We've been closely following Overwatch since it was announced last year. With modern military shooters being about as fun as a barrel of dead ducks, Team Fortress 2 is one of the only games in the genre that's managed to maintain our interest. And since TF2 has turned into the Mad Hatter's tea party, this colourful, team orientated FPS is just what the doctor ordered.
The recent Blizzcon was a big event for Overwatch since Blizzard finally revealed the release details, pricing and the final trio of characters for the game. We now know that Overwatch is coming on PS4 and Xbox One at the same time as it hits PC in spring 2016. On the other hand Blizzcon offered bad news for Mac gamers since Blizzard said that it was not technically feasible to port the game onto Apple's home computers. At the same time it was also confirmed that Overwatch will not be a free-to-play game and will release on all platforms as a normal single payment game with standard retail pricing on PC and consoles.
Content wise Blizzard announced three new characters which brought the total tally to 21. According to the company there are no additional characters planned so they can focus the rest of the development time on finishing maps, game modes and other features. Bearing in mind there will not be any single-player campaign, Overwatch's multiplayer does feel incredibly polished and reasonably balanced. The new map, Hollywood, is a nice homage to the movie industry's iconic film sets and features a lot of fun scenery from movie studio back lots. It's also a pretty nicely conceived map for the Payload game mode where you need to escort film director Halfred Glitchbot to safety while the opposing team tries to stop you.
First of the new characters is Mei, or by her full name Mei-Ling Zhou, who is a defensive character armed with multiple freezing based weapons and abilities. Her main attack slows down opponents bringing them to a momentary halt for dishing out prolonged hits. She can also defend by surrounding herself in a block of ice. She both heals and negates damage while encased, but this also leaves her vulnerable afterwards. Her ice wall ability on the other hand brings forth a giant sheet of ice that can be used to block enemy movement or even raise friendlies to new positions. Mei is a fun to use but she's a challenging character to master and needs support for close encounters.
The perfect companion for Mei is cyborg ninja warrior, and Hanzo's brother, Genji Shimada. He is fast and lethal at close range with his katana, which can also be used for defence by deflecting incoming projectiles back at the enemy. Unfortunately Genji's other long range attacks are nothing to write home about. Basic shurikens are slow and need pretty good accuracy although alternative fire throws three at once in an arc. With his climbing abilities Genji is best suited to sneaking to the rear of an enemy position or following Mei. Her freezing abilities and Genjis sword attacks proved a devastating combo on more than one occasion.
The last of the trio of new characters is tank class D.VA (Hana Song). She is a pro gamer from Korea and rides a huge mech robot that can charge and glide through the air with ease despite its lofty size. The mech is armed with two shotgun type blasters with a pretty wide field of fire, albeit with short range. In defence, the mech can intercept and nullify enemy fire for a short moment so it is effective in destroying enemy ultimate strikes. The only problem is that it requires split second timing which is not easy to do in the heat of the battle.
D.VA's ultimate is self-destruct. It causes a huge explosion that takes out everyone nearby. It felt almost too powerful, but it does leave the player without the mech suit for a moment. The same happens if D.VA's health is depleted, leaving the mech on foot and armed with only a simple pistol. Then it is only a matter of surviving before she can call for a replacement mech. D.VA is the most interesting of the new characters. She is demanding to play as since you need to constantly plan ahead and think where to retreat to should things go wrong.
Overwatch is still a bit hazy as far as its theme and world go. Its titular organisation was founded somewhere in our future to provide an aggressive solution to the AI robot rebellion. After the war was fought and won, Overwatch gradually crumbled under accusations of corruption, before having their headquarters bombed. Now the former agents are waging a war against each other because "the world needs heroes," apparently.
Blizzard has traditionally been pretty good at building worlds, but the information that has been released regarding Overwatch so far doesn't make for a particularly strong case. One can ask of course, if a team based FPS has a particular need for an elaborate world, but it was one of those things that kept players involved with TF2 for so long.
Whereas TF2's background are goofy and comedic, Overwatch seems to draw from more topical themes, some of which aren't entirely pleasant. This seems at odds with some of the characters, which have a rather light-hearted tone to them.
The cast of characters seems a bit disjointed in itself, as it includes anime-inspired crazies, seductive sci-fi babes, grim soldiers, as well as a gorilla and a dwarf. The only way to massage this strange lot into a unified team is to consider them superheroes, but even then the end result feels like a cross between The Avengers, the Power Rangers and Donald Duck. There is no common theme.
From a technical point of view, Overwatch feels and looks good. Blizzard knows how to deliver splendid graphics and they haven't been holding back here. Although the effects do tend to swell up to the point where close quarters combat effectively becomes blind fighting.
The maps are colourful and detailed, though they do make it challenging to figure things out sometimes, especially if you're used to the more simplistic environments of TF2. The design philosophy is an odd one with mysterious dead ends that do not provide new paths even for the more mobile heroes.
Aside from having to study the maps, the player also has to wrap their head around twenty characters, all of whom have their own special powers and ways of getting about. It's nice to have some variety, but for the beginner, this is a daunting selection, especially since the game actively encourages players to swap their characters around during the match. It's like a highly complicated version of rock-paper-scissors.
To make the game more accessible Blizzard should invest more in teaching the characters to the player. Thus far the best way to get a hang of things is to try the whole lot out one at a time with AI opponents, which is a bit of a drag.
Balancing out the complicated maps and character selections, Overwatch features some very straightforward mission types, these being the classic Payload and Point capture. There will be no deathmatch in Overwatch, as Blizzard wants the players to focus on team objectives instead of kills.
The great graphics are supported by some very nicely tuned sounds and music. It is entirely possible to recognise your opponent based on their footsteps. The big guys make a lot of noise, so don't even think of surprising anyone with a tank. Sounds do have quite an important tactical role in the game, so serious players would do well to invest in some quality headphones.
The action feels nice and fluid, and we didn't really notice any bugs in the game. Blizzard is still polishing the final product, balancing out the characters and so forth, but it felt quite finished already. However it would be nice to see the maps streamlined just a bit.
All in all, Overwatch feels like a very technically proficient team based shooter, which is slightly held back by its hazy themes and a world that isn't really there quite yet. Despite this the game is already quite the little gem and has been one of the true highlights of this autumn. If they keep this tempo up Overwatch could very well be one of the best games of 2016.