its first significant misstep, as most ultimates — not all, but most — boil down to “push Q to kill enemy team”. There’s some interesting ones in there, to be sure — the interplay between Zarya’s ultimate, which launches a gravity orb that sucks in the enemy team to a specific point, and Pharah’s, where she launches herself into the air and saturates an area of the map with a barrage of rockets, is a demonstration of where the ultimate design has gone right — but there’s too many like Reaper’s, which kills anyone standing next to him, and Soldier 76’s, which kills anyone he’s looking at, and Hanzo’s, which kills anyone standing in a broad rectangular area. These things are not massively interesting (or difficult) to use, and when you’re on the receiving end it’s enormously frustrating to be killed with no real chance of escaping.
The sound design helps here a little bit. All of the ultimates are announced via a distinctive voice lines or sound effect, and so you learn to run for cover when you hear McCree blurt out “It’s hiiiiiigh noon…” or to scatter at the sound of the motor on Junkrat’s Riptire. The sound design in general is excellent, in fact, with just about everything in the game being signalled via a sound cue that makes your ears just as important as your eyes for keeping track of what’s going on in the fight. With the ultimates it only goes so far, though, and despite eventually learning what the cues for the most annoying ones were I still found myself dying helplessly far too often. Respawn times in Overwatch are pretty fast and it only takes you 20 or 30 seconds to get back into the fight, but it’s the knowledge that one of the enemy team pushing Q just completely blunted whatever forward momentum your team had that I find the most discouraging thing about it. It would have been nice if the ultimates had required timing and intelligence to deploy correctly and didn’t just act as an “I win” button to make the player using them feel good.
Still, if there’s one character that’s killing you over and over and you feel like you just can’t make any headway against them, there’s always a solution: switch the character you’re playing to one that counters theirs. You can change characters at any time — although the best time to do it is obviously when you’re dead — and with no cost, since Overwatch wants to actively encourage class switching as a strategy. Say there’s a Winston on the enemy team who keeps smashing your attacks. Winston is a big gorilla with a large health pool and a short-range tesla cannon that’s good at damaging multiple targets but crap at killing single ones, and there are characters in the game who are better at dealing short-range damage than he is; specifically the shotgun-wielding Reaper. Reaper is in turn countered by the cyborg cowboy McCree, whose flashbang ability can stun him and prevent him from escaping long enough to gun him down. McCree likes to fight at medium range, and so he finds himself at a disadvantage when fighting long-range sniping characters such as Hanzo. And to close the circle Winston’s leap ability lets him get up nice and close to Hanzo and smash him to a pulp. Every character in Overwatch has at least two or three hard counters of this kind, and as a result there’s no one character that seems massively overpowered2. The converse is also true; because everyone is a counter for somebody, there’s no characters that feel like they’re truly useless either3.
Ultimates aside, the character design is Overwatch’s greatest success. They’re all distinctive and all at least moderate fun to play; the game rewards knowing what each of them can do, and with 21 of them to choose from gathering that knowledge isn’t something that comes overnight. The isolated structure of a single match of Overwatch also works well, for all that it’s ripped off from TF2; it’s basically ideal for precisely the sort of casual shootout that Quick Play is supposed to be. In an ideal world where the Quick Play matchmaking algorithm could produce balanced encounters, I think that Overwatch would be a great game in spite of its flaws — the weird POV that makes everything seem too big; the game’s complete failure to contextualise why these six vs. six matches are constantly happening4; the fact that every single Reaper player I have encountered, friendly or enemy, has been a flaming asshole5. Like, I don’t think it would go down on the list of all-time multiplayer greats, but just like recent Blizzard efforts (Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm, to be precise) it would be a perfectly valid way to spend 20-minute chunks of my time having casual, low-investment fun.
Except my overriding feeling when I look back on my time spent playing Overwatch is one of mild annoyance, not fun. This is because I have played very few games of Overwatch that weren’t complete stomps of one team or the other. The initial signs when joining a game aren’t promising; you can see the XP levels of every player in the game, and by the time I reached level 8 I was regularly being matched against players who were level 70 or even level 80. Given the nature of XP curves these were players with many more times the playtime that I had, and while playtime doesn’t necessarily correlate to skill it’s going to account for something; I refuse to believe you can play Overwatch for 100 hours and not be better at it than somebody who has been playing for 5. Still, that’s just a matter of experience – surely once I learned all the characters and the maps things would even up and I’d find myself making a bit more of a contribution, right? So I busied myself with playing the game and trying each character at least once to get a feel for their abilities; I eventually learned the maps (not by name, but by layout) and the various sound cues, and this all did lead to me dying a little less often and doing a fair bit better. Unfortunately this personal improvement didn’t seem to correlate in any way with an improved match experience. The general quality was still tremendously lopsided, with maybe 10% of my games being anywhere near a close-run thing. Overwatch is supposed to be a more casual multiplayer shooter, yes, but I still find being on either end of a one-sided match a bit discouraging even if I’m not taking it all that seriously; I don’t have all that much investment in the outcome if I feel like it was determined before I even got into the game.
I did try to avoid jumping to conclusions, but at the end of the day I’m going to have to point the finger of blame at the Quick Play matchmaking algorithm, which seems pathologically incapable of assembling teams of similar skill levels and pitting them against one another. To be fair it does face something of an uphill struggle as so much of Overwatch depends on that ability to change classes mid-match to hard counter the other team, and so the team composition is far more fluid than what you’d find even in a MOBA. It may be that the very concept of “balanced match” doesn’t actually exist in Overwatch. Whatever the reason, once I’d spent the dozen-odd hours required to learn the basics of every hero and still found myself enmeshed in these idiotic slaughterhouses I decided very quickly that Overwatch was a intrinsically broken game. It has the same problem as Titanfall, in that the core gameplay is fundamentally good — even great — but as far as the meta-structure of the game is concerned Quick Play is essentially all it has to offer. Where Titanfall’s experience was too limited to sustain long-term play, though, Overwatch’s is just too crap. If you want to boil things down to a single button that I push to play a game that’s fine, but that button had better be able to drop me into an awesome experience eight or nine times out of ten. If it doesn’t, and if you don’t provide any meaningful alternatives, then what happens is that I’m going to stop playing rather than continuing to roll those Quick Play bones in the hope that maybe, this time, it won’t generate opposing team compositions that are stunningly mismatched. Knowing Blizzard they’ll improve their matchmaking system over time as well as adding in a few more game modes, so I’m happy to take a pass on Overwatch in the hope that it will be better later. It’s not inherently bad, but it absolutely does not pass the long-term taste test right now.
Tangentially-related footnote, for no other reason than that I want to talk about it: Gearbox released their class-based multiplayer FPS Battleborn at almost exactly the same time as Overwatch, with entirely predictable results; it’s been comprehensively obliterated.. By all accounts Battleborn did itself few favours by being an exceedingly average experience — but still, one wonders what the hell Gearbox and/or publishers 2K were thinking.
- Oh, okay, there’s also Custom Games and vs. AI, but these strike me as things you would only ever do with friends and very much go against the grain of what Overwatch is about. ↩
- Although Widowmaker comes close; she should die the second somebody like Soldier 76 manages to get into close range, but her assault rifle lets her fight it out on nearly even terms AND she has a grappling hook escape to fall back on if it’s going badly for her. ↩
- Although, again, Symmetra comes close. Making the teleporter her ultimate was really stupid. ↩
- TF2 didn’t exactly deal with this either to start with, but Overwatch is one of those games that’s launched with a comprehensively detailed backstory that is, for reasons known only to Blizzard themselves, not included anywhere in the actual goddamn game. ↩
- While annoying I am 100% unsurprised by this, and secretly hope that Reaper is just a giant honeypot and that they’ll eventually ban anyone who has played him for more than 10% of their matches. ↩