I can't remember the last time I felt as excited about a new video game as I feel right now about Overwatch, Blizzard's unprecedented stab at making a multiplayer shooter. I've been playing it for three days and see so much potential.
The one game that came close was Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard's similar-but-also-totally-different attempt to redefine MOBAs — a super specific genre of games that are as popular as they are hard to understand for those who don't play them. Overwatch is more exciting than HOTS simply because it shoots for a different target (pun intended) than Heroes does, one that hasn't really been explored before. It's the kind of game that I could easily see convincing fans of numerous niche gaming genres to gather together and play. And that's a very cool thing to look forward to.
Here's what I've learned about Overwatch in my earliest adventures.
It's not quite a MOBA, and not quite a shooter (I'm not sure what to call it)
Overwatch is a team-based online multiplayer game. It is currently in beta and is limited to a single game mode that pits teams of six players against each other. The goal of matches in the beta vary slightly depending on the level in question, but they all center around controlling and defending specific strategic points on the map, usually king of the hill style. One team in each match is assigned the attacking role while the other has to defend against them. The offensive team will have to try and capture and hold an objective by clearing any enemies out of it and keeping it that way for about a minute. In some matches, the attacking team will have to escort a vehicle as it moves between several of these strategic points. The games are all timed in the beta, though, so completing a list of objectives isn't necessary to finish a match. More often than not the match ends in the middle of a fight for one objective. .
When the game was first announced at the 2014 Blizzcon convention, Kotaku described it as "a team-based multiplayer shooter," and "a PvP shooter with unique character classes, very reminiscent of Team Fortress 2." That description holds up in some ways, but it doesn't quite do the game justice.
Yes, Overwatch takes things from the Team Fortress-style first-person shooter. The structure of matches I just described is very similar to team-based shooters like TF2 or Battlefield. If you're coming to Overwatch as more of a MOBA player than a shooter fan like I am, some aspects of the game will seem odd — having matches decided by time rather than one team destroying the other's base, for instance, or being able to swap between different playable heroes during a match.
Other parts of Overwatch will feel downright nostalgic for seasoned MOBA players. The game lifts entire characters and gameplay mechanics from these isometric, third-person games like Dota 2, League of Legends, and its own close relative Heroes of the Storm.
Take Roadhog, for example. He's a big fat guy who looks like an extra from the newest Mad Max movie:
One of Overwatch's four "tank" characters, Roadhog is at his best when he's using his formidable size and substantial health bar to body-block for his teammates and screw up the enemy team's positioning. He does this by staying in front of his teammates when entering into a fight, then using his claw-shaped metal hook to grab an opponent and reel them in like some terrifying post-apocalyptic fisherman:
Roadhog's hook stuns an enemy when you've successfully nabbed them. This makes it a devastating combo when used in concert with one or two teammates who can instantly tear the unlucky victim to shreds. Roadhog still has his snub nose shotgun to blast them in the face too — or to keep other enemies from jumping in for a save.
Aesthetically, shooter fans will find Roadhog similar to characters from Borderlands, Fallout 3 and New Vegas, maybe even the old classic Unreal Tournament games. But my description of his core combo should sound very familiar to MOBA fans for a different reason. This type of fat, pus-filled monster with a creepy metal hook is a genre staple for all the big MOBAs. In Dota 2, it's a character named Pudge:
In Heroes of the Storm, it's Stitches:
...though Roadhog also looks like iconic Blizzard villain The Butcher, who, funnily enough, was the original inspiration for Pudge's character design in Dota 2:
League, meanwhile, has Blitzcrank and Thresh: two characters who look nothing like Roadhog or the others, but have similar hook-and-pull abilities. Blitzcrank is famous for his rocket grab:
I've spent the majority of 2015 becoming more and more obsessed with the big three MOBAs, and everywhere I look in Overwatch, I see traces of these games. Most aren't as clear-cut as Roadhog. Rather, it's individual mechanics that've been copy-pasted into the new format. Reinhart, a hulking suit of power armour that may or may not have a person inside, erects a powerful shield to block incoming attacks so his teammates can press their way towards a tactical point on the map without being obliterated:
It's the same thing that the similarly beefcake Braum does in League of Legends:
Overwatch's dreadlocks-wearing, roller-skating, EDM-blasting support character Lucio grants performance boosts to allies in his immediate vicinity, swapping between an attack speed boost and a healing power with the press of the shift key:
The League of Legends support character Sona grants similar endowments to her surrounding teammates. And she even sort of looks like Lucio when she's wearing her snazzy (and pricey) DJ Sona skin:
The dual pistol-wielding Overwatch hero Tracer teleports short distances at lightning speed with her "blink" ability:
The Protoss assassin Zeratul can weave his way in and out of a fight in the same way in Heroes of the Storm thanks to his teleporting power, which is also called blink:
...which probably explains why I start feeling the same type of existential dread I know all too well from HOTS whenever I hear Tracer's chipper Cockney-esque accent zipping its way towards me. It's the feeling of knowing that I'm going to die in the next few seconds, but not knowing exactly when and where. Or how to prevent it.
It's awesome and overwhelming at the same time
Given how fast-paced and over-the-top Overwatch's characters and their show-stopping abilities can be, it isn't hard to see how things can get a little...crazy at times.
I found myself thinking this hero is overpowered many, many times in the past three days. And some of them may very well be overpowered, but it's far too early to say anything definitive about Overwatch's balance. The main reason they feel so overwhelming is because almost all of Overwatch's players have only just arrived in the game and most, myself definitely included, have little to no idea what the hell they're doing. In the game's ecosystem, a player who figures out a particularly effective way to shut the enemy team down can feel like an unstoppable force of evil.
Take the infuriating sniper hero Widowmaker. If Widowmaker makes it up to a high vantage point at the beginning of a match and camps out in front of, say, a gate that the enemy team has to pass through to get to the objective, she can immobilize all six of her opponents. If you're on the team being relentlessly headshotted, you have to figure out how to deal with her before you can do anything else in a match. There are a lot of characters like that right now.
The mech warrior Bastion can turn himself into a stationary turret with a shield. In other words, he can be a giant, impossible-to-kill minigun if he's placed in the right location and played by the right person.
Tracer's nonstop teleporting means that she can unload a barrage of bullets on two to three enemies at the same time while somehow managing to never be hit. I've found a good Tracer player to be infuriating and terrifying to play against.
I imagine that Overwatch games will start to feel more closely matched and hard-fought as players familiarise themselves with the many finer details of their favourite characters and learn how to counter their least favourite opponents.
Players have already begun to figure out powerful hero pairings and devastating combos. My favourite hero right now is Zenyatta, a robot who floats around seated in a lotus position and influences the flow of battle by healing his allies and making his enemies more vulnerable to our attacks.
Zenyatta is a short-ranged healer, so he's often at his best travelling a step behind a powerful tank. It's even better if there are one or two offensive characters as well — as long as they can stay close enough to get my heals. A combo like this turns an attacking team into a mighty siege unit that can press forward with its tank and dole out serious damage with its offensive line. And all the while I'm keeping them alive...or trying to, at least. Players have also figured out that going straight for the enemy healer can tear their whole team to shreds.
Overwatch has a number of excellent features that help you get your feet on the ground in the game. There's a handy kill-cam, for instance, that puts you into the shoes of your opponent for a few seconds leading up to them killing you. It doesn't take that many kill-cams to learn that you shouldn't just walk out into the open when, say, there's an enemy sniper perched high up in a watchtower. Or that you should stay behind Reinhart's shield rather than leave yourself open to being hooked by the enemy Roadhog. The game also lets you swap out for a different hero as many times as you want, which saves you from feeling stuck in a rut if you keep getting hammered.
A much better camera angle for this sort of thing
Transplanting character mechanics from one genre to another might not sound very exciting in theory. In practice, though, it's a total blast. As much as I love traditional MOBAs, they all struggle with common visibility problems. They're visually dense, and it's very hard for them to communicate just how epic their most theatrical moments actually feel when you're playing them.
It's amazing what a change in perspective can do. Playing Overwatch this weekend, I constantly found myself thinking: this game LOOKS like what Heroes of the Storm and League of Legends feel like in my head.
There are certain types of drama that are simply easier to communicate from a first-person perspective. Clumping together around Reinhart as he activates his shield and bellows, "Get behind me!" is dramatic and intimate in a way that falling back behind Braum in a game of League can't truly be.
Ultimate abilities, or Ults, are a staple of MOBAs. They're the most powerful abilities each character has, the ones that can change the ebb and flow of combat in a second or two. They work the same way in Overwatch. The big difference is in the optics.
Take the tank character Winston, for instance. He's a gigantic gorilla who carries a tesla cannon and wears power armour and a small pair of square spectacles. Winston's ult is called "primal rage." When triggered, it gives Winston a massive boost in health and damage, lets him use his jump-pack move more frequently, and limits him to using melee attacks. This turns him into a devastating melee fighter who's extremely difficult to kill.
And that's just what it does on paper. In the heat of battle, what it makes the already humongous armour-wearing gorilla even more humongous, and turns him bright red. In a tightly closed space like many of the interiors in Overwatch's ornate and sprawling levels, being on the receiving end of this is panic-inducing. It feels like being trapped in a room with a large, angry beast who's suddenly amped himself up Bane-style:
There are many unforgettable moments like this in Overwatch already. Reaper, a ranged offensive character who fights with two large Van Helsing-style pistols, uses an ult called "death blossom" that lets him shoots everything in his immediate vicinity while dancing around in a Gun Kata circle.
I've already come to fear the Reaper whenever I hear him chant, "Die, die, die!" in his raspy growl as he triggers it.
The same goes for Junkrat, another Mad Max-style character. His ult revs up a giant spiked tire — Junkrat then jumps inside and barrels towards an unlucky target, detonating on impact. Hearing him yank on the ignition is your one invitation to try to put as much distance between yourself and the spinning tire bomb of death as possible — though it's usually not enough.
And then there's Pharah. Oh god, Pharah. I didn't even see her the first time she killed me. I just heard someone scream: Justice RAINS FROM ABOVE with righteous fury. She fights with a long-ranged rocket launcher and can launch herself into the air at regular intervals thanks to her hawk-like suit of bright blue armour. I first met Pharah while running through a winding narrow alleyway in one of Overwatch's urban levels with the rest of my team in tow. Before I could look around to figure out who was making so much commotion, the entire street and surrounding buildings were blanketed with a barrage of deadly missiles.
It felt like Robert Duval was going to show up and start talking about how much he loves the smell of napalm in the morning.
One final thought: this game is gonna be HUGE
Overwatch's freneticism isn't helped by the fact that games are often over in as little as three minutes. I would love to see matches, or alternate game modes, that can be played at a slower and less insane pace. Blizzard also might want to think about adding a sense of ability progression into matches by, say, requiring you to unlock heroes' more powerful abilities by levelling up over the course of the match. You know, MOBA-style. This would help slow down the intense speed by which matches are currently played, and thereby make it easier for new players to jump in and start playing without getting headshotted the moment they step out of their base.
I'm nitpicking. Overwatch is only in beta and is already an incredibly impressive piece of work. Every time I've stopped playing in the last few days I've found myself just wanting more. My girlfriend had to pry me away from the computer last night close to two in the morning.
Overwatch is so enjoyable and well-polished that I think that Blizzard could release the game in the next few weeks (or months) and it would already stand on its own. The fact that they're not doing that only makes me more excited for the future of this fantastic new hybrid MOBA/shooter/whatever you want to call it. I cannot wait to start playing the game with a group of good friends every night over voice chat so we can collaborate to really deal some serious damage.
Some gamers and critics will see Overwatch as little more than an puffed up failure Blizzard's trying to present as a brand new game. It was made by stitching together bits and pieces of an MMO Blizzard was trying to make for a long time but never felt satisfied with.
I don't see Overwatch as the end result of a botched game development experiment, though. I see it as something new and exciting.
The other day, I was playing the game and had a bad match.
"I'm really sorry all I'm still super new," I wrote into the team chat box.
"We're all super new," someone wrote back. "It's too pretty to care."
That's Overwatch right now.