Overwatch is a competitive online team-based shooter. Wait come back! Overwatch is a competitive online team-based shooter for people who think that competitive online team-based shooters sound terrible. If mere mention of the genre makes you think about racist teenagers tormenting you with their Cheetos-stained fingers, you are going to be a tough sell but I have good news. Through a series of small, clever design decisions, Overwatch manages to be a fun, vibrant game with tons of personality. It’s the classic easy to pick up game that takes a lifetime to master.
So what’s the story? What’s Overwatch about? Overwatch is a diverse superhero team made up of agents from all around the world. They fought bad guys until a mysterious event called the Omnic Crisis, which seems to involve a robot uprising of some sort. Now, faced with threats on all sides, Overwatch is back together with old and new members, protecting a world that has made their existence illegal.
The plot in Overwatch is extremely understated. It’s in there, but not presented sequentially. Through a series of comics and short, Pixar-styled animated films Overwatch has filled in a lot of the details in its story, but it’s the little moments that start to paint a full picture. For example: grumpy mechanic Torbjorn doesn’t trust Omnic teammates, and will let them know. More surprising though is Russian strong-woman Zarya, who menacingly reminds her Omnic companions that she’s killed a bunch of their kind. Where and when? Did Zarya fight in the Omnic crisis?
Questions like this are sometimes answered, sometimes not, but the scattered plot and lore has worked fans up into a frenzy, debating and disputing the plot and using cryptic clues to support their favorite theories. This is a big part of the appeal. The story is simple, though grasping some of the details takes work. That’s what makes it fun and rewarding.
Overwatch’s vibrant aesthetic is another big part of its success. Each of the 21 characters has a unique look; a fan could easily identify all of them from a silhouette alone. That’s just one example of good character design. the cast is made up of fun cliches Hailing from all over the world. There’s a gunslinging cowboy, two estranged ninja brothers, a Brazilian DJ turned revolutionary, and Winston, who is definitely a scientist, not a monkey.
The stereotypes risk seeming trite, but the characters have enough going for them that none of them feel derivative. Take Pharah; the head of security at a secret base in Egypt that houses an experimental A.I. Pharah has a winged suit of armor that lets her fly around the map, firing rockets from above. Her costume has a definite Egyptian-mythological-bird motif, but her storyline and her relationships with the other characters prove her to be a well thought out character.
The easy charm of the cast has led to a spirited fan base. There’s fan fiction galore, fleshing out holes in the characters’ back-stories. And there is porn, of all kinds, from smutty prose to titillating web-comics to the kinds of things best left to the kinds of people looking for them. Acknowledging the porn is an important part of the Overwatch experience, to avoid or bask in, depending on your disposition.
Blizzard has promised to continue supporting Overwatch for some time to come. This means new characters, new maps, new missions, and who knows what else. Blizzard has a very good track record for this kind of thing. Their online RPG World of Warcraft has been going strong since 2004, and classic strategy game Starcraft still receives updates. Starcraft came out in 1998. They want you to think of Overwatch as a living breathing story that will continue to develop for years to come.
That all sounds nice, but how does it play? Overwatch is a first person shooter, superficially similar to Half-Life, Call of Duty or Battlefield. Two teams of six compete over set objectives like controlling a certain number of points across the map, or escorting a vehicle to the end of a set track. Standard stuff.
This is where those small design features make a world of difference. Most shooters have a fetishistic reverence for guns and firearms, going so far to pay licensing fees to real gun manufacturers. Not Overwatch. Every character gets one colorful weapon, usually with an alternate mode of fire. Cyber-knight Reinhardt, for example, comes armed with a rocket-powered hammer. He can also use the hammer to hurl a small fireball. Widowmaker’s sniper rifle functions much as you would assume, but it can also be used as a machine gun in a tight spot.
The maximum number of moves any character has is four, plus an Ultimate move, which charges throughout the round. In this, Overwatch steps away from traditional shooters and has a lot more in common with Super Smash Bros. You only ever need to know the basic movement controls and the four buttons. Take a second to learn a new character’s abilities and you’re good to go. Spend the time to get a hang of the timing, the placement, the little nuances, and you will find yourself quickly mastering the vast cast of characters.
Let’s look at another simple, but critical feature: the kill cam. It’s simple, when you die the game gives you a quick replay from the perspective of your killer. Sometimes it’s wild and funny, sometimes it’s boring, but it is always educational. The kill cam is how I learned that the mad bomber Junkrat can hurl grenades over Reinhardt’s shield. Or how I learned where a skilled Symmetra likes to hide her laser turrets. The kill cam teaches you how you failed- and how to avoid the same mistake in the future. Instead of just counting down ten seconds until you can get back in the fight, you spend ten seconds learning to become a smarter player.
There are almost too many clever features like this to list. The Play of the Game is a neat idea that ends the game with a recap of its most zany moment. Each game ends with a vote between four players who the computer deemed the best. Getting even one vote from a fellow human player is a great feeling. The character select screen is easy to navigate, even mid-battle. The levels are brilliantly designed; I’ve never gotten lost in them. The list goes on, but Overwatch’s design is a modern gaming miracle, set up for maximum accessibility.
Let’s put it all together. I was playing a round and I selected Hanzo, the bow-wielding ninja on a path to redemption. I thought I was playing well, but my team was getting hammered. I checked the character select screen, and the game rightly pointed out that my team was lacking any sort of support character. It dynamically advises your team on your strengths and weaknesses, and the way we were playing, we needed a healer more than a ninja. I switched to Lucio.
Lucio zips around on his roller blades, ceaselessly grinding ledges and walls. He carries a boom box which can be used to speed up or heal your entire team- but not both. I had never played Lucio before, but I quickly got a handle on the basics of how he moved, how to switch songs on the boom box, and how to shoot his little sound blasting gun.
I didn’t shoot anyone as Lucio, or capture any objectives. I just jumped and flipped around, trying to not get shot. I needed to get in close to my team to give them my boosts, and to use my judgment as to which bonus was helpful and when. It was basically a completely different game, one of avoidance and environmental awareness.
If I had switched to another character, like Chinese climatologist Mei, it would have been a different game too. Same with time displaced nuisance Tracer, professional gamer (and mech pilot) D.Va and Bastion, the turret that walks like a man. With 21 characters currently on the roster, that’s 21 different ways to play. There’s a style for everyone.
So in a nutshell? Overwatch is ostensibly a shooter but with all the trappings of an old school fighting game. A vast roster of colorful characters who are easy to pick up, clever gameplay that necessitates teamwork, and a variety of means to each end, make Overwatch an easy game to love. That would have been enough, but the simplicity masks surprising depth.
Every summer I treat myself to one game, meant to last me a few months. Usually these are RPGs I can sink eighty or ninety hours into, or an open world game filled with secrets to discover and explore. If you had told me this summer, I would get deep into a competitive online shooter, I would have laughed you out of the room. Now I’m shopping online for a decent headset, so I can tell my team that the cavalry’s ‘ere.