A funny thing happened while putting together my review of Blizzard’s megapopular multiplayer shooter Overwatch: I transformed from skeptical grumpkin to convert. And unlike many shooters, that change took place without inflicting a single unit of damage.
Overwatch is a team-based multiplayer shooter where team members choose characters from a roster of (currently) twenty-one, engaging in simple, objective-oriented gameplay. Its game modes are somewhat basic - capture this objective, move that objective along a set path - but it’s Overwatch’s characters upon which its appeal truly hinges.
95% of Overwatch’s gameplay centres on its dizzying array of characters, most of whom are intensely likeable. There’s a story that explains who they all are and why they’re engaging in these silly fights, but you’ll have to watch Blizzard’s animated shorts for anything beyond surface-level character traits. Ordinarily, I’d find this kind of story back-seating egregious (it's one of the biggest problems in Destiny), but the characters’ sheer exuberance and instantly identifiable personalities make up for it. We don’t need to know why these characters are who they are; only that they are.
With a couple exceptions (and I’m mostly talking about Junkrat, a nails-on-a-chalkboard Australian take on Mark Hamill’s Joker), the characters range from hilarious to badass, with most bearing loveable quirks of personality. Their designs vary wildly in aesthetics and functionality, drawn from a variety of cultural backgrounds and rendered in cartoony fashion with a robotic sci-fi twist. Among them you’ll find autonomous robo-tanks and simian scientists; time-travelling sprinters and ugg-booted ice warriors; and a roller-blading healer powered by dance music (seriously). Whether the designs are shallow and insensitive or goofy and adorable is down to personal taste (I'm on the fence).
If you’ve only played standard shooters, it can take a while to get one's head around Overwatch. The learning curve, predictably, involves sussing out the characters and their abilities, and the sheer breadth of information to take on can be daunting. Generally speaking, characters’ abilities are broken down into mobility, offense, and a special power, but they don’t all fit that description. Some characters are all about healing. Others are about long-range tactical support. Some have multiple abilities that can be cycled depending on the situation. The cast caters to a range of play styles, but it’s how they play together that makes Overwatch special.
The 21 characters fit together like a complex jigsaw: infinite diversity in infinite combinations. A character with a large damage output, for example, works well with a character who can pin enemies down; a character who can project a forward energy shield gels perfectly with one who can heal damage inflicted from behind. It’s a great feeling when you’re contributing to the team without necessarily killing dudes. That emphasis on teamwork and objectives over kill/death ratios makes the tone friendlier, too, even including a system for “liking” other players’ work at the end of matches. The real badassery in Overwatch is being part of a team.
But character choice goes deeper still. Balancing your team’s makeup against the opposition’s is a significant secondary metagame within Overwatch. Each match begins with a frantic rush to balance team compositions, but it doesn’t stop there. When you die, the onscreen prompt encourages you not to respawn, but to change character; you then jump back into the character selection metagame, either balancing your teammates’ choices or choosing to go all-in on a certain tactic. Some characters are strong at offense, some at defense; some are great at countering other characters; none are genuine all-rounders. With good communication, Overwatch has serious tactical depth, which will go far towards potentially making it the eSport Blizzard clearly wants it to be. Knowing which character can break the opposition’s strategy is as important as the shooting itself.
Blizzard has brought all its experience to bear on the design of Overwatch, and the finer details make it a joy to play. Every weapon and character has a unique sound design, making firing weapons, using powers, or even stomping around an aural pleasure (a few characters’ irritating barks notwithstanding). An end-of-match feature called Play of the Game, which highlights an algorithmically selected key moment, sounds goofy on paper (and doesn't always work properly) but provides genuine incentive to play well and look good for your team. Even the controls have had thought put into them: though some of the default mappings aren’t ideal for speedy play, every single button can be remapped, even on a per-character level.
Sadly, Overwatch’s roots as a free-to-play game - it only got a full price tag a few months before launch - are all too visible in the final product. Despite the love and attention put into the characters, there’s little content in the released game, with only a handful of maps and a couple of game modes. Although every character is available at launch, Blizzard has hidden hundreds of unlockable cosmetic items (skins, emotes, and the like) behind “loot boxes,” which can be earned slowly via levelling up, or quickly by spending real money. Thankfully, loot doesn't factor into the gameplay, but it’s put there as an incentive to earn more XP - or to spend more money. And even when you do plonk down cash, the items received are selected randomly. On top of a full price tag, that feels rich coming from one of the most successful publishers in gaming. Or maybe it’s an illustration of why Blizzard is so successful. Either way: fuck that.
While I’m on the subject of things Overwatch does wrong: let’s talk colour blindness. While I’m glad colourblindness options are available, I long for the day games allow me to choose my HUD colours individually, as opposed to applying an ugly global hue shift to the entire game. I can’t see red labels very well, but I don’t want grass to turn pink and the sky to turn green just so I can identify the enemy team. Surely implementing a HUD colour picker wouldn't be that difficult. No amount of colour correction will enable the colourblind to see the colours they’re missing out on; all I want is some goddamned clarity.
If you can see colours like a normie, and aren’t the type to be led astray by microtransactions, Overwatch is a truly terrific multiplayer shooter. It’s Team Fortress 2 with more depth; Rainbow Six Siege with more personality. Like those games, Overwatch is about a hundred times more fun when you’re playing with friends, and therein lies the rub. Without friends playing the game, it’s just not as good a time. That’s always been the problem with online gaming, and barring a sweeping improvement in online gamers' personalities, it always will be.
But the fact that player counts are still high a month after release - even overtaking League of Legends in Korean PC bangs - speaks to the quality design and sheer fun Blizzard has created. You don’t have to be a great FPS player to succeed in Overwatch, but you do have to be a good team player. And given Blizzard's obvious desire to make Overwatch an eSports staple, teamwork gets the real Play of the Game, every game. I like that a lot.