Before we get into the meat of this, I think it's fair to mention that I haven't been a fan of Blizzard's output in a long, long time. I haven't played World of Warcraft seriously since Burning Crusade—though for some reason I purchased both Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm, go figure—and as a long-term Magic: The Gathering and DotA 2 fan I found Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone to be a little light in regards of satisfying mechanical complexity. I still remember how Diablo III launched—I have a wizard named ErrThrtySvn—but eventually enjoyed it after an expansion and multiple quality-of-life patches. So it may come as a surprise that, after playing in the Overwatch beta weekend, that I'm thoroughly in love with Blizzard's take on Team Fortress 2.
I'm at a loss to explain why I'm able to forgive Overwatch and not Blizzard's other ultra-successful franchises that do what they do best: adopt a genre, strip it of any byzantine intricacies, and polish it up to a high-gloss with a focus on a pick up and play mentality. The best I can come up with is that while I'm fairly hard to please in terms of MOBAs and CCGs, my worrying lack of competitive drive when it comes to shooters may make for a perfect breach to allow Overwatch to snuggle up close to my heart. In turn, this has allowed me to finally "get it" in terms of a begrudging understanding of games that I had previously dismissed as insultingly simple and largely derivative like HotS and Hearthstone.
I love playing shooters, but my twitch reflexes leave a little something to be desired. I'm miserable at CS:GO and got in entirely too late with Team Fortress 2 to make heads or tails of the endless amounts of guns and levels. I play the Battlefield series when I want my fix of 'Murica shooters, but the last time I sat down and dumped serious time into a FPS was with Delta Force 2. In short, I'm a filthy casual when it comes to shooty games, and that's probably why I really like Overwatch.
What really does wonders to propel Overwatch is the cast. When you first jump in you're confronted with a large, vibrant, and yes, incredibly diverse cast of lethally armed characters. These 21 heroes are divided into four roles: offense, defense, tank, and support, with further micro-differentiations such as sniper or builder. Critical to such a broad cast is the fact that every single one of them feel different from one another in how they can be played even when occupying the same role. For instance, Winston and Reinhardt both have vast pools of HP, produce shields, and can get in close to bash things. However, the way in which they function makes them feel very different from one another. Winston totes around a Tesla Cannon that can zap people and deploy an immobile dome that absorbs incoming fire before triggering his ultimate to turn into a angry gorilla that can slap characters around and take huge amounts of punishment. On the other hand, Reinhardt can bring up a shield wall that he can walk forward with like a phalanx, dispensing justice with a giant hammer and charging enemies with rocket boosters that can pin and kill enemies when he rams them into the terrain. His ultimate allows him to smash the ground and knock everyone prone, usually setting him up for devastating melee attacks that cut a swath and bust tightly clustered defenses.
There are characters like Tracer who has very little HP but can flit around the battlefield with blinks and rewind herself to a previous location, making her incredibly frustrating to pin down. Mei has a freeze ray that, after an enemy is exposed to long enough, locks them into place and sets them up for a head-shot. Hanzo has to lead moving targets with his bow and arrow and is a great sniper that can fire ricocheting arrows or an enemy revealing sensor. Compare him with the other sniper, Widowmaker, who has a grappling hook to get onto distant ledges and a submachine gun that can turn into a charge-shot sniper rifle.
What's even better is that there seems to be some thought to how characters interact with one another. Bastion can set-up in a siege mode that lets him throw down withering firepower with a gatling gun and a frontal shield, but a character like Pharah who has jump jets and a powerful rocket launcher can ascend to the skies outside of his range and drop rockets right on his head. D.Va can self-destruct her robot, but Mei can throw a wall of ice in front of it to absorb the otherwise fatal blast. Tracer is great at getting behind enemy lines and picking off supports, but usually falls to a well-aimed sniper shot. McCree shines up close, where he can flashbang an enemy and unload a volley of shots into their head for a near-guaranteed kill, but the limited ammo capacity and his mediocre HP make him easy pickings for someone like D.Va, Winston, or Reinhardt, all of whom can survive the burst and punish him.
The shooting mechanics are arcade-like, but satisfying. My primary complaint with Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard's other cooperative game, is that killing the enemy didn't feel very rewarding. In Overwatch, it feels absolutely great to kill multiple people at once, especially if you've managed to do it without using your devastating ultimate. There's room for great plays, and at the end of the game you're judged for all sorts of things from final blows to character-specific things like how many times and how long you manage to shield your allies as Symmetra.
I'm not one to make a big hub-bub about hitting racial status quos, but Overwatch feels like a game that handles diversity right. It benefits from its characters from all different walks of life without coming off as pandering. You've got curvy, Chinese, Mei and muscled, pink-haired, Zaraya; but you also have long-revered tropes like cowboy badass McCree and the Nightmare-esque walking-suit-of-armor that is Reinhardt. It celebrates tropes and diversity all in the same breath, and I'm just so glad that it doesn't come off as tokenism. Now I'm just waiting for the accusations of racial stereotyping or hyper-sexualization to start flowing in despite Blizzard's very valiant efforts to put someone for everyone in Overwatch, proving the old adage that you can't please everyone.
The maps in Overwatch were pleasing to look at, with little touches like being able to destroy the arcade in Hanamura or sending fire-extinguishers rocketing off in Watchpoint: Gibraltr. The levels are compact without feeling constraining, and are delightfully vertical. The gameplay on those levels is incredibly fast-paced, frenetic, and exciting. It doesn't take long to respawn, but long enough to where it isn't impotent as a mechanic. One team is tasked with defending an objective, whether it's a control point or a mobile objective that has to be escorted to the far-end of a level by the attackers. Defenders are given some time before the match starts to set up a defense, and the action starts off the moment the gates swing open to unleash the attackers.
There's very little time where you aren't actively trying to kill someone, and no moments where you're spending five to ten minutes to walk to an objective or to find some remote sniper location flanking the enemy, owing itself to clever level design and a mind for keeping the player engaged. The nature of the game modes makes choke points a thing, with Hanamura a point control map, Watchpoint: Girbaltr an escort map, and King's Row a hybrid of the two. A lot of the match is figuring out how to crack a defense and pry open an opportunity to seize the objective. The timed nature and the inclusion of an overtime mode—a grace period at the end which is granted if attackers happen to be on the objective that expires if they're all killed—make for some truly tense moments where you're actually fighting for every inch of ground. Stakes get incredibly high, and plenty of the games end in these wonderfully climatic battles where victory or defeat is palpable.
Which is great, because as of now it appears as though there's no carrot-on-a-stick to encourage players to play other than the appeal of the gameplay itself. As of yet, there are no levels, experience, loot, ability or weapon unlocks, avatar or profile unlocks, or even stats, though it's certain some of those will change on launch.
My time with the beta was entirely free of any noticeable bugs, save for some struggling with windowed mode, and the game servers were incredibly stable. I was never dropped and didn't have the game crash a single time on my mid-line PC. With a few more levels, some work on the UI, and at the very least some stats Overwatch could be ready for release right now in its current state of polish. As it is, Blizzard has stated that the next weekend beta will be "sometime next year", giving players plenty of time to pine.
It's still unclear whether the 21 heroes that Blizzard has crammed into Overwatch will be the final roster or if there will be additions in the future. Devs have been understandably vague on it, and appear to still be ensuring that the environment Overwatch launches with is balanced before deciding whether they can fit a few more heroes in without upsetting that ecosystem.
Overwatch doesn't do much to reinvent the wheel, but like practically all Blizzard games, it has managed to take a beloved style of game and polish it to an incredible level while trimming down mechanics to make it more streamlined. While you won't find me any more likely to play a game of Heroes of the Storm or Hearthstone, I now have a base-line level of appreciation for the accessibility of Blizzard's games and how simple they are to pick up, play, and enjoy with minimal investment. Before I played in the weekend beta I didn't have a single opinion on Overwatch—I went in blind, and came out hungry for more. It would seem as though my estrangement from Blizzard is at a foreseeable end, to the detriment of my free time and what little social life I have.
The author played Overwatch using a key from Blizzard's opt-in program specifically for the weekend beta and was not provided by the developer or a PR representative.
What have been your experiences with Overwatch? Did you enjoy it? Are you looking forward to playing it again? Leave a comment in the section below, and feel free to add me on Twitter @theamurikan.