I was skeptical of Overwatch; as a team-based shooter, it felt like too big a departure from the games I expect and enjoy from Blizzard. That skepticism, however, has proven totally unnecessary, as Overwatch is a fantastic surprise from Blizzard’s foray into a genre they had not previously approached.
If Overwatch is guilty of anything, it is its obvious inspiration from other franchises. At the highest level, Overwatch is a combination of Unreal Tournament and Team Fortress 2. The fast pace and base shooting mechanics of Unreal are combined with the class-based approach and art of Team Fortress 2. In all fairness, that formula in itself is excellent fun, but Blizzard’s own flavor of design makes it special. When you get down to the actual experience, Overwatch becomes a very unique team-based “hero” shooter that stands apart from its predecessors, and the joy of playing the game is quite distinct from other similar games.
The clearest example of this unique and flavorful experience is the diversity of characters that you can choose to play as. While comparisons with Team Fortress 2 can help illustrate how each character has their own role that fits neatly into each map and objective, that comparison barely scratches the surface here. In Overwatch, unlike in most other hero shooters, each of the 21 characters feels like a notably different experience rather than just a different take on the same gameplay elements.
A defensive character like Reinhardt is slow, lumbering, and an easy target, but he has a charge that can push or even kill enemies in the way, a massive energy shield big enough to block damage for his entire team, and a hammer as his main weapon. Playing as Reinhardt, then, turns this team-based shooter into a first-person action game. At the other end of the spectrum is Soldier: 76, who at first controls like any main character from a FPS, but his unlimited sprint and healing abilities, combined with a fast assault rifle and rocket launcher, make him a jack-of-all trades that’s easy to pick up but hard to master. You can do well just dishing out damage as Soldier: 76, but you can make the biggest difference if you use all of your utilities to strike wherever your team needs you most, balancing between healing and damage-dealing duties as necessary.
That difference between playing your character well and playing them to the best of your ability is a trademark of Blizzard’s games, made especially evident here. The barrier to entry is low; anyone can pick up Overwatch and have fun while doing decently well. If you master a handful of characters, however, you can enjoy the game at a much higher level of strategy and skill. This easy to pick up but hard to master formula means everyone can have fun here no matter their skill level or willingness to commit to practice, as the game’s matchmaking does a good job of matching you to players of similar experience.
The large cast of characters ranges from the aforementioned Soldier:76 and Reinhardt, and stretches to well over a dozen others including a transforming robot, a cybernetic angel, and – yes, of course – a ninja. Each player is as distinct from the others as the example I provided earlier. Your selection of character defines your role in terms of defense, support, and offense, and it also goes much farther than that. The choice of character you make will define whether the game you play is faster or slower, melee or shooting oriented, more action-based or more strategic. The amount of skill that went into making such a large cast of characters, making each one feel incredibly distinct and useful, all while maintaining multiplayer balance, cannot be ignored.
The mechanics and characters are beautifully crafted, and that matches the excellent visual designs and audio. The distinct art style captures an American comic book quality that’s bright and vibrant. While it may not be for everyone, it allows for the game to be very interesting visually; nothing looks bland and the colorful visuals keep you attuned to the up-beat mood of the game, win or lose. The music, sound effects, and voice acting are similarly reminiscent of the first Avengers movie: slightly campy, but they deliver the powerful sense of booming idealism and heroism. It may not be new or complex, but it is certainly enthralling, and that fits with everything the game is trying to achieve.
The maps, similarly, are all beautiful and varied locations such as ancient ruins and diverse, futuristic cities. Each map has been intelligently designed with its own unique themes and color palette, resulting in a different flavor in each area. However, the art team has done very well in using similar parameters to make sure that all the maps feel like they belong to the same setting. Those ruins may contain traces of advanced technology, and those cities share similar background scenes such as giant robots or ships that match the overall advanced state of the world. The physical layout of maps, as well, is interesting, making use of multiple paths to objectives and verticality, allowing for many options of movement and approach.
The map design, however, is also where Overwatch hits its main speedbump. Escort objective maps feel like they overly emphasize choke-holds at the start and endpoints of the maps. Due to the nature of these modes, it feels like you rush through a chunk of the map in the middle, but spend too much time at the beginning and ending. This feels like a waste of a lot of the spaces in those maps as you barely spend time with them. Thankfully, in more interesting matches, those middle areas become useful in breaking a stalemate with extra paths that can help you flank the enemy team. Ultimately, this complaint is a nitpick at best.
Overwatch, as a package, is a fantastic game, and has brought back my interest in online shooters. It stands apart from the Call of Duty inspired experiences of recent years, and provides a level of polish and depth I haven’t seen in Team Fortress 2 or Unreal Tournament. As I stated, I did not expect this game to do this well. It is not what I wanted from Blizzard, and I did not imagine that they could take their excellent talent in action RPGs and strategy games, and translate that to a genre they have never touched. Thankfully, my assumptions and expectations were completely misplaced and wrong.
Rating: 5 out of 5