The best shooters manage to skirt the line between being accessible for newcomers and deep enough for competitive play, without moving too far into either territory and thus alienating one crowd in lieu of another. It’s obvious that Blizzard has spent a great deal of time and money on fitting Overwatch neatly into this sweet spot, doing so with plenty of inspiration from other shooters, most notably Valve’s Team Fortress 2. But what might not be obvious from trailers and previews is how distinctly unique the game manages to be, in both art and design.
Overwatch follows the battles of 21 unique characters as they’re pitted against each other in short 6v6 battles across a handful of modes. The action is quick and relentless with plenty of tactical and strategic depth, especially for those who communicate with their friends. While there’s a good time to be had by playing solo, Overwatch is clearly a game designed for group play – a coordinated team will win every time against a handful of strangers.
Having 21 characters to choose from can seem overwhelming, but Blizzard’s incredible character designs mean that each is easily identifiable at a glance, and it doesn’t take long at all before every character becomes instantly recognisable. This is important, too – the way these characters interact is essential to the tactics on display.
Take the murderbot-turned-hero Bastion. He – well, it – has the ability to transform into a powerful stationary turret that’s easily capable of shredding an entire enemy team in moments. It’s practically a rite of passage to be dominated by a Bastion player in the early hours only to learn his myriad weaknesses later on.
A prime example of Bastion’s weakness comes in the form of Genji, the cyborg ninja. Genji has the ability to deflect incoming projectile attacks for a few seconds, which means all he really has to do is stand in front of a Bastion and deflect his gunfire back at him. After a couple more hours, you’ll realise that Widowmaker can snipe him, Pharah can destroy him from above, Roadhog can pull him out of turret form and more.
Some of the characters weaknesses are less pronounced – many still have a hard time tackling a skilled Pharah player – but they’re all there. This is actually one of the key ways in which Overwatch is different to most shooters; changing characters mid-game is not only encouraged but essential. If the enemy team has a skilled Widowmaker (a French blue-skinned sniper), consider switching to the teleporting shot gunner Reaper for a few easy kills. Pure skill will trump team composition, but the importance of character match ups is much more pronounced than in almost any other game.
This is a big barrier of entry to newcomers, as well as being a point of contention. While it certainly makes for heavy strategic decisions, being forced to switch characters just to have a chance at winning can often mean you’re stuck not playing as a hero you most enjoy. This is especially pronounced when playing with strangers, as players often won’t switch to a useful hero, meaning that your team has very little chance of actually winning. Thankfully, Overwatch has “team hints” on display during the initial character selection, telling your team things like “No tanks” or “too much damage”. People typically follow this advice initially and build a balanced team, though it often devolves once the match itself begins.
Luckily, the progression system isn’t tied into which character you actually play, meaning that players can take whatever route is best for the team and still earn unlocks for their favourite hero. Every time a player levels up they earn a “Loot box”, which contains a set of random cosmetic items ranging from voice lines to sprays to entirely new character costumes. Collecting these items and viewing them in the Hero Gallery is hugely addictive, which is reinforced by the ridiculously satisfying loot box opening animation.
If an item you already own happens to drop, it’s automatically converted to in-game currency that can be spent on other items. This means that dedicated players will easily be able to earn what they’re after without relying entirely on RNG, and it’s a very welcome addition. Boxes can also be bought with real money, but as they exclusively provide cosmetic rewards, it’s hard to take issue with this system.
One criticism that’s easy to level at Overwatch is the lack of gameplay modes. There are currently four separate modes, though one of those is just a combination of two others. These are Assault, Escort, Control and Assault/Escort. Some characters are considerably less useful on certain modes, so playing as your favourite(s) can be even more annoying in these cases.
Assault is the most straightforward, in which one team tries to capture two checkpoints by standing on them and the defending team tries to stop them. Escort has one team slowly pushing the “payload” forward while the other team tries to stop it reaching checkpoints throughout the map, and Assault/Escort is literally half an Assault game followed by half an Escort game. Finally, there’s Control, in which each team fights over a single control point, earning more points the longer they manage to control it.
None of these modes are bad, but it really feels like there are only two at play – Assault and Escort. Control plays just like Assault in the sense that you’re just protecting or attacking a point, and Assault/Escort is, of course, just Assault and Escort. This certainly leads to a level of fatigue quite quickly, as it doesn’t take long at all before you’ve seen all the modes and maps the game has to offer. This is on top of the total lack of single player, except for skirmish battles against bots that are far too easy on Normal and practically impossible to beat on Hard.
Still, this comes with the caveat that this is a Blizzard title – a company famous for their post-release updates and support. While nothing’s officially been announced, Overwatch will almost certainly receive stellar support, including new modes, maps and characters. The game can feel a little bare bones at times, but with 21 characters to try and endless team compositions to build and face off against, Overwatch will keep players busy for a long, long time; especially those who have friends invested in the game as well.