PC (consoles TBC)
The hybrid origins of Blizzard’s new competitive shooter become apparent the first time you press Q. This is how you access your character’s Ultimate ability, named after and equivalent to the gamechanging superpowers common to RPGderived MOBAs. In this case, your Ultimate closes out a tightly designed loop of weapons, abilities and movement methods that define the (so far) 18 heroes in the game.
Sniper Widowmaker is a straightforward example. She wields a submachine gun that transforms into a long-range rifle when you hold down the right mouse button to scope. Via the Shift key, she can grapple up to ledges and overlooks, enabling her to reposition in vertical spaces not accessible to most other characters. This is mitigated by a cooldown. Press E and she can plant a Venom Mine, an explosive that leaves a lingering damage-overtime effect and also acts as an early warning system. Overwatch’s maps are linear but offer several flanking routes to the attacking team: while you are scoping out one of them, a Venom Mine can ensure that you’re not attacked from another angle.
The one-shot lethality of Window maker’s rifle (unusual in this game) makes information especially important to her. A good player will only need a glimpse of a foe’s cranium to blow it off, but getting that glimpse is a process with a lot of room for finesse. This is why her Ultimate represents a game-altering shift: press Q and she drops her visor, granting sonar vision to herself and her allies for a period of time. Suddenly, those flanking enemies are exposed through walls. Huddled defenders and their chokepoints are revealed.
Making good on that information means working together. Widowmaker is great when taking on single targets, but weak against groups and entrenched positions. Just as her Ultimate rounds out her skillset, it synergises with those of other characters – a natural incentive to work together. If Widowmaker’s Ultimate reveals a clustered group of enemies, for example, that might act as a cue for Hanzo to use his. He is an archer intended to lock down defensive positions, but press Q and he unleashes a massive spiralling pair of spirit dragons that pass through walls and devastate whatever is on the other side.
Pharah, meanwhile, is an Egyptian private security contractor in a flying suit that is part Samus Aran’s armour, part Gundam. Capable of limited flight normally, her Ultimate locks her in place at the point of activation, haloed by a swarm of rockets that then pound away at whatever you point them at. This needs to be aimed carefully, so Widowmaker’s sonar information can be key. Pharah is vulnerable
while she’s up there, too, so she might benefit from a shield sent her way in various manners by support characters such as Symmetra or Zeynata – and so on, across a broad roster.
This complex system of synergies and interdependencies is what is most MOBA-like about Overwatch, but all of it is moderated by the fact that this is also, resolutely, a shooter. There’s no levelling up, no gold, experience or items, and your ability to use your powers effectively depends on your spatial awareness and aim. Those all-important Ultimates don’t have a fixed cooldown; they charge up as you take, deal and heal damage, making their use contingent on participation in the match.
You are also encouraged to switch character mid-mission a la Team Fortress 2 or Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. Overwatch’s maps share a lot of common ground with those games. A given match consists of two rounds, with teams taking turns as either attackers or defenders. Attackers must capture a succession of defensible positions before the time runs out. On some maps, these points are static. Others shake up the formula by having the attackers escort a moving capture point as in TF2’ s Payload.
It is risky for the defenders to hold the line right on the capture point itself, and the maps are designed to offer natural defensive chokepoints in the midfield area. This helps multiple runs at the same location to feel different based on teams’ choice of characters and positioning. At its best, Overwatch is a game of iteration: strategies are tried against your opponent, changed and tried again, with every variable in play brought to bear. Ultimate abilities and moments of clutch skill punctuate a game that is as much about small decisions as it is about big moments.
Given that switching approach is a crucial aspect of play, every character in the game will be available to every player. Blizzard remains silent on the subject of Overwatch’s payment model, but if it is free-to-play then individual heroes won’t be part of the microtransaction scheme. But cosmetic items wouldn’t be unexpected, nor would a business plan akin to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive: a budget one-off fee supported by optional extras.
This is a game that would be served well by a low barrier to entry, because it is unusually accessible, particularly for an entry in this genre. While the increased emphasis on teamwork and special powers may be offputting to fans of hyperlethal deathmatch, it plays to Overwatch’s strengths as an entry point to the genre. This is accentuated by the game’s visual design, which feels both in keeping with Blizzard’s established style and, somehow, new. Detailed maps suggest the near-future superhero fiction: towering mecha stalk snowbound Russian streets; flying cars idle in the streets of futuristic African cities.
Credit is due also to the character design. This is a more mature-looking game than Blizzard has produced in the past, particularly when it comes to the presentation of women:
Overwatch includes a range of body types, ethnicities, and roles. Widowmaker is one of the weaker examples here – she’s a sultry, purple-skinned French assassin – but others are stronger. Zarya is a muscle-bound Russian heavy wielding a giant plasma cannon, and Pharah is genuinely intimidating to encounter on the battlefield. Swiss medic Mercy might fit into the female healer stereotype, but she’s joined in the role by the robotic Zeynata and Lucio, a Brazilian DJ on laser rollerskates.
Overwatch’s accessibility goes deeper than its excellent context-sensitive tooltips.
This is Blizzard’s most exciting new competitive game in years because it’s neither a straight shooter nor another MOBA. While it’s definitely the result of synthesis, our time with it reveals a highly capable merging of these familiar elements. It’s far more elegantly designed than any other objective-based team FPS this side of Destiny, shaming the later Battlefields when it comes to providing a meaningful strategic challenge to each individual player. It’s refreshing to play a shooter that provides moments of individual glory with such regularity and transparency – all it takes is a tap of the Q key to change the face of the game.
This is a game of iteration: strategies are tried against your foe, changed, tried again
Breaking Reinhardt’s shield is often important in order to get at his team, but also encourages players to waste abilities on it that might be better used on softer targets. For this reason, he’s a natural frontline fighter