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Overwatch is above all a triumph of style. Even Team Fortress 2, the benchmark to which Overwatch clearly aspires, never quite hit the heights that Blizzard's new shooter has already reached in that department.
Overwatch's artistry is evident in every detail of its design: its fighting game-like roster select screen, the distinct ping that comes with a kill shot, the Player of the Game highlights. Blizzard wields Overwatch's visual cues and sound effects with the experience born of creating some of the most addictive and long-lasting games ever made. They understand the power a great presentation can have in getting people hooked.
Nevertheless, Overwatch in many ways also exists outside Blizzard's traditional comfort zone. Since making it big in the real-time strategy space with WarCraft, Blizzard has been known for its work in the strategy and RPG spaces - genres that are diametrically opposed to the action of first-person shooters. This is virgin territory for them; and even with the pick of some of the best talent the industry has to offer, Overwatch could have easily turned out to be a misstep.
Well, it's a little early to call Overwatch an unqualified success, but the level of hype that it has inspired speaks for itself. In designing their first FPS, Blizzard has brought all of their customary strengths to the table, including their knack for memorable character design, their instinct for positive reinforcement, and their talent for designing smart and balanced online multiplayer. It's thus no surprise that Overwatch has already managed to build up a large and dedicated community.
Overwatch further resembles Blizzard's more recent projects in its rather lightweight design. Like Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone, Overwatch eschews a single-player campaign in favor of a tightly-focused online multiplayer experience. Unlike its predecessors, though, Overwatch actually retails for around $40 - a risky move in an environment where competitors like League of Legends have managed to find significant success as free-to-play releases. It's tempting to draw comparisons with Titanfall and Star Wars Battlefront - two multiplayer shooters that also cost money at retail and ultimately failed to have staying power as mainstream shooters. Indeed, it's certainly possible that Overwatch will fade once the hype subsides and people start to drift away from the multiplayer.
On the flipside, Counterstrike Global Offensive is living proof that a top-quality first-person shooter can continue to command significant audiences even if it's not free-to-play, so it's not like Overwatch is doomed to be a fad. As always, once the novelty fades, it'll be up to the actual gameplay to carry the load.
In that regard, Overwatch has a few things going for it. First, it's moves incredibly quickly, which ensures that even bad matches where one side is getting rolled won't last too long. Matchmaking likewise moves at a brisk pace, making Overwatch a good game to play if you have 20 minutes to kill and want to squeeze in a quick match. These same strengths have helped Call of Duty to remain a top-tier multiplayer shooter for nearly a decade now.
Second, Overwatch has an unusually strong focus on teamplay and a good understanding of how to get even public groups to work together. When selecting a character, Overwatch shows what roles your team is missing, which is usually enough to shame someone into grabbing a tank or a healer. As a result, Overwatch matches have a cohesiveness to them that many other shooters lack. It's truly a thing of beauty when you get an actual push going on an objective with Pharah and Soldier: 76 knocking out defenses, Mercy healing, and Reinhardt tanking up front with his massive shield. Other shooters have classes, but it's rare to see team compositions that mesh so naturally that people can't help falling into their natural roles. It makes me think that Overwatch will be a lot of fun to watch as an eSport.
Finally, despite sporting only four modes with three maps apiece, Overwatch manages to feel varied and interesting. One thing that stands out in particular to me is the way the maps always seem to be moving, whether in defending a payload or assaulting different objectives. Such movement keeps defensive characters like Widowmaker and Bastion from getting too comfortable while offering a variety of different vantage points, which has the side effect of keeping the maps relatively fresh. It also gives Overwatch matches a certain degree of momentum, encouraging team battles and keeping the action humming.
In an interesting and perhaps risky move, Overwatch avoids many of the more traditional shooter modes like Team Deathmatch in favor of ones that encourage teamwork. I was initially skeptical of this approach, but my misgivings have subsided the more I've played Overwatch. In the end, teamwork is Overwatch's defining trait, and it's smart of Blizzard to focus on that strength as much as possible.
With that, I think that Overwatch has a good chance of retaining its momentum and remaining in the public eye, particularly as it begins to pick up additional content. It's already managed to hook several of my friends who aren't even shooter fans, and it feels perfectly calibrated to keep them coming back for a long time to come. In that light, paying its $40 price of admission doesn't seem so bad.
In the first part of this review, I said that Overwatch is above all a triumph of style. A lot of that is down to its roster, which is unquestionably one of the Overwatch's greatest strengths.
During our stream earlier this week, Bob asked if any of us knew Overwatch's backstory. I told him that I didn't; and for the most part, I still don't. From my perspective, Overwatch is almost like Super Smash Bros. in the way that it mashes together various archetypes, mixing a cyborg assassin with a spaghetti western cowboy, a mech pilot, and more. Thematically, there aren't a ton of similarities, but it doesn't really matter because they're so much fun.
Scroll through Overwatch's roster select screen, and you're bound to find a character who will immediately speak to you. For me it was Bastion and his little bird, which will no doubt make me the worst person in the world in some people's eyes. As time has gone on, I've also become fond of D.Va and her mech, the rocket knight Pharah, and of course, Tracer, who has become Overwatch's de facto mascot (as well as a sort of controversy, because what isn't controversial these days).
From the very start, Overwatch strives to put its heroes front and center. The moment you boot up the game, you'll find a random character mugging for the camera, enticing you to take them onto the battlefield: Tracer puffing at her hair, Junkrat looking crazy, D.Va doing a fingergun toward the camera. As you rise in level, you can unlock additional emotes and highlight poses, all of which highlight some aspect of the character's personality. It's a delight.
Blizzard has a knack for creating memorable characters, and while the roster isn't a 100 percent win - few people seem to care about Zenyatta - certain fan favorites have already started to emerge. More than anything, they are proof of how much amazing art can elevate an already strong shooter.
Of course, if the shooting wasn't up to snuff, all the high-quality art in the world wouldn't be enough to save Overwatch. Thankfully, Overwatch's cast fits rather nicely with its particular style, each character's personality being evident in their playstyle. Look at a character like Junkrat, for instance, and you instinctively understand that they will spend a lot of time blowing things up.
Beyond that, Overwatch goes out of its way to keep things as simple and accessible as possible. Most characters have a grand of total of two abilities on top of their ultimate, making it easy to figure out what they can do at a glance. The roster is also blocked off into offense, defense, tank, and support categories, making it easy to find the character you want in a pinch.
This is important because character-switching is pretty much the name of the game in Overwatch. Much has been made of Bastion's strength as a defensive character; but as Kotaku rightly pointed out, there are plenty of Bastion counters to be found on Overwatch's roster. Genji, for instance, can simply reflect Bastion's bullets right back at him, while Pharah can float through the air and take out the stationary Bastion with a couple rockets. This sort of give and take ought to make for some interesting play at higher levels.
Blizzard, of course, is intimately familiar with these sorts of balancing principles, having perfected many of them back in the days of StarCraft. It's also easy to see certain RPG tropes in Overwatch, such as the traditional tank-DPS-healer formation, which makes sense in light of its origins as an MMORPG called Project Titan. It's a lot of fun to see the ways these characters can work together in attacking and defending an objective, as when Mike was blocking for me with Reinhardt while I blasted oncoming attackers as Bastion.
Upon reflection, this is all squarely in Blizzard's wheelhouse, which offers a hint on how they've managed to be so successful for so long: it doesn't matter whether they're making an FPS or a strategy game, they know their strengths, and they have certain design principles down to a science. For Overwatch, it all starts with the roster.
So after a week with Overwatch I think I can pretty much state the obvious: Blizzard has crafted an incredibly good shooter. Perhaps historically good.
As I wrote last week, Overwatch defies the conventional wisdom that a shooter needs to be stuffed with content to justify its price tag. It has three modes - one of them for training - and a host of unlockable vanity skins and poses. Beyond that, Overwatch is content to let its gameplay do the heavy lifting.
It works because the shooting feels terrific, the characters feel diverse and interesting, and because it never allows repetition to set in. Its core design is built around switching between characters to counter your opponent's strategies - a smart way to ensure that you never fall into a rut. Its metagame is based less on knowing a level inside and out and more on knowing what each character can accomplish. Overwatch may be a shooter, but Blizzard's roots as an MMORPG developer is clearly evident in its strategic team-based gameplay. Whenever I go marching into a firefight behind Reinhardt's shield, I can't help feeling like I'm back at World of WarCraft's Molten Core trailing after my guild's tank, a bevy of healers and supports close at hand.
But as fun as all this is, where Overwatch really, really succeeds is in the way that it lets you be creative. Every Play of the Game highlight is an opportunity to see some moment of inspiration - a perfectly timed ultimate or a clever sneak attack - often inspiring laughter and upvotes from both teams. It's hard to even be mad when Junkrat's tire explodes and send you flying off into space. Of course, Play of the Game could be better, but what's there already is excellent by itself. I've seen a few duds, but more often than not, it picks a winner.
Like Rocket League last year, Overwatch is content to lay the foundation for the community to grow and flourish, then add additional content later. The first thing that should be on the docket is Overwatch's Competitive Mode, which was temporarily cut because it didn't reach Blizzard's standards for quality. This is one area where it feels fair to criticize Overwatch - as much fun as it is to play with friends, the lack of ranked competitive play is a glaring omission. Unfortunately, shipping without certain features in place is pretty much par for the course these days. Hopefully Blizzard will stick to their word and have it ready for the end of June.
Until then, Overwatch can continue to lean on its sheer novelty. Overwatch is the burst of inspiration the genre needs after years of grim military shooters and sci-fi retreads. It may not replace the Call of Duties of the world, but I wouldn't be shocked if it served as the inspiration for a new wave of class-based competitive shooters. It's been a long time coming.
ConclusionOverwatch may yet cool off and fall by the wayside at some point in the near future, but it sure seems like it's here for the long haul. Pretty much everything about this game feels fresh and exciting: the class-based combat, the art style, the roster, the modes. It's equal parts strategic and twitchy, encouraging you to think while also rewarding skill, and its roster is a delight. Overwatch may well be the best new multiplayer shooter to come along since Modern Warfare and Team Fortress 2 took 2007 by storm. I can't wait to play more.