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Overwatch is a multiplayer team first person shooter out now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Alan Stock brings you this review for ComiConverse.
Game Review: Overwatch
Blizzard Entertainment have a long history of hugely successful multiplayer games, their big franchises of Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo and Hearthstone have massive player bases. But as their previous games have been strategy or RPG focused, it was a bit of a surprise when they announced Overwatch, a first person shooter (FPS) and also only Blizzard’s second foray on consoles since Diablo 3. The questions on everyone’s minds were – did Blizzard have the skills to branch out into a completely different genre and also – could a new team based FPS stand out in an oversaturated market up against giants like Call of Duty, Counterstrike, Team Fortress, Halo, and Battlefield?
Well, Overwatch answers both of those questions with a resounding “yes”. It’s been amazingly successful since launch earlier this year, and manages to stand out both stylistically and in gameplay from its peers. I gave it a try over a recent free weekend and was hooked, happily paying up afterwards for the game. The premise is straightforward, two teams of six players battle to take and hold objective points on a map, escort a slowly moving payload to its destination or a combination of the two. Players can choose from a roster of 22 unique heroes each with their own special abilities, and can change these heroes when they die or by returning to the spawn room. Heroes are grouped into basic classes – Assault, Defence, Tank or Support. It borrows/steals a great deal from the excellent Team Fortress 2, sometimes shamelessly, like hero Mercy who has a healing ray identical to TF2’s Medic and turret builder Torbjorn is basically TF2’s Engineer. Fortunately, Overwatch has enough original ideas up its sleeve to stand out.
The first thing you notice playing Overwatch is how visually different it is to the swathe of military FPS games out there. Although the setting is futuristic Earth in conflict, it doesn’t have the typical dull grey/brown urban areas we’re used to seeing in these games. Instead, Overwatch’s environments are vibrant and diverse – mainly futuristic interpretations of existing cities across the globe. Environments range from gleaming skyscrapers in Africa and Mexican carnival streets, to Japanese castles and Nepalese temples. The maps are good looking, full of detail and the overall artistic style is reminiscent of Team Fortress 2.
The heroes too are very stylised, with a grand mixture of genders, ethnicities, backgrounds and body shapes. It’s nice to see such a range although disappointing that the otherwise good gender diversity is marred by a few too many male fantasy outfits on the girls. But other than that, it’s a refreshing change to see an FPS with such a colourful and uplifting vibe and this extends to the overall attitude of the game – it’s a more optimistic vision of the future we usually see in games, where hope still exists for humanity and mankind’s achievements are plain to see. There’s plenty of humour here too and the heroes all have plenty of character, chatting to each other before the matches start and making remarks as you play. Each has a variety of cheerful and satisfying animated emotes, intros, decal sprays and victory animations that can be unlocked as you progress. The heroes all feel like they have a place and purpose in the world, with backstories available in other media – the YouTube animated shorts Blizzard has produced are especially good. This is a game that looks and feels fun.
Although there are so many heroes, they all share common controls. Each can move and shoot their primary weapon like any FPS and Overwatch is immediately accessible and easy to learn, you can just run and gun to start with and gradually learn the hero abilities. Each hero has two or three of these to activate, with a cooldown, and an Ultimate ability. This charges both over time and by eliminating enemies, and is a powerful attack or ability that can give your team a big edge when used at the right time, especially when combined with other Ultimates. All the abilities have different gameplay implications tying nicely into the overall hero design, and giving players plenty of tactical opportunities. For example, Pharah has a jet pack and rocket launcher. She can boost into the air, hover with her jet packs, fire a force blast to shunt enemy players around, and her Ultimate rains down a rocket barrage, but leaves her vulnerable whilst doing so. Mei freezes enemies with her ice gun, can fire an ice wall to block off areas or give cover for the team, encase herself in an ice block for a few seconds to regenerate and survive, and her Ultimate freezes an area, trapping enemies within. Reinhart has a huge shield which protects teammates, wields a massive hammer and can turbo charge into enemies.
You get the idea.
Each hero feels significantly different in design and playstyle – there’s something for everyone here. Although it’s easy to pick up and play any hero, through practice there’s plenty to learn, each hero has their own nuances and advanced play is very satisfying as you master them. You’ll soon find your favourite heroes and you can customise them through cosmetic unlocks as you level up. These come in the form of Loot Boxes with random contents, it’s a nice idea but quite annoying when you get duplicate items or skins for heroes you never use. You can buy more loot boxes through micro-transactions although Overwatch admirably doesn’t push this on you, and the unlock rate seems reasonable without having to fork out extra cash. Whether the unlock system is designed specifically to encourage micro-transactions I don’t know, but it’s one of the least intrusive examples I’ve seen recently, and crucially the upgrades are only cosmetic. From the very first time you boot the game, all players are on an even playing field with access to the same heroes and abilities no matter how high their level, or how much money they’ve paid – always giving you a fair chance regardless of what you’ve invested into the game.
Additionally heroes are designed with their own strengths and weaknesses with counters firmly in mind. The idea is that some heroes are direct counters to others – encouraging players to change their team composition to deal with the enemy team and adapt on the fly. For example, Winston is a big gorilla with a short range lightning gun that doesn’t do much damage. Caught in the open and at long range he can get into trouble. However he can leap and has a short lived bubble dome shield for protection– and is best used as a harassing character to jump behind the enemy front lines and try to take down weak snipers and healers, jumping out when the action gets too hot. He’s also good against fast, hard to target characters like Tracer, due to his gun’s area of effect. But he’s vulnerable against characters like Reaper with his shotguns, McRee’s long range revolver and Mei who can freeze him. The large Hero roster means for interesting gameplay interactions like this, although you’re always running and gunning there’s plenty to think about – whether that’s using abilities, the environment to your advantage or dealing with the particular heroes you’re up against.
Level design is strong, with tight layouts focusing play towards the core objective point, with plenty of flanking and sniping opportunities. They must have been a nightmare to balance and design considering they smartly take advantage of the unique hero movement abilities, for example gaps or ledges that only some heroes can reach or cross. Escort levels focus attention on the moving payload and are the most fun in my opinion as the action continually moves through the level. Fixed objective levels are either King of the Hill or simply capturing points in succession, although games in these modes is usually more frantic, here it’s much more common for attacking players to fail to group, easily falling into the trap of dropping in solo to a heavily defended objective in dribs and drabs. But when teams start to play together effectively the game becomes more satisfying, especially when making good use of support characters, flanking or by using Ultimates wisely to swing the course of the game. Thanks to the gameplay design, team play is encouraged and the overall the game does a good job of steering players towards working together.
The emphasis on positivity seen in Overwatch’s setting has also filtered into many other areas of the game. Blizzard, no strangers to multiplayer, seem to have analysed what causes negative play and players spoiling the experience for others in online FPSs. They’ve successfully managed to eliminate much of the abusive play, hostility and selfishness that puts so many gamers off multiplayer in titles like Call of Duty. First of all they’ve cracked down hard on cheating (always a problem in PC multiplayer games), being vigilant and banning players permanently found doing so. Secondly, through good design and by constantly iterating the game and responding to player feedback, they have successfully removed a lot of frustrations and unfair elements which mar the genre. For example, one-hit kill weapons are hard to use effectively, camping behaviour usually has a straightforward counter, respawn times after death are short and teams have a difficult time trapping the opponents in their spawn point. Early quitters are punished and inactive players quickly kicked from a match. If a team or player is dominating, good teamwork and hero switching can provide a counter to this. Although of course it’s not entirely idiot-free, out of the many competitive online multiplayer games I’ve played over the years, I’ve found Overwatch one of the best for just getting in and enjoying the game rather than have the experience spoiled by problem players and abusive play.
The other key part of adjusting the multiplayer attitude in Overwatch is that everything is geared towards promoting positive team play rather than individual player performance and aggression. Although players are still rewarded individually through stats, experience and highlights at the end of a match, it’s not only kills that are rewarded. Objective time racked up in Overwatch is acknowledged, as is healing, assists and hero ability achievements such as trapping players or shielding them. In a brilliant design decision, the focus is on “eliminations” rather than kills – if you damage an enemy but someone else finishes them off, you’re still awarded an elimination. This is satisfying, promotes team play and helps to stop players treating matches as a deathmatch where kill count is everything – if you contribute, you still get rewarded even if you don’t perform the finishing blow. Games are won and lost on objectives alone, not eliminations, and heroes comment throughout the game about the importance of securing the objective, reminding players that that should be the focus. In hero selection, team balance is encouraged through warnings that your team has no healers, or too many snipers, for example – and also driving players to try out new heroes.
After the brief tutorial, although you can set up Custom games with friends you’ll spend the majority of your time in the online matchmaking modes. Quick Play just jumps you straight into a match, and Competitive is a seasonal ranked mode where players move up and down rankings depending on their performance. Competitive is where you’ll see better team play and extended games – teams take turns between attack and defence on the same map. Overwatch so far has proved very reliable in connection performance with good grouping based on user connection speeds. Matchmaking is fast, in Quick Play you can usually get a game within a minute or two, Competitive slightly longer. This is great and means little waiting around. However, it comes at a price.
Although matchmaking generally does a decent job, its focus on speed over balance means sometimes the sides are clearly mismatched from the start, in either skill or player level. Player level just equals time spent in Overwatch but pit a team of level 50’s against level 180’s and you’ll see experience does count for something. However, matchmaking does do a good job at handling groups of friends playing together. It tries to match group numbers on each side, for example a team with a 3-1-2 group composition will usually be fighting a 3-1-2 on the other side, or a 5-1 will fight an opposing 5-1. In general, it’s a smooth and fast multiplayer experience with a priority on speed and little hanging around, one of the best out there, but there are some flaws. One drawback with the matchmaking system is that it rarely keeps teams together for more than a few games, meaning it’s hard to get a sense of community with your team, especially for solo players. Manually tracking down and grouping up with past players is possible but tricky, and due to the quick player turnaround it’s hard to keep tabs on who is who, especially as it doesn’t show which heroes they were playing. Communication on consoles is also a bit of an issue, not many people use voice chat in my experience, and the quick comms menu has a very limited number of preset speech bytes. On PC, at least you can type messages in-game, and more people use the voice chat – though you’ll probably have to deal with more trash-talkers – welcome to the wonderful world of online gaming!
Overwatch is highly polished and full of small details that make the experience that much better and streamlined. Loading times are very fast. Instead of idly waiting for a game in matchmaking, whilst searching you enter a Skirmish, a practice mode where you can fight and learn the maps, or you can play around in the menus. The “Play of the Game” at the end of a match shows everyone a highlight of one player’s key performance, based on a complicated algorithm. It doesn’t always pick the most amazing clip but it’s generally fun to watch, and very satisfying when you make the cut yourself. Match end also shows the significant achievements of four players and everyone can vote for their favourite, if a player receives five votes they gain an experience reward. It’s another way to highlight good performances and encourage team play. Spawn rooms are full of fun interactive props and physics objects to ease boredom whilst waiting for a match to begin. Controls can be customised for each hero and there’s even colour blindness options – concessions to accessibility you rarely see this comprehensively. The polish shines in every aspect of the game.
Overwatch may not be anything radically new at its core, but in every other aspect it’s so refreshing and original that it’s a revelation for the team FPS genre. And most importantly, it’s just very fun to play – addictive, well balanced, rewarding, accessible and streamlined. There’s so much depth and longevity here that even after 60 hours I’ve barely touched some of the heroes and still have much to master. The large hero roster makes every encounter different. Blizzard is also committed to continue refining the game and has been gradually trickling in new content such as extra maps, heroes and cosmetic unlocks. It’s a company that continues to listen and communicate to its player base with frank development videos and progress reports. I also want to make special mention of how well Overwatch promotes team play and reduces negative player behaviour. It’s definitely a breath of fresh air to have a more “friendly” multiplayer FPS where positive behaviour is encouraged through clever design. Indeed, in every aspect Overwatch is a triumph of quality game design and what a team FPS can be with some imagination. Even if you don’t normally play this kind of FPS or hero games, give Overwatch a go – look out for the free weekends that Blizzard runs from time to time – you might end up being happily surprised!
Probably the best team shooter of all time, and that’s saying something.
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Source: Blizzard Entertainment
Overwatch’s unique style and excellent gameplay is a refreshing take on the team FPS with a positive attitude and a fantastic multiplayer experience. For me, the new king of multiplayer FPS.