Blizzard has taken on a few different video game genres with success, notably the most indestructible MMORPG ever created: The World of Warcraft. No other pretender may stand against WoW and win, and Blizzard, presumably, wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer. But then Blizzard saw that there were, and looked down and whispered: “Let’s do a team first-person shooter, like Team Fortress 2. But, you know, our version of it.”
This shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that Overwatch is just a lazy remake of Valve’s shooter (and previous, more po–faced army men themed game Counter–Strike) and the devs hoped nobody would notice. After almost two hours hands on with Overwatch it’s fair to say that it has enough of its own style to be distinct, though at times it did feel like playing a version of TF2 that had been given a big makeover and dropped a few mellow 90s party drugs for good measure.
This feeling was strongest during the Escort game mode, where your team has to push a payload across the map through various checkpoints, and was so familiar it wouldn’t have been surprising to have been shanked by a Spy. Overwatch also has Assault and Control matches, which use the same control points/king of the hill mechanics that most multiplayer team games do these days, because what the hell else are you going to do? It’s not exactly breaking new ground, but Overwatch is still having a crack at the team shooter thing as hard as it possibly can.
It packs in more than you might expect. At release there’ll be 12 maps and 21 characters to choose from, with a very multinational tone: both characters and locations hail from places spanning Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, with a bright skyscrapers–and–robots. design theme which game director Jeff Kaplan describes as “a future worth fighting for”: Blade Runner meets a bag of popping candy and guns. The actual team roster is split out into Offense, Defense, Tank, and Support, so you know the broad strokes of your role, but each of the characters feels very different to play and has a unique set of abilities, including special ones over and above standard attacks.
Examples include a tiny Korean teenager who pilots a huge pink mech that can self destruct, a Brazilian DJ and/or freedom fighter who speed boosts the entire team, and Tracer, the time warping little adventurer whose arse is, in fact, still very much in the game (by virtue of it being permanently attached to the top of her legs) and who is, more to the point, fun to play as, zipping all over the map and busting heads. Every match was very frenetic, with various explosives and ammo from different weapons flying everywhere, but the clarity in the design is good enough that you can tell all the characters’ attacks apart from one another.
It was emphasised to us, a room of variously unawake and unaware journalists, that the key to winning Overwatch is responding quickly to events and changing your character – either at respawn points or on death – to react to them, but while 21 characters means variety in matches you’d need a lot of time on your hands to become properly versed with all of them. Overwatch has been in closed beta for a while already, and an open one starts on May 5 (though anyone who pre purchased the game gets early access because it was ever thus, a sentiment that can also be applied to the fact that the Origin and Special Editions of the game include different character skins as a bonus).
Point being: it’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out when all the servers are live and fully populated, because it’s odds on that people will specialise in two or three out of the 21 characters. This is normal for games with a bunch of characters to choose from, but they don’t all suggest hopping about between ones with such distinct skills even within their roles – for comparison, TF2 has nine characters, and World of Warcraft, a big fantasy RPG, only has one more than that. Overwatch may end up looping back round to the truism that applies to Warcraft: it’s really fucking hard to find a decent Tank or Support.
This won’t necessarily prevent it from being fun: some of the matches were lightning fast giggle–fests and some were actually tense, and afterwards everyone was giving it that “Did you see the bit where I jetpacked over their heads and fired a rocket straight down and wasted that guy, hahaha” kind of chat. It just seems likely that it won’t be played as tactically as Blizzard apparently think it should.
Blizzard, it’s fair to say, isn’t a company given to releasing bad games, and Overwatch doesn’t yet look like it’ll be an exception. Even before release it’s got that lovely Blizzard clarity to it; the polish of a game that hasn’t been rushed because it’s made by a company that releases games when they’re good and ready, thank you very much. Whether it’ll be exceptional, and eclipse all other games in the genre, is yet to be seen. But it’s got emotes. Everyone loves emotes.