Constantly hearing about a particular game, wondering what exactly is the big deal? In our regular series, we delve into the hottest community games and ask the important questions: Why do they generate such a devoted following? Is all this fuss warranted? And if so…are they worth your time?
Since Overwatch recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, we thought now would be a great time to dive in and take a look at the game from a newcomer’s perspective. Is it really the world-conquering multiplayer shooter fans would have us believe, or has the hype machine well-and-truly run away with itself?
What is it, exactly?
Overwatch is a competitive multiplayer online shooter that pits two teams of unique heroes against each other in objective-based matches. It’s also so much more than that. As Blizzard properties have a tendency to do, Overwatch has become a cultural phenomenon, with its characters quickly developing into some of the most recognizable in gaming. In April of this year, Blizzard reported the game had surpassed the incredible milestone of 30 million registered players, putting it up there with Bungie’s Destiny in terms of online popularity. And so with roughly 2.2 million gamers joining the game each month, there seems no limit to how far Overwatch’s popularity can go.
How does it play?
Simplicity is how your relationship with Overwatch begins. It’s ridiculously easy to get going—if you’ve ever played any shooter before, you’ll feel right at home with the basic controls here. The nuance comes from the characters. Each falls into one of four classes: offense, tank, defense, and support, but unlike other class-based games, picking a specific class doesn’t guarantee you a particular style of play. Each individual character feels and plays drastically differently, as each has a unique set of weaponry and abilities. So you’ll approach, say, Zenyatta, a slow-paced orb-wielding robot who can heal teammates and deal decent damage, very differently to Mercy, a winged medic who can also heal, is way more mobile but has much less effective attacks. Both technically fall under the support umbrella, but there’s very little commonality between both play-styles. This wealth of differences leads to an insane amount of strategies for each character individually, but when used in conjunction with teammates, the possibilities are truly endless. The emphasis on team-based strategies is no accident, but a concerted effort by Blizzard to make Overwatch the ultimate collaborative experience online.
Is the fuss justified?
It’s hard to find a way in which Overwatch doesn’t impress. The cartoonish art direction is flawless, employing a colorful, exaggerated graphical style which not only looks great, but it's clearly not nearly as technically demanding as a more realistic, detailed style would be, cleverly allowing for a faster frame rate and general technical efficiency. Foremost among the work here is the character design. Blizzard do not mess around here—they’ve created a number of diverse, appealing and very cosplay-able models that have quickly entered into the gaming vernacular. They ooze personality, and give the game it’s singular, zany style.
The presentation as a whole is excellent, with no overloaded, fussy menus, and very curt load times. There’s very little downtime once you opt to join a game, as Overwatch throws you into a ‘skirmish’ (practice) map while you wait. It’s a system I’ve seen implemented before, but never this well, and ultimately means the time spent staring at menus is kept to a minimum. Even the in-game purchase elements, often intrusive, fit nicely here, tempting you with constant loot without imposing itself on your fun. Blizzard have clearly learnt from their experiences with World of Warcraft and Hearthstone there, knowing when to push you to spend money and when to just leave you to play. This means that there’s progression, and a constant stream of appealing loot boxes to open and character skins to covet, but it never gets in the way of the real reason you’re there: to play a finely-tuned competitive multiplayer game.
And it’s the gameplay itself that is perhaps the most effective part of the package. The controls feel honed, the weapons and abilities are all satisfying to use, and the way every character is powerful in the right hands is incredibly rewarding to players who stick with a particular one, and sharpen their skills over time. I found even the potentially less-glamorous support characters I mentioned earlier just as fun to play as say, the mech-wielding, hard hitting D.Va, or the fast-firing gunslinger McCree, which is a feat that should be applauded.
Blizzard have built a razor-refined, competition grade shooter, and wrapped it in a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s as hardcore as they come, but with the softest of soft edges. It’s infinitely accessible to newcomers, but has depths that go so deep as to be utterly bottomless, should you succumb to its charms.
Worth a look?
The best moments in Overwatch are when your team works together in harmony, executing a play so perfectly that it feels like it could never have failed. The flipside of this is that in creating such a perfectly balanced team game, Blizzard have made Overwatch somewhat difficult for the casual player to engage in, at least after the initial buzz of discovery has worn off. Though fun can certainly be had when playing casually, playing as one cog in a well-oiled machine is where the game’s enduring appeal really lies, and it suffers a little as a jump-in, jump-out game as a consequence. There’s a very definite ceiling to how much you can contribute while lone-wolfing: no matter how skilled with a certain character you become, the moment you encounter a team working together as a unit you’ll almost certainly fail.
The answer, then, is to gather a team of your own or get involved with the community at large. Switch to in-game voice chat, and get involved in the tactical discussion, and you may find you get much more out of the game. If you’re not willing to be a team-player (or at least, if other players on your team perceive you that way) be prepared to feel the wrath of the game’s notoriously vociferous community (in my time with the game, I didn’t have any particularly vicious encounters myself, but I did hear a couple of others being chastised for not contributing in a satisfactorily enough way).
If you’re willing to put the time in and engage with other humans, there’s a rich strategic tapestry to be explored here, especially if you can bring in a few friends too. But if you just have a little time to kill every now and then, or mainly plan to play alone, Overwatch might not be the best fit for your needs, and in fact, may never show you its true face.