It was a sad day for Blizzard fans when the long-gestating and ever-reclusive MMO Titan was cancelled. Hopes and dreams acquired over what seemed like an eternity waiting for a fresh new IP from the developer were all but crushed, but it seemingly hit the developers themselves hardest. Blizzard had failed.
Not content to take a beating, Director Jeff Kaplan licked his wounds and rallied the Blizz troops together once more to start from scratch, and from the smouldering ashes of Titan a brand new franchise was born and at long last, fans would have a whole new universe to soak up. That game is of course Overwatch, the company’s first foray out of familiar RPG territory and into the realm of competitive first-person shooters. Was it a gamble to take this route? Maybe. Has it payed off? Most definitely. The passion the team has for making quality games and the obvious love they have for old skool team-based FPS has helped them create what might just be one of the most unique experiences of recent memory in the broader team-based FPS genre. I say broader genre because as well as being a very slick team-based shooter, Overwatch also borrows some ideas from MOBAs while simultaneously reinventing the wheel in terms of how such a hybrid genre can work. It is a game that is at once familiar yet also seemingly distant from anything else on the FPS market right now.
Overwatch is set in the near future of our very own Earth, many years after the rather apocalyptic sounding “Omnic Crisis” has been dealt with. This crisis was basically the uprising of AI that threatened humanity’s very way of life (as all good crises do). To get the crisis under control a new international global taskforce was created by the UN called Overwatch, a misfit bunch of soldiers, mercenaries and scientists with the knowledge and elite skills to tackle such a challenge. The Omnic Crisis was successfully defused by Overwatch, and everyone lived happily ever after… or did they? Well not really. As the years went on, a number of new incidents cropped up, and it was believed Overwatch were somehow responsible (they were a pretty powerful group really), and public opinion started to turn against them and they were eventually disbanded. That is until gorilla-scientist (yep) Winston, who we learn about in the animated short Recall, does just what the title says and recalls all Overwatch agents as some new shady events begin to unfold.
The story of Overwatch is there in the full game, yet with the lack of a solely single-player experience the world and lore are built around external media such as the (rather brilliant) Pixar-esque short films, digital comics and a plethora of written material throughout the game and in Blizzard’s own internet space. It is understandable some players may find this discouraging, and to be fair it won’t appeal to those who appreciate a good story thrown directly at them as they play. Overwatch is first and foremost a competitive team-based shooter; that is the crux of the game and where its laser focus lies. That isn’t to say the story is an afterthought; Blizz have very carefully created this world and lore in a way that does not detract from the core experience of the game. If you care about these characters (as I do), the story is there to be found and explored, just not in the traditional sense gamers might be used to.
Zenyatta has great balls
The big drawcard for the game is the utterly brilliant cast of oddballs we get to play as. Each character has been lovingly crafted to have a meaningful set of skills that, while defining them to one of the games four core classes (Support, Offence, Defence and Specialist), all manage to feel wonderfully unique. Which Hero you choose will intimately determine how you play and every player on the team feels like they have an integral role to fulfil. The objectives across the modes are fairly simple: capture a point, escort a payload to a designated area etc. But the many ways in which to tackle an objective with subterfuge, clever counters or straight-up offence is remarkable and gets better the more you play. Overwatch is a game that is accessible enough that anybody can pick up and play, but for those willing to invest the time there is a very deep strategic element to be discovered here. In particular, figuring out which Heroes have synergetic skills (and conversely how to counter them if you’re battling against them) is a key to succeeding. It is an FPS though, so gun skills are also highly valued. Shooting feels snappy and fluid, the guns and weapons have punch and even little things like reload animations provide a sense of each Hero’s style. It has been reported that Blizzard sought out the expertise of the Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 developers Treyarch to refine the shooting experience which is a nice touch.
A huge part of the game is switching between varied roles as you respond to the flow of the match, and in a brilliant move Overwatch does not shackle you to one character for an entire match. Indeed, Hero-switching is highly encouraged and makes for some great on-the-fly strategy building. I have had an absolute blast playing the nimble cyborg Genji, and I’m also partial to Symmetra’s nasty turrets and Hanzo’s ultimate dragon ability (“Ryuu ga waga teki wo kurau!”), however I have enjoyed playing all available heroes. This is quite a rare thing in a game of this ilk, where normally you would choose to main a certain character that aligns with your playstyle. Need a tank to drive your team into the action? Rock some Roadhog and duke it out for a bit with the enemy Reinhart. Tank no longer needed? Then switch it up to an offensive hero with higher damage but lower health to get a few kills in and secure the objective. Team is getting slammed? Switch to Mercy and heal your comrades. All of this switching can be done within a match and I feel that that’s where one of Overwatch’s greatest strengths lies, with every match demanding you adapt to its prevailing conditions. Although I have played the beta and full release for many, many hours, I still feel as though I am just scratching the surface of what is possible, but it has (so far) been an always evolving experience of discovery as each game unfolds with my team mates. How do we counter that line of Bastion turrets so conveniently located above a payload we need to extract? Why not get a couple of Widowmaker’s into the fight protected by Winston and Zarya shields to slowly pick away at their health? A play like this might be just one small part of the larger battle to victory, and with an ever-evolving way to play Overwatch it never becomes boring and consistently keeps you on your toes.
Progression isn’t typical Call of Duty fare either, you will rank up in level but guns and abilities won’t be affected at all. Instead you will be rewarded with loot boxes which provide (randomly) cool cosmetic items like spray paint (which you can tag the battlefield with), hero banter and a range of character skins which all have a set of rarities. The loot boxes can also be bought in the form of microtransactions, which I feel Blizzard are totally in their right to do as they do not affect gameplay balance. These boxes provide no pay to win benefit and are simply there to provide cool aesthetic bonuses. No harm, no foul! Blizzard have also stated that all future patches, maps and Heroes will be available free to all players, just as is the case with most of the games they publish (minus huge expansions such as Legacy of The Void for StarCraft II and Reaper of Souls for Diablo 3). The fact that all players have the same weapons and abilities regardless of time played means that the battleground is always fair and even. If you lost it’s not because the other team had unlocked better weapons than you, it’s because they outsmarted, outgunned or outmaneuvered you.
Cheers luv! That Genji ultimate is here!
Overwatch has a bunch of modes to suit different styles of play. There’s Quick Match, which is the usual PvP fare and is unranked so it doesn’t penalise players for losing (it is also the best mode for practicing with your team mates). There’s also Vs AI mode, which is exactly what the title suggests, where a team of you and some buddies face off against (quite clever) AI bots who even have the manners to say GG after a game (nice touch Blizz). The Weekly Brawl mode is a fun challenge that mixes it up week to week and has a bunch of crazy team play scenarios to undertake for the pure hell (and fun) of it. This includes having all players forced to play a random character for a match and try to work out strategies from there. However, one fairly large omission at launch is the promised Ranked Mode, which I feel will be Overwatch’s bread and butter and where it will ultimately find its longevity. This mode promises to provide a competitive atmosphere for the crowd who are looking to perfect team play and want to battle for supremacy, but as of the writing it is yet to be implemented (as is the dedicated clan feature). So far we know that players will need to be level 25 in order to unlock it, which is a good stepping stone as it allows experienced players not to be matched with those who are not sure of how the maps and Heroes work yet.
As usual, Blizzard have the raised the bar with a game that tackles a tried-and-true genre and reinvents itself within that genre to be something truly unique. The vibrant world, characters and style are a testament to the passion Blizz have for only settling for the highest quality in their creations. From the ashes of the mighty Titan, a new titan is born, and I cannot wait to see how the game evolves over the next decade.
Reviewed on PS4