Blizzard Entertainment clearly has the Midas touch. Over the course of its 25 year history, it has proved itself to be a leader in almost every genre it has entered, be that MMO, RTS, or even CCG. So it should be no surprise to anyone that Blizzard's first foray into the FPS world, Overwatch, has produced the same genre-defining results. Not bad, considering Overwatch is Blizzard's first completely new IP since 1998.
Set on Earth, the team-based shooter follows the members of a society of heroes which once protected the world against villains, but which has been disbanded due to societal pressure and fallen into disrepute. Of course, a new threat sees a reformation of sorts, and this very Justice League premise provides a strong undercurrent for the universe, despite the fact that other than an opening video there is no in-game storytelling. Rather, the story is told through Blizzard's short CGI films exploring the world and its characters. It’s bizarre that these short films aren't tied into the game somehow, because having experienced them online I can attest that they supplement the experience tremendously.
Though the story doesn’t carry over from these films, the sense of world and character absolutely does. The near-future Earth of Overwatch is incredibly well defined, despite the fact that you experience it entirely through multiplayer maps. This is due partly to its diverse locations, and partly to the superb and comprehensive design of each. Each map is set in a different area of Overwatch’s futurist utopian depiction of the world, ranging from a stunning urban depiction of Africa to a dark and dirty Japan. The striking pastel art style and intricate design of each map makes them all consistently engaging and endearing to compete within.
The cast of characters holds the same level of detail and polish, with every member feeling distinct and well rounded. Even characters not highlighted in Blizzard’s short films feel just as fully realised as those that have been. Some are archetypal and others utterly original in their design, but even those based on existing ideas – such as shotgun-wielding death assassin Reaper – skew these molds in distinct ways.
Much of this personality is expressed through the playstyle of each character, and in the entire roster of 21, there is not one character that feels at all like another. This is despite the fact that there are only four distinct roles: assault, defense, tank and support. Within these roles, each character has unique ways of achieving the same goal. For example, Roadhog fulfills his role as a tank through close assault bullet sponging, whereas Zarya tanks by creating shields and engaging in mid-range combat. With such a diverse set of play styles, there is almost guaranteed to be a character that fits your approach in each role.
And with such an expansive cast of great characters to choose from, your team naturally balances itself among them, rather than being skewed towards DPS characters as happens in many team-based games. I shudder to think how difficult it must have been for Blizzard to balance such a diverse roster. At first it seems that some characters may be overpowered, but you quickly come to realise that simply by changing characters – which you can do at respawn – you now have the arsenal you need to take away that player's advantage. It’s classic rock/paper/scissors, expertly implemented.
With its combat, Overwatch applies the golden rule of multiplayer: easy to get into, difficult to master. Each character is assigned a one to three star rating depending on how difficult they are to play, and though the more difficult characters are alienating at first, through experimentation you realise that playstyles which at first seem ungainly really just require practise to understand. From this, it is clear that high-end tournament play will unfold in fascinating ways.
But at a base level, the most apparent thing to any player will be just how good the combat feels. Every match is filled to the brim with moments which will have you whooping like a lunatic on your couch. And that provides the impetus for coming back to Overwatch, because the game offers little other incentive. There are no progression systems – which is great for balancing – but little to work towards as a result.
What Blizzard offers instead is a vast selection of visual and audio variations which players unlock through loot boxes. These loot boxes may be gathered via levelling up or through spending real world money, and though these customisations are cool to have, they may not offer all players the same incentive to keep playing.
There are three game modes: assault, control, and escort. These modes are exactly what they sound like, and work the way they do in countless other multiplayer games. However, Overwatch randomly selects the game type of each map for you, keeping combat naturally varied match to match.
What’s incredible about Overwatch is how every single aspect of the game presented holds the same remarkably high level of detail and polish, and though the lack of progression systems and small selection of game modes may limit the experience for some in the long term, in the short to medium term, this game is nothing short of amazing.