Blizzard enters the competitive shooter arena.
The shooter market is a crowded place. Between Counter-Strike, annual Call of Duty entries, and the rise of the pro gaming circuit, it can feel exhausting to watch the industry pump out shooter after shooter, especially when the vast majority of them feature a near-future setting and a generic military-versus-terrorists plot. This is why last year’s Far Cry:Primal and the recently announced Battlefield 1 feel like such a welcome change of pace. Now Blizzard Entertainment, the team behind juggernaut MMO World of Warcraft is entering the fray with Overwatch, its first new IP in nearly two decades. The game recently held an open beta and Blizzard invited everyone to jump into the shoes of Overwatch’s heroes. We (and 9.7 million others) played a good amount of the game and walked away more than excited for the May 24th release.
Overwatch is a team-based competitive multiplayer shooter with an emphasis on teamwork. What helps the game stand out from the shooter crowd, though, is the focus on its roster of characters. Overwatch features 21 different characters, each vastly different from the others. Similar to class-based shooter Team Fortress 2, these characters fill different roles in each team of six. For example, Genji, the game’s resident cyborg ninja, is an offensive character meant to deal large amounts of damage to opposing characters quickly. Conversely, Mercy is a support character tasked with healing her teammates and buffing their outgoing damage. There are also tanks, like the mech-driving D. Va, who are front line heroes built to absorb large amounts of damage, and defensive heroes that are at their best from a distance, like the sniper Widowmaker.
The sheer variety of heroes at play in the game is impressive. Each character has a handful of abilities that give them varying utility on the battlefield. For instance, Zarya can shield herself and her allies for a short time, giving the team a window to push a control point. The tank Reinhardt can project a large, damage absorbing shield that his allies can shoot through, forcing the opponents to change their strategy. All the heroes are also capable of unleashing an ultimate ability that can dramatically change the flow of the battle. Support hero Zenyatta, for example, becomes invulnerable for a short time and heals his nearby allies back up to full health, and Bastion transforms into a literal tank that dishes out huge amounts of damage.
The makeup of team is hugely important. A well-rounded team with a healthy mix of offensive, support, defensive, and tank heroes stands a better chance of victory over a team of all offensive heroes. Teamwork is absolutely central to success in Overwatch, making this game an absolute blast to play with friends. During our time with the beta, we chose our characters carefully, be sure to pick heroes that complimented each other. A favorite strategy of ours was to pair a D. Va, with her self-destruct ultimate, with a character who excels at grouping enemies together or freezing them outright, like Mei and her blizzard ultimate.
The sense of accomplishment that comes along with a successful match is very rewarding in ways that current shooters, in my opinion, simply cannot match. And each character is different enough from the others that the sense of discovery is a great hook that kept me coming back match after match. The art style also deserves some recognition here: a far cry from the dark browns and gloomy corridors of many of today’s shooters, Overwatch unabashedly flaunts its bright colors and cartoony characters. The eye candy is absolutely welcome, and each map is ripe with fun things to look at.
For all the praise I’ve given so far, there are a few concerns I have about Overwatch. For one, the game ships with only a handful of maps and a couple game modes: escort, a king of the hill variant, and a standard control point grab. While I didn’t tire of them one bit during the long weekend beta, I have to wonder how they’ll hold up after months of play. Blizzard has said that they plan to support Overwatch with new maps and heroes (which will be free), but many are understandably weary that the wait might mean the current offerings will become stale after a time. Hopefully, the wide variety of heroes, in all their possible combinations and permutations, can stave off any feeling of repetition.
Another concern is that there seems to be little support for solo players. Lacking any solo content means that playing by yourself leaves you up to the fate of matchmaking. Playing with friends is, by far, the best way to play Overwatch, and it looks like that will be the case at least for the foreseeable future.
Regardless, we came out of the Overwatch beta very positive and eager for the full release. So far, it’s been a boon to the crowded shooter space and it’s nice to see a studio relying less on a dismal, violent military setting and more on a bright and colorful cast of characters. I look forward to jumping back in with my friends and escorting that payload on the 24th.