With its May 24th release date within sight, Overwatch’s open Beta is officially live. I was lucky enough to gain early access from a friend that pre-ordered the game; I’ve played through the Beta for about 8 hours, and I’m confident that I’ve experienced the game enough to share solid impressions.
Overwatch is Blizzard’s newest offering: a character-driven multiplayer FPS in the vein of Team Fortress 2. It takes ample inspiration from MOBAs too, with an emphasis on the different abilities of its varied cast of heroes.
After a short time in the tutorials, which include matches against bots, I felt ready to jump into proper online play. You can use the Custom Game option to set up a specific match of your choice, but the Quick Match option pairs you with random maps and game types. This process, and the match objectives themselves, are thoroughly reminiscent of Team Fortress 2, framing matches around attacking and defence.
Despite each game requiring attack and defence from each team, there’s still some variety to proceedings. Some games require teams to fight over a single capture zone, gaining points for each second that the area is under your control until your victory meter reaches 100%. Other matches allow the defending team a minute to set up defences for a capture point in a bid to prevent the attacking team from capturing it. There’s also a mode where the the attacking team must push forwards a “payload” along a linear path through the map by standing near it, while the defending team fends them off to prevent this progression. In a really nice touch, you can choose to Skirmish when you’re searching for a match group. This drops you into a map with other randoms, leaving you to play with unfamiliar heroes with no stakes while the matchmaking works its magic in the background.
Whether you’re on an attacking or defending team, you’ll need a rounded team of heroes. Overwatch’s Beta features all 21 characters that will be available in the final game, and they’re a really fun bunch to experiment and play with. Heroes fall under four categories: Offence, the high-DPS damage-dealers; Defence, characters who disrupt and manipulate enemy attackers to protect specific locations; Tanks, heroes with high defence to draw enemy fire away from their comrades; and finally Support characters who mainly take the form of healers, but essentially improve allies’ effectiveness while hampering that of the enemy team.
Perhaps Overwatch’s greatest asset is its diverse cast of characters, and the way that different members of each category play very distinctly. You can switch your character while respawning, and it’s crucial to engage in this evolving metagame on the fly as you and the opposing team hot-switch between heroes to counter each other.
Heroes are really, really well designed, with each individual exuding a distinct personality from the moment you clap eyes on them in a way that rivals the pillars of the fighting game genre. Critically, that aforementioned diversity within each class of character is emphasised with the heroes’ abilities and Ultra abilities. Take the Tank class: Reinhardt is an ironclad giant wielding a massive hammer boasting a big energy shield that allies can shoot through, a rocket-powered boost that allows him to grasp and crush foes on walls, a ranged energy blast, and an Ultra ability that incapacitates enemies caught in its blast. Zarya, however, is a musclebound Russian woman with a large laser gun, the ability to throw a temporary shield on other players and herself, and her Ultra is a black hole that damages enemies caught in its effective radius. Different maps, scenarios, and enemy hero configurations will call for different approaches; offensive teams might plump for Reinhardt, who can hold a shield while pressing forwards, while defensive teams might better benefit from Zarya’s shielding abilities.
While each hero is likeable in their own way, there were some characters that struck me as especially interesting to play. Mei, for instance, is a Defensive character with an ice gun. She can freeze enemies in their tracks, or shoot them with high-impact icicles that are deadly to weaker heroes and anyone struck in the head. She can also mess with attackers by throwing massive ice walls, splitting up teams, isolating problem enemies, and preventing avenues of attack and progression.
Lucio is also notable as a great healer for beginners. He’s a DJ whose music can boost movement speed or heal nearby allies, a buff that you can switch at the press of a button. While in healing mode he continually heals allies that are close by, so is largely free to shoot at enemies so long as the player takes care to stay near Tanks or fragile Offensives in danger of death. In a game that absolutely requires competent healing, it’s great to see a character that eases people into the unpopular healing role.
The Beta offers a substantial experience that I’m certain is almost identical in scope to the final game. The levelling-up system is available, in which you progress through earning XP from matches Call of Duty-style. Each level gained gifts you with a loot box that hold four randomised customisation assets for your heroes, from emotes to skins (which range from simple palette swaps to full costume overhauls). Having unlocked a fair few customisation items for my characters, I can certainly say that it’s a system that promotes progression; I’ll be sorry to see my hard-earned skins go when the Beta closes (especially my personal favourite demonic skin for Reinhardt).
There are some issues that mar the otherwise great experience, though. While balanced teams are a must for success, some players consistently choose to play as their favourite characters no matter what, forcing you to play as a Tank or Support character for Nth game in a row if you don’t want to get pounded into the mud by a properly-balanced enemy team. The character selection screen does alert your team to weak spots in your lineup, but perhaps a firmer hand is required to regularly achieve balanced teams.
There are also some situations where it’s far too easy for a team to select a perfect storm of heroes that make progression for the opposing team incredibly difficult on certain maps. Maybe this is more of an indictment of slight balance issues, but opposing teams have on occasion locked down zones by dropping automated turrets in such a way that every conceivable angle of attack is met with maddening, unstoppable death.
Luckily, there’s still loads of time for Blizzard to tweak heroes and perhaps think their way around balance issues associated with certain hero combinations. For those that want a more level, improvisational playing-field, there’s a randomised hero mode that switches your character on death. It’s really fun if you don’t mind occasionally falling mercy to the randomiser.
Overwatch is shaping up to be a great game. The maps are great, the characters are a joy, matches are varied and fair, and the whole game is just bursting with personality and colour. While sometimes slight balance issues are apparent, Overwatch is remarkably well-designed to the extent that I’m wondering what Blizzard isn’t able to achieve.