The people at Blizzard don’t just make video games, they make absolute sensations. As of this writing, “Overwatch” has only been out for a few weeks, but it has already become the talk of the video game town. With all the praise, the beloved animated shorts, the controversial “fan art,” and rapidly growing player bases, it seems like this is the only multiplayer first person shooter that anyone has been talking about.
It makes complete sense why; booting the game up, you are met with a triumphant soundtrack, a variety of gorgeous and detailed maps, and a cast of 21 playable characters – all of whom have their own unique aesthetic and play style. Instead of just generic military tough-guy types, “Overwatch” has chosen to adopt the MOBA approach to character design, by having each hero be entirely distinctive: from the agile cybernetic ninja Genji, to the enemy freezing Mei, to the rollerblading Lucio, who heals his surrounding teammates with his sick beats. It’s really this sense of personality and vibrancy that sets “Overwatch” apart from other shooters. I mean, what other game lets you be an armored gorilla spewing lightning all over a Nepalese temple?
On the surface, the gameplay of “Overwatch” might feel like Blizzard is just ripping off Valve’s beloved “Team Fortress 2.” Both are entirely team-focused multiplayer games with a diverse cast of characters. Both place emphasis on balancing a team of heavy-hitters, healers, and defenders. Both require coordination in order complete objectives instead of just murdering everyone else. Hell, they even both have a character with traps, a grenade launcher, and a peg leg.
However, the larger amount of characters in “Overwatch” and the greater emphasis on each character’s niche abilities means a greater variety of playing the game. Whereas in “Team Fortress 2,” if I needed to soak up damage for whatever reason, the Heavy is pretty much the go-to. But in “Overwatch,” I have more options depending on the situation. I can pick the ironclad Reinhardt in order to project huge shields to protect my team and knock attackers away with a hammer, or the apocalyptic swine Roadhog to hook and chain the pesky Tracer plaguing my team and then blast their faces off with a shrapnel launcher. All the characters are divided into four main groups of Offense, Defence, Tanks, and Support, but no two characters share the same role nor provide the same experience. I feared that with so many characters, some were bound to be better and others ignored, but to my surprise and delight, each one felt fun and capable in their own right. As a result of this variety and accessibility of the characters, “Overwatch” feels like 21 first-person shooters wrapped into one.
“Overwatch” is then made all the more intricate by necessitating awareness of the maps, counter-playing your opponents and complimenting your teammates in order to truly master the game. You can’t pick Tracer and stick with her the entire match, or else you’ll have a bad time. Instead, when in a pinch, you should swap to someone like Pharah, whose rocket launcher and jetpack allows her to punch through armor from above. This is only one of the many, many examples of strategic processes that you could have in any given hour of playing the game! Strategic thinking and adapting on the fly are crucial, and working with a team to outsmart your opponents keeps you actively thrilled every match.
Or, you know, you might end up on a team with three permanently turret mode Bastions, an overeager Soldier: 76, and a lone wolf Reaper. Because strategy isn’t always for everyone.
Now admittedly, “Overwatch” does have its drawbacks. For one thing, if you favor games with solid stories, this is absolutely not for you. Like “League of Legends,” “Dota 2,” “Smite,” and almost any other MOBA, there isn’t a campaign or explicit narrative context for the action. The closest semblances to a story in “Overwatch” can only be deciphered from a couple character voice lines, some details in some of the maps, and in the animated shorts you can watch on YouTube.
Granted, the multiplayer-only set-up for a game can be forgiven if it is substantial enough. But while the quality of play in “Overwatch” is arguably enough to justify the $60 entry, the same can’t be said for quantity. There’s only four modes of playing the game: Control, Assault, Escort, and then a mix of half Assault, half Escort. And while twelve is a modest amount of maps for a game, “Overwatch” adds to its limitation by distributing them across the gametypes at three maps each. This allows you to memorize the workings and best strategies of each map, but I can’t help but wonder if the maps could have had multiple iterations to suit each game type. That way if I’m stuck going to Temple of Anubis three times in quick succession, at least I’d know it’s not the same Assault yet again.
The other gripe is with the level-up system and microtransactions. Every match gives you a set amount of experience points, and every time you level up, you get a loot box containing four random items. These could include skins, spray paints, emotes, highlight intros, victory poses, voice lines, or currency to spend on any of those items. They’re all cosmetic and thus don’t actually affect the game in any mechanical way, but since “Overwatch” thrives off of the personalities of its characters, these cosmetics are surprisingly appealing. There’s bound to be at least two or three legendary outfits that you’ll be craving for your favorite characters. But alas, your chances of getting one of these are random, and considering that the item list is flooded with tons of less desirable items and repeats are possible to obtain, trying to get one item in particular (even by getting enough currency to buy it) is a complete crapshoot. Not to mention how long it takes to level up after a certain point. It’s depressing to put hours into the game to finally get one loot box only to receive two spray paints, a voice line for a character you never play as, and a victory pose that you’ve already unlocked.
Enter microtransactions: If you’re feeling impatient in earning your next loot box, you can take out your real life wallet and just buy one! Or eleven. Or fifty. No, seriously, if you are really committed to seeing Tracer in a punk rock outfit, you can give Blizzard another $39.99 and get FIFTY shots at their silly slot machine… which won’t even guarantee that you’ll actually get anything that you want. Leveling up and getting more stuff is one of the more enticing long-term goals of the game, but as it is right now, it’s a system that just lets you down, or fills you with envy upon seeing other players that lucked out. I feel like this could be easily mitigated by making a decent sum of currency a constant drop with each box, or even allowing players to purchase currency on their own. I’d gladly spend a dollar to make my Reaper a killer mariachi man. But, as of right now, we can only unlock new things by playing Blizzard’s gamble – a gamble you have to pay for in countless hours of your life, or cold, hard cash.
Once again, thankfully, all of this is just for added fun. The full roster of playable characters is available at the start, and Blizzard has promised that any additional characters or game modes will be free in the future – a far cry from the modus operandi of free-to-play MOBAs where the entry is free, but most meaningful content sold for hefty sums. So if you’re the type who views things in terms of pure mechanics as well as hours you can sink into a game, “Overwatch” will potentially in time feel like a worthy video game investment.
And I do think that “Overwatch” will have a long enough shelf life to make it feel like an investment in the long run (At least on PC anyway). The community it has rapidly created is a populous and passionate one, always buzzing about the greatest plays, jokes, and cosplays. The Play of the Game and voting systems at the end of each match seek to have all players celebrate the best that each match has to offer. And while these aren’t always the best, Blizzard has stepped up to say that they are working to make sure that they are made even better. They’re already showing a profound commitment to their newest baby, banning cheaters and swiftly working on tweaking characters to make the game as fun, balanced, and competitive as possible. It’s this kind of support and enthusiasm from both the fans and the developers that will keep “Overwatch” alive and well as time goes on, and possibly propel it to the same E-Sports echelon of the likes of “League of Legends.”
“Overwatch” very much lives up to the sensation and hype surrounding it. It offers one of the most exciting, strategic, and fun first person shooter experiences in recent years, all the while oozing the charm and color that Blizzard games are known for. The gameplay can feel sparse, and Blizzard’s handling of obtaining new gear leaves room for improvement, but in the thick of it, you’ll be having too much of a good time to care. If you want a game that will take up hours of your life, provide you with some great fun with a gun, and teach you the meaning of “Ryu ga waga teki wo kurau,” then “Overwatch” is for you.
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed) , Xbox One
Released: May 24, 2016