Overwatch is a breath of fresh air in one of the most stagnant genres in the industry: the competitive shooter. Blood, futuristic armies and dark, gritty aesthetics are themes that need an alternative. This is where Blizzard comes to the rescue with the MOBA-inspired Overwatch, which is filled with character, colour and Pixar-esque spirit. Thus far, the game is characterized by having almost everything that could be said is missing in the competition. It's upbeat and driven by the diversity of its characters, instead of weapons, and by team-play instead of kills.
Location-wise we are on Earth, but in an idealised future. According to Blizzard's Jeff Kaplan, every level is designed to resemble the way in which the team itself idealises London, Hollywood or Japan. It's not about where Big Ben or the roads in Hollywood are placed, the point is to put forward the child-like naivety of someone who hasn't been there, and how nice it could be if the post-cards for once spoke the truth. Forget about realism and jump into Blizzard's T-rated, silly, and creative universe. There's no zombies, no post-apocalyptic scenarios or WW3 here. Overwatch is about the pure fun of shooting your buddies. That is what some of the brightest heads in the industry finally get to do, and in a genre they've never worked with before.
Everything from the roster of heroes to the composition of the levels has a rich diversity about it, and it's something that's been missing in the genre. The different maps are especially fun because of the many short-cuts hidden throughout the buildings, ensuring many different ways of surprising the enemy. As pointed out by lead level designer Aaron Keller in our interview, special parts of the maps feel like they've been created with specific heroes in mind, so the tall bridges, balconies and rooftops are mostly built for very mobile heroes, like Widowmaker or Pharah, while others can push through certain choke points, where the big clashes emerge.
Overwatch also stands out by departing from the typical weapon-centric mentality of its fellow competitive shooters, since you can't simply shift between different weapons, but instead you get a complete package once you've chosen a specific character. This is akin to what Heroes of the Storm did for MOBAs, since the loadout/shop system is gone. This makes for a very accessible game, but because the levels and characters complement each other so dynamically, the whole game feels very deep and strategic. As with MOBAs, there is plenty to learn about how the heroes work together in the different maps and game modes.
The different game modes are all 6v6, and they're not completely ground-breaking, although they do make an excellent frame for the game. So far there's three modes, and they are all focused on team objectives, again like Heroes of the Storm. There is no Team Deathmatch, then, and instead you have to, as a team, escort a wagon to a certain destination, control two areas, or make sure that the enemy team doesn't. The interesting thing, naturally, is how to go about it.
Jeff Kaplan spoke about the team's vision for the game. Simply put, the game is about minimising complexity while maximising the depth of the gameplay. This is reflected in the decision to have lots of characters, but no option to choose different builds, as you can in Heroes of the Storm. In this way every player has an idea about exactly what the others are capable of, because there is only one Reaper, Pharah, Winston etc., and not many different versions of each.
As these considerations indicate, Overwatch is one of the most focused games we've played in a while. The different dimensions to the game; abilities/characters, levels and game modes, complement each other incredibly well. The game feels controlled, but in a good way. While you can't customise every character to your liking, individual styles with Tracer, Reaper, Winston and friends will be unique to the player. There is, in this way, room for creativity, not due to a levelling system, but rather well-focused game design.
The focused gameplay is quite suitable for consoles, since they don't have the 100-something buttons of a keyboard. With exactly the same button layout and nearly identical performance across the two consoles, there was next to no difference between the two. The short of it was that the game ran phenomenally, and looked really good. We were also told that it runs in 60 fps on both PS4 and Xbox One, and if in trouble, the textures are downscaled temporarily. However, we didn't notice any such issues during the event.
We have only encountered a few issues with the game so far. In the version we tried, there were some sound issues on the Xbox, but the team is working on this right now, and it should be solved soon. One thing we noticed, though, was that the backdrop in some of the levels could have looked better, and is very low-res. But with such an adrenaline-fuelled game, the horizon is not exactly something that you stop and stare at. It is still noticeable sometimes. For example, the textures on some skyscrapers in the distance of the Chinese-inspired map are very rough.
Secondly, however Overwatch intends to reward its players, it will not include any gameplay-altering advantages, as mentioned. But for some players, skins might not be enough. Where Team Fortress 2 and others reward the players with unlockable weapons and such, Overwatch doesn't contain an item system, but is more character-driven. In this way, some players might lose a sense of progression. Luckily, Blizzard can react to this sooner or later, if it becomes a problem.
Thirdly, crouch is very awkward in the game, since everything is so fast-paced. Even so, the "circle/B" button is dedicated to this function, which we, according to Kaplan, "just shouldn't use". The slide-move that we know from Call of Duty etc. is non-existent in Overwatch, even though this seems useful in such a hectic game. But we think the reason for these decisions is the mentality of the team as they push for simplicity, which might be a good thing.
We didn't get any substantial look into the social aspect of the game this time. The somewhat radical exclusion of a K/D overview during the game was definitely noticeable, since this is a social focus of most shooters. When asked about this, we learned that this was a deliberate choice. According to the developers, this "numbers game" misrepresents what it actually means to be a good player. It is a team effort to play Overwatch, not about getting the most kills (since there is no Team Deathmatch). You can, however, see the highest kill-streak and similar achievements by pressing one of the arrow-buttons during the match (on consoles).
These design decisions make the game very accessible for newcomers, and by adding easy access to your character's abilities, Blizzard has made a game that you can quickly pick up and learn as you go. Since this, simple as it is, doesn't require that many buttons, it is a good fit for consoles. While the team has cross-platform play in mind between consoles, interplay between PC and console is out of the question, since PC players would have too big an advantage, Kaplan explained.
It seems like the team is pulling the game in the right direction. "Quality over quantity" is a cliché, but it's also advice that too few game developers stick to. Nonetheless, this is exactly what Blizzard is doing so well this time, as always. Overwatch will therefore most likely not get a boring single-player mode that no one cares about. Instead it will keep on doing what it does best.
Instead of a "story mode" the levels are filled with fun little details, unveiling the quirky universe of Overwatch, while Blizzard also looks to other formats that can expand on the world of the game. In classic Blizzard-style, the franchise is supposed to last the next twenty years. For every little bit of lore that is revealed, we get more and more excited about the universe. From the lovely little short about Winston, Recall, that was released on March 21, to the promise of a graphic novel, we can't wait for more from the story writers.
After our visit to Blizzard's HQ, we can safely say that Overwatch is one of the games we're looking forward to most this year. The hours we spent with the game were pure fun. Looking forward, there are only some minor adjustments needed, otherwise the game seems solid. How Blizzard will keep players around in the long run is still unclear, but it is certainly refreshing to see a bright, almost childish, shooter from the Californian studio.