It's been remarkable to watch Overwatch blow up over the past couple weeks. Early reviews have it sitting pretty at 94 on Metacritic. The Guardian argues that Blizzard has redefined the first-person shooter. It's pretty heady stuff. No one seems to care that a full-priced game shipped without a single-player campaign, or really much of anything outside of the core game.
It's a stark difference from roughly six months ago, when EA released Star Wars Battlefront in a similarly stripped down state. I wrote at the time, "As of right now, $59.99 will net you roughly 12 maps spread across four planets, nine modes, and a handful of limited tutorial and single-player challenges. It hasn't taken long for its limitations to become clear - an intense weekend of play was enough to unlock almost all of the weapons, items, and customization options. And as much fun as I've been having, I can't shake the feeling that it's becoming repetitive rather quickly." Other critics pretty much agreed.
So what's the difference between Overwatch and Battlefront, exactly? How does one game get crucified for not having enough content out of the box, while another game with even less content vaults into Game of the Year contention?
Well, this may seem trite, but I think what it comes down to is that one game feels remarkably fresh and interesting, and the other feels like business as usual. As successful as it was in capturing the look and feel of the Star Wars universe, it was very much in the mold of Battlefield; and to a lesser degree, Call of Duty. At this point we've all played the shooter where we steadily unlock weapons and equip perks. What was revolutionary (and even a little controversial) a decade ago is now rote and routine.
Battlefront also bungled its messaging from the start. DICE laid out an extensive DLC plan even before launch, which conveyed the impression that they were intentionally holding back content so they could charge extra for it. When Battlefront was released, it felt larded up with modes that few people wanted to play, which only served to highlight how samey the maps felt - a problem exacerbated by the decision to spread them out across four planets.
In that light, less feels like more in Overwatch. It has roughly the same number of maps that Battlefront had at launch; but where Battlefront's map rotation quickly grew tiresome, Overwatch's maps feel rich and varied. The reason? You can't select the mode that you're playing. That's right: In taking away player choice, Blizzard is ensuring that every mode is equally populated while keeping the maps feeling fresh. It's counterintuitive as hell; but in Overwatch's case, it works.
Other decisions have paid similar dividends for Overwatch. Rather than putting the player in the role of a faceless avatar, Overwatch focuses on a richly-realized and diverse character roster, all of which bring their own interesting playstyle to the table. Just last night I was playing Genji - a cyborg ninja who can block bullets and relies heavily on melee attacks - and having the time of my life. When you get tired of one character, there are a half dozen more to try out. Certainly, the Call of Duty model has its place, but it's great to see a renewed focus on class-based gameplay.
The biggest difference between Overwatch and Battlefront is that the former feels tight and well-balanced, where the latter feels messy and overstuffed. One game wants to satisfy everyone, and the other has a very clear vision about what exactly it wants to be. In that light, it's no surprise that Overwatch has so far succeeded where Battlefront has failed.
But what about the story mode?
This is a question that I've been kicking around for a bit: Does a full-priced shooter need a single-player campaign to justify its price of admission? Battlefront and to a lesser extent Titanfall got killed for not having a single-player campaign, though I would argue that the latter was hurt more by the way the flow of the game made matches start to feel repetitive. On the flipside, Unreal Tournament, Counterstrike, and Team Fortress 2 have all managed to get by without a single-player campaign over the years, and it appears the same can be said for Overwatch.
What it comes down to, I think, is that it's worse to spread your resources thin and do a poor job than it is to not do it at all. At the risk of beating a dead horse, Battleborn is a great example of a shooter that might have been better served by being more focused. This is just speculation on my part, but Battleborn feels a lot like a game that was going to be a MOBA shooter (sorry, "hero shooter") until 2K got cold feet and decided to add in a co-op campaign. The end result is a game that has its moments - it's a genuinely fun co-op shooter at times - but mostly feels messy and compromised.
Often, we demand a story mode from a game out of a somewhat misguided desire for "value," and because that's how it's generally been done since the beginning. Looking across the shooter landscape, though, it's actually kind of rare to find an FPS that does both single-player and multiplayer really well. Battlefield's single-player campaigns, for example, are notoriously poor. Call of Duty's single-player and multiplayer are both generally well-regarded, but plenty of fans prefer one or the other but not both. DOOM appears to be an exception, garnering plaudits for its excellent single-player while also featuring a conventional multiplayer mode.
Overwatch defies that conventional line of thinking with team-based multiplayer that's so well-tuned and fun to play that any thoughts of a single-player go flying out of your head. Wolfenstein: The New Order and the original BioShock did much the same on the opposite side of the divide with their excellent single-player campaigns. Sometimes a really great core game is enough.
With that said, the degree of difficulty for a game like Overwatch is considerably higher. By their very nature, single-player games are more mainstream and thus more accessible to the general populace. What's more, we're used to the idea of a game being single-player only because there is precedent going back to the days of the original NES. You can play, enjoy, and put aside a single-player campaign and feel like you got a good experience. Multiplayer-only games have to have a particularly addictive gameplay loop and a strong community to survive long-term, as has been the case with Rocket League. Without those elements, all the modes and maps in the world won't save a game from being relegated to the dustbin.
Overwatch has been out less than a week, but its overwhelmingly positive reception suggests that it will have plenty of legs over the rest of the year. Content be damned.