It's been 17 years since Blizzard last presented a new universe to the public. There will be few people reading this who will not have known a world where Blizzard wasn’t the studio that made those Warcraft, Diablo, and StarCraft games, and even those of us with longer memories are unlikely to have predicted that Blizzard’s next idea would be such a radical departure from the high fantasy or space epic universes that the developer is synonymous with.

Overwatch is unmistakably different to anything else Blizzard has done. It’s a first-person shooter set in a highly stylised rendition of our own future. And despite some outward aesthetic and mechanical similarities – especially my own initial lukewarm impression that it’s “Blizzard does Team Fortress 2” – it’s pretty far removed from other games out there, too.

Overwatch is set a world where flying cars, robots, and ray-guns are all possible, but one that’s not so divorced from our own reality that we can’t spot the odd landmark: London’s Big Ben clocktower, or the Sydney Opera House. It’s set in a world that’s intended to provide immediate context and accessibility to players without too much exposition.

30 years prior, so the story goes, man-made robots called the Omnics turned on their masters and besieged the Earth. As each was individually outmatched, Earth’s nations instead pooled their technologies and their greatest soldiers, and created a strike team called Overwatch. These heroes defeated the Omnic threat and ensured the security of humanity for the next 25 years until, without explanation, Overwatch disbanded five years ago.

That brief history is recapped in the cinematic reveal trailer, which deliberately draws strong stylistic cues from the celebrated output of animation shops such as Pixar and Disney. The world of Overwatch is carefully presented to be inviting and approachable, one that gamers of different skill levels can approach, and one that presents a future worth fighting for.

The game demonstrates how totally inadequate conventional genre descriptions are in the 21st century.

Beyond that first blush of exposition, Blizzard wouldn’t be drawn into divulging any more narrative detail, except to say that the story wouldn’t be told through the game itself. Working in the same three universes for twenty years has led to more than a little convolution in Blizzard’s storytelling.

“After developing story for real-time strategy games for something like 20 years, there is no bigger pain in the ass than trying to make successive levels make sense with all this character work you’re trying to do, and all these highfalutin themes – it can be exhausting,” says Blizzard’s Chris Metzen, senior vice president of story and franchise development. “When you get it right, it’s wonderful, but it’s really hard to get right.”

Instead, Metzen believes the best stories should give meaning to gameplay, but gameplay should always be able to breathe in its own space.

“We recognise that it’s very cumbersome if we’re making restrictions to gameplay based on fictional conceits, so we decided to pull them apart,” says Metzen. “We have nothing to announce but short form animation. Things like that [allow] us to tell stories exactly like we want to without being compromised by the demands of gameplay.”

Overwatch hands-on

That gameplay is somewhat removed from the usual conventions of first-person shooters. Class and team composition is based on the “holy trinity” of roleplaying games: the tank, the DPS, and the healer. Each team is composed of six players, a number that Blizzard feels should allow for individual heroism to shine, but not so few that one or two players learning the ropes or having a bad day will sink the whole team.

There’s no team deathmatch or free-for-all in Overwatch. Instead, every map has a set of objectives that it will take teamwork to complete. The game demonstrates how totally inadequate conventional genre descriptions are in the 21st century. It’s a first-person shooter in the narrow sense that everyone has guns and everyone controls their character in the first person, but the game is really more like two RPG dungeon teams going head to head.

Offence heroes such as Tracer and Reaper are best at harassing, scouting, and dealing high damage, but they’re glass cannons. They’ll want to stand behind Tank heroes such as Winston and Reinhardt, who have high survivability and are good at disrupting enemy defences. Those defences are the province of defence heroes such as Torbjörn and Bastion, who are responsible for creating control and choke points on the map. Everyone needs support classes such as Mercy, Zenyatta, and Symmetra, who heal allies and debuff enemies. There are many characters whose abilities don’t require the player to have lightning reflexes in order to be an effective member of the team.

Overwatch hands-on
Overwatch hands-on
Overwatch hands-on

Each character has two unique abilities, and an ultimate ability locked behind a meter quickly fills as heroes perform successful actions in the game. For example, Tracer can blink forward, and recall or rewind to the position (and health) she was in three seconds ago. When her ability meter is fully charged she can drop a short-range pulse bomb. Using all three in unison, she can blink in, drop the bomb amidst a cluster of enemies, and rewind out.

Blizzard wouldn’t be drawn into discussing the business model that will support Overwatch beyond noting – in game director Jeff Kaplan’s words – that Blizzard is “always looking for what’s going to be the best, highest value experience for our players”.

There was also some speculation at BlizzCon that Overwatch was a reworking of part of Blizzard’s recently-scrapped MMO project, codenamed Titan. Both Metzen and Kaplan deny that.

Overwatch is its own game,” says Kaplan. “With all of our games at Blizzard we borrow elements from previous projects, previous games. There are things from Titan in Overwatch, but it’s not like there aren’t things from World of Warcraft in Overwatch as well.”

“For a lot of years World of Warcraft blew up so insanely. We had no idea what that thing would do. It took us a year before we were even ready to look at building an expansion set, we were just putting out fires and holding the tiger by its tail,” adds Metzen.

“We almost became the World of Warcraft studio for a few years there. I think we did good work and I’m insanely proud of the work we did, but it’s like there was a spark that got eaten by this mammoth business.

“What you see happening in the past couple of years with Hearthstone, with Heroes of the Storm, with Overwatch – I feel like we’re back. I feel like the studio’s sense of raw energy, creativity, focus, and appreciation for smaller-scale projects has been rekindled. It has no bearing at all on the fact that World of Warcraft is our most precious, precious product – and we have a great team driving that business – but you see this spark now, smaller points of engagement that are totally driven by passion, totally driven by people geeking out of their minds. You can feel it around the studio, and it’s wonderful. After twenty-something years, it’s the coolest time to be at this place.

“For me, I don’t care if it cracks the world in half with its economics. I don’t care at all, I just love it. It’s so cool to get back to that place and just develop it from that core passion.

“The Titan thing comes up. It’s frustrating. It was a big idea. It was almost six different video games in one – the most ambitious thing ever. It was fun to try to tackle it, and boy did we try to tackle it. We wrestled with it for a long time. And it sucked. We couldn’t figure it out. We couldn’t crack it. Imagine the team, this amazing team – they were so frustrated.”

“I’ll tell you, under the hood, we needed this.”

Overwatch goes into beta in 2015.

James Cullinane travelled to BlizzCon courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.