Announced at Blizzcon 2014 and apparently born from the ashes of the cancelled Project Titan, Overwatch is Blizzard’s take on the team-based shooter. With the official release rapidly approaching, Blizzard threw the doors open to all last weekend for one final open beta – a chance for them to stress-test their servers and a chance for the public to jump in and see if Overwatch is worth parting with actual money for.
Full disclosure – after a solid decade of playing almost nothing but World of Warcraft and dabbling in other Blizzard properties here and there I’m now something of a lapsed gamer who very rarely loads up anything other than free-to-play MMO TERA for a quick questing romp when the mood takes me. The last time I played an FPS was probably the first Unreal Tournament. Halo and Cawwadoody have passed me by, I’m just a grumpy old man who misses the Gameboy and Master System. But these days if anyone can get me to dip my toe into the waters to test a game it’s Blizzard.
After a tutorial section that walks you through how to shoot at stuff and use your abilities and a practice map that lets you test how any hero plays, Overwatch takes players and throws them into a 6v6 shootout across game modes that vary between Assaulting, Escorting or Controlling various points on various maps. Straight off the bat through making the game objective based rather than a straight-out deathmatch, Blizzard have made the game feel more accessible and approachable, especially to someone who’s rustier than a 1960’s Hills Hoist when it comes to shooters.
You and your team have a goal beyond kill or be killed, and while open beta did mean you had plenty of folks, including myself, running around like headless chooks as we tried to figure out how the game works, you fairly quickly get into the teamwork groove. Once it all clicks, Overwatch is simply a joy to play. On Saturday I figured I’d load it up, check it out and probably be bored within an hour because I know what I’m like with games. Instead I had to drag myself away from the PC on Sunday night as it closed in on 1am. The hooks are well and truly in.
The game’s playable cast of 21 characters are split across Offense, Defense, Tank and Support roles, and each character has their own unique feel and set of abilities, as well as a diverse spread of styles, genders and ethnicities and non-humans that make for a very interesting roster. Offense and Defense characters were always pretty well represented on most teams I played in (seriously you guys please play something other than Reaper and Widowmaker), so I found myself gravitating towards D.Va, a mecha Tank piloted by a Korean pro-gamer, or Mercy, the angelic healer depending on what the makeup of my team needed. Both roles are equally fun and rewarding to play, and not nearly as daunting a responsibility as they may first seem.
It’s important to note that even while getting your face well and truly walloped by the opposition the game is still fun. Due to the fast pace of the game and relatively short match times, being on a losing team doesn’t feel like a laborious chore and the objectives work in such a way that there’s always a chance that if you get your shit together you can turn the match around. Indeed there were several matches where victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat and vice-versa. You level as a player after matches, and receive random loot boxes to unlock new skins, sprays, voice lines and in-game currency among other things which gives you something to chase, as unlike Blizzard’s F2P Heroes of the Storm all the characters are available to all players upfront.
Visually, the game is incredible. The vibrant and varied maps based around real-world locales such as Japan, China, Greece and London are beautifully put together and the game’s cartoony, Pixar-esque style is wonderfully realised with each character fitting in perfectly despite the incredibly varied designs. Importantly, each character has a very distinct silhouette so you’ll always know at the quickest of glances what you’re up against in the thick of battle.
I spent a considerable amount of time with the PC version, but resident PS4-haver Inferno assures me it’s just as much fun to play on console, so when this launches for real on May 24 on PC, PS4 and XBone it’s well worth plonking down the cash. Blizzard have copped a lot of shit for making World of Warcraft more and more accessible over the years, but when they apply the same techniques to MOBAs like Heroes of the Storm and FPS here the results are fantastic. Overwatch is easy to pick up and fun to play, and the community during beta were largely forgiving and I didn’t run into any jerks during my games. It’s hard to tell if it’s going to have the legs to keep people engaged long-term, but I’m excited to see how this game pans out post launch with a wider player base and the inevitable new content as time goes on. I’ll be there for sure come launch day when the servers go live.