My Blizzard odyssey continues with this weekend’s Overwatch open beta. In short, it is everything it’s been cracked up to be. Which is to say, really, really fun.
My first Play of the Game may not necessarily be impressive, but it offers an accurate snapshot of Overwatch’s obvious appeal. The setting is Route 66, a Nevada desert-themed payload map, in which the attacking team needs to stand near a vehicle - the payload - in order to inch it toward the finish line across the map’s main highway, while the defending team assails them from the mine tunnels, cliffsides, and Spaghetti Western-style buildings adjacent to keep them off the thing. I was on the defending team, and we weren’t doing particularly well. The payload had pushed its way to about 10 metres from our spawn point, a sort of interior hangar bay area with lots of nooks and hallways for the attacking team to strike from. Up till that point I had been playing Widowmaker, a Femme Nikita sniper, to abysmal effect. I don’t think I landed a single headshot that game; fortunately, her weapon has a semiautomatic alternate fire and I was managing to contribute something. But now that they were bottlenecking to their victory condition, I needed to change it up. On my last death, I swap characters to Junkrat, the peg-legged Australian demolitions expert, and leap into the fray just outside our saferoom. Strafing madly from behind my team’s frontline, I lob ricocheting bombs off of walls, behind cover, and into the enemy team, each ballistic ringing like an alarm clock before exploding. I drop a concussion mine at my feet and pop the remote detonator as soon as it appears in my hand; rather than hurt, the explosion rockets me straight up into the air, a sweet angle for raining hot TNT onto the attackers. Inside of 15 seconds, we wipe out most of their team, with less than a minute on the clock. We swarm the payload to get it crawling, crawling in reverse, until we hear footsteps pounding through a corridor on the left. Three enemies crowding in to flank us. Our Reinhardt, Schwarzenegger in silver armour, drops his barrier shield and advances on the doorway to hold them off. From behind him, I’m giggling deviously and chucking wee grenades over his head and shoulders until, FWOOSH, my Ultimate finishes charging. I activate it and Junkrat rips a chainsaw cord on his spiked, explosive tire, sending it rolling past Reinhardt’s shield. I control the tire now, instead of Junkrat, and bounce it right between the suckers in the hallway. Tick, tick, boom. All dead. Victory screen. Play of the Game. It takes confidence to offer up a hotly anticipated release in open beta. Getting my hands on the game sealed the deal; I’m gonna be playing a ton of Overwatch this year.
It has every little detail I look for in battle arenas. There’s a killfeed, but no score screen; they give you enough information to know who’s balling out of control - they are on fire - but not enough to kick off the blame game. Contribution level is unpredictably summarized as top records just for that match, which are randomized at the end of each game. Players can all vote on which record-holder had the most impressive performance, and that user gets a few extra points as recognition. There are so many metrics of performance in this game that it’s hard to be left in the dust every game - Blizzard battles toxicity not by muting it, but by drowning it out with positive feedback, and this just feels right.
The characters, even at their 2edgy4u-est, are delightful. You can play a wall-running Brazilian Jet-Set Radio Future guy; or a cybernetically-resurrected Japanese ninja; or a butch Russian woman with a gun that shoots black holes; or a floating robo-Buddha who occasionally achieves Nirvana in the middle of combat. The maps, too, span the near-future globe, from Hollywood soundstages to Egyptian ruins to snowswept Russian munitions factories. The international cast echoes the vivid uniqueness of the Street Fighter characters that drew me into the game as a kid. They have unique voicelines and interactions based on their lore relationships; they say useful things audible only to the players they matter to, like “Look out behind you!”
Though frenetic, Overwatch’s visuals and HUD read extremely clearly. Enemy heroes are outlined in red, and their voicelines and footsteps are markedly louder than your allies’. There’s no minimap, but you can pinpoint your friends through walls based on little blue arrows over their heads. With a chatwheel, you can quickly access a tactical commands. Markers on the ground delineate important zones and pathways.
Perhaps most importantly for me, given my background in MOBA games, is the lack of any true snowball effect in Overwatch. There is no leveling up, no XP, no gold, no gear. Every player has access to all the same resources, barring skill, and this makes a comeback always possible. Maps are clearly designed to allow dramatic comebacks, with chokepoints becoming increasingly defensible as they near the finish line. When you can’t break a line, you can briefly wait for your team to respawn and regroup, which rarely takes more than 10 seconds, or you can swap out your hero to attempt new techniques. Unlike my hundreds of wasted hours in unsurrenderable Dota 2 losses, a match of Overwatch rarely exceeds 10 minutes, within which time, anything can happen. You can always fight for overtime or try something new; you can always have fun.
Overwatch releases May 24th for PC, PS4, and XBox One.