"It's been 17 years since Blizzard opened the door to a new adventure, a new world," said Chris Metzen, Blizzard's creative director, on stage at BlizzCon about half an hour into the opening ceremony. Until then, BlizzCon 2014 had pretty much proceeded according to expectation, with few surprises. Warlords of Draenor was just around the corner, so we knew there'd be very little news about World of Warcraft. The Hearthstone developers had long talked about the next expansion, so it was more a matter of putting a name to it and getting some details. We already knew the name of the Protoss expansion for StarCraft II, and our gut feeling rightly said that it was time for a formal announcement for Legacy of the Void.
Admittedly, the name "Overwatch" emerged as a trademark some time before, but the wildest thing anyone on the editorial staff had imagined was some sort of tactical, turn-based game in the Warcraft universe, similar to games like Warhammer or Warmachine. Instead Blizzard revealed something brand new - for the first time in 17 years, as Metzen put it. "It's too long to wait, and my friends, the wait ends right now."
Overwatch is atypical Blizzard, in that it's a first-person shooter, and one that focuses exclusively on team-based multiplayer matches. The obvious comparison is Team Fortress 2, since in both games players choose between a number of easily recognisable and clearly defined characters, each of whom have a unique selection of abilities, weapons and play-styles. So far, Overwatch has twelve different characters to choose from, and Blizzard promises that there are many more to come.
The game aims to be inclusive, and the developers are trying to hit that goal in several ways. First, there must be opportunities for those who are not hardened FPS players with the twitch reflexes of a twelve year old. In short, there must be things to do other than to place your crosshairs over the enemy, as the developers themselves put it. And so we get characters like Mercy, who primarily functions as a healer and has abilities that can make the crucial difference with good timing, or Torbjörn, who builds turrets and other defences.
Second, you live longer. If you've played Call of Duty, you certainly know the feeling of turning a corner and getting gunned down before you get to see who shot you. In Overwatch, defeating your opponent will take longer, and there should be more back-and-forth and more time to use your character's special abilities.
Finally, all Overwatch game types are objective-based. There is no pure deathmatch, where you're just trying to get the most kills. Rather than struggling to conquer capture points or move a payload up to a certain goal, the teams take turns attacking and defending.
So far so good, but how does it actually play? Although we only managed to try Overwatch for a few rounds (the queue for the demo consoles was understandably looong), it was enough for us to get a clear first impression. Overwatch does not in any way indicate that this is the first time Blizzard has developed an FPS game.
The controls are crisp and responsive, to a degree reminiscent of genre classics like Quake, Doom and, yes, Team Fortress 2. We get to play as a several of the twelve characters. Tracer is equipped with two pistols that have a high firing rate and a small magazine. She can blink, i.e. teleport over short distances, with a press of the Shift key. The ability has three charges that gradually fills up after use. With the E-button, she rewinds time for herself, ending up exactly where she was three seconds ago, even with the same amount of health. Perfect for a quick in-and-out attack, tactical retreats.
Pharah is equipped with a rocket launcher and jetpack that can both send her high in the air and let her float for short periods of time. Hanzo can climb vertical surfaces, and with his bow, he can - if you charge the shot up for a few seconds - take most opponents out with a single arrow. Rheinhart is a large, heavy German with a war hammer and massive armor, who can throw up a shield that absorbs enemy fire while teammates can still shoot through. He can also charge and kill enemies by crushing them against a wall. Finally, we tried Reaper, who's armed with two heavy pistols, has a rather slow teleport-ability and can make himself invulnerable for a while, although he can't attack during that time.
The pace is fast, but you live longer than in other modern shooters, and it offers some wonderfully hectic battles where there's a lot going on around you. There is also a great degree of mobility, thanks to skills such as Pharah's jetpack or Hanzo's wall climbing, and the increased verticality is very refreshing.
Combat is 6v6, and with twelve characters currently in the game, you'd be inclined to think that there's only room for one of each in a match. But no, you can switch characters every time you die and there is nothing stopping you from making an entire team of Winstons, the huge, friendly mutant gorilla with glasses. That said, the developers' experience is that teams with many identical characters do worse than more balanced teams.
The team size of six players is also carefully selected. Game director Jeff Kaplan explains that they tried bigger teams, such as eight or 12 players, but their experience was that the players felt less important and more inconsequential. The experience was more chaotic, and they saw that two players could be in the middle of a great duel, only to be interrupted because four other players came in from the side and bulldozed everything.
Conversely, they've also tested it with smaller teams, but here each player was too important to a team's overall chances, leaving little room for those having a bad day or being less experienced than their opponents.
Immediately after the unveiling of Overwatch, there were many who assumed that the game would borrow elements from the MOBA genre, but that's downright wrong. There is no progression system, neither within or outside of the fighting, nothing to unlock or power-up abilities, and no NPC characters to shoot at. It's pure action, pure FPS.
One point where Overwatch is really going to standout from Blizzard's other major titles, is the story. There is almost no story in the game itself. This doesn't mean that Overwatch has no story at all - in fact there's quite a lot of it - but as Metzen explained on stage, it will be told in other ways. Exactly how, he said nothing about, but more clips from the Blizzard CGI department in the style of the terrific intro movie they showed at BlizzCon, is probably a safe bet. Trans-media is very "in" at the moment, and since the aforementioned mini-movie looked like something coming out of Pixar, we eagerly hope for more on that front.
Overwatch takes place on Earth, sixty years in the future. Thirty years before the game is set, robots became widespread, but the robots - dubbed omnis - collectively went crazy, threatening to exterminate humanity. This led to the formation of Overwatch, a special force of heroes and soldiers from around the world, fighting against the robots.
Overwatch won, the world was saved, and they were hailed as heroes everywhere. Later they disbanded, with the remaining members turning to mercenary work. But a new threat (which hasn't been revealed yet) is on the rise, and therefore Overwatch members once again come into play.
That's the story in broad strokes, and if you ask how this kind of narrative makes room for a cyber-gorilla like Winston, that of course is because he is a mutant gorilla who grew up in a laboratory on the moon, and learned to talk by listening to his scientist "father" - whose old glasses he's wearing as a tribute. Just so you understand why he suddenly goes berserk in the intro movie.
The big, unanswered question is the payment model, and Blizzard won't talk about that yet. So we do not know if it will be a "full" one-off like Diablo or Starcraft, or free-to-play with character purchases in the style of Heroes of the Storm or Hearthstone. But Overwatch holds up, even in this early stage. The game will go into beta at an unspecified time next year, and Blizzard has opened up sign-ups via Battle.net.