Overwatch came hot on the heels of Gearbox’s Battleborn, making it the second May entry into the field of cartoony first-person shooters. Despite the differences between the two — Overwatch is an objective-based arena shooter, while Battleborn is truly a first-person shooter MOBA — the hype for Overwatch was so overshadowing, prices for Battleborn were quickly slashed to fall in line. And all the hype around Overwatch was for good reason.
Salvaged from Blizzard’s ambitious but abortive Titan project, Overwatch quickly caught the attention of gamers as it was the first totally new intellectual property anyone had seen from Blizzard in a long time. Recent games from the company, like Heroes of the Storm or Hearthstone, might be new, but they leverage old franchises’ content. Overwatch, on the other hand, introduces gamers to a whole new world full of original characters, and Blizzard does a great job of this, but it’s also part of the problem.
As the game got closer and closer to launch, Blizzard started putting out Overwatch animated shorts and comics that filled players in on the characters’ backgrounds and relationships, some of the history and lore of this game universe, and even a look at a lot of their in-game skills. It’s all pretty fun stuff, and the animated shorts are quite well done — don’t be surprised if there’s a full movie on the horizon. But all of it feels like a rubber stopper used to plug a giant hole in the game that I’ll address at the end of this review.
Overwatch is fun and accessible
To put it simply, Overwatch is really fun, beautiful, and impressively accessible (I was able to run it with playable framerates on a non-gaming laptop with an Intel i3 processor and Intel integrated graphics, albeit with very blocky graphics. You can see a full-size low-quality screenshot here and a high-quality screenshot here). It has a huge cast of characters that is only going to get larger and keep things spicy by changing up the character combinations and rock-paper-scissor style checks and balances available for players to push the tide of the battle. There is essentially a character for everyone, whether you want to be a giant with a hammer smashing everyone up, a ninja bouncing around with shuriken and a blade, or a flying doctor bringing everyone back to life.
Fans of shooters, especially Team Fortress 2, will feel relatively at home in Overwatch, though there will be some adjusting as you can’t just learn to play. Instead, players have to learn each character, as they all play very differently. Some run differently, some jump differently, some can climb walls, others can hover or fly, some have to charge their shots, others can fire full auto, some need to reload, others don’t. There’s a learning curve to every character, and to really participate, players will need to learn every character enough to contribute in a scrap.
One issue here is that players really will be forced to change characters throughout a match unless the enemy team has chosen an unbalanced lineup and doesn’t change it up to get past you. Because the characters have personality and very different play-styles, a lot of people are likely to have favorites that they generally want to choose every time and just might. In fact, just prior to writing this review I got out of a match where three of my teammates were the same character, Torbjorn, until the enemy had nearly won and they were persuaded to change up — an act of compromise plenty of players won’t make.
None of this means the game won’t still be fun. If you can accept that every now and then you’ll be teamed up with a half-dozen buffoons, you can take absurdly dumb moments as a break from serious matches. Of course, the game also allows players to team up with their friends on Battle.net (sorry, Steam users). It’s pretty easy to get teamed up if you have any friends online.
Another nice team-making feature of the game is that it’s pretty quick to fill empty slots if someone on your team drops out. Unfortunately, if one of the people to drop out was part of your friend squad, they might not be able to rejoin the game if that slot gets filled. And if they do get back in time, someone on your team has to notice because they will not automatically be brought back into the fight.
So, there are clearly some things that can go wrong and lessen the player experience. But barring these, the game is really quite a blast. It’s hard to put down. Matches are fast-paced and don’t last long, which makes it easy to say, “just one more match,” a dozen times. With any luck, you’ll also find a handful of characters you enjoy, so you can always enjoy your time playing while also being able to support your team. Given that there are plenty of characters and more to come, that should be no problem. Unfortunately, how fun it is, how engaging all the characters are, and how much it’ll keep you playing lead to one big issue: The game itself lacks any sense of story or grand scheme, and that can make it get a little dry.
So, what’s the matter?
Though Blizzard has done a lot to create a story for Overwatch through the impressive animated shorts and comics, that’s the element I’ve called the rubber stopper trying to fill the gap in the game itself. There is no story mode, campaign, or really anything in the game itself that gives players a hint of what all the fighting is about. Some of the characters have lines of dialogue they’ll say at one another unprompted that give some hints at their history, but that’s about as much as you get.
Battleborn may not have gotten the hype that Overwatch did, but we’ve got to at least credit it with giving players a campaign to understand the universe they’re playing the game in and feel a part of it. Team Fortress got away without having a campaign because it was a game of a bunch of silly nameless soldiers. Hell, even Ttianfall whipped together a full story in spite of every mission just being a PvP match. It still did the job, in-game, of bringing players into the world and story that had been created.
With all of the great characters that clearly have a deep history together, it’s going to be almost impossible for players not to want some gameplay experiences that bring them into the universe that Blizzard has created. The comics and the animated shorts may do it, but the game really doesn’t. And without that component, Overwatch could start to lose steam as players crave a story more than another plot-less objective match. Given that the starting game modes aren’t all that varied, the burnout could happen even faster. There is a Brawl mode that offers some changes to the meta of the game, such as altered health, different ultimate charging speeds, altered cooldowns, but beyond this the game is still more or less the same, and it will be hard to say whether the addition of a competitive mode and a new character now and then will be enough to really keep the game as fun as it is right now.
For now, the game is plenty of fun, and that means it’s doing its job. Whether Blizzard’s ongoing addition to the game will make the price tag worth it can’t be judged yet. Despite its in-game story shortcomings, it could manage a long life as a fun shooter with limited game modes. After all, Rainbow Six Siege suffers from the same problem, but it’s still fun, and the trickle of new characters and maps keeps things spicy. Let’s hope Blizzard does right by the folks who put down their hard earned cash to play (especially Xbox One and PS4 owners, who don’t get the $40 option).
If you’re getting into the game, check out my Overwatch tips and tricks for dealing with pesky enemies and their strategies.
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