Overwatch has technically only been out for a week, but it’s already a phenomenon. Even people who have never played Overwatch are getting sucked into its orbit through fan fiction, cosplay, memes and porn. That’s because Overwatch is not really a game as much as it’s an event.
Normally, hype tells you nothing concrete about a game, but the hype around Overwatch has become a key part of the experience. The excitement around the game acts as a testament to Blizzard’s dedication to craft, refinement and iconic character design.
Everything about Overwatch is character-driven. The game technically has a story — there was once an international task force of heroes who banded together to restore peace under a banner called ‘Overwatch’ — but the game itself is pretty divorced from that lore. If you’ve never watched any of the (excellent) shorts on YouTube or read any of the comics, you could play Overwatch without ever really knowing what it’s about. The specifics don’t matter that much. You’re here for these guys:
At first, new players are likely to gravitate toward whatever characters look cool as they pursue each match’s objective of capturing a point or moving cargo from point A to point B. With time, however, everyone learns the importance of building a team with complementary skills. It helps that Blizzard actually holds your hands with small details such as gently suggesting improvements toward team composition when you select a character.
There are four types of heroes in Overwatch: tank (the guys who lead an attack and soak up damage), offence (the guys who bring the heat in an attack), defence (the guys who protect areas of interest) and support (the guys who don’t get enough credit for buffing the team). Winston the gorilla, for example, can leap right into an enemy frontline, where he’ll then pop a shield that can herd teammates forward. Tracer, Overwatch’s peppy mascot, is a quick little bugger who can whiz around at mach speed, making her a perfect weapon for dealing damage against a slower enemy. Bastion, on the other hand, is a bulky robot who can turn into a stationary turret, making him great option for fending off heroes. Lucio is a DJ with a sonic amplifier that plays tunes that can either heal or speed up allies. This is just a small slice of the overall roster, but Overwatch lets you take on a variety of different roles through characters who feel unique to play.
Every match of Overwatch also has a certain feel and progression to it, depending on what your objective is. If you’re defending against attackers, you start matches by setting up around the map. You get one minute before the gates open and attackers are allowed on the field, though usually it only takes thirty seconds to get ready. This means every Overwatch match starts with a healthy dose of anxiety hanging in the air, and it’s especially palpable if you’re on the attacking team. Initially, attackers can’t do anything except peer into the map through slits on closed doors. Sometimes, you’ll see an enemy staring back menacingly, perhaps even taunting you with emotes. Maybe you’ll flex back.
Though no action can take place during this minute, it is emblematic of the genuine sense of camaraderie you can find throughout Overwatch. Players try their best to grab each other’s attention during this phase of the game, despite being unable to kill each other. This is sometimes done by plastering character-specific tags in the form of “sprays” on walls, but mostly it’s by bouncing around excitedly. Characters endearingly repeat lines over and over again, as if someone is tugging on their pull strings.
Once the match officially starts, the central tension is push and pull. Attackers do their best to make headway on the objective, and defenders try to stop them at all costs. Initially, it feels as if defenders have the upper hand: they have time to set up choke points, after all, and attackers are literally pushed against a wall. But because attackers can keep spawning right away, and any dead defenders have to trek back to the point, eventually most attackers gain a window to move forward, even if it’s just a small one. That’s where the real fun begins.
In any other game, this might be the point where the match becomes a lone wolf free-for-all. Blizzard, however, has designed Overwatch from the ground up to be objective oriented. There is no scoreboard you can pull up midmatch keeping track of how many kills you get, no kill/death ratio to really obsess over. Kills are almost meaningless really, given that the game awards you a “kill” even if you don’t do the bulk of the damage or land the killing blow — the game seems to track any damage contribution, no matter how small. It’s easy to rack up kills if you want, especially given that skills refresh rather rapidly, but pure kills won’t win you the game.
For years, so many class-based shooters have touted the necessity of teamwork and cooperation without significantly altering a framework that made that utopian ideal impossible. Overwatch actually does some work in this regard, and the result feels tremendous.
Heroes also have something called an “ultimate ability”, which the game slowly charges as you play, regardless of whether or not you’re winning or landing kills (though they help). These are devastating abilities that can change the tide of a battle if timed correctly. Lucio, for example, can give all of his teammates a temporary shield, while Winston can go into a Primal Rage mode that boosts his health and attack strength. Because ultimates are not strictly tied to skill, players always have the ability to majorly contribute to a match.
Blizzard also assigns the most value to capturing points or pushing the payload (which, by the way, can also heal you if you’re nearby, for extra motivation). Anyone who contributes in some way toward the objective tends to get participation points, which are tallied up at the end so the game can award experience points. With enough XP, you unlock a loot box, which holds a random assortment of cosmetic upgrades, such as as skins and victory poses. You can also buy loot boxes at $2.95 for two, though it helps to be patient instead.
Players who are new to Overwatch might have to undergo some deprogramming, because it is a game that actually expects you to work as a team, a prospect that becomes harsher as a match progresses. In Overwatch, sometimes the objective changes mid-match. Once an attacker successfully captures a point, the game will suddenly open up more of the map, and players will then be tasked with pushing a payload forward to win. A map that once featured a wide open space might suddenly become become a long, narrow hallway, for example, forcing you to completely reconsider your tactics for securing the new objective. You might start a match as Reinhardt to make the initial push, then swap to Mercy to keep your teammates alive at the point, only to then pick up Mei so you can freeze enemies at close quarters. This on-the-fly swapping can be difficult to get used to, but it is one of the core pillars that make up Overwatch.
Some heroes are easier to learn than others, but even when I’m waffling around with a character I don’t fully understand, it always becomes an opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of Overwatch’s many mechanics. As an example: for the longest time, I played Overwatch stuck to the ground… only to have a new world open up to me when I picked up more aerial characters like Pharah (who can jet into the sky) and Genji (who can climb walls). The character swaps in this case changed the game entirely and pushed me to think about new ways to play. Even after dozens of hours in Overwatch, playing constantly feels like a learning experience.
Overwatch’s sound design is also stellar. Characters will bark out things you can’t immediately see, like when an enemy is behind you, or when a turret lies ahead. You can tell different characters apart based completely on their footsteps, which means that, if you’re observant enough, you can catch an enemy sneaking up behind you. Your character will gasp when you are low on health. Details like these are not sweeping, genre-redefining tweaks, but together they form enough changes to make Overwatch feel like a revelation — and it exists in a genre that nobody thought needed innovations in the first place.
Once a match is over, Overwatch spends a couple of minutes handing out kudos to star players. First, every match has a “play of the game”, where Overwatch highlights a moment where someone kicked a lot of arse; the most arse, if you will. At least, that’s the idea, but it doesn’t quite work that way. Presently Overwatch’s algorithm highlights too many boring plays where nothing extraordinary happens, such as Bastion standing in one place mowing down a line of clueless enemies. Meanwhile, clutch moments made possible by support characters often go ignored. I’m sure that designing an automated system to recognise a wide swath good moments is probably a difficult task, and it helps that the play of the game at the end isn’t really a big deal. All the same, I’m glad to hear Blizzard is working on improving it. Hilariously, in its current broken state, the play of the game is inspiring so many amazing jokes on social media that I don’t really care if it ever gets fixed.
I'm fucking done pic.twitter.com/8guWskusgp
— Blue (@SeclusiveBlue) May 27, 2016
Once the play of the game is done, Overwatch tallies up a bunch of metrics and uses them to highlight four players to the rest of the lobby. Characters awarded this proverbial gold star often aren’t there solely because they got the most kills, however. Overwatch also gives props for things like healing, freezing enemies and playing the objective. Players are then prompted to “like” their favourite match contributors, and everyone can see who got voted the most. I’m of two minds when it comes to this feature. On the one hand, I’m happy that Blizzard is providing more opportunities to recognise players who might not be tearing up the battlefield with kills. At the same time, I dislike the popularity contest aspect of it, because it’s not really team-spirited. Maybe I’m just salty about all the times I played fantastic rounds as a healer only to not get voted a single time by my peers. What the hell, guys?
I just spent hundreds of words explaining the ebb and flow of a match, but the funny thing is, Overwatch matches are pretty short. Often, they only last around five minutes, which means you can fit in a bunch of matches even with a busy schedule. This, in combination with Overwatch‘s dedication to accessibility through its easy-to-pick-up mechanics, is inspiring people to play Overwatch even if they’re not typically interested in multiplayer shooters. You don’t have to be good at headshots to succeed in Overwatch, after all; you just have to stick together and help out when you can. You’ll fit right in with the fandom as long as you like the characters, which are honestly the best part of the whole thing.
I love every single character in Overwatch. Even the seemingly generic heroes, like Soldier: 76, have a certain charm that is brought to life with funny dialogue, ace animations and thoughtful gameplay mechanics. I’m also delighted by how diverse the cast is — this is a rare time when I can see my skin colour and body type represented in a game of this size and calibre in a way that is undeniably awesome. I’ve found myself gushing about the characters constantly since the beta, sometimes even (obnoxiously) repeating catchphrases in real life. The way I get excited over Overwatch characters is the closest I’ll ever come to being a little girl who sees a new Disney princess that actually looks like her for the first time, I figure.
Overwatch is often compared to The Incredibles thanks to its cartoonish Pixar look and because it also has a story that deals with “retired” superheroes, but I think the most apt comparison is actually Toy Story. Overwatch heroes are basically giant action figures. I can easily picture myself as a six year old, begging my mum to buy me a Reaper action figure, because I really need another toy to mash repeatedly against my worn McCree figurine. Don’t ask me if they’re going to be kissing or fighting each other. It’s probably both.
The thing about Overwatch is, playing the actual game feels like such a small part of the overall experience. Don’t get me wrong, Overwatch is an outstanding shooter, and Blizzard deserves recognition for making it. But it is the Overwatch fandom and its love for the characters that has formed a world so many of us will get lost in well after the game is turned off.