Today marked the opening day of Blizzcon 2014, the annual celebration of everything Blizzard Entertainment. Each year, fans of Warcraft, Diablo, and Starcraft pack into the Anaheim Convention Center to find out about the latest in their favorite titles.
Due to a huge empty block in Friday schedule, many were expecting Blizzard to surprise everyone with a new title announcement. Since Project Titan was completely dead, we were expecting something completely new. A rumor on Reddit pegged the new title as a console game in the style of World of Warcraft's PVP Battlegrounds, while others had their fingers crossed for Warcraft IV, a new title in Blizzard's long-forgotten real-time strategy series.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Warcraft and the 10th anniversary of World of Warcraft, so I expected something Warcraft-related. Instead, we got something completely different. Blizzard senior vice president of franchise development Chris Metzen took to the stage to reveal the next game from the house that Warcraft built.
That game is called Overwatch.
Overwatch is a first-person shooter with a cast of colorful heroes and villians. Each character seems to have their own place of the battlefield, from the sniping Widowmaker to the engineering dwarf Torbjorn. Blizzard showed off a CG trailer to set up the game's story, where the Overwatch were original a group of heroes that united the Earth after large-scale war and turmoil. Now it looks like the Overwatch are fighting amongst themselves, having become simple super-powered mercenaries.
"Overwatch is our take on a vibrant, near-future universe with amped-up characters and action-packed team-based gameplay," said Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime in a press release following the announcement. "With every new Blizzard game, we look at our favorite aspects of a genre and put our own spin on things. Our goal with Overwatch is to create an awesome FPS experience that’s more accessible to a much wider audience while delivering the action and depth that shooter fans love."
Following the CG trailer, Blizzard show off some gameplay, which appeared to largely be Valve's Team Fortress 2 with Blizzard's sense of design and polish. Combat was fast - a number of viewers mentioned the game made them motion sick - with characters dealing damage, dropping turrets and teleporters, or defend and healing their allies. A number of Overwatch's playable characters also look like they're inspired by other Blizzard properties; Widowmaker seems to be a homage to Starcraft anatagonist Sarah Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades and former Ghost.
Here's the current roster of 12 characters - Blizzard promises more are coming - with links to their gameplay preview videos:
For Blizzard, Overwatch is an effort to embody a different emotional and gameplay ideal. Instead of a more serious, more hardcore title, Overwatch's characters are more heroic in nature and the game is more accessible to non-FPS players.
"Is it even possible to build a shooter that doesn't feel cynical, cruel, and nasty," asked Metzen at the Overwatch panel. "Could you build a shooter that promotes teamwork? We're trying to build this thing in a way that feels evocative and inclusive. Ultimately, it's about heroes. I love the idea that we pushed ourselves to embrace that heroic ideal."
According to Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan, Blizzard spent a lot of time providing non-twitch gameplay options. Characters like Mercy and Torbjorn aren't about dealing damage, they abouting healing or making strategic decisions.
"We had a lot of players on the team who were nervous about a shooter," explained Kaplan. "We wanted to make the game less lethal. You will die, but we're hoping that you will die less frequently than modern shooters. We want to have more uptime so players can get in there and rumble."
Each character is unique, with characters like Tracer, who has abilities like Recall. Recall snaps Tracer back to where she was 3 seconds ago, including her health pool at the time. Each character also has Ultimate abilities, which are last-ditch attacks that can be used sparingly on the battlefield. A gameplay training video showed off the basic controls via Tracer. Left mouse button uses the character's basic weapon, Pulse Pistols, Shift activates her Blink movement ability, E uses the aforementioned Recall ability, and Q is her Ultimate ability, Pulse Bomb. All of the controls at your fingertips.
Overwatch characters all fit roughly into a few roles, much like World of Warcraft's classes and specs. Offense is intended to get to objectives first with high damage and low survivability. Defense characters guards locations, by closing down choke points; Overwatch is a high-mobility game, so holding specific choke points is very important. Tank class characters have high survivability and are generally tasked with leading the charge towards objectives. Finally, there are Support class characters, who heal of buff their party, keeping everyone alive to do their jobs. Players are allowed to switch characters with every new life and Blizzard recommends that player hope from character to character as the situation permits.
There's no customization of Overwatch's character at this point. Blizzard tried it, it didn't work.
"Early on we had a pretty robust customization system," said Kaplan. "What we found is it got to be overwhelming. We actually stripped that system out. It didn't work for us."
Matches in Overwatch are objective-based with 6v6 gameplay. That's right, there's no deathmatch. Capture a point, escort a target, defend an area; Overwatch is about working together on each map - the Asian-themed Hanamura or the Egyptian-style Temple of Anubis - to complete objectives and win. The objectives are simple to allow players to focus on what heroes are doing.
"We tried alot of team sizes," said Kaplan. "The more we played in large team sizes, the less important we felt. It was kind of chaotic." With smaller team sizes, the team found that "you were actually too important to your team. We've found that 6v6 was a magical number."
One thing that's different from other Blizzard titles is most of Overwatch's narrative will be outside of the game itself. The team wants players to focus on gameplay, though there'll be story available to flesh out the Overwatch world. Metzen said they'd talk about how that narrative would be delivered later.
Surprisingly enough, some of the Overwatch's assets match rumors and leaks of Blizzard's cancelled Project Titan. Overwatch is what's left of Titan after scaling back heavily on the concept. Yes, Project Titan the MMO is gone, but Blizzard pivoted some of that work in Overwatch, the multiplayer shooter. The most prevalent indication of shared heritage is that original World of Warcraft game designer Jeff Kaplan was director on Project Titan and is the current game director on Overwatch. Metzen confirmed that Overwatch is the result of re-focusing Titan a year ago.
"There are elements of Overwatch that have spirtual continiuty [with Titan]," said Metzen in response to a fan question. "It'd be hard to explain how different they are. For whatever Titan was going to be, we decided to make a game about heroes. I would say they're pretty different. They were plenty of ideas from the development we had done, but this is its own thing."
According to Kaplan, Overwatch is heading into beta some time in 2015 and players can sign up for that beta at the game's official website. Blizzard is currently not talking about Overwatch's business model, so we have no clue if it'll be free-to-play or single purchase. Also Blizzard is only confirming a PC version at this point, no current console ports despite rumors.