Danger via Dreamworks.
In an oversaturated genre, Overwatch somehow borrows the formulaic tropes of first-person shooters and becomes something quite refreshing and original. Blizzard’s first venture into the competitive shooter scene is an extremely well-polished and gorgeous experience that establishes the fundamentals and excels with new ideas and gameplay.
Overwatch is an online-only, competitive multiplayer first person shooter where two teams of six lobby for control over capture points, mobile payloads and altering strategic positions. Each of the four modes are relatively easy to identify, and serve as the scaffolding resting atop well designed and diverse maps. What appears to be a basic shooter quickly becomes an ever-changing, customizable experience perfectly tailored to what kind of player you are and what roles you care to assume on the team.
Before each match and during a respawn, you have the option to choose between 21 heroes, each with their own abilities, mechanics and style. Not only is the cast built with an extremely diverse and distinct group of characters, but each one could easily have their own game and story built around them. Each hero’s individual abilities provide intricate battle sequences complete with turrets, energy shields, health rays, and multicolored explosions. The freedom to master one character, while trying someone new who feels completely different, is exciting in itself. There’s Zenyatta, a robotic monk outfitted with different metallic orbs,capable of healing teammates from a distance or dishing out rapid fire destruction to foes. Then there’s Reinhardt, a massive tank class hero who provides a mobile barrier field for members of the team to take cover behind. There’s also my current favorite, Hanzo, an experienced archer who can send out sonic arrows that contain a sonar tracking device, making enemies within the radius visible to all teammates.
Overwatch functions as an FPS collage, at times reiterating on elements from previous shooters throughout the years. Some characters feel as though they were ripped right out of Quake, while others display the mobility and mechanics of a Titanfall or Call of Duty. What makes Overwatch so special is it’s ability to harness a multitude of gameplay styles into one game.
While the diverse cast of heroes is obviously the biggest draw to Overwatch, one can’t forget about map design. Set on a near-future earth, matches play out across 12 different locations, from a Hollywood film lot to Kings Row, a British nighttime cityscape complete with Big Ben watching over the action. The different arenas all offer precise sight lines, flanking corridors, vertical walkways, and wide avenues, which constantly facilitate a natural mutation in the action happening on the battlefield. Blizzard manages to precisely lay out each map so they become familiar, but somehow remain very unique and distinct to that location.
Overwatch is a game that is constantly teaching you lessons and providing alternate means of overcoming obstacles. As you play, you begin to discover new ways to use each character on certain maps, how to counter opponents, and how to provide different supports for your team. As the layers start to fall off, you almost instinctively start to experiment with characters that didn’t feel quite right at first, but eventually become someone you grow to love.
Picture pushing a payload into the final checkpoint of a map. While turning the corner, you spot defenders littering the catwalks and closing off corridors. As Bastion resting atop the payload in sentry mode, you effectively become a mobile turret unit. Hopefully your teammates choose wisely, offering up healing rays and over-shields as protection while you send a barrage of bullets into the unsuspecting victims. Serving as a distraction could provide Genji an opportunity to flank around the opposition and take out enemies from behind. While corresponding with Symmetra, she has already established a defensive grid of turrets around the enemy respawn that help slow down their progression as the team coast into the last way point to win the match. This is Overwatch pumping on all cylinders.
Communication is obviously key in a team based multiplayer shooter. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to talk and let you know what’s happening on the field. The only gripe I have with the game isn’t even its own fault. Understandably casual gamers will just want to zone out for a few matches and not converse with anyone. This can be very detrimental because, when a team is working together, they can become a wrecking ball laying waste to anything in the way.
To its merit, Overwatch is always trying to get you to become a more team-focused player, even going so far as providing a post-match voting period to congratulate everyone’s individual efforts. Whether it’s the adsorbed damage D.Va took for the team, the speed boosts Lúcio provided, or the amount of turret kills dished out by Torbjörn, this option is signaling the most important message of Overwatch: always be experimenting with the way you play. It projects this message loud and clear. At the end of a battle, a “Play of the Game” replay is shown to everyone, often times showcasing the biggest moment of the match, from the perspective of the player who performed it. On multiple occasions the healers of the team have been granted this accommodation, displaying the importance of choosing support heroes and how their actions directly affect the minutia of a fight.
Overwatch also rewards players with loot boxes for every level gained. Loot box awards are all aesthetic and randomized. You open a box filled with an assortment of character skins, celebration stances, spray decals, alternate voice overs, and gold. While gold appears to be sparse, it can be used to unlock a number of these customizations for your favorite heroes, and can be purchased with real world money. I never felt like I wasn’t getting anything cool, or at least aesthetically pleasing. Even receiving a new skin for a character I hardly use was exciting, because I got to see what they looked like in an alternate outfit. This all exhibits how much time and effort Blizzard put into a game they obviously had a lot of fun developing.
Detached from loot boxes and rewards, it’s clear Overwatch facilitates a more tangible progression system that shines through its gameplay mechanics and design. It drives players forward, and constantly encourages them to put more effort into trying something new. The whole process is a learning experience that is constantly morphing as you play, and there is a real value in the time spent with the game and it’s overlapping systems. It’s clear that this has been a labor of love by Blizzard, and I’m excited to see what new maps and heroes they have waiting in the wings.
Final verdict: 4.5 / 5
Available on: PS4, Xbox One, PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Blizzard ; Developer: Blizzard ; Players: 1-12 ; Released: May 24, 2016 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Overwatch purchased at launch.