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.





Review: Evolve

16 02 2015

From the studio that spawned the Left 4 Dead games comes a new unique breed of FPS shooter aiming to establish itself as a new order in the game kingdom of team-based competitive game where either side is evenly matched, but couldn’t be more different. Will this genetic anomaly be a chapter or a footnote in the xenobiology books?

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The tale of Evolve’s world is played out in deadly confrontations across various sites of the lush but savage planet of Shear, where a few outposts of humanity have emerged to attempt to colonize and tame the new frontier in hopes of establishing a new home for our species. However, the planet is teeming with hostile wildlife and “megafauna” including giant alien super-predators that stalk the crags, swamps, and forests. A crack team of hunters from all corners of the galaxy is dispatched as a countermeasure to combat the threat of these monsters in a bid for control and survival in the unforgiving wilds of Shear.

Evolve is a multiplayer-focused asymmetrical online FPS game. One team of 4 players assume the roles of the hunters, comprised of different roles and specialties that must work together as a cohesive unit against the 5th player, who controls one of the massively powerful monsters in a scenario-based match played in a vast level strewn with vegetation, bizarre wildlife, and monolithic remnants of colonist construction projects. At the onset of each game, the monster is a underdeveloped juvenile, and must evade the team of hunters as it feasts upon prey animals and grows ever-stronger, eventually reaching its full strength and becoming a force of nature that can devastate its enemies within seconds. The hunters and the monster must outmaneuver each other amidst the rocky caverns and vegetation of the expansive maps in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse where the tables can turn at any moment and the line between predator and prey is thin and blurred.

The hunter characters are divided into 4 different classes: Medic, Trapper, Support, and Assault. Each specializes in a different method of combating the monster and has a specific role to fulfill towards their team’s success. Medics dispense healing and keep the team on their feet, and have several other useful tools like tranquilizer guns to sedate the monster and slow its movement. Trappers are integral to containing the monster and prevent it from fleeing a losing battle with their various tracking equipment and harpoon guns. Support is a flexible class that brings an assortment of useful tools to the table, ranging from group cloaking devices, calling in orbital bombardments, to shielding units that can protect teammates from harm. Finally, the Assault class is the front-line fighter that devotes itself solely to dealing heavy damage to the monster to bring it down with excessive firepower. Within the 4 roles, there are 3 different characters per class that each go about their job in a different way and offer some variety to the playstyles and strengths of the class.

Players can choose from 3 different hulking monsters when playing the opposition, each with a different style of play and methodology. The brutish Goliath is an unstoppable juggernaut that relies on its tremendous strength and unwavering toughness to pound the hunters to a pulp, whether it engulfs them with a stream of clinging flame, tears boulders from the ground to fling like a catapult, or simply throws the destructive weight of its bulk crashing into its enemies. The sinister Kraken prefers to fight from afar, bombarding its foes with blasts and bolts of bio-electricity as it hovers aloft like an angry thunder-god, drifting across battlefields with the malicious presence of a boiling storm cloud. Lastly the slippery Wraith rewards stealth and subterfuge as it slithers through the terrain, with its strange warping abilities to use misdirection and its evasiveness to lure hunters into deadly ambushes at the hands of its reaper-like rending talons. Playing as the monster is certainly the most unique and fresh aspect of Evolve, and there’s something primal and satisfying about controlling one of these dread monstrosities that speaks to the soul’s hunger for destruction; the bestial id within that lurks in the darkness of the heart of the player, straining against its cage.

Playing Evolve is a tight and engaging experience that is focused and expertly crafted. The 15 to 20 minute matches are tense and well-paced where lulls in activity foster a sense of dread and the sudden explosion of violence from a run-in with the monster provides a hot, frantic rush of adrenaline. Playing as the monster manages to provide both a sense of progression and a driving immediacy and the solitude of being pitted against 4 other players but still on level playing ground makes you feel both vulnerable and addictively powerful at the same time. There is a slight learning curve to get acclimated to the various tricks and trades of both the monster and hunters that is satisfying to climb and has a sweet-spot balance of depth and intuitive aspects and the diversity of the ability interactions as well as the composition of the various maps presents lots of opportunities for counter-play and outwitting the enemy. The glory of victory is distinctly different whether singlehandedly overpowering your foes as the monster or conquering your quarry with teamwork and synergy as the hunters.

Visually and aurally, the game also shines. The verdant groves and twisting canyons of Shear are as captivating as they are dangerous, with strange alien growths and otherworldly vegetation and mineral formations that crack and shatter against the hide of a rampaging creature or a roaring torrent of high-tech gunfire. The hunters all have personality and simple but pleasing designs, but the monsters are where the game really flexes its visuals. Tooth and nail, spur and scale, the creature cast is fearsome and awesome to behold as they skulk, pounce, and eviscerate with their jagged teeth, undulating tentacles, and tree-snapping tails in tow. The games’ minimal HUD and visual language are concise and unintrusive, never dulling the feast for the eyes but conveying just the important pieces of information. The hunters’ banter, the report of the futuristic weapons, and the gurgling hisses of the creatures all meld together as a visceral treat for the ears.

For all of Evolve’s strong points, there are a few points of contention. Most notably the content seems sparse especially for players just getting their hands wet. Upon initially launching the game, only 1 hunter of each class and 1 monster is available for use and the others must be unlocked by fulfilling various requirements for the characters/creatures preceding the next. While this is probably meant to be a device to get new players well-versed in basic concepts and core aspects of gameplay using the more straightforward characters, it forces players to “grind” and have several repeated runs with the starter selection in order to unlock options to experiment with. Secondly there is already a bevy of additional content for purchase and the aggressive DLC focus is a bit troubling; there is already nearly $87 worth of add-ons available for purchase within the first week of the game’s launch. Granted most of these extras are cosmetic, but with 2 new monsters and 6 new hunters supposedly on the way, with the currently announced pricing there is forseeably $75 worth of gameplay-relevant content alone in the future. Such a high asking price for add-ons is somewhat unprecedented even in this current generation in which DLC has been embraced as commonplace, and there has already been considerable backlash regarding this game’s content release schedule.

Despite a few concerns, Evolve has a great many strengths that send it towards the upper end of the food chain. While it may not be the perfect organism, it represents an interesting mutation of a oft-retreaded genre and a fascinating new experience that stands on its own feet (tentacles?) amidst a fiercely competitive wilderness of FPS games as an evolutionary success. In a land of devour-or-be-devoured, Evolve emerges as a top predator in my bestiary.