PC, PS4, Xbox One
We’re about to pick Mercy, Overwatch’s valkyrie-styled healer, when we spot the tooltip on the character-select screen warning that our team has no builders. We’re on defence for this match, tasked with holding a series of capture points from our opponents, so fortifications are important. Nervously, we hover our cursor over Torbjörn, the Scandinavian dwarf who has caused us so much trouble in our first hours with Overwatch. Early on, he feels almost unbeatable: he can build a single, static turret, whack it with his hammer to power it up, then waddle off, gun in hand, to pick off the stragglers while his sentry covers a capture point, racking up kill after kill. Aim for him, and the turret will get you; focus on the turret, and Torbjörn can repair it with a couple of thwacks from his hammer. The match starts and we start to feel bad as we hit a 20-kill streak without even trying. Yes, truly, Torbjörn is unbeatable.
Suddenly, we’re dead. The killcam shows a Tracer player using three Blink teleports to close space on us in a flash. She activates her Ultimate ability, throwing a sticky grenade at us and the turret. Then she uses her rewind skill to retreat. We die, but aren’t chastened. We’re elated. Now we know how to beat Torbjörn.
Though seemingly teaching little – its tutorial covers the fundamentals and is over in a flash –
Overwatch is a masterful instructor. You learn through play, gathering ideas organically, even accidentally. There is helper text that for once is worthy of the name, post-death popups offering advice on coping with the character that killed you, or how better to survive with your own. The result is that players become experts not by poring over wiki entries and archive footage, but through their wins and losses, their kills and deaths.
Experience is king, then, but not in the contemporary sense. While you earn XP and level up, all that will ever change as you rise up the ranks is your stash of loot. There are no fancy attachments, no highend guns, no skill points: unlockables are graffiti tags, dialogue snippets, emotes and character skins. Every single hero, weapon, ability, map and mode in the game is unlocked from the off, and all post-launch content will be free. While refreshing from a business perspective, it’s of tremendous benefit for Blizzard’s design teams too, since there’s no need to balance the action around a set of haves and have-nots. And to the player it sends, loud and clear, the message that if they are failing, it isn’t because they haven’t ground out the highest-level gear. The answer to any given problem lies somewhere on the character-select screen.
It’s an intimidating menu at first, admittedly. Twenty-one heroes are divided into four basic types – Attack, Defence, Tank and Support – but with tremendous variety even within their category, both in functionality and appearance. The Defence section has two snipers, one a classical Japanese assassin, the other a French mercenary who seems to have just walked off the set of Mass Effect. Two others use turrets – Bastion transforms into one, while our dwarven friend Torbjörn fashions his with a hammer. Then there’s Junkrat, a Mad Max extra with a fine line in bouncing grenades, and Mei, a coy Asian girl who encases herself, her enemies and the scenery in large blocks of ice.
That diversity extends right across the cast, from a Wild West gunslinger to a robot ninja, a pro gamer in a mech suit to a gorilla from the moon, a shotgunwielding grim reaper to a rollerblading DJ/healer. That the game hangs together visually is remarkable; that it should cohere so well in design terms, unfathomable. All of the launch characters are a delight in their own way and can be so powerful as to seem broken. But there are counters for everything and no match is unwinnable, whatever the circumstances, since you can switch heroes by returning to your home base at any point.
Hero switching is Overwatch’s beating heart, its implications pulsing out across the entire game’s design. It’s why every character is unlocked from the start. It’s why the modes are built around the concept of shifting momentum. It’s why seemingly lost causes can be spun back in your favour by a couple of canny changes and some smart teamwork. It’s why there’s no mid-match scoreboard, signalling to players that individual performances don’t matter. It’s about winning or not, and no one is going to care about your 30 kills if you end up on the losing side.
Crucially, it’s why Blizzard can get away with what, by modern terms at least, is a relative lack of content. A dozen maps and just four game modes is, on paper, a paltry offering, but the heroes are so different in their locomotion and toolsets that each of them moves and fights on these multilayered, branching maps in a different way. And given there are two teams of six players, each switching heroes as the situation demands, no two matches are ever going to be exactly the same. Designers speak of a game’s possibility space, and
Overwatch’s feels something very close to endless. That’s not to say it wouldn’t benefit from having a little more meat on its bones. Nor does it mean that Blizzard has nailed the game’s balance on day one: certain Ultimate abilities could do with dialling down, while some characters could do with a leg up. A few little niggles on the console version – including one prompt for you to tap Y or N on your non-existent keyboard – have snuck through the porting process. But the flaws are minor and fixes will surely come given Blizzard’s past form for post-launch support. The future, then, looks bright indeed. At launch, Overwatch will simply have to settle for being the finest multiplayer shooter for a generation.
That the game hangs together visually is remarkable; that it should cohere so well in design terms, unfathomable