Overwatch is Blizzard’s first completely new IP since 1998, and their first foray into the first person shooter. In a genre overloaded with tired, drab military and sterile Sci-Fi trappings, Overwatch joins Splatoon and Battleborn in proving there’s more than enough room for a splash of colour and personality.
A multiplayer-only shooter in the vein of Team Fortress 2, Overwatch takes ample inspiration from Valve’s hat-peddling juggernaut. You’ll play a part in either an attacking or defending team in objective-focused game modes that are tied to specific maps. These objectives range from escorting a payload to a delivery point to capturing sequential control points while the defending team attempts to hold off the assault until the timer runs out. There’s also a more directly adversarial mode in which two teams go head-to-head in an effort to catch a single control point, king-of-the-hill style. Like I said: very Team Fortress 2.
Overwatch expands on this formula, however, by taking cues from MOBAs. Don’t worry if you’re not a fan of the still-burgeoning genre, however; Overwatch is indomitably a shooter at heart. This influence only goes as far as the makeup of the characters you’ll be controlling- each of the game’s 21 heroes differ not only in weapon loadout and health, but in their cooldown-based abilities.
Heroes are split into four broad categories- Assault, Defence, Tank, and Support. This diverse and vibrant cast of characters is Overwatch’s biggest triumph and back-of-the-box selling point. Every single hero, even the more archetypal ones, are perfectly designed to ooze a unique personality to rival the best fighting game lineups. You can tell from a glance exactly what each individual is about, and vitally each character casts a distinct silhouette to allow swift recognition by allies and foes alike. Overwatch should absolutely be celebrated for its diverse international cast; there’s a very inclusive feeling promoted by the motley crew.
Being presented with such a choice of play styles is initially dizzying. Crucially, heroes are designed so that there’s a tremendous variety within each class; there’re many different ways of getting the job done, although there’s enough common ground between characters that they’re never too jarring to switch between despite the vast differences between them.
Players that favour Tanking might plump for Reinhardt, a great hammer-wielding armoured colossus with the ability to project a massive rectangular shield that blocks incoming fire but not outgoing friendly fire. Alternatively there’s Zarya, whose laser cannon deals more damage when energy shields she casts on herself and allies block damage. Defensive players can plump for Hanzo, a bow-and-arrow sniper that can scamper up walls and hone in on distant foes with normal and scatter arrows. Or they might choose Mei, whose mastery of cryotechnology can freeze enemies in place and throw up ice walls to inhibit enemy movement. Offensively-minded players can zip about the map as cyborg ninja Genji, throwing shurikens at foes with pinpoint accuracy and reflecting bullets back at their bewildered faces with your katana. For an even faster pace, the game’s mascot Tracer holds two bullet-spraying SMGs, can blink across the battle with three swiftly-recharging dashes, and rewind time for herself to regain lost health and confuse foes.
The hardest sell, especially for new players, has to be the Support class- these are mostly healers. Luckily, Blizzard has crafted a handful of Support heroes that pick-up-and-play with ease. Lucio is perhaps the best bet for newbies, a fast-moving DJ whose music continually heals those within range. More advanced players will flock to Mercy, whose healing ray only focuses on one target but restores health at a quick rate, as well as Zenyatta who casts an orb of harmony to heal allies and an orb of discord to debuff enemies. Rounding out the Support class is Symmetra, who can place lots of small turrets on walls and floors and has the ability to build a teleporter to get downed allies back into the fight. She can’t heal people directly- she can only throw a small shield on her allies- but on some maps she’s an invaluable asset.
Alongside the innate playability of the Support characters, your job is also made easy by the slight change to your HUD. When you’re a healer, allies’ silhouettes show though walls in a colour that represents their status- green for full health, yellow for hurt, and orange-red for critically damaged heroes.
Beyond minor hero abilities on cooldowns, each character boasts an Ultimate ability. This slowly charges by itself over time, but the process speeds up when you play your role well, be it dealing or healing damage. These abilities range from Mercy’s power to revive dead teammates in the field to Hanzo’s deadly Dragonstrike which fires two twisting, deadly spectral dragons. Ultimate abilities range in bombast, but every move has its place in the right situation.
The variety of heroes on offer leads to an evolving metagame whereby players can switch between heroes on respawn to counter the enemy team. No matter how potentially potent each character, there’s always multiple available foils. Unfortunately, not every participant takes advantage of this mechanic, meaning you’ll occasionally get stuck in a rut because of an unchanging and unfavourable team makeup.
Another potential pitfall is that you’re likely to encounter teams that refuse to pick a tank or healer character, despite prompts on the character selection screen warning of poor lineup choices. While victory is very possible with a full team of Assault characters, it’s not very likely; I found myself having to play Support or Tank multiple games in a row to remain competitive. Every role is fun to play, but variety is the spice of this game and it can get a bit frustrating to be forced into a specific role repeatedly.
Furthermore, despite the top-notch job balancing heroes, on some maps it is very easy for a defending team to fill their ranks with a specific hero and more or less completely block out the opposition. For instance, Torbjörn is a defensive character that can build a powerful turret, very much akin to Team Fortress 2’s Engineer. One or two Torbjörns can easily be countered with a handy sniping character, but on the Volskala Industries map a team with 5 Torbjörns can cover pretty much every angle of attack with deadly crossfire. Perhaps it’s not a great idea to allow more than two players the same hero on the same team in public matches.
Fortunately that’s not a problem on most of the maps you’ll be shooting apart. Each level is carefully designed to accommodate each of the 21 heroes’ play styles, and although some individuals end up especially suited to certain maps it’s an incredibly impressive feat on Blizzard’s part. Not only is there a grand variety in pathing and layout, but each place is as visually and culturally distinct as the heroes themselves. In a game that solely revolves around competitive play, it’s great to take in slices of London, Route 66, Gibraltar, Egypt and more within each session.
As you leap, slice, and otherwise tear up maps in competitive multiplayer, you’ll gain XP for your efforts to level up. Each level gained unlocks a new loot box, which will yield four randomised cosmetic items of variable rarity. These range from emotes and voice lines to new skins for your characters- the rarest of which go beyond a simple palette swap to reimagine the hero quite drastically. Unlocking loot boxes gets downright addictive, and I’ve often found the pull to play just one more game in order to get at another pull of the bandit’s arm. You can buy loot boxes, too, if you want to build up aesthetic options faster. While this system is undoubtedly satisfying- it’s really great when you land an awesome legendary skin for a beloved character- the growing distance between level-ups as you progress has the potential to make it really hard to resist just caving in to those microtransactions. It’s just a little bit too good at locking you into the reward of new loot, and on balance I think the system is insidious. Undoubtedly the game is worth full price, but this is just plain cheeky- even if the loot is purely cosmetic.
Still, Overwatch is a mighty fine game with fun and variety in spades. If regular games in Quick Match start to feel too bland, there’s plenty of flavour to be found in the Weekly Brawl, a game mode that switches each week. This opening week featured the Arcade Mode, in which each hero’s health is doubled while regular and Ultimate ability cooldowns are severely reduced. I was surprised at how this changed the flow of play, with certain heroes coming into the spotlight especially empowered by the alterations while established powerhouses were considerably less appealing. This kind of weekly shake-up is precisely what this game needs, and I’m very excited to see how future events shuffle the status quo.
Blizzard has knocked it out of the park on this one. All of their history building casts of compelling characters, accommodating diverse playstyles, and tightening every knut and bolt of the resulting mad machine has somehow translated to a splendid FPS debut. Overwatch is a compelling, polished, and overwhelmingly fresh experience. Most importantly, it’s a total blast to play.