Taking a concept very similar to the free-to-play Team Fortress 2 and making people pay for it sounds like a terrible idea. After all, Overwatch is a multiplayer-only shooter with no campaign and only cosmetic upgrades as rewards. But unlike so many multiplayer-only games to hit the market as of late, Overwatch actually works and is absolutely fantastic.
Overwatch is a first-person shooter that pits two teams of six against each other in one of four game modes in locales around the world. Players choose from 21 heroes (rather than classes), of which there are six Offense heroes, six Defense heroes, five Tanks and four Support heroes. All are different in their attacks, abilities, personalities, styles and learning curves.
At launch (the time frame with which we are reviewing the game), Overwatch consisted of quick play multiplayer, custom games for friendly battles, practice options against A.I. opponents, and a “Weekly Brawl” that offers a new game mode variant with wacky rules each week (such as all players playing as the same hero). Within Overwatch’s main mode, quick play, are four game modes.
Escort tasks one team with escorting a payload to its delivery point while the other team defends. Assault tasks one team with taking over a primary control point, after which a second control point becomes available. During that time, the opposing team must defend their points. Hybrid tasks the attacking team with securing a point, after which a payload must be pushed to its target. In the Control mode, both teams must attack a central, neutral point. The first team to fill its progress meter wins the round, and the best of three wins.
And that’s it. On the surface, that’s all there is to Overwatch. It’s delightfully simple, with a dozen maps and only one main playlist option at launch (a competitive/ranked mode has been added about a month after launch and is not a subject of this review). It’s an interesting paradox; I usually complain when a game doesn’t have enough content. To be honest, for a game to only consist of what Overwatch does, I should be incredibly frustrated at a lack of content. I am annoyed to a slight extent that competitive mode wasn’t included in the game at launch, but something about the formula that was included is nearly perfect and demonstrates the value of quality over quantity.
For example, of the 21 heroes, no two are alike. No two are even all that similar. Just within the Offense category are a cyborg ninja wielding a katana and shurikens, a Western outlaw with dual-wield revolvers, an Egyptian woman who can hover in her metallic full-body armor and fire a rocket launcher, a ghostly Grim Reaper carrying two shotguns, a speedy British woman with teleportation abilities and full-auto pistols, and a typical soldier who (mainly) still relies on a trusty machine gun. And each feels incredibly different to play.
This means that no two rounds are similar. The heroes are the DNA of the match: based on the genetic makeup, every single match will be just a little different from the one before. Players have to be attuned to the strengths and weaknesses of each hero on the team. If just one player swaps heroes mid-match, it can totally alter the way the rest of the battle plays out. For example, if a player switches from Reinhardt (a Tank character who can block a lot of damage with his huge shield) to Mercy (a support hero who can heal one person at a time), the rest of the team will have to change the attack tactic from aggressive to reserved, since they can no longer charge forward under Reinhardt’s shield.
The momentum in a match can shift at any moment if a player uses his or her Ultimate ability properly. Each hero has a different ability ranging from a volley of rockets (Pharah) to an exploding, driveable tire (Junkrat) to the ability to revive teammates (Mercy). With just the right timing, the use of an Ultimate can change the game even in the last ten seconds. Matches often have incredible tension that comes to a head when a player activates the Ultimate and ends it all in an incredible explosion.
Each map, just like the heroes, helps dictate the chaos. Each map only hosts one game mode, meaning that each has been designed precisely for the type of gameplay it’s meant to have. Maps featuring a payload contain choke points whereas maps with stagnant objectives might feature a more open, central arena for players to duke it out. Once again: Blizzard proves with its design strategy that quality is greater than quantity. Revisiting the maps never gets old because the maps, objectives, and heroes all mesh together perfectly and feel fantastic.
Players cannot alter the loadouts of the heroes in any way, which leads to balance almost entirely across the roster. There are no variables: every individual character will have the same abilities on the first and fiftieth encounters…but the way each player uses the hero’s abilities will differ. Some heroes are easier to use than others, but the learning curve doesn’t necessarily equate to usefulness. The easiest characters allow all players to jump right into the game and contribute, while the tougher-to-use heroes give the player an intrinsic sense of triumph while extrinsically affecting each match in subtle ways. It’s not that the tougher heroes are better: it’s that if the player has the right amount of skill, amazing (but not game-breaking) things can happen.
Then there are a couple of characters that are just a bit overpowered. The one I’ve noticed most prominently is Torbjörn. Torbjörn can place a turret that racks up kills on its own while he can fire with his own weapon. Plus, he can put down armor packs for himself or allies based on scraps he picks up from dead foes. His ultimate ability supercharges everything from his turret to his health and fire rate. He’s essentially two attackers in one but also a light healer. His turret auto-aims, which gives it impeccable accuracy (especially on consoles, where his turrets are being nerfed already).
Other players will argue over a couple other characters that are overpowered as well, but Torbjörn is the one that stands out in my mind. Most characters are perfectly balanced, but on the right map, there are just a couple characters that provide far too much effectiveness with little no no skill and effort.
Granted, these are issues that are being worked out gradually, as is standard for fighting and class-based games. As players push characters to the limit, developers are responding by issuing nerfs and patches. Blizzard is working on patches, but the game has been out for over a month (not to mention the beta beforehand), and a handful of problems like Torbjörn still exist. By the end of the year, I think Overwatch will be the perfect picture of character balance.
Visually, Overwatch is gorgeous and has a fun, slightly cartoonish art style. It’s as beautiful to look at as it is to play. Blurbs and dialogue between characters keeps audio entertaining. Characters will sometimes even call out danger, a helpful feature that certainly helps keep the action team-centered when players don’t want to chat. When characters activate their Ultimate abilities, they yell out a catchphrase, which provides an audial cue for those on the other team to scatter if they’re paying close enough attention.
All in all, the most important thing to say about Overwatch is that it just works. It’s seamless action that is always unique and almost always balanced. Most importantly, Overwatch is the sort of game that’s easy to pick up yet hard to master. It’s the kind of game that has simplicity and difficulty intertwined in an addicting way that makes me never want to stop playing. Overwatch doesn’t have an insane amount of content and it isn’t absolutely perfect (though hopefully with updates, patches and nerfs, it will be soon). But it’s a ton of fun to play, and that’s what really matters here.