Featuring over twenty characters at launch with the promise of more to come, Blizzard’s Overwatch is a game that tries to not only butt in on the popularity of squad based first-person shooters, but also MOBA’s (e.g. League of Legends, DotA 2). Featuring 6v6 matches over a variety of maps and gametypes, it plays, at least on a superficial level, vaguely like what you might imagine TF2 would if it replaced its cast of characters with the diverse and thematically inconsistent hodgepodges you see in most MOBA’s.
Given the current, overwhelming popularity of both of these genres, the eventual marriage of the two types of games seemed like an inevitability (and we’re already seeing it elsewhere, with both Epic Games and Gearbox hopping in on the fad). However, Blizzard’s never before had experience making a serious FPS, and I feel like this level of inexperience shows in quite a few ways with the finished product. I enjoyed my time spent with it, but for a variety of reasons, I couldn’t help but consistently wish I was playing something else.
The first of the problems I feel causes Overwatch to suffer is that its diverse cast ultimately greatly restricts the game. While it promises diversity in a squad based shooter meant to be on an unparalleled level, the extreme selection of characters (with more undoubtedly to come) rather has nearly the opposite effect, giving the game a lack of diversity in its mechanics and situations that its characters can ultimately get in. To explain exactly why, I’ll first have to explain the game’s basic mechanics.
Nearly every character is reduced to fit into a specific role, usually being able to be pigeonholed into one of four categories: assault, sniper, healing, or support. When selecting your characters at the beginning of a match, your teammate’s characters will also be shown, and the game will offer friendly reminders to let you know that your team is missing out on a key component (i.e. if you don’t have enough people to deal damage, or if you’re lacking someone with a support role).
Characters are also, with few notable exceptions, limited to their one weapon (with unlimited ammo), an alternate fire, two abilities, and an ultimate ability. Most competitive FPS balance themselves around the player’s weapon and their passive abilities, like Call of Duty’s selectable perks and attachments or TF2’s variety of distinct weapons and characters with variable health, movement speed, and so on. These things are determined before the game and are constantly accessible and being used by the player, but Overwatch attempts to balance characters a bit more as if they’re from a different game genre, altogether.
Given that the vast majority of characters are given a limiting cooldown on their useful abilities, this sets the pacing for how combat in the game will work. All of the four gametypes are objective-based and three of the four feature an attacking team and defending team. What this does is essentially create an imaginary skirmish line between the two teams where they’ll take potshots at each other, and occasionally push the line further up when their individual abilities will allow them to. This kind of design then leads to a startling degree of homogenization between the sheer number of characters.
Because of the game’s incredible focus on these abilities and the abilities nearly universally featuring cooldown timers, this puts less of a focus on individual player skill and more of a focus on pushing slightly forward when using an ability, then pulling back as they wait for it to become available again. Tracer, who is one of the game’s popular mascot characters, really helps to exemplify how this works.
Her first ability allows her to teleport and can store up to three charges at a single time, and her second ability is a “rewind” that sends her rapidly flying back to her position from a few seconds ago, recovering any health she may have lost across the way (of course, if she dies before activating it, she’s not given an opportunity to rectify that). This allows her to get into enemy territory, harass them with her very weak pair of machine pistols, and then get herself out of trouble to wait for abilities to recharge and repeat the process.
While doing that, she’s able to eventually charge up her ultimate ability, which lets her throw a grenade that can instantly kill most characters, should she manage to throw it well enough and actually hit one of them (it features a very limited blast radius, but can stick onto an enemy or surface). Her role is largely to harass the other team rather than do any serious damage, and she mostly plays the role of distraction. Given the cooldown on her abilities and her weak method of attack, it’s practically impossible to play her in a way that could significantly dominate the other team, no matter what the player’s skill level is.
Contrast this character with the Scout from TF2, who can move quickly at a passive rate, is able to perform a multidirectional double jump at any time, and who has a weapon that packs a very serious wallop if you’re able to handle it properly and get right in enemy faces. Playing the Scout is exciting, and a good Scout is able of seriously disrupting an opposing team and personally dominating inferior players of any class. The Scout is also capable of crossing well over and even distorting the imaginary skirmish line that these types of competitive FPS with 12+ players create without becoming a highly vulnerable target… Whereas Tracer’s survivability is handicapped by whether or not she has charges of her ability prepared.
In Overwatch, a pesky character like Tracer is ultimately just going to be consistently pesky and act like a decoy. Not to say that Tracer can’t be an important component of a team, but that she will never be the star and will almost exclusively fit within a very ordained role, never to organically grow out of it. In TF2, a good scout (or, mind you, a good -any character-) can change the very dynamic by which your team operates and be the catalyst who controls the pacing of the entire game. Overwatch forces its characters into distinct roles and places hard limits on what they can do, while a game like TF2 embraces its genre and is much more flexible, allowing for greater player skill and creativity to be exercised.
In a true MOBA like League of Legends, these types of character limits work to both interesting and satisfying conclusions because of a fundamentally different structure when compared to FPS. Whereas most FPS teams are defined by their strongest players, MOBA’s often define their team by their weakest link being the first to go and begin the cascade of defeat. By giving the playing field multiple lanes to protect and each team little henchmen to defend their territory, this initiates an exciting game of chicken between players, where you’re repeatedly attempting to bait your opponent into a vulnerable state to crush them and advance your way a little further to their defense objective.
If you’re baited into using your ability and failing to capitalize on it, you’re then left vulnerable for the opponent to get an upper hand on you while you recharge. Because of how the maps are designed and the game’s objectives are placed, many encounters end up being very personal, one-on-one affairs that allow for the dynamic put in place by cooldown abilities to become more interesting. This is less interesting in a game like Overwatch because of the encounters funneling multiple players into what is effectively only one, single lane (partially a fault of sterile map design, but also of just how these games need to be formatted) with an occasional second method of approach. This creates a more chaotic mess where encounters are almost never as personal, thus removing the dynamic that makes the vulnerability of ability cooldown so engaging.
Ultimate abilities in Overwatch are often so powerful that they can change the state of the playing field in very radical and superficially interesting ways, and could conceivably help to shift Overwatch in a more interesting direction. But, like with primary abilities and their genre-contrary mechanics, Overwatch lacks the proper context to make these as exciting as they could be when stacked up against other games with comparable ideas.
Many modern games feature killstreaks, a mechanic similar to Overwatch’s ultimate abilities made popular by Call of Duty 4. These reward a player with a single use, often highly powerful ability after the player is able to string together a certain number of consecutive kills without dying. Smaller killstreaks bestow weaker abilities, while larger ones can completely turn the tide of a game. These kinds of abilities reward player skill and ability and allow players to create a palpable momentum for the rest of the team to rally behind.
TF2 also has features not entirely different from ultimate abilities like the Medic’s ubercharge. By healing enough teammate health in a single life, the Medic is able to make themselves and another teammate temporarily invulnerable, allowing them to push up the field and wipe out enemies in their wake (yet even then, there are still ways for players to cleverly counter this if they’re able to predict it). Games are often won or lost with a successful push from an ubercharge, and Medics are prioritized targets because of this.
In both of the afforementioned scenarios, the player is required (or at the very least heavily encouraged) not only to stay alive, but to play well or in a way conducive to assisting your team. In Overwatch, your ultimate slowly charges no matter what you’re doing and persists across death. This guarantees that even the poorest of players will eventually get their ultimate multiple times over the course of any reasonably lenghtened game, and because of the power of some abilities, this can greatly upset the flow of the game. In addition to that, it removes a great deal of the necessity for targeting specific players to consistently weaken the opposing team and thus makes the game’s dynamic less complex and interesting.
First-person shooters are built around the idea of creating a skillful competition between players or player teams, but this changes that on a fundamental level by allowing players to cause upsets through unfairly powerful abilities awarded to them simply through participation. While players are ultimately rewarded with more Ultimates for playing well, someone poorly playing a character can still become the deciding factor in a match by simply pressing a button at a key moment. Zenyatta’s ultimate, for example, regenerates your entire team’s health so quickly that it effectively makes them invincible for a brief period of time. It doesn’t take much to see how this could win a team the game.
If this were a mechanic in a party game, I’d be willing to give it more of a pass (I like to play Smash with all items on as goofball characters and love Bomberman games, for the record), but it’s in a highly competitive genre that is trying to pass itself off as though it is the next big thing in competitive gaming. Much like it has overreached in attempting to appeal to both those interested in FPS and MOBA’s, it has also overextended in trying to appeal to both casual players of the genre and those who have played daily for years.
Overwatch also seeks to reward mere participation through its cosmetic unlock system (that gives you stuff for the game for playing it more and more) and even through the scoreboard at the end of the game. Upon completing a game, rather than tallying players’ kills and assists, it homogenizes them into a single “eliminations” number. In doing this and other subtle things (voting for players to receive additional rewards, showcasing what the game capriciously decides to be the deciding moment) in post-game, Overwatch somewhat transparently tries to manipulate you into thinking you’re always winning on some front, even when you’re not, and a frustrating loss is often easily forgotten when they drop one of their shockingly manipulative loot boxes into your lap.
However, in a move bafflingly contrary to their push to draw player ability more toward a median to make the game accessible to all, Overwatch rewards headshot damage with nearly every single weapon. Games like TF2 (which I maintain to be both highly accessible to new players and maintain an immense skill ceiling for experienced players) only do this with very specific weapons for specific classes that would benefit from the difference in mechanics (most of the Sniper’s primary weapons as well as one of the Spy’s). This allows players to focus on other methods of play for most classes that don’t require intensely precise aiming – something that has long been considered a skill barrier for new players to break into the genre.
This kind of design decision begins to expose Overwatch’s biggest problem, which is that it as hard as it tries to be accessible to people intimidated by competitive FPS, it cannot exorcise the nature of it from the game. For as far as it tries to go to make the game a rewarding experience for newer, less experienced, or poorer players, it’s still going to happen to be a very competitive game that will ultimately reward those who play the best the most. You’re not playing against AI, you’re playing against people, and you can’t remove the human elements of intense competition for people who want to play at their own pace.
Like with any competitive FPS, within a month or two, Overwatch’s community is going to be dominated by groups of dedicated players whose skill levels will make the game an unpleasant mess for anyone casually engaging with it. Enjoyable and fair matches to evenly matched opponents will slowly give way to increasing losses to more organized teams, and all the pressures of forming a reliable, competitive group will inevitably rise. The carefree and casual environment will very quickly become filled with the same pressures that competing on any other FPS’ matchmaking service provides. Should the game have had dedicated servers you could leave and join to your heart’s content, you could eventually find one that facilitates your needs, but there is no such luck, here, as the game pushes its matchmaking service as hard as playing Call of Duty on a console.
I find it difficult to imagine exactly the type of person that Overwatch is meant to appeal to, on a mechanical level. On one hand, they make great strives to further reduce the skill ceiling and allow less skilled players to cause massive upsets with the push of a button. On the other hand, the game is still an FPS and still prioritizes rewarding players with the ability to aim precisely and cleverly predict their opponent’s actions. Its design contradicts itself and makes the experience relatively unsatisfying when compared to other popular shooters, whether you’re approaching it as a new player or someone with a long history of experience in the genre. Skilled players will be frequently killed or suffer the occasional loss to a team that got their ultimate just when they needed it, while new players will still ultimately suffer repeated losses to people who have been doing this for thousands of hours over the course of many years.
What commonly seems to be considered to be Overwatch’s greatest appeal is its lavish aesthetic. Characters are not only bright, colorful, and lovingly detailed, but there exists a great variety of them to match the game’s equally colorful and detailed maps. They all command a great deal of attention to their over-the-top personalities, and people find tremendous appeal in the idea of picking the hero that best suits them from not only a mechanical perspective, but personal one.
But, yet again, Overwatch’s reach stretches itself far enough that it reaches the point that one of its greatest appeals bites itself in the rear and becomes nearly as much of a detriment. Every character looks like they could be the protagonist of their own game, and while this may work well for a MOBA (because the perspective is overhead, the characters are smaller, and there’s an omnipresent radar to help you distinguish things immediately), it works awfully for an FPS.
In a team-based game with characters who serve a variety of purposes, it’s very important to be able to identify friend from foe, and more importantly, identify what your enemy is capable of with a mere glance. Readability is paramount to the design of a comparable game like TF2 or even something like Left 4 Dead’s competitive mode, where’s it’s necessary for you to know with as much immediacy as possible how to react to what you see before it kills you. Overwatch’s 20-something characters are so detailed and with such a variety of colorful skins to empower player choice that they become almost impossible distinguish immediately.
While the game tries to mitigate this by placing a blue outline and friendly filter over your own team while making the enemies have a red one, this begins to not only erode their individuality (which the game very overtly prides itself upon), but also their readability as unique entities. This solves the problem of being able to tell friend from enemy in most situations, but when enemies stand next to each other, their complicated silhouettes and identical-colored outlines can make it very difficult to tell which is which and where one ends and the other begins. In a game where your survival is often decided in split-seconds, this can completely throw a wrench into your ability to react with the immediacy required to excel.
The map design suffers a similar problem with excessive detailing. While they look good – even great – they are overtly detailed, as if they’re meant for a single-player game where you have time to wander and observe every little thing. This makes it difficult to immediately recognize where you are and coordinate your attacks with your team against the enemy. Again, Blizzard shows a disregard for what is established and works well in these types of games for its own unique flavor of bombast.
While I find most of the character designs to be personally unappealing and far too upsettingly similar to how pornographic artists draw similar characters (I would unabashedly go as far to say that this is deliberate in their attempts to make this as popular as they can on communities like Tumblr – it feels as if I am being baited, and I don’t like it), I understand their appeal, and I do appreciate the lengths Blizzard went to in an attempt to have a cast of stand-out individuals. Still, I can’t help but feel in trying to make them all stand out to such a degree they weakened each one individually, and tore apart any semblance of cohesion this game could have in trying to appeal to nearly literally everyone. Even Nintendo’s first outing with a competitive shooter (the sometimes delightful, sometimes infuriating Splatoon) had them showing a stronger grasp of these nailing these basic necessities to good shooter design.
Where the aesthetics most grab me are with the attention to detail within each characters point-of-view. Roadhog’s shotgun visibly vibrates and feels like a mess of parts as he stomps about. D.Va’s animation for re-entering her mech suit after having left it genuinely makes you feel like you’re pushing yourself into that cockpit. The lid to Junkrat’s grenade launcher pops open with each shot fired, and even begins to realistically lift as you jump or fall from a great height. All of these things and more are very rarely seen in such loving attention in other games, and are among the few things I think Overwatch does right that puts itself far above the competition without also harming it in some way.
Beyond that, I also find genuine appeal in the game having a positive atmosphere and avoiding the typical grim future you’d imagine something like this would take place in. It makes the fact that these characters are all repeatedly and indiscriminately murdering each other in a cartoonish potpourri of extravagant violence a bit hard to explain and thematically bizarre, but whatever, I’ll take it. It’s nice to play a game where even the darker characters seem to have a positive attitude in a bright and colorful world.
In closing, while Overwatch is fun and appealing at the moment, I can’t help but feel that like with every other FPS ever made (especially those without dedicated servers), it’s going to fall victim to a toxic community and boring meta within the period of a month or possibly less. Nearly everything that Overwatch does well is done better by something else, and in a way that allows for greater capacity of player skill and creativity. Something about Overwatch’s overall design, progression system, and super unique characters makes it feel like it wants to manufacture this amazing experience for you without YOU ever really being the interesting component of that end product.
It builds an interesting world around you and gives you a selection of characters and skins for you to create your own look and feel, that goes without saying. But where your identity should most be able to express itself in a video game – the way that you actually play and perform at it – Overwatch is bizarrely sterile and lacking. In all that it does to empower you, it reduces your ability to be an active agent in its world, replacing the ability to create memorable moments with ready-made, manufactured ones. Why feel rewarded by creative play when you can eventually just receive an ultimate ability and have the game deliver to you a false sense of accomplishment and importance? In a game against other human beings that promises a new and exciting way to compete, it goes against its fundamental design, becoming a mess of ideas that are at odds with each other.
Overwatch wants you to imagine that it’s competitive and deep, but also wants you to imagine that you can enjoy yourself no matter your skill level. It makes itself out to be about empowerment, but offers you so few ways to exercise it outside of its restrictive boundaries. It espouses vibrant individuality, but reduces ways to employ it. It is a game that ostensibly breaks outside of the established boundaries into exciting new territory, but is even more a focus-tested, cynical product than its competition. It’s ultimately going to set new precadence with its popularity as it first releases, but as the dust settles and large chunks of its fanbase return to their long-proven standbies, I doubt it will really do anything to kill the established kings of the genre or be taken seriously on a competitive level in tournament play.
**Speaking of making an embarrassment of itself on a competitive level, professional players are already being caught cheating during major events (and, somehow, without the commentators picking up on it, of course).