With Overwatch, Blizzard looks poised to continue its game plan of taking years-old concepts and making them as clean, colorful, easily accessible, and generally perfected as possible. Unlike World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and Heroes of the Storm, however, this feels less like the obvious conclusion to a well-worn genre.
Instead, Overwatch feels like a leap into an alternate future, where Team Fortress 2‘s even-keeled, class-based competition won out over Call of Duty 4‘s determined, gun-based progression. Overwatch is the game we should only have gotten after a decade of iteration and improvement to that TF2 formula, cemented with a Blizzard budget.
And yet here we have it, in this universe and this timeline. While Hearthstone feels like a simplification of Magic: The Gathering and Heroes of the Storm a simplification of League of Legends, Overwatch is more like a complete overhaul of the TF2 formula. Team Fortress 2 has built itself a wall of complexity over the years—with its new guns, hats, and hats for guns—but it didn’t start out that way.
And Overwatch doesn’t start that way, either. Each character has just about enough unique abilities and weapons that you fully understand each of them after a single match, even if they’ll all take much, much longer to master (certainly longer than was available during the open beta).
Rather than take a complicated game and make it simple, with Overwatch, Blizzard has taken a simple game and made it better.
The building blocks of strife
Many of Overwatch’s improvements to the class-based shooter genre come down to the game’s stellar cast of playable characters. Overwatch is the first Blizzard game in decades that isn’t based on characters and settings the company first came up with in the ‘90s. The company’s knack for endearing character design doesn’t seem to have slackened in the intervening time, though, if the epidemic of Overwatch fan-obsession sweeping the globe since the open beta is any indication.
The game’s MOBA-like roster of 21 characters all fall into the same half-dozen or so generalized roles you’d expect (healer, tank, damage, etc.), with four to six characters in each role. My main man so far has been Zenyatta, a pseudo-Buddhist robot with a soul. He fights by throwing metal balls at people: balls that heal, balls that buff damage, and balls that dish it out. As such, he never keeps his eye on one target for more than a few seconds and forces you to watch allies as well as enemies. Somehow, playing Zenyatta right feels like controlling the half-paying-attention antics of Jackie Chan’s earlier, seemingly effortless style of work. It’s a feeling I’ve never quite had while playing as any other character, in this or any other game.
Other characters also feel utterly unique to themselves and to gaming in general. Winston is a literal 800-pound gorilla, and he carries himself as such: meaty, thunderous, and threatening, yet still able to get airborne when he wants. The time-rewinding Tracer, meanwhile, feels appropriately wispy. She flits in and out of fights with teleportation, and she has the ability to rewind her own timeline, while stinging sharply with twin submachine guns.
Those character-specific abilities offer some more interesting options than the typical shooter. Sure, some characters have the bog-standard health-restoring packs and rocket launchers (new players might gravitate toward the milquetoast Soldier 76 and his very recognizable bag of tricks), but then there are the spells that have the capacity to turn any engagement completely on its head.
Mei, with her frosty fighting skills, is perhaps the prime example. She can erect walls of ice, freeze enemies in place, shatter them with icicles, and place herself in an invulnerable cryo-stasis to weather incoming attacks. Just how she’s able to divert the flow of battle can be a lot to process, and understanding just what she’s capable of is key to playing as or against her. Even in a short beta test, that need to understand your enemies as much as yourself shows Overwatch’s potential as a truly great competitive game.
Switching the tracks
Aside from the highly specific traits of each character, it’s easy to notice just how smooth and effortless playing the game feels. Each hero is just complicated enough to understand almost instantly, thanks in part to the game’s clean, wide, and easy-to-read environments. That means that, so far, I haven’t felt boxed in or forced to fully master one character before I can move on to the next.
Thanks to the ease of use and variety of abilities on hand, some of the most fun I’ve had in Overwatch thus far has been hot-swapping heroes. After selecting a hero at the start of the match, you’re allowed to reselect with every death. Oftentimes, the game even encourages this with friendly suggestions about team composition at the select screen. If the six on your team aren’t doing enough damage, you’d better call Pharah or Reaper. Having trouble holding a chokepoint? Get Mei and Bastion in there. I mean it; those two are kind of incredible.
It’s not that Mei’s capabilities—or anything in Overwatch, really—are truly “unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” It’s more that each character comes with a degree of flash and ceremony that’s not altogether common in modern shooters. It’s certainly not common with the degree of clean, visual flair that only Blizzard seems to take its time to perfect.
And by taking its time with development, Blizzard has overcome some observable issues with design in its recent past. Nationality, ethnicity, race, and gender are fairly well mixed in the ranks of Overwatch. Perhaps more importantly, the characters of color aren’t relegated to portrayal as fantasy races (with the possible exception of Zenyatta).
The quality of representation is a little bit murkier—what with two Asian characters constantly dropping honor bombs on one another—but it’s a grand step up from the usual “nothing at all” that non-Western nationalities get in many games. And though Overwatch does rely heavily on the lithe and manic murder-girl trope common to other “hero-based” games, there’s at least a Zarya for each pair of D.Va and Tracer.
Apart from the characters, there are the usual, fairly traditional objectives tied to each map, whether that’s delivering a payload or holding a point of interest. The levels are wide enough to let opposing teams of six maneuver without worry or clump up while also offering plenty of alternate paths for snipers, meathead tanks, and nimble rogues. At the same time, the maps are directed and compact enough to make it clear which way you should be facing—that is, the direction of the objective—and how to press forward.
With this simple visual language in place, you can delegate navigation to lower brain functions and focus on the duels between combatants. Fights are fast but not so quick that you don’t have time to reuse your cooldown-based talents, most of which require only a few seconds to recharge.
The friendly shooter
In a single word, “friendly” just about sums up the Overwatch experience in its early days. In the wide array of characters, the smooth sense of progression within each map and easy-to-grasp abilities, Blizzard seems poised to tap into yet another audience—curious but too intimidated by the sheer weight of established brands elsewhere in a popular genre.
In time, we might be looking at a very different Overwatch. In fact, we almost certainly will be, given Blizzard’s record of supporting games with post-launch content and patches. The question remains how long before iteration and an entrenched audience can make Overwatch as seemingly inaccessible as its inspirations. For now, though, the faucets are open, and the thirst remains very, very real.