Now that the free week-long Beta test is over, some fun statistics are cropping up about the Overwatch Beta. According to Steam Spy, most of the top shooters available through Steam saw a sizable decrease in attention during the beta. Searches for “overwatch” on the popular porn site PornHub saw an 800% rise during the test period. The Overwatch Subreddit has exploded with stories of players claiming to have withdrawal, or proclaiming it to be the best thing they’ve played in years and will buy two copies of the game, just because. All other games feel bland, by comparison.
I spent several hours playing, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was lucky to fall in with a group of long time FPS players, and we embraced the strong team-play aspect of this game. Using Discord, we hung out and explored the first new IP from Blizzard in 17 years. For those who don’t know, Blizzard has a history of producing immersive, polished video games that hold their own for a long time. Star Craft, for instance, is so popular in Korea, that it is on broadcast television.
But what makes Overwatch so great? To me, it was the rich and unique cast of characters, gorgeous maps with transparent but meaningful objectives and Blizzard’s focus on providing a positive experience to it’s players and fanbase. This isn’t to say there aren’t some things that worry me or that need improvement, but I’ll get into that later.
Overwatch’s characters are each completely unique. Not only do they all have individual looks and voices, but playstyles, too. While this seems like an obvious thing for a game to have good replay-ability, some games do it better than others, and Overwatch knocks it out of the park.
As a miniature case study, consider the two characters below who are the game’s primary flankers: Reaper and Tracer.
While these two characters perform similar battlefield roles (sneaking around the map, attacking the enemy from behind), they look, feel and play completely differently.
Tracer is the embodiment of lag; she zips around the map leaving bright blue trails and she can rewind time, placing her back into the position and health she had three seconds ago. Her ultimate ability is a sticky bomb which she delivers before retreating. Her history as a test pilot is represented with her bomber jacket and audacious goggles, and her entire outfit is glowy, bright and flashy. On top of that, she has catchy phrases (“Ever get that sense of Déjà vu?“, “Yay!“, “Wicked!“) and giggles often.
By contrast, Reaper is slower and more brutish; dual wielding twin shotguns and just tossing them when he’s done (that’s his reload animation). He has a teleport, though, and his ultimate is a massive spinning move while he unloads both of his shotguns in the aptly named “Death Blossom”. His backstory is only hinted at in his conversations with Soldier: 76 in the pre-game room (“I thought you were dead.” “Didn’t stick.“) and his entire ensemble is dark, subtle and shrouded in his big moody cloak (which you can hear flapping when he walks). His animations feature dark grey and red smoke, and his voice is raspy and slow, laborious even.
I love the fact that two characters who perform the same battlefield role have vastly different playstyles and looks. Most other games would give you just one stealthy scout character and that’s it.
All of that stuff’s pretty obvious character identity stuff, but there are lots of small things built into the characters, too. Junkrat (a crazy australian junker – think Mad Max) has a remote mine he can lay and trigger. The trigger sounds like the friendly double-beep from a car being remotely locked (I think of the scene in WALL-E every time I hear it). Reinhardt (an old German warrior in a massive suit of armor) has a highlight intro video where he throws out his back (below). There are sprays (tags) from different characters that work together to paint a scene (like Reinhardt and Zarya Arm Wrestling).
It’s details like these that remind you that the dev team’s been working on this game for over three years. The time invested shows.
Immersive Yet Invisible Environment
Playing detailed, interesting characters is fun and all, but the places you go and battlefields you fight on are just as important if a game is going to succeed. Again, Overwatch delivers in spades. Each map has a very different look and feel, and their three types of objective based maps work well to keep the action going without being tedious.
First, the maps are just gorgeous. The environments are clearly lived in, and feature all kinds of things you can interact with, like signs, vending machines and trashcans. They have propaganda posters up with pro- or anti- Overwatch sentiments. They also have ads featuring the Overwatch heroes endorsing various products – they are celebrities in their home countries, after all.
So, yeah, the maps are pretty, and have an identity all of their own, but they also play very well. There are three types of maps; double objective, payload escort, and king of the hill. Those mechanisms force the fighting to one place throughout the entire match; whether that’s whichever objective is up at the time, or fighting over the payload as it travels across the map, there’s always a clear thing to be fighting over over the course of the match. This means that playing just to kill is useful, but claiming the objective is how you win. The fact that the objective changes or moves partway through the match keeps it fresh and interesting.
In all three map types, all that’s required to claim the objective is to stand in the right spot. There’s no mechanism to operate, there are no gimmicks or tricks. Stand in the zone, wait for the timer, win the game! Because of the simplicity of this, the objectives fade from your attention, and you really get a chance to play against your opponents, and not against the map. This is where the game takes a heavy divergence from other MMO team games like League – no one plays against the map in Overwatch – It’s 100% player versus player
But what’s really great about the maps isn’t how great they look or how the action compulsion mechanism fades into the background. It’s the fact that they manage to somehow funnel you towards the action without being claustrophobic. They offer enough nooks and crannies to hide in and there’s almost always two or more ways to get somewhere. This means that you’re never trapped and you always have options, choices. And just like in any good game: choices are vital to making sure players have agency.
The third point I want to make about the game’s immersion is the audio mixing. This is difficult to discuss in a text-based medium like this, but I’ll try (and I’ll link you to a YouTube video that does a much better job). For one, each character has a unique footstep sound. Reinhardt’s steps are heavy and metallic, and they sound different to Bastion (a robot) who is also metallic in nature, but sounds more rickety and has a different cadence. You can tell who’s sneaking up on you if you learn the footsteps. Additionally, your characters talk to your team on their own. They’ll announce when you find a turret or teleporter, and when you take them down. When time’s running out, someone on your team will remind your team to get on the capture point / payload. All of that’s awesome, but what makes all of that usable and useful is that the game considers where you are, what you’re doing and what your biggest threat is, and mixes the audio in such a way that the most important information gets to you, and the stuff you likely don’t care about is quieter.
It’s hard to explain, so just check out this video:
Throughout the closed and open Beta, Blizzard has been very transparent with what they’re thinking about, what’s in the pipeline and what the plan is. This portion of my write-up isn’t very long because there’s not much more to say. The developers care about the game as much as we, the players, do and it shows. It shows in the details they’ve put into each character, each map, and with just how polished and balanced this game is.
The lead developer, Jeff Kaplan has done interviews with countless podcasts, streamers, and YouTubers. He’s constantly fielding tough questions about the decisions the dev team’s made, what their plans are for the current set of issues, and other hot topics. One of the best examples of their transparency is the set of three videos done by GameSpot, who got access to Blizzard’s Dev Studio, and interviewed most of the team that’s been working on the game since it’s conception.
During the Open Beta, several top FPS clans ran tournaments, and while being recorded for their games, it looked like they were cheating (using aiming aids). Some were called out on forums and Reddit, with video “evidence”. I’m not knowledgeable enough about professional FPS gaming to give a worthwhile opinion on it, but these Reddit threads were massive, with everyone chiming in. Legitimate concerns were raised by the community; not about these gamers specifically, but about the impact of cheating on the game’s goal of being a premier eSport platform.
If the game is to be a proper eSport, the developers are the only referees we have to ensure fair game play. Sure, we can retroactively punish players for wrongdoings, but stopping it from the beginning is far better. In light of the controversy, less than three days after the Open Beta closed, Blizzard has a public response.
One Redditor summed it up nicely:
This kind of involvement, responsiveness and transparency is what makes it easy to give Blizzard my $40 and support the game. It tells me that when the community recognizes concerns, those concerns will be heard. That feels really good.
Not everything is perfect, though. There were some things that I encountered while playing that could be better. Most of these have already been mentioned by others on Reddit or Blizzard’s forum, but I’m going to include them here anyway, for completeness. Plus, the more of us that complain about something, the higher it goes on the attention priority list and the sooner it might get addressed.
- Loot Boxes – I love that you get random skins, sprays and voice lines in these. I just wish we could open them in between games, and not have to leave the queue to do so. I get that if the queue pops mid-open, we may miss what we got, but the Hero’s Gallery indicates when you have unexplored new stuff for a champion, so the gear can be examined later.
- Play of the Game – This is an amazing feature, and I don’t want to see it go away. However, I think that Ultimates shouldn’t be considered for the feature. They often don’t require doing much beyond pressing one button, and over the course of six days, seeing the same ultimates over and over again got old. I would suggest two different options. First, the current method of considering amount of damage done versus time works well once ultimates are removed. This will show us a time when a player managed to get several kills quickly. Secondly, consider chained events. An algorithm could be designed to recognize notable events (namely multi-kills, ults and change in possession of the objective) and when several of these are densely packed, that indicates a climactic moment in the game. This could be used to identify the key player to the moment, and award the PotG accordingly.
- Soldier: 76’s Ultimate – This feels lackluster compared to McCree’s and Reapers. All three effectively auto-aim, however in my experience High Noon and Death Blossom result in deaths far more often than Tactical Visor does. I think this is because Tac Visor doesn’t prioritize targets based on health. The player can pick the target by getting the cross-hairs inside the reticule, but when the trigger is mashed, the damage is spread out. I’ve seen Soldier:76 in capable hands, and I don’t think his power level is wrong (he has greater range, higher accuracy and more versatility), however I think if the Visor prioritized targets based on HP remaining, it would feel more powerful for newer players but allow more advanced players to retain the control already inherit in the ability.
- Symmetra – She’s a builder. She builds turrets and a teleporter and she doesn’t heal. If she could make health packs and drop them around like Torbjörn does armor, then I think you could keep her in theme without moving her away from support, but as-is, she doesn’t fit. I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with having only three support.
- Race Diversity – I feel that the spread of nationalities is excellent in the game. It feels international, just like Overwatch as an organization does. However, the characters from Asia don’t look Asian (they look like Americanized Asians), and there’s only one black skinned character. Also, several accents are off, but that’s been covered by Reddit threads already.
- Saving Highlights & PotG – I know this is already in the works, but I hope it’s ready at launch. I plan to figure out how to stream some games while playing, but being able to retroactively go grab the nicely formatted and bookended (with hero opening and Overwatch logo ending) recap would be awesome.
- Nerf Bastion, Boost Zenyatta – QQ. I’m actually kidding about this. I’ve watched and read some gamers that were in the closed beta, and they say that the meta shifts the more experience the players have. All the cheesy stuff with turrets is counterable once you know what you’re doing, and I’ve seen some amazing Zenyatta gameplay that shows he’s not as fragile as he seems. I think the characters are very well balanced, and I hope whatever changes they do make are small.
I’m in love with Overwatch, and I only played for 20 hours or so. I’m salivating for the game’s official release, and can’t wait to get back into the fold. If you enjoy multiplayer team-based games or FPS games, I highly suggest you go on on gamingbuff.com and give it a go. I’ve already pre-ordered it, and with some luck and prep, I hope to be streaming on my Twitch.tv channel.
See you on the battlefield! And, remember…