Overwatch is Kind Of A Big Deal right now. Blizzard is breaking into a new IP and new genre with its super-stylized team shooter, and it’s a rather good game. It’s not a game for everyone, but I think it’s a game worth trying, because it does a bunch of things *just* differently enough to be compelling.
Let me cut to the chase: Overwatch is Team Fortress 2 as done by Blizzard. Same bright colour palette, same stylized art, same overall sense of winking fun while also being a tight, well-tuned shooter. The main thing it adds to Team Fortress 2 is movement, which is significant. Lots of shooters have been playing with the idea of movement as a significant verb, and Overwatch is no exception– different characters move differently and this is extremely significant. I’ve talked before about how important new verbs are to games, and while certainly a newer game, Overwatch is more fun out the gate than TF2 was, and a huge part of that is that it adds that verb. Indeed, a lot of the gunplay in Overwatch is LESS satisfying than TF2, but it matters a lot less because there are other things going on.
For a while, I’ve lamented that MMO game design has been co-opted by virtually every other genre out there while apparently learning nothing from the advances elsewhere in the industry. It’s not super surprising to me, then, that a game made by the company that basically defined MMOs for the last decade draws heavily on MMO design ethos. Overwatch feels more like a team PvP match in WoW than it does a more ‘traditional’ shooter. Working together is always important, but in Overwatch this is accomplished through abilities that work together in intuitive ways. Overwatch breaks its characters down into MMO-style roles, and even if the abilities and armaments of a given character aren’t immediately apparent, by seeing what role they’re labeled as, you can get a sense of how to play them. It’s very MOBA-esque, although significantly more intuitive than most MOBAs.
What really sets Overwatch apart, though, is the same thing that sets Heroes of the Storm apart: accessibility. Team shooters are hugely inaccessible games for the most part: an exercise in new player frustration as they die and lose repeatedly without a good sense of why or how to improve. This kind of frustrating experience is really bad for a game’s health, however much a certain player mentality really likes to say “oh, you gotta get your lumps in at first”. Trying to sell someone on something “fun” but telling them they’re going to have to suffer before they get to “the good part” is a fairly outdated mentality at this point, and Overwatch does everything it can to eliminate it.
Overwatch pops up helpful player tips constantly. It will give you tips on how to fight the character who just killed you, it will suggest team compositions, and it draws lines through the map at the start of the game so you know where you’re going. Map knowledge is important for playing the game well, but playing competently doesn’t require that you memorize every map before jumping in. Adding to this, the way maps connect together is intuitive– there aren’t a lot of obscure passageways to hunt down in order to reach hidden snipers.
Adding to this, the characters are simple but deep. There’s no ironsights aiming, virtually no weapon switching, very few complex weapon interactions, no difficult comparisons between similar weapons– what you see is what you get, and this helps the game a LOT. The nuance in each character comes naturally as you play them, not in complex pre-planning. Making a character shine often requires good teamwork, and it’s apparent how to make that happen. One character has a gigantic forward-facing shield that blocks incoming fire. It’s great for protecting an advance, since your allies can shoot through it but your enemies can’t. It leaves you open at the sides and back, though, so your team needs to cover your flanks. This is REALLY OBVIOUS the second you see this character in action, and doesn’t require some deep knowledge of the ability to function.
The sense of accessibility permeates through every level of the game’s design. The game is chock-full of positive feedback, and eliminates a LOT of standard first-person shooter tropes, especially in the UI, in order to promote teamwork and prevent the kind of statistical comparisons that create toxicity between players. There’s no kill feed, except in spectator mode, and if you pull up the scoreboard, it will show you your statistics and the current top statistics in the game, but not EVERYONE’s statistics. There’s no distinction between kills and assists. The game operates at the team level, and when it displays the top players, it shows off almost entirely random-seeming stats. If you’re losing, or failing with a given character, you can swap out during a match, in your base, rather than being stuck until the end of the match. All of this promotes as much of a positive upward spiral as possible, and keeps the game fun and intuitive.
At the same time, it’s a surprisingly deep game. Very simple characters offer a lot of nuance, especially in a group. One of my favorite characters is D. Va, a mecha pilot tank-type. Her mechanics are really simple: she has rapid-firing shotguns that are strong in close, she’s got a forward conal shield that will block incoming fire, and while her base movement is somewhat slow (slower while shooting), she has a rocket boost that lets her fly around very briefly at pretty high speed. When her mech takes fatal damage, she’s ejected and becomes a much smaller, much faster target with a surprisingly powerful and accurate sidearm– survive long enough in this form and she can resummon a new mech. Her ultimate sets off the self-destruct in her mech, creating an enormous, super-damaging explosion that will kill virtually anyone it hits (including you, if you’re too close). In practice, this creates a really slippery tank class that can absorb a shocking amount of punishment between deaths, and is a really strong flanking tank that can hit an enemy from unexpected angles and (with her ult) is great at cracking dug-in enemies. She’s a lot of fun to play because you can stay in the fight for an incredibly long time, and you’re doing very different things while in the mech vs out of it. Working together with teammates means you can push harder than other tanks, since if you go down you’re still contributing to the team on foot, and then can fairly quickly get back into a new mech at top form. Right as you break through an enemy blockade, you can swap to flanking mode and make sure your team can lock their position. Alternately, you can blow up your mech in a group of enemies as the spearhead to a big push, especially if you have another more standard tank to help out.
My initial question when I started seeing Overwatch stuff was “why would I not just play TF2?”, and over the past few days I’ve gotten a really clear answer. It’s a fun, accessible game that adds movement as a fun new dimension to an otherwise lighthearted, casual experience.