Late last week Alex and I went to Blizzard's Australian HQ to play Overwatch. On console.
We had thoughts. We had a lot of thoughts.
Mark: Hi Alex. We played Overwatch. On the Xbox One no less.
That was a lot of fun, wasn't it?
I'm keen to hear some of your thoughts on the experience -- mainly because I know you've been playing a lot of this game on PC as part of the beta.
Alex: Can we just give a bit of credit to the Xbox One, for a start? Or maybe we should be giving all the credit to Blizzard. But whenever you or I go to previews these days, there’s either a PC or a PS4. If it’s an Xbox One exclusive, you’ll often still see a PC somewhere. It’s almost like the Xbox One has become the bastard child of the platforms that no publisher wants to show off.
But Overwatch runs really fucking well on Team Green. Full 1080p, 60fps well. I only noticed one or two hitches. It was basically like playing Overwatch on PC with the settings turned down – which is entirely fine, since it’s the type of game that demands a smooth frame rate.
Mark: Honestly, as a console player, that's something I didn't even notice.
But it's an interesting point, and a nod to Blizzard's absolute confidence in Overwatch as a video game that people will play.
It's funny -- I haven't played Overwatch since its announcement at Blizzcon 2014. That was a good 18 months ago. Back then I absolutely believed that this game had to be on console. The aesthetic, the style, the mechanics -- combine all that with the fact this type of game literally does not currently exist on consoles. That's a recipe for success.
At current calculations I estimate that Overwatch has 0.0001 percent chance of failure.
It's polished. It's innovative. It's accessible but appears to feature a currently unplumbed depth when it comes to the meta-game. It has a glorious set of marketable characters. It has YouTube shorts that aren't quite Pixar standard but can definitely compete with Dreamworks.
It has a lot going for it.
Alex: That’s interesting, isn’t it? Unlike DOOM, which has amalgamated parts of console shooters into what was traditionally a PC-only offering, Overwatch is taking some of the hallmarks of a traditional PC FPS and porting it straight to console.
Some, mind you. Overwatch on the whole is a pretty simplified team shooter, which is part and parcel of what makes it so fun.
I’d argue that it’s not as accessible on console as it is on PC, though. Some characters even with a generous aim assist are awful to play on a controller -- and it’s mostly down to the verticality of the maps.
Hanzo, for instance, is a breeze to play on a mouse and keyboard. But when you’re constantly climbing up walls, looking up to target someone hovering in the air, or trying to shoot someone when you’re perched on a roof – it’s an absolute pain. Widowmaker, the game’s other sniper, doesn’t have it quite as bad thanks to her ultimate (which is literally a temporary wall hack), but she’s undoubtedly less fun to play on consoles.
Mark: I think that's just going to be the case, and it should be the case.
Overwatch on console is not going to be the same as Overwatch on PC and if it was, there would be bigger problems. Probably the biggest compliment I could pay Overwatch is that it is different than the PC version -- it has to be for a whole host of reasons. If anything that tells me that Blizzard actually gives a shit.
I want to talk about the game itself. I loved it, and I think it's going to be a tremendous success. It's almost dfficult to argue the contrary.
I do worry about the game in the longer term. I worry about the balance. We played with a number of local game journalists and we're already seeing the dramatic differences between those who've spent time playing the game (in the PC beta) and those who were new to Overwatch. Point being: there is a dramatic skill gap in this game. Not only do you have the gap of individual player skill to contend with, you have the issue of picking the right character for your own skill set. Then you have the meta-game: who works well with which character? When should you choose Tracer instead of Reaper? I get the sense that this game is going to get competitive real fast. I get the sense that balancing issues are going to be a constant talking point. I get the sense that there'll be a constant struggle between this game working as a competitive game ala Counter-Strike or League Of Legends, whilst still operating in the same space as a game like Team Fortress 2.
Am I wrong here?
Alex: It’s going to suck for people who really get attached to a single character, and that’s something Blizzard doesn’t really have an answer for. Some of the character designs are incredibly cool, and players will want to play those heroes all the time. But if that hero is ill-suited for the team or the situation on hand, then you’re forced to either choose between a character you like or something that’s more optimal for the scenario at hand.
It’s a concession other games make, namely that everyone has an opportunity to do something in every situation. But if you’re playing Zarya – the female tank who’s, to borrow a phrase from my charming mother, built like a brick shithouse – and there’s nobody else on the team who can take a bit of damage, you’re stuffed. You can’t absorb enough damage yourself to become effective. You need a second tank, or someone who’s prepared to play highly aggressively.
And when you speak of balance, I think that’s where the competitive meta will really become interesting. I’ll be interested to see how teams find subtle ways to take certain characters out of the equation. If half your team changes just to counter a particular combo the enemy’s doing – well, everyone can see that, and they can respond in kind. It becomes a bit of a rollercoaster.
But if just one character has an ability that’s used in such a way that it makes a particular combo far less effective – like Roadhog hooking Mercy out of the sky so she can’t heal an ally, or hooking Mercy’s target of healing away from her – that’s a whole different scenario.
That’s where the real skill gap lies, I feel – finding ways to make your character choices work in as many situations as possible. Because if you’re forcing the enemy to change around your hero choices, then you’re dictating the flow of the game – and your chances of winning will be higher.
You said this game was going to get competitive real fast. I’d disagree with you, but only because of one thing: it’s already very, very competitive. Top teams have already been picking up players for the game. One of the biggest European teams (Team Liquid) picked up a Counter-Strike player who was banned for match fixing just to play Overwatch. Late last year organisations were offering a cut of their streaming revenue to Team Fortress 2 teams to get them to convert over.
People are expecting a lot from Overwatch.
Mark: See! Exactly! There you go. Point proven.
And I'm already trying to work where I fit in. I, Joe Blow, married father of two who gets to play for a couple of hours a week if I'm lucky. Am I going to be able to play Overwatch and have fun, or is this going to be a League of Legends situation where you're all in or you might as well bugger off?
Because on the face of things Overwatch wants to be this accessible shooter. Accessible is, after all, what Blizzard does best. But Overwatch runs a very real risk of alienating those players because it is, for all intents and purposes, a first-person shooter with MOBA elements. I think it runs a real risk of making things difficult for a broad audience.
In short, I hope Blizzard is ready to work some very real magic with its matchmaking system.
Alex: Fun thing is that Overwatch doesn’t really play like a MOBA. You’re encouraged, and more likely, to get involved in a fight. If you play something like League, Dota or Battleborn, it’s not really to your advantage to get overly aggressive. You’re waiting for the right time to jump in and fully unleash – and until then, you’re just spamming your shots back and forth, trying not to take too much damage.
Overwatch is far more aggressive – and I think it’ll be more popular with people who play casually for that reason, because the battle-to-battle experience is more rewarding. You can’t charge four or five characters on your own, but massive battles don’t take 30 or 40 seconds to resolve the way they can in MOBAs.
That’s what makes Overwatch work for me in a way that Battleborn, Paragon, Paladins et al. don’t. If I’m shooting someone, I know they’re going to die before too long. The only characters that feel like bullet sponges are literally because their entire role is to be a bullet sponge. I can shoot someone in the head with Widowmaker and if they don’t drop to the floor immediately, they’re bloody close to it.
It’s satisfying. Games that blend FPS with MOBA elements often end up sacrificing that visceral aspect for huge health counters and ability trees. Overwatch doesn’t do that, and I think that style fits in better with what fans of console shooters expect.
Mark: Like I said before, Overwatch – to me – is almost infallible at this point. It’s a great idea, well executed and it’s just polished as all hell. It’s one of those “why didn’t I think of that” ideas.
And the bizarre thing is that people have thought of it, but they’ve never quite put it all together like Overwatch. It still feels original and still feels like something new, despite the fact it’s really just a bundle of things we already have cobbled into something that seems new.
But does any of that even matter? I dunno. I don’t think so. Overwatch is pretty special in my opinion. It’s all dependent on how Blizzard handle it once it’s released into the wild, but I expect it to be wildly successful.
Alex: It’ll be special for consoles. That’s a huge drawcard, not just because Blizzard gets to market to a bigger audience but because it fills a bit of a void that really only Halo and Call of Duty try to do. And there are plenty of fans of those games. But there’s also plenty who would enjoy that adrenaline hit if it wasn’t wrapped up in either of those universes or the crap that comes with them (Bromance 9000/console exclusivity).
The open beta next week is going to be real interesting. The Overwatch servers have held up pretty well on PC so far. But they need to make sure those servers are 100% solid for all three platforms at once. This is a multiplayer game. If the servers are buggered, the whole experience dies in the arse.
The ball’s in Blizzard’s court.