Blizzard's Labor of Love Meets High Expectations
gameplay 94 / story 80 / graphics 88 / sound 90
In a video game market saturated with MOBAs and hero shooters, Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch has continuously stood out amongst the competition since its 2014 announcement. And after a successful open beta which attracted 9.7 million players, it quickly became one of the most hyped games of 2016. Upon release, it’s clear that Overwatch is a game with a bright future ahead of it; it’s a refined first-person shooter that with proper nurturing has the potential to remain fresh for years to come.
At face value, Overwatch‘s story is thin. “Overwatch” was a peacekeeping taskforce assembled by the UN to protect the world during the Omnic Crisis, a conflict which was started when an AI called the Omnic started a robot uprising. At the end of the war, Overwatch stayed together until rumors of corruption eventually led to the group’s dissolution. But following a series of questionable events involving former members of the taskforce, Overwatch operative Winston sends out the call to reassemble the team and seek out the new threat.
This bit of lore acts as a backdrop for multiplayer matches. The actual overarching story of Overwatch is told through material outside of the game, such as the animated shorts Blizzard has been periodically releasing, or through the upcoming comic adaptations. What happens in the game is noncanon, as characters that are good, evil or dead in the story all fight on the same team in multiplayer with no restrictions. It’s easy for the lore to go over the heads of those who want to just passively play the game, but hopefully Blizzard takes full advantage of their colorful cast. Overwatch has so many characters that are begging to have more stories written about them, so time will tell if the series’ narrative will be told through DLC or alternative media.
The heroes are the highlight of the game. Whereas some games of similar nature ultimately only have a few characters that fans gravitate to, each hero in Overwatch feels vibrant, full of personality, and most importantly, is fun to play. Several characters, like Tracer who can quickly teleport across short distances and rewind time, stand out as truly unique gameplay experiences that have never been seen before in the genre. Rather than each character fitting cleanly into the mold of Tank/Sniper/Medic, each hero’s abilities allow them to fulfill multiple roles, which makes every character multifaceted and interesting.
Although each hero in Overwatch is three-dimensional, they’re far from complicated. It’s clear that the game is designed with the casual shooter audience in mind, but that’s not a bad thing. It nails that sweet spot between accessibility and complexity, where new players can understand what’s going on while the better, organized team will almost always come out on top. The combat just makes sense, and it’s easy to foresee the game being taken to the competitive level of eSports.
Each of the 12 maps at launch have their own mix of Assault, Control and Escort game modes that never change. On paper this can seem repetitive, but the variety of playing as and fighting the game’s 21 characters distracts you from the repetition.
The game also feels remarkable, and in my personal experience I’ve had no connectivity issues. When you search for a game, you’re guaranteed a smooth experience, which is more than can be said for a number of games months after launch let alone the first week.
The combat between each of the characters is fun and varied, but unfortunately this didn’t entirely carry over into the maps themselves. All of the maps are solid, but they don’t feel as sophisticated as the ones in similar games like Team Fortress 2. Particularly on some Control maps, the Defending team can sometimes be so dug-in that Attacking feels like running into a brick wall. Usually when a Defending team is pushed back to their final objective, the area containing the control point can be so small and the defending spawns so close that little coordination is needed for the Defending team to successfully hold off an organized assault. This isn’t to say it’s impossible to win as the Attacking team, but this is where a bit of frustration can creep into what is otherwise a feel-good game.
While the core Overwatch experience is something that I’ve yet to tire of, a more engaging level progression system could have helped round it out. Each time a player reaches a new rank, they’re given a loot box which contains random cosmetic changes. Naturally, these boxes can also be purchased with real money; items can be also individually purchased with in-game credits, but ironically these credits can only be obtained by receiving them from other loot boxes. Some of the cosmetic items like additional skins and highlight intros can be exciting to receive, but more often players are given taunts and sprays, which feel like they were thrown into the game just to keep players from getting the items that they actually want to unlock.
Beyond playing the game and opening loot boxes, there’s not much else in vanilla Overwatch for players to experience. While the multiplayer is incredibly satisfying and refined, a few more bells and whistles could have made it that much more successful.
Something else that could potentially harm Overwatch‘s longevity is its open beta last month. While it drummed up significant buzz, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling a bit of beta fatigue. The full-release game was given to players in the beta, and so the $60 final version feels a bit barren. Blizzard has already announced that additional heroes and maps will be added free-of-charge, so hopefully they can maintain the grip they have on the video game community with additional content in the near-future.
That being said, if it can maintain its pace, Overwatch looks to be one of the defining franchises of this generation. While its goal of permeating the bubble of video game popularity and reaching into the nass-market does not yet seem to be reached, it’s certainly a resounding success within the gaming community. After years of struggling to break themselves from the label of World of Warcraft, it seems like Blizzard’s latest creation has no where to go but up.
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