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

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