Overwatch Beta Impressions

23 11 2015

Over the years, Blizzard has made unexpected but successful forays into various genres outside of their historic areas of expertise starting off with the MMO space with World of Warcraft, then the digital TCG space with Hearthstone. The success of both products speak for themselves cementing the assertion that Blizzard can do a lot more than isometric strategy/adventure games and even do it better than anyone else. Despite their previous successes into new genres their venture into the team FPS game space is still a fairly bold move considering the highly competitive market for such games, dominated by giants like Halo and Call of Duty.

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The immediate comparison one would draw upon seeing Overwatch is to other role-based shooters, primarily Team Fortress 2. 6-person teams go head to head in objective-based maps with each player picking a character that fulfills a role such as a sniper or support class to function and fight effectively as a unit. While there is no mistaking that Overwatch is inspired by such games, it has a lot of fresh approaches and concepts cherry-picked from other genres that make it a refreshingly unique but intuitive experience.

The biggest point of separation from conventional class-based team shooters is that you choose a character rather than a role. While the characters are categorized into different broad categories such as offense, defense, tank, and support, individually they fill niches that can’t be defined so cleanly and offer drastically different approaches and play styles towards being an effective combatant for their team. For example within the “offense” category of characters there is Pharah who is a straightforward character that uses flight in combination with her rocket launcher to pound the enemy in direct confrontations, and then there is Reaper who prefers to avoid head-on fights and uses teleportation and an invulnerable “wraith form” to infiltrate into the midst of enemy teams and ambush high-value targets. The characters have a handful of abilities which all complement each other nicely towards enacting their game plan and can also be used in creative unorthodox ways allowing them flexibility to apply themselves outside of what would appear to be their primary role. Even more intriguing is that the characters’ different abilities can synergize in interesting ways with their comrades that makes you consider the roster of your team and come up with powerful combinations. The slow and powerful Reinhardt becomes suddenly more threatening when paired with Lucio’s speed boost, and Bastion’s turret mode becomes a tremendous threat when paired with Mercy’s damage boosting abilities. As an additional aside, the cast of characters are instantly more interesting than their skill sets; they are a motley crew of actual characters with inspired designs, personalities, and histories, ranging from the intelligent gorilla scientist to the cybernetic ascetic monk. There’s not a single dud amongst the current cast of 21 playable characters with each feeling effective, special, and cool.

Each character also has an ultimate ability that slowly charges over the course of the match. These powerful abilities, such as resurrecting dead teammates or transforming into a literal battle tank, have the potential to shift the momentum of a match and are another point of divergence from traditional team-based shooters. Knowing when and where to utilize your ultimate ability in coordination with the actions of your team give Overwatch a lot of tactical depth, more akin to a MOBA style game such as Heroes Of The Storm.

A final point towards the roster of characters adding a huge element of strategy to the game is that you can switch your character between lives during a match. This introduces an important metagame aspect in which you are able to counter the enemy team’s composition and tactics (sometimes preemptively) by altering your own team’s lineup on the fly. Learning and anticipating the counters to a particular situation will undoubtedly become a huge facet of competitive play as knowledge of the game evolves and expands.

Differences aside, the game is grounded in solid FPS conventions that make it familiar and intuitive as well. The control scheme is simplified and streamlined compared to other modern FPS games which frees up a lot of your thinking to concentrate on your handful of abilities and how best to apply them to the given situation. The maps and arenas are expertly crafted around singular objectives, which funnels the action to particular points and leaves no question as to what you should be trying to do at a given moment while also encouraging team fights which is at the core of the design of the game. One of the subtle things about the game that I recognize and appreciate is its “readability” or transparency. There are a lot of details and clues that give you a greater understanding and awareness of what is happening amidst the chaos of a confrontation including the visual language of the game in terms of characters and their abilities and also the various audio cues such as the sharp gasp that your character emits when they are badly wounded or the distinctive battle cry that they call out when they unleash an ultimate ability. The end result is that everything seems to make sense when things go very right or very wrong rather than you sitting there confused as to what just happened and as a result a player is able to learn the game organically simply from playing matches and encountering new situations.

With a fresh and appealing new IP, Blizzard is poised for another knockout hit. Blizzard has never failed to prove that they can do anything that they want and make it work, and Overwatch is no exception. If you weren’t fortunate enough to make it into the beta period, definitely keep an eye out for this title’s official launch in 2016.