As I played Overwatch for hours and hours over the course of this month, I couldn't help but continue to wonder what we lost in the transition that turned Blizzard's next MMO into a team-based FPS. The heroes of this game give so much character in their small interactions and dialogue; it's tantalizing to think how much more of that development is now lost on the cutting room floor. Still, it's best not to dwell on what could have been. Instead, let's celebrate the active and engaging shooter that we have.
Overwatch's world is a richly developed version of Earth with a problem. Omnics have been developed, robots with smart enough AI to give them sentience, and the human populace is slow to accept them into everyday life. Global violence has broken out, a robotic monk has been assassinated, and former members of the peacekeeping Overwatch task force have reformed in order to restore stability to the world.
Of course, you'd be forgiven for not knowing any of that, as the game doesn't explicitly give you any of its narratives up front. The story is pushed to the marketing materials and in-game chatter among the heroes, and discovering some of it accidentally is just as fun as capturing the objective in some cases. Still, Overwatch the game is focused solely on fine-tuned and fast paced combat.
Each round of Overwatch is a 6v6 match where you must either hold a control point, defend a control point, or push a cart past enemy lines. How you do this is mostly up to your team composition, and combat scenarios can be wildly different depending on which heroes your teammates choose and which heroes you're up against at any given time. Since everyone can also switch their characters on the fly, each game plays out dynamically, and only the most stubborn of teams will find themselves being squashed underfoot by the competition.
Choosing your hero can sometimes be frustrating if you know what you're doing since you'll end up picking a healer or a tank just to fill out your team while other players will stick to snipers and damage dealers exclusively. The game does try to point you in the right direction with hints displayed on the character select screen, but some players are just stubborn. This situation is doubly frustrating if you don't particularly like playing as those characters since each hero in Overwatch plays wildly different from the others. Just switching between the melee focused Genji, the high-flying Pharah, and the healing orbs of Zenyatta in one game is enough to throw some players for a loop, and everyone will find a subset of the roster that they are most comfortable with before long.
Once you get on the battlefield, that frustration usually melts away. Many heroes have navigational abilities that allow them to zip around the small maps, and that walk isn't too long even for the lumbering tanks. You will be walking back a lot, as death is cheap on the front lines, and knowing when to take an opponent down with you in a blaze of glory can be a valuable skill. Especially if that noble sacrifice allows you to charge your ultimate just a little bit more.
Each character in Overwatch is designed around two to four abilities. This can be anything from dropping gas mines or bear traps behind you to stun foes to healing yourself in some way because your support player just switched to Widowmaker. The longest cooldown is always going to be for your Ultimate, which is usually a devastating offensive move that can turn the tide of any given match. Do well and stay alive and you can fire off multiple spiraling dragons or death blossoms and save your team from a losing game.
This system works wonderfully in guiding new players in performing their role. One look at the help screen and anyone will be able to pick up their weapons and get going. I've rarely seen players confused about mechanics in my time with the game, which is an improvement over similar games that have years of updates layered onto them. This could all change down the line if new weapons or more complex heroes are introduced, but right now even the worst players can jump in and at least feel like they're contributing.
After each game, you get a set amount of XP based on your performance, which gives you loot boxes that unlock cosmetic goods. This is great early on when levels are easy to achieve, but the loot becomes rarer as you keep playing, and Blizzard is more than happy to take advantage of this with an in-game shop that will sell you loot boxes for about a dollar each. Since future heroes and maps are promised to be free, I can't really complain about this system, but it's still a shame that these manipulative microtransactions have to exist at all, and I'd love to see additional ways to earn these skins and taunts implemented in the future.
Of course, it's possible that Overwatch might not hold your attention long enough to make you care about cosmetic trinkets. Outside of a short tutorial and bot matches, the game currently only features a regular matchmaking mode and a rotating Brawl mode with custom rules. There are a decent amount of maps to start with, but each one is designed specifically around a certain objective, and some of them played out similarly each time I loaded into them. Unlike the team composition, what you're actually doing in the game is static, and long sessions can feel like a grind.
The audio cues of each hero can be both a blessing and a curse in these long sessions. It's great that characters have a distinctive cry whenever they launch their ultimate, as this allows players to maneuver around and try to counter the move. However, many characters have the same yell each time they do it, and I never want to hear someone declare that it's high noon ever again in my life. New voice lines in Team Fortress 2 were always a treat, but here I feel that they're necessary to make rounds feel alive and dynamic.
Two weeks ago, as the Open Beta for Overwatch came to a close, I was satisfied with my time with the game. This Team Fortress 2 update, with its colorful characters and simplistically addictive gameplay, it had treated me right. Overwatch works, it's fun, and there will be people who play it for thousands of hours. At the same time, I wasn't dying to play more back then, and my time with the game after its launch has failed to recapture that initial spark. To borrow a phrase from a pop star, Overwatch is a firework. It's beautiful and grabs your attention, but the excitement is fleeting, and it ultimately leaves you wanting more.
Overwatch was reviewed on PC via Battle.net with a code provided by the publisher and on Xbox One during its Open Beta period. It is also available on PlayStation 4.
Overwatch's core gameplay is fantastic, but it's a one trick pony that fails to hold your attention for more than a few matches at a time.