The booming eSports scene has accelerated the growth and development of highly competitive multiplayer video games for developers to try and cash in on this new market. Most of these titles are ill-conceived from the get-go like Battleborn and Dawngate, while others like Evolve are solid yet in their haste to get big compromise their balance or fan base in the process. Overwatch is the next of these titles, a class-based first-person shooter developed by Blizzard. With their experience building solid competitive eSports titles like Hearthstone, Starcraft II and Heroes of the Storm, and a monumental amount of hype propping it up, Blizzard’s Overwatch feels like the next big thing for the multiplayer scene. And with a solid foundation of gameplay to build from, Overwatch certainly has that potential, which is somewhat unrealized as of release.
Overwatch takes place on a near-future Earth after an uprising of artificial intelligent robots called Omnics have nearly wiped-out the human race. Thankfully, an international group of super soldiers and scientists called Overwatch was formed and the Omnics were defeated. Fast-forward to the events of the game, and the Overwatch task force has been disbanded due to allegations of corruption. But with new evils on the horizon, the surviving members of Overwatch are regrouping to save the world once again. Despite the elaborate set-up, all of this plot merely serves as background as Overwatch is a multiplayer-only experience. So if any of this is intriguing to you or you’d like to see it be developed further, then you’re very much out of luck.
And this is definitely a shame because of how charming and charismatic all 21 of Overwatch’s playable characters are. From ambient dialogue between characters before a match, to the highly detailed weapons and expressive abilities, Blizzard has done an excellent job creating a moderate sized cast of enthusiastic heroes. The roster isn’t as thorough as it could’ve been with an uneven amount of characters in certain roles (specifically Support and Tank characters) but does an admirable job in covering class-based shooter and MOBA character archetypes. And balance isn’t perfect as there are several annoying and imbalanced characters as of launch, characters like Mei, Bastion, Torbjorn, Reinhardt, McCree, Mercy, that are not are only generally annoying, but in the hands of a master player feel incredibly oppressive and boring to play against.
Though even if the lineup isn’t huge, approaching a new hero to play can be quite intimating for how competitive and hectic the multiplayer action can be. Here some single-player story missions disguised as character-specific tutorials would not only help newcomers learn the win conditions of a new character, but also would develop the already evocative characters and world of Overwatch. To be fair, once you dive into a new character, most of them prove themselves to be fairly approachable, embracing the easy to play but hard to master mantra of other competitive multiplayer games. But taking that initial leap can be quite daunting indeed, which Blizzard does not facilitate at all.
But once you learn the quirks of a character and start proving yourself on the battlefield, Overwatch is incredibly addictive and fun. The speedy base movement speed of most characters and the short length of a round make matches move at a furious pace. Combat is also fast and engaging, making expressing your skill level and understanding of your preferred character quite fun. Overwatch gets a lot of mileage out of its large Halo-esque sandbox maps which promote epic encounters between multiple heroes, with a ton of abilities flying around creating quite chaotic and fun combat encounters. Overwatch is at its worst in small, enclosed areas which promotes small 1-on-1 encounters which are far less exhilarating, and there is a tad few maps with a single chokepoint which limits the action and tactical options available to a team. This problem is actually far more impactful with only 12 maps as of launch. To make matters even worse in this regard, each map is only designed around one of the two game modes, Escort (moving a payload across the map) and Control (capturing and holding a point on the map for a length of time), which make things feel far more repetitive as you don’t even get the potential of mixing-up the maps and modes.
And the joys of completing a match are rather muted. After the completion of a match, Overwatch takes you to a commendations screen where you can vote for specific players who performed exceptionally. But these votes are literally meaningless and aren’t even recorded in the stats screen, so they generally feel like a gigantic waste of time to engage with. There is also a Play of the Game feature which shows everyone a video highlight of a player in a game changing moment of impact, but these are often broken, cutting off before the actual play itself, the camera failing to show the action properly, or even the most offensively, showcasing something incredible unremarkable. At the end of the match you also earn XP to level-up, which doing so earns you a loot box that contains four random cosmetic items like character skins or emblems for your profile. None of the progression ever celebrates you as a player in a cohesive or interesting way.
But the way all of the progression is packaged and presented to you looks and sounds great and important, even if none of it is. Overwatch’s production value is incredibly strong, with a bright and colorful aesthetic and a heroic presentation which makes every map, character and highlight of the game feel exciting and vibrant in really personable ways. Even though there a very limited amount of maps and a moderate size of heroes, they all have a ton of personality and visually are good to look at. Which is extremely important because you’re going to see everything repeated a lot. Even mundane things like opening a loot box are superbly produced moments of visual and auditory excitement, even if whatever is inside is a bunch of cosmetic nonsense that has no real baring.
Overwatch has had a monster ton of hype going into it, which for me falls disappointing a little flat at the lack of content. There is a killer foundation in Overwatch, with fast and exciting first-person shooting, a moderately-sized cast of charismatic and engaging heroes to play, a colorful visual style, and masterful production to package it all together. But a measly 2 game modes and 12 maps, a weak progression system, and the lack of any helpful character-specific tutorials shows that Overwatch still has a little while to go before it becomes the classic everyone is already treating it as. Though knowing Blizzard’s prior history of incredible support for their other titles ensures me that odds are Overwatch will continue to develop over time to become truly brilliant. Unfortunately, that potential is not realized today.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)