Since getting my hands on the Overwatch beta late last month, I’ve sunk more than my fair share of hours into it. At its core, it’s a fun objective-based shooter. You pick a hero, you shoot enemies, and you fight over objectives, but it’s not without its issues. There are balance concerns, design concerns (that probably loops back around to the first concern), and the ever-recurring netcode concerns.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, though. Let’s start at the beginning. Overwatch is Blizzard’s first entirely new IP since StarCraft in 1998. That in and of itself is rather weird. Their other games are super fantasy, super sci-fi, or super medieval. But Overwatch is set on a fictional Earth with a light smattering of sci-fi and fantasy elements. A lot of the times it blurs the lines between magic and technology. How does D.Va conjure up a new mech suit after she self-destructs her last one? Well, probably with nanobots. How does Reaper render himself invulnerable and float across the ground like a specter? We’ll go with nanobots again.
The game might tread new ground for Blizzard specifically – they’ve never made a shooter before – but Overwatch wears its influences on its sleeve, unabashedly. The game could easily be considered a modern Team Fortress 2. That game came out almost a decade ago, and so much time has gone by that a spiritual successor is very much welcome.
Anyone who was expecting Blizzard to try something super innovative is probably barking up the wrong tree. The studio has always taken the familiar, refined it, and polished it to a fine sheen. Regardless of how any Blizzard game comes out in the end, that’s one thing you can always expect, the polish. Overwatch is no different. It looks good, it plays well, and if it had a smell, it’d smell good, too, but at the same time it plays it safe. The last time Blizzard tried anything new was probably Titan, and we know that how turned out – well it turned into Overwatch. This game is built on the ashes of the now-defunct MMORPG. You may even be able to go as far as to assume that Overwatch is what the PvP mode of Titan might’ve looked like.
About the only real difference between this game and Team Fortress 2 is the fact that Overwatch features many more characters. It’s taken the nod from MOBAs and crammed as many into the game as possible. The characters have abilities, and charge up an ultimate, and there are currently twenty-one of them – with more coming after the game’s launch – but aside from that, this is very much an objective-based shooter. Those are about the only things Overwatch has in common with MOBAs. Now if only misinformed people would stop calling it one.
You can even switch between all the different characters at will. Well, between lives. If you could switch to a different hero in the middle of shooting your gun at someone’s head, that’d be really weird. Switching to the right hero for the right job on the right map becomes crucial. They’re super varied, too. No two heroes play super similarly, and they’re all distinct. There might be a risk of clogging the pipes with far too many down the line, so I’m hoping the game finds a nice comfort zone and resist the urge to throw too many heroes into the mix. Balancing them all must be a pain, and that’s not even considering any Blizzard will add later.
As it stands now, some heroes are notably stronger than others, and some are notably weaker. The strong heroes are most commonly the ones with the strong ultimates. In a lot of cases an entire fight hinges on someone’s ultimate. Cast it at the right time, and it’s almost a guaranteed win. Mess it up, and you’re as good as screwed. At best, it causes some pretty exciting turns, and can help you snatch victory from the clutches of defeat. At worst, you could argue that the second to second fighting really only serves as a vehicle for charging up your ultimate. I’ve lost count of the games I’ve almost single handedly won with D.Va’s self-destruct ultimate. If the explosion kills half the enemy team, awesome. If it just causes them to scatter and allows us to push, that’s also awesome.
For as many times as an ultimate has caused a game-winning turn in battle, they also whiff. Nothing feels more disappointing than popping Soldier 76’s tactical visor – which basically gives you temporary auto-aim – and watching everyone scramble to cover. Catch a few people out in the open though, and they’re gonners. Then there are the ultimates that synergize with each other. Those have the potential to be the most devastating. Zarya can toss out her black hole, sucking in all the nearby enemies, and then D.Va self-destructs her mech. Boom.
Then there are heroes with ultimates not nearly as powerful. As a concession, those are the ones that are easier to charge and can be used more often. Maybe the most powerful ultimates could be scaled back to follow a similar design. Weaken them so that they can’t be used as easily for an auto-win, and counter that by allowing them to be used more often.
Maybe too much rides on these ultimate, or maybe the swings they cause can make the game a lot more enjoyable. It’s a really hard balance to strike, and as we all know, multiplayer games are never really balanced, at least not perfectly. They can come close, but as players evolve so too must any game. Ultimates (and to a lesser extent abilities) will undoubtedly be tweaked from now until release and beyond, but with two months left before Overwatch’s May 24th release, I’m worried even that might not be enough time to get the game where it should be.
Characters aren’t the only thing that requires balancing, though. As with all objective-based games, maps need to be designed in such a way that they favor neither attack nor defense and give both sides equal chance at winning. In a few of the maps it’s far too easy for the defense to hunker down and prevent the attacking team from coming anywhere near the objective. Not only is the point so cramped that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, but the enemy respawn is so close that the moment you get a leg up, the other team is right back where they died within a few seconds. In random groups, where people are generally much less organized, fights can become a big death-fest.
Aside from completely redesigning maps, I don’t really know what Blizzard can do to stem this. There’s also the issue of balancing the game for random groups and for organized teams. Change the game in such a way that it makes it a bit easier for an uncoordinated mess of people to win, and that might throw off the balance for everyone else. Maybe they could tweak respawn timers. As it stands now, everyone revives in waves about every ten seconds. Maybe increase it slightly for defense on some of the final points. A few seconds here or there can make a world of difference.
Balance isn’t the only aspect of the game that could use some work. Let’s talk about the netcode. That’s a term that gets tossed about a lot these days. In layman’s terms, netcode is the umbrella under which a game’s network responsiveness is measured. Netcode isn’t just one thing; it’s a bunch of little things all working in concert. It’s mostly used to describe synchronicity issues. Those times when you get behind cover and still seem to die, or when you cast your ability and it doesn’t go off before you die. Overwatch has these issues and more. Half the time, the killcam seems to tell a story different from the one you just experienced. It took Battlefield 4 over a year to improve its netcode, and while Overwatch isn’t nearly that bad, I don’t expect Blizzard to have it perfect by the time the game comes out. If they’re not working on the issue, though, I’d be pretty concerned.
Then there’s content. I don’t usually bother discussing whether a game is worth the asking price, but I feel like Overwatch deserves an exception. It’s a $60 game, although it does have a $40 option on PC. So Blizzard is – in a way – admitting that the game isn’t really worth $60, not unless they give you all these extra goodies to go along with it. So is it even worth $40? Probably not, but people are going to buy it anyway, because it’s a Blizzard game. You could argue that you’re not only paying for Overwatch, but also for its continued development, but there are also cosmetic microtransactions. So the entire package feels just a tad greedy. Anyone who picks up Overwatch expecting a full single-player campaign, the multiplayer, and maybe some co-op stuff to go along with it is going to be sorely disappointed.
Criticism aside, the core of the game is fun, and it is still in beta, and it’s a Blizzard game. So the Overwatch we’re talking about now might be slightly different in two months, and a lot different in a year. And if we look at Diablo 3, in four years it might be an entirely different game. I think your chances of deriving enjoyment out of it depends entirely on whether you have friends to play with, and are interested in reliving the glory days of Team Fortress 2.