Overwatch Beta Impressions

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

Star Wars Battlefront Beta: First Impressions

Star Wars Battlefront has always been a beloved series, with a new instalment in the series taking the top spot in many gamers’ most wanted lists. Like a lot of people, I’ve been cautiously optimistic as great-looking clips were marred by news of lacklustre single player, leading to fears that Battlefront might stagnate similar to the likes of Titanfall and Evolve soon after release. With the game’s 27th November release date looming, the game’s Beta has been released to the masses on Xbox One, PS4 and PC for a few days. I’ve played a few hours, and had some time to think about my first impressions.

The Beta comes with two competitive multiplayer game modes, Drop Zone and Walker Assault, which take place on Salust and Hoth maps respectively. Drop Zone has Rebel and Imperial forces fighting it out for control of Pods which drop in varied locations to gain points for victory. Sadly, due to the mode only taking place on one map, it’s a bit repetitive to play over and over and should really act as a platform to learn the game and level up a bit before moving on to Walker Assault on the much more expansive Hoth.

Walker Assault has the Rebel Forces fighting to turn on Uplinks to trigger Y-Wing bombing runs which then make the Imperial AT-ATs vulnerable to fire, while the Imperial forces try to stop them. At first, especially with inexperienced or simply under-levelled Rebel teams, this game mode can feel extremely unbalanced, with Imperial forces simply needing to be roughly competent in order to succeed.

This is indicative of one of the main issues in the Beta- the unbalanced upgrade system. Players with a few levels and upgrades up their belt come packing personal shields and jetpacks, which are very difficult to deal with if it’s one of your first few games, simply because you won’t have unlocked the upgrades necessary to counter them. The game’s upgrade and level up system is largely similar to that of modern Battlefield games. As you play games, the XP you earn both levels up your character to unlock new blasters and upgrades, and is directly linked to the amount of credits you earn- for instance, if your earned XP in a game, including performance and match bonuses, adds up to 3500 XP, you’ll also earn 350 credits. You spend your credits on blasters and “cards” (read: non-blaster equipment), of which you can equip 3 at a time. Cards include thermal grenades, jetpacks, “Ion shot” (powers up your weapon to deal extra damage to vehicles, droids and shields), and more. While personal progression occurs at a nice pace, it is a bit unfair for new players who have to deal with players who have advanced to gain gear like the personal shield.

With well-balanced teams, though, Walker Assault really opens up, and it’s a great sandbox of a multiplayer mode. The mode supports 40 players (20 vs 20), and it really does feel like you’re taking part in a massive battle at times. Several times I felt almost overwhelmed as I and the majority of my team scattered ourselves along a ridge, raining fire upon our enemies. It’s maybe the most impressive large battle scenario I’ve yet played.

Bolstering foot soldier gameplay, pick-up tokens are scattered throughout the battlefield. While some of these carry energy for certain personal items like the aforementioned personal shield, these tokens can also put you in an X-Wing, A-Wing or Tie fighter to provide air support and dogfight with enemy craft, an AT-ST walker making you a formidable tank, and most rarely, a Hero token which gives you control of either Darth Vader of Luke Skywaker for a limited time. In the right hands, these characters are downright deadly with the ability to deflect blaster fire and deal death close of from afar. It’s one of the few games to really make lightsabers feel powerful, since a single swing can dispatch an opponent. It’s great fun to watch several players scramble before your might. These pickups lend just the right amount of variety to the core gameplay, although if you don’t know what to look out for, you might easily miss them which can be frustrating in your first few games.

On a surface level, both maps look really good, especially Hoth which is extremely evocative of Empire Strikes Back. On more than one occasion I had to stop and admire the view, looking down on a laser-riddled battlefield from a snowy ledge. Character design and animation are on point, and the weapons, while lacking a little bit in punch, look and sound perfect. This excellent visual design really puts you in the mood for Star Wars battling.

I think that with some fiddling to balance the upgrade system a bit, as well as making pick-ups more obvious on the battlefield, Star Wars: Battlefront would be a lot more welcoming to new players. The gameplay is fun and well balanced, the matchmaking by and large does a great job of finding you a game, and I only experienced lag in one of the many games I played. The Survival mode is an entertaining distraction, made better with friends, but it’s clear that multiplayer is the clear main attraction here.

Star Wars Battlefront managed to sustain my attention over several days with only a couple of maps and modes. When the game comes out and features character customisation as well as the full compliment of maps and modes, I’m sure there’ll be enough variety for a while. One feature I’d love to see some of is the destructible environments that I know the Frostbite 3 engine is well capable of. Perhaps if some of the maps feature more buildings and indoor environments that can be demolished to some extent, it’d give the game more of a sense of “place” that make modern Battlefield such a compelling experience. Not that I’ll be really disappointed if there isn’t any destruction in the final game, but it really would add to the experience.

All in all, Battlefront seems like it’s shaping up to be a pretty slick release. The gameplay and online features are structurally solid and the game’s visual and sound design are spot-on. Hopefully the game’s modes will hold players’ attention sufficiently that it’s not dead come a few months like the other multiplayer-dominant games this generation. The variety anticipated in the final game will surely help, but only time will tell.

Image credits: starwars.ea.com