Amid the hundreds of videogame titles that line store shelves today, mixed in with the generic military shooters and fantasy role playing games, rests a gem many have already come across. Sitting between the FIFA’s and the FORZA’s, with the simple cover that doesn’t really draw much attention to itself. Maybe it’s the name “Blizzard” that scares people away, triggering flashbacks of the “World of Warcraft” series and the stereotypical “neck-beard, mother’s basement” gamer. No one wants to end up like that, so back on the shelf it goes. Or maybe you give it a second look and try to decipher what the hell is going on with the girl in the picture. What is she wearing? Why is she so colorful? Is this a game for children?! Why is she holding guns if she looks like she’s just jumped out of a Pixar movie? If you’re a casual gamer that hasn’t already heard of this game, you’ve now become mildly interested. Good. Welcome! Please learn to protect your Mercy. If you’ve already played this game, then you’re already in on the fun. Again, welcome. Please learn to protect your Mercy.
Rated T for teens and available for PC, XBOX ONE and PS4, the multiplayer objective-based shooter Overwatch has barreled through open betas, controversy and numerous patches to end up selling over 7 million copies within its first few weeks of release and logged more than 15 million players who have clocked in over 500 million hours of play time. Its popularity multiplied through memes and highlight reels across YouTube and Twitch, the game has become one of the most iconic new IP’s to hit the gaming world since Minecraft first took off. Offering updates with characters and maps at no cost (free DLC without a season pass you have to purchase first is almost unheard of in games today), Blizzard promises to keep their new first-person-shooter as polished and cheat-free as they do their other games like Heartshtone and Starcraft. The game has already seen multiple changes to various characters and gameplay mechanics since its launch, reducing weapon damage or increasing player health points according to balancing issues pointed out by the community. Its intense competitive play keeps more serious gamers coming back with new seasons released every few months, while still offering a “quick play” option for those who want to enjoy a more casual set of matches. Jump in and play a couple of ten-minute matches or lose an entire weekend before realizing you’ve run out of Doritos halfway through Sunday, there is no commitment, you can play however you want.
So what is it that makes the game so addicting? Sure, there are micro-transactions and skins locked behind random loot boxes, but why doesn’t the obvious cash grab feel as slimy as other games with their cross-hairs aimed at your wallet? Could it be the memes? The cosplays? Or has it completely flown under your radar and you have absolutely no interest in the game, regardless of how popular or critically acclaimed it is? Well, you’re not alone. Having just recently joined the foray a month after its release, I was in the minority that did not care for Blizzard’s new game. And that’s okay, because while Overwatch may very well be leading a revolution in video-game design, it isn’t meant for everyone.
Once one deconstructs the various parts that make up the whole of Overwatch, we can begin to see just how it has the potential to alter the gaming industry. Amazing characters, a visual design that looks both friendly and fun at the same time and easy to follow objectives, the game requires nothing but a little practice and coordination. There are no rare weapons, no player levels and no “perks” to give any one the upper hand. Everyone gets the same characters and weapons, whether you’re just starting or have been playing the beta since 2015. Give it a few months, and just as there have been copies of other successful games (Prototype and Infamous, Grand Theft Auto IV and Saint’s Row 2, etc.), we’ll start to see the next so-called Overwatch killer. And just to get it out of the way here, no, Battleborn is not one such copy. At least it isn’t on the same level as Paladins: Champions of the Realm where it blatantly rips off concepts and animations. It may have some similarities in appearance but it can stand on its own as an online battle arena game, much like League of Legends with its own cast of colorful characters. And just like League, it is with memorable characters where the magic begins.
There is a good chance you’ll come across a character you will absolutely adore in the roster. There’s a 19 year old gamer piloting an exploding mech-suit, a beefed-up senior citizen in knight’s armor, a deadly blue skinned sniper with a grappling hook, a Japanese archer that can shoot dragons from his bow and a speedy dual-wielding runner that can blink in and out of combat faster than you can say “she’s behind you!”. Blizzard had their top character design teams slave away for months to come up with 22 unique personalities and game play mechanics. Want to literally freeze characters in their tracks? Choose Mei, she’s got the ability to shoot icicles and can produce a portable blizzard from her backpack. She’ll occasionally say something about her research in her native Chinese but you can always set up an impenetrable wall of ice between you and the enemy while you look it up on Google Translate. Or maybe you’re not into style and are looking for a simple gun to point and shoot. You’ve got choices there too. Pick Soldier 76, a grumpy old war-veteran back from the dead with an assault rifle and the ability to shoot anything that moves. Or McCree, a gunslinger with a hat and poncho that carries a revolver and an eye for head shots. Or you can be a Bastion, who has two modes: walking robot with a gun and immobile death machine that obliterates everything standing 10 meters in front of it. And if you’d rather stay in the back and help from a distance or even switch your gun for a healing rod, you can do that too. Even the support characters are fun to play. Whatever your particular style, Overwatch has got you covered. Blizzard has also released comics and beautifully animated shorts to fill in the character’s individual backstories, turning hardened vigilantes into caring father-figures and murderous robots into nature-loving birdwatchers. Though these storylines do not matter in gameplay, they do serve to explain the persona behind the mechanics and the character interactions tie in to the game’s universe.
Overwatch also offers an array of handy moves that execute different actions based on the character you are playing. Think of when you would play fighting games like Street Fighter and you would wait for your super meter to fill in order to pull off amazing combos. With every player ability comes a cool down timer, forcing the player to not only time its use but to learn to play smarter than just “spam rockets”. Character moves can also cancel each other out when on opposite teams. Symmetra’s small laser turrets auto-lock onto a character unfortunate enough to walk within range, but are completely useless against gorilla scientist Winston who carries an enormous health bar and a gun that shoots enemy-seeking lightning. This balance of diverse characters and easy to learn abilities makes game play in Overwatch engaging and entertaining. Add to it the option to switch between characters on the fly during respawn and you’re almost guaranteed a fresh engagement every time you run into battle. You’re never stuck with one skill set, allowing the freedom to become an aggressive tank or a much needed healer based off what is necessary to secure a win. There are no skills to unlock or “kill streaks” to worry about, just a meter that fills up based on your participation in the match that unleashes your “Ultimate”. Depending on your character, this could either revive your entire team when you’ve been wiped out or turn you into a walking tornado of bullets, screaming “DIE! DIE! DIE!” as you rack up enemy eliminations. And when you hear that specific “DIE! DIE! DIE!”, you had better run for cover. Same goes for “JUSTICE RAINS FROM ABOVE!”, “IT’S HIGH NOON!” or “FIRE IN THE HOLE!”. Each ultimate carries a unique voice line that alerts both teams that someone has just pressed “Q” on their keyboard. Other voice lines are just as important, alerting you to who is using which character without having to pull up the roster mid-game. Hear “Wicked!” behind you? There’s a Tracer back there. If you’ve practiced enough, you can pinpoint where she’ll be next by following her zip-zip-zip across the map. The other characters have their own symphony of sounds that make identifying them around the corner that much easier. No two guns sound alike and every footstep is unique. Junkrat usually cackles to himself whenever he’s raining bombs nearby and the instantly recognizable wheezing of Roadhog can warn you to keep out of sight or you’ll fall victim to his hook.
With various countries receiving representation and different body-types breaking up the monotony of muscular and hour-glass models, the diversity in Overwatch must be applauded. You can now live out your fantasy of playing as an overweight Australian or a Swedish dwarf, in either a piñata infested Mexican courtyard or an ancient Egyptian temple. The different maps take you across the globe in a futuristic setting where robotic beings named “Omnics” live together with humans, either in harmony or in open conflict. The arenas are broken up into simple objective checkpoints, with plenty of cover for both attackers and defenders. There are no real corners, the various corridors and tunnels all connect, opening opportunities for flanking and the high ceilings (or lack of any) make navigating easy for flying characters. Unlike other multiplayer shooters, there are no real “camping” spots. There is almost always a back door or a ledge above where a skilled player can take out a stationary turret or sniper. The maps are simple to follow and the paths leading to the objective are straight forward enough for players to call out “Watch out for that Genji on the left”. However, if you’re not part of a team that believes in the lost art of teamwork and communication, you will find Overwatch to be a completely different experience altogether.
Multiplayer games can be about being alone while playing on a team and hoping you will win, or they can be about working together. This is where the game can begin to alienate some players. Because it is so heavily tailored for character combinations and teamwork, Overwatch can not be enjoyed by “lone wolf” gamers looking to rack up points on their own. Having played on both PC and console, I found the lack of communication to be the major reason my team lost, on both competitive and quick play. Console players, please, use the chat to call out when a D.Va is rushing the point. Chances are she’s about to self-destruct and wipe us off the map. PC players, please don’t spam “Heal me” to your support when you’re the only one rushing the enemy at their spawn. Stay behind and stick with the rest of your team. At least wave “Hello” when we’re waiting for the match to start so I know you’re not a robot. It’s extremely helpful when the characters themselves call out “The enemy has a teleporter” or “Sentry turret ahead”, but relying on the in-game call outs alone will not keep you alive long enough to hear a “Behind you!”. Add to this an over abundance of people who will not switch characters to better suit the situation (I’m looking at you, Widowmaker players) and you are almost guaranteed an abysmal experience when playing to win. The game itself will alert you if there are “too many snipers” or if your selected characters will inflict “low team damage”, but ultimately it is up to you and the other players to balance out the team composition. So please, pick a healer or a tank instead of having three snipers!
If you don’t think you’re cut out for intense cooperation with strangers in a multiplayer only game, then I’m afraid Overwatch may not be as fun as Call of Duty or Halo, where just one good player can usually carry an entire team. Blizzard has specifically designed their game around teamwork. If you can put aside your thirst for killing sprees, you can find memorable moments where a Mercy keeps you alive long enough to finish the fight. At the end of the match, you can view a “Play of the Game” clip awarded to the character who managed to pull off an amazing feat and give a thumbs-up to one of five characters who performed exceptionally well, regardless of which team they played for. Some games can help restore your faith in humanity because a player used their own shield to cover you from an attack, while other matches make you want to throw your controller through the screen because the healer never learned to share.
The next deal-breaker is the absurdly low number of game modes. You have “capture the objective” and “capture the objective” immediately followed by “escort the payload”. You take turns attacking and defending, but the game play boils down to playing keep away with the other team until the timer runs out. This can quickly become repetitive, the same way watching two games of the same sport in a row gets a little tiresome. However, the game’s appeal comes from the various combinations of characters working together and against each other. No two matches are alike because no two players are alike. I have played against aggressive healers that rush into battle and have seen assault characters that would rather stay behind and use their firepower to effectively guard their objectives. The game encourages character switching and you will rarely end a match composed of the same team you started with. Go ahead and experiment, you may just discover a character you enjoy playing as that you thought you’d never touch before. I started off thinking I would only use Widowmaker and Reinhardt, yet I found that D.Va’s mobility and Junkrat’s bouncing bombs better suited my play style. And I thought Symmetra was the absolute worst character in the whole game until I figured out her skill comes from turret placement and supporting the team by keeping near the objective at all times with her teleporter. She now counts for almost half my play time in the 40+ hours I’ve put into both console and PC.
With all versions of the game running smooth (there are occasional frame dips on the XBOX and PS4 versions, but nothing game breaking), the game is visually striking and friendly enough to draw new players in. PC is admittedly sharper and with cleaner textures, but when the bullets are flying the game manages to keep the action looking crisp. There is no great backstory to understand and the community is generally friendly in that they all share the same hate for Bastion players as you. The game is welcoming and friendly, complete with a “Thank you” and “Hello” emote for everyone to use. Here, levels don’t matter. Every player can do the same thing with their characters that you can. Kill to death ratios aren’t displayed for any teammates to ridicule another’s score. Players are rewarded with satisfying graphics on screen, be it with hitting a 10 player kill-streak or providing support with massive amounts of healing. The music is minimal but effective. The ominous score alerts you to impending defeat while the heroic trumpets mean you’re about ten seconds away from victory. In a few matches, you’ll be familiar with every auditory cue in the game, especially the triumphant trumpets from the loot box you earn every time you rank up. While not providing anything particularly essential to the game, they do reward you with random cosmetic items that make the game “cooler”: adding skins to your character, sprays you can plaster on walls and emotes or voice lines that you can perform while waiting around in the spawn point.
Overwatch is not a perfect game, but it is an absolute delight to play. There are some design elements that may not attract the average gamer, while there are many that make it the videogame equivalent of a great Pixar movie. It may look like its for kids, but the fun is universal and doesn’t leave that bloody aftertaste that comes with most gritty war simulators out today, even though the very definition of the word the game derives its title from is a military term for “support of another fire team”. And that is exactly what Overwatch encourages you to do while playing. To form a camaraderie with strangers for the two minutes you have to work together or spend a day with friends healing and protecting each other instead of fighting to the death in other shooters. Teamwork. In a market saturated with games that reload the same cliché heroes and monsters over and over, its a welcome change for a videogame to come in and offer a refreshing take on first-person-shooters that doesn’t feel as hostile as the world its representing.