Overwatch might be the least likely Blizzard game ever. Having spent some 25 years carefully defining their niche, they've rather surprisingly turned to the shooter genre with Overwatch - a class-based shooter that has been drawing comparisons to Team Fortress 2.
Surprising as it is, though, here's no denying that it's a Blizzard game. Its high production values, strong art, and general quirkiness (one map sports imaginary Japanese arcades based on Blizzard games) fairly oozes Blizzard, even if the characters and the action represent a departure for them. Now in closed beta, Overwatch's positive word-of-mouth suggests that the Blizzard's midas touch hasn't deserted them in their shift to the shooter genre.
Mike and I have been playing Overwatch over the past few days, and we have some thoughts on how Blizzard's shooter is progressing. We each took the time to answer a handful of questions about Overwatch, wherein our overall thoughts on the game should be apparent.
As for whether it's good, well, you'll have to judge for yourself. But I think it's safe to say that we both like it so far.
What's your favorite part of Overwatch so far?
Mike Williams, Associate Editor: The balance between the characters. I've yet to find any character that absolutely dominates any match. They each have areas where they excel and others where they're lacking. Widowmaker is a great sniper; her grappling hook helps her get up high easily and her scope gives her a long-range view of the battlefield. The problem is if she's not grappling, she has no other movement options, and her sniper shot takes time to charge to full damage.
Let's take two healers as an example of how balanced and varied the characters are. Lucio is a more mobile healer; he moves fast and he can wall-run. He's more offensive, being able to shift between damage and healing by hitting Shift, and he has a few options for group healing. Mercy isn't as offensive and her mobility comes in a different form. She excels at single-target support, with her primary weapon either healing or buffing a single target. And while she's now as mobile as Lucio, her Shift ability causes her to fly towards her current lock-on target. Depending on where her allies are around the battlefield, Mercy can be highly mobile, shifting around from ally to ally, healing or boosting critical targets. Lucio is a better offensive healer in my opinion, but Mercy is great back-up to a tank like Reinhardt.
That's just two healers. Everybody has a give and take.
Kat Bailey, Senior Editor: Blizzard games have a few defining traits: They're fast, they're accessible, and they typically match high production values with low system requirements. They're also full of personality - something that is evident from the first moment you log into Overwatch's character select screen and you see Tracer mugging for the camera or Bastion contemplating a little bird. Blizzard understands how to make their characters memorable with a few broad strokes; and while Overwatch's roster frequently falls back on established tropes - McCree could be one of a million different spaghetti western video game heroes - its art is so much fun that you don't even notice.
Of course, that's the Blizzard way as well. WarCraft, StarCraft, and Diablo are well-established at this point, but they have deep roots in the Warhammer universe and Dungeons & Dragons. The trick is that Blizzard's characters have a way of feeling fresh and fun rather than old and played out, perhaps because they never seem to take themselves too seriously. Overwatch's characters aren't anything I haven't seen in a million other games and comics, but I can't help but find them immediately engaging. They would make for a great fighting game roster.
Who are your preferred characters?
Kat: I'm a big fan of Bastion. The Engineer and the Heavy were my best characters in Team Fortress 2, so having a character that mixes the two by being able to turn into a turret with a nasty minigun is great. Plus, he looks a lot like R.O.B., which makes him even more fun. I'm at my best in Overwatch when I can find a corner, switch to turret mode, and open up on the opposite team.
Outside of Bastion, I've dabbled with McCree, Tracer, Hanzo and Zarya, all of whom I've liked to varying degrees. Tracer, a girl who dual wields pistols and spends most of her time darting around the map, has a large mobility advantage due to her ability to teleport but is a bit of a glass cannon. McCree is a surprisingly effective sniper, able to cap an opponent at range with his sweet revolver. I've yet to figure out how to make good use of Hano, but I find his bow and arrow promising. Despite a limited range of skills, every character feels quite different, which I find quite promising at this early juncture.
What's interesting about Overwatch is the simple but effective way that it tackles skills. Each character has two skills plus one super move that is charged over time, and they typically boil down to a mobility move and an class-based ability. But Blizzard has managed to find a world of difference in each of those three abilities in part because they've restricted the ability to sprint, thus heightening the importance of mobility in Overwatch. It's just one way in which the disparate elements of design fit together to make this a really interesting shooter.
Mike: Widowmaker is my preferred main, as I've always been a sniper-style player in arena shooters. If my team needs to be more offensive, I tend to switch to either Tracer, whose short range teleport and rewind abilities allow her to annoy enemies on the edge of combat, or Pharah, who can fly and carries a six-shot rocket launcher. When support is needed, I tend to stick to Mercy; once I figured out her floating ability, she became one of my favorites. I'm not a big fan of tanks or builders yet. I've never been a frontline fighter and I need more time to understand folks like Symmetra or Winston.
There's been a recent shift toward MOBA design across all shooters. Do you perceive that in Overwatch?
Mike: The MOBA trend is definitely influencing the design of Overwatch. Sure there's a bit of Team Fortress 2 here, but the roles the various characters fall into are vaguely defined. No one character particularly plays like you think a shooter should. Soldier 76 is the closest, with his automatic rifle, grenade launcher secondary, and Sprint ability, but everyone else is wildly different.
You need to know a character's abilities. When you first pick a hero, there's an information button that gives you the rundown of all their abilities or you can hit F1 in combat. Honestly, this stuff needs have a greater prominence on the character select screen; it's that important. Like Heroes of the Storm or any other MOBA, the abilities inform how you'll play each role. If you try to play Hanzo or Zenyatta like a normal shooter, you're going to get your butt handed to you. Yes, point and shoot is still the base of Overwatch, but the different mechanics each character layers on top of that make knowing them in-depth key to playing.
I think of Overwatch more as a first-person MOBA than a team-based shooter. Like Gigantic and Battleborn, it splits the difference between the two genres.
Kat: Mike makes some interesting points, and it's telling that the two modes in the beta both emphasize class synergy to the extent that they do. At the same time, though, neither of Overwatch's modes are exactly new to the shooter genre. Payload escort is a familiar sight from Team Fortress 2, and the objective mode is basically Battlefield's M-COM mode, with the only difference being that one team tries to capture their assigned objective rather than blow it up.
Battleborn seems much more overt in its attempts to cater to MOBA fans, with one mode being explicitly framed as such. Overwatch, by contrast, seems less interested in exploiting current trends, and is instead content to simply be as fun as possible. We'll see what other modes Blizzard winds up rolling out for Overwatch, but I'm kind of guessing that they want to keep their new shooter distinct from Heroes of the Storm, which has its own goals as a game.
What's one underrated aspect of Overwatch?
Kat: The size of the maps. They're pretty small, possibly even smaller than the ones from Call of Duty. It's not claustrophobic per se, but it's definitely designed to keep matches moving. I would say that it reminds me of Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare in that regard. With Overwatch's maps being so small and the timers so short, matches frequently last a mere five to ten minutes, which can verge on being unsatisfying. Time will tell whether Overwatch's focus on sheer pace will ultimately be to its detriment; but for now, at least, it makes for a compulsively replayable shooter.
Mike: The systems in place to help newer players get into the game. Not only does Overwatch feature a tutorial and player vs AI matches to practice with each character, but there's other small ways Blizzard helps you get into online play. Prior to a match starting, the game will let you know if perhaps your team has no support heroes, not enough offense, or no tanks to push an objective. I've found in most pre-match setups, people will actually change to build a more balanced team.
Whenever you die to specific enemy, the game will pop up with tips on how to avoid dying to that enemy in the future. When you die to a sniper, it'll tell you to avoid long corridors. If Roadhog takes you down, it'll warn you to avoid direct confrontation in the future. This is stuff that's second nature to veteran players, but it helps new players get into Overwatch much easier.
Mike: I like what I've played so far. Like Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard has nailed this arena-based first-person shooter in a way others can only hope. It's looking like my time will be split between Overwatch and Gigantic, as one is first-person and leans towards the arena shooter style of play, while the latter is third-person and leans towards MOBAs. Overwatch has come together better than what I've played of Battleborn or Lawbreakers, similar titles in the same genre.
Overwatch and Gigantic are also tied for some of my favorite character designs in this growing genre of games. Every character design in Overwatch is great.
If anything missing in the game currently, it's any sense of permanence. There's no levels, there's nothing to unlock, there's nothing gained by continuing to play outside of simply loving the game. I'm not sure if Overwatch is always going to be this way, but it's surprising.
Kat: Yeah, Blizzard is definitely on to something here. It's got a great mix of pace, accessibility, and personality - Blizzard's traditional pillars of success. My only real concern is that it will end up being a little too fluffy. You may recall that I was really hooked on Heroes of the Storm earlier this year, but the nagging feeling that it's less tactically fulfilling than its peers has led me to take a several month hiatus. That's less of a concern for a shooter, but with the market being so crowded, it's something to consider. As for permanence, I will be really surprised if it doesn't have some kind of online ranking and achievement system, as those two elements have been a Blizzard staple since being introduced in StarCraft II (and if you want to go back further, World of WarCraft). In the short-term, it feels very much like a worthy successor to Team Fortress 2's throne. In the long-term, we'll just have to see, but I'm never going to bet against Blizzard when it comes to designing a hit.