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What’s The Big Deal With Overwatch?

by Matt Miller on May 25, 2016 at 12:14 PM

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After much anticipation, Blizzard released its first-person, hero-focused shooter, Overwatch, earlier this week. The game has already laid claim to some significant accolades, including a particularly glowing evaluation by our own Daniel Tack. Today, we’re coming to Overwatch with a fresh set of eyes, and exploring just what makes the game different if you haven’t yet checked it out.

Dan Tack has spent hundreds of hours with Overwatch across the beta and the final release, but as a fellow editor and shooter enthusiast, I’ve only just started diving into the action. It’s safe to say I have a lot of questions, but also a healthy skepticism about what I’ve seen so far, and I’m not sure yet whether Overwatch is the game for me. I’m sure I’m not the only shooter player who is wondering whether Blizzard’s new shooter is worth investing in. Hopefully, we can help answer your questions.

Matt: Dan, it’s been awhile since a Game Informer editor gave out a score of 10 for a new game. That’s a big deal! 

Dan: It absolutely is, and it was not a decision I took lightly at all. I debated the final score for many, many hours, but in the end, I feel completely justified and comfortable with it. If I consider any game a 10, this is it.

Matt: Wow. So, with an eye towards this feature we’re doing right now, I’ve held off on playing too much of the game. People who read the site know that I play a good number of shooters, but I’ve stayed pretty fresh on Overwatch, and I’ve just played a few matches to get an early impression. At least at first glance, beyond solid controls and pretty visuals, I’m still trying to track in on what makes it stand so far above the pack. What was your experience? Did you love it from the start? While I like what I’ve played so far, I have to say that the very first few minutes playing don’t immediately sell a person on why the game is that great.

Dan: I’d completely disagree with that, actually. That is one of the game’s strongest aspects, I think. It’s immediately accessible. You can hop in, click a character, and boom, you probably have one weapon, a few abilities, and an ultimate. You can figure out what’s happening right away and understand it, even though it will take much, much longer to dive into the depth of the game, like ability synergy, team compositions, and using your abilities to take advantage of maps, situations, and more.

Matt: Yeah, I think I had a different experience in that regard. Their training mode is super smart, in that it breaks things down to the absolute simplest levels, as if someone has never played an FPS before. But when I hopped into my first couple of real matches, I felt like the game didn’t do a lot to explain what was happening, and without knowing the abilities of other characters, or how to best achieve an objective, it made for a challenging start. 

But it sounds like whether someone has my somewhat more questionable start, or your more favorable experience with those early matches, additional time with the game helps to clarify a lot and make the game more engaging. So let’s talk about what some of those deeper elements are. What moves the game from what you might consider a solid shooter, to the way you ultimately evaluated it, which based on your score, puts it in the running as one of the best games you’ve ever played? 

Dan: I must confess I’ve never actually even tried the training mode. The game’s modes were immediately recognizable to me as I’ve played plenty of Team Fortress 2 in my day. As far as deeper elements go, I find there are what boils down to different “tiers” of learning and skill acquisition when it comes to Overwatch – layers on layers of things that come together masterfully.  

A new player can obviously say “Okay, I’m Roadhog. I throw my hook out at people, heal myself, and shoot people with my shotgun. I can combine my hook to pull someone toward me and hit them with a big burst of damage and kill them, then go behind something and heal. I’m a big sustainability tank with some damage! Cool!” And then you have the next level, which is learning various points on maps where you can pull people right off the world for instant kills, finding out that you need to be ripping Mercys away from their Reindharts and not targeting enemy tanks, or, in the right situation, maybe pulling a Reindhart toward you so that your Reaper can get to his exposed back. Or maybe just ripping apart a turreted Bastion, breaking him out of his sentry mode. Then you start to do other things, like actually working with a team to synergize all these things together, as character ability kits come together in pretty incredible ways, especially when ultimate abilities start playing a huge role in big team fights. These layers of intimacy and learning make it so you are always picking up new things, whether you’re playing competitively or just goofing around trying to make 6 Pharahs happen. 

Next Page: Why do people think Overwatch is a MOBA?

Matt: Based on your example with that one character, it sounds like one of your big highlights about Overwatch is the way every character feels distinct, and how the interplay between those characters leads to a lot of depth. But other games have tried a similar tack. Do you think Overwatch has done a better job of that than some of the other recent games that have really embraced this multiple hero angle, whether you’re talking about MOBAs like Smite or League of Legends, or Gearbox’s recent Battleborn? 

Dan: I really hate uttering the word Overwatch in the same sentence as MOBA, just because I feel that there’s some real misunderstanding out there in gaming land about that – the game is absolutely not a MOBA in any way. 

Matt: Agreed! I think a lot of people somehow think it’s a MOBA, though. Why do you think that is?

Dan: Yes, it has characters. Yes, they have abilities. But to address the original question directly, what it comes down to is that you can have fun in Overwatch regardless of whether you’re playing the game “right” or not – if you sit down to a game of DOTA and you decide to just do your own thing, you and your teammates are set for 30-45 minutes of pure misery. 

Here, even if you want to take things seriously you can either wait out the other 5 Hanzo players and go about your business in just a few minutes or just leave the game. I realize that multiplayer-only titles are subject to additional scrutiny, and I believe that’s justified. What’s so incredible about Overwatch is that the carrots on the stick are all cosmetic. You keep playing because it’s just insanely fun. The fun factor hasn’t diminished for me after hundreds of hours – in fact, I feel like I’m just getting started. Each character plays so differently it’s almost like learning a new game entirely, and your skills with one character help you understand how to play better as another. PvP-only games that I’ve put literally thousands of hours into like Dota 2 are undeniably excellent, but I’d be lying if I didn’t get frustrated with random teammates sometimes in those games. Here, the time investment is so miniscule in comparison that it doesn’t really phase me; I often have just as much fun being trounced as I do leading a victory charge. If my team just really refuses to work, that’s a great opportunity for me to try a character out for the first time. The fun factor really is a huge component here that separates it from the rest of the pack.

Matt: I’m glad you brought up the subject of multiplayer-only, as I think that’s going to be a big barrier for a lot of players. There are a lot of folks I’ve played with over the years who enjoy shooters, but they really want a deeper immersion in the game world and its story, or they struggle with the sometimes toxic nature of the competitive gaming scene. As a PvP-focused experience, does Overwatch do anything to address either of those issues?

Dan: Obviously, this is a multiplayer online-only game that’s inherently a PVP experience. There are some people that will never like that. That’s fine; that’s why we have so many different types of games and experiences. As far as PVP-centric titles though, the entry to Overwatch is something I’d consider the warmest of welcomes. The whole “these games have toxic communities!” thing never really meshes well with me. Obviously, when you bring thousands and thousands of players into a game, some people are going to call you a naughty word now and then. I think as far as that goes, you can drop in and drop out of quick play instantly, so it’s not like you’re forced into a crappy experience with people for an hour at a time, which is one of the more common gripes about MOBAs. I will also state that yes, Overwatch is an awesome “solo and find some random people to play with” game but it also is a much better experience with friends. I suppose at the core, if you’re not comfortable playing with other humans as a gaming experience, Overwatch may be a tougher experience to applaud, but as far as PVP-centric titles go, it is by far one of the most welcoming I’ve seen.

Matt: What about that other part? Has Blizzard done anything to make the characters and world of Overwatch interesting, even though it’s mostly about shooting other players? 

Dan: The characters in Overwatch are astounding. While some of them are playful takes on archetypes like cowboy McCree or have obvious design inspirations like Mercy being very close to Team Fortress 2’s doctor and Torjborn being the engineer, every single one of them plays in a unique fashion and has tons of personality that Blizzard has directly tied to gameplay. All the ultimates have audio cues, so that you become trained to listen for the incoming magic dragon or shotgun-fueled death blossom and can act accordingly. The characters also have plenty of banter between them that’s linked to their own personal stories, like Widowmaker will comment about the site of one of her kills when coming into King’s Road. There’s a statue of her target there! Blizzard has also masterfully woven common alerts into the gameplay here, so the characters will let you know when a sniper is around or if an enemy has come up behind you, no need to go to voice chat to breathe heavily into the mic.

Next Page: Is a cosmetic-only progression the right path for Overwatch?

Matt: I was a little confused by the opening, which seems to imply that there is this big epic story about the Overwatch team coming back together after it’s been torn apart, but then the PvP matches themselves don’t do too much to allude to that story. Does that narrative play out in some other form? 

Dan: Many of the narrative wrinkles and tons more lore on the characters themselves can be found outside of the game, but it’s not directly pushed on players within the game. I kind of like it that way, as it’s just laser-focused on providing that core experience. I also enjoy the cool stuff about the characters outside of the game, though.

Matt: You’ve touched a couple of times on the cosmetic progression, and I know that for me that’s one feature that I worry I might not like. After so many years of RPGs and MMOs where I get a concrete sense of improvement through investment of time, I’m inherently a little suspicious of games where I’m just unlocking new victory poses and the like. Can you sell me on why the cosmetic-centric system works well for Overwatch?

Dan: In a word, it’s pure. Because you’re not unlocking weapons and loadouts, you always know what abilities and tools Reaper will have at his command. There’s nothing to unlock outside of the cosmetics, meaning it’s always even ground. Bob with 10000 hours of play has no progression advantage over Jimmy who has been playing for two hours. They have access to the exact same tools, and while it’s incredibly likely that Bob will be able to use his tools a whole lot better, there’s nothing to gain an edge except your own knowledge and skills. I believe you absolutely do need a progression system in these kinds of games, and going the cosmetic route seems like a brilliant way to both provide the carrot on the stick we all inherently chase while keeping the gameplay sacrosanct.

Matt: I play other games online with friends on a nightly basis, and a lot of them have asked me about Overwatch just having a single match type, and being disappointed by that. What should I tell them? How does Overwatch maintain excitement for so many hours, even though you’re mainly going into the same style of play again and again?

Dan: I’ll go back to MOBAs here for this one. Look at Dota 2. It’s one map. One map, and pretty much one mode. The maps and modes are just a blank slate, and it’s your unique mix of players and abilities all coming together to take on a completely different unique mix every game that makes it endlessly entertaining. Games are never the same, they’re always going to play out differently, and when you swap characters you can instantly refresh your gameplay experience with a whole new set of tools to learn and master. The modes and maps are really just window dressing for the team-based gameplay that’s at the heart.

Matt: So, one thing I can confidently say is that I love that Overwatch is a game I can buy in its entirety, and play all the characters with all their powers on all the maps, without constantly being bothered by microtransaction nonsense for those fundamental features. It also seems that by doing that, Blizzard has allowed for something interesting that makes the game a little different from a lot of the MOBAs and other character-focused games out there; you can change to any character mid-match, and respond to the enemy team lineup, since all of them are available to everyone. I’ve only played a few matches, but that seems like a big deal. Am I right? 

Dan: Absolutely, and that’s something we’re going to see a lot more of as players start getting their feet wet and move out of their comfort zones. People are only a few days in, and they’re still gravitating toward their “mains,” learning the ropes and all that jazz. Picking and counter-picking are absolutely critical elements of more advanced play, and are even quite effective when you’re just starting out. One character I find that frustrates new players is Bastion, since he can really blow away anything in front of him in turret mode. If you want to ruin his day, be willing to swap out. Shoot him from long range with Widowmaker or Hanzo, ram him with Reinhardt, or perhaps my favorite method for displacing the cute little beeping turret is to reflect his own bullets or blasts back at him with Genji and crush him. This works in specific one-to-one counter situations like that, and it’s way more interesting when your team comes together to form counter-compositions on the fly to an enemy team, and then they counter your counter, and then you counter THAT counter. Yeah, it gets pretty deep. 

A MOBA model where you earn currency to unlock characters with a F2P format or something would never work – you need to have all the characters available to you at all times to really make the most of the game. I’d also like to say that Blizzard has stated that all future heroes and maps will be free, meaning the community won’t get divided when a map pack hits, a pain point for many online shooters.

Matt: Agreed. That is definitely a cool move on their part. And it sounds like the character switching thing is just one way the game has some significant strategic depth. For me, the absence of a more story-focused PvE experience is a bummer, the opening matches didn’t completely blow me away, and I’ll have to wait and see whether I can embrace the cosmetic-only progression. Even so, I’m certainly eager to play more and see if I come around to your perspective on the game. Thanks for the insight, Dan! I hope we can tackle some matches together.