Call me the turtle to every other game journalist’s hare on this one. I’ve been incredibly slow to come out with some kind of article about Overwatch. To be honest, despite collecting my thoughts and opinions of the game quite early into the game’s release, I really struggled for a while to come up with what I wanted to write about. I could have talked about the game’s intelligent and fun-centric design or the colourful and soon to be growing roster of characters and maps. I could have pointed out the rather interesting setting and stories for each character separated from the game and placed amongst MP3’s, blog posts, comic books and short cinematic animations. Or maybe I could have spent a good thousand words or so bitching about the rather insulting loot reward system in a $90AUD videogame.
So, rather than try to do some kind of odd article-based Sophie’s Choice ritual to decide which idea to run with, I think it’d be more interesting and concise to simply combine them all into an “analytical gush”. I hesitate to call it a review since I imagine that the opportunity to write one sailed away the moment that the game became nearly a month old. Think of this more like a “before you buy” guide for the game if you’ve seen its metric butt-ton of memes, gameplay videos and, let’s be honest here, the inescapable and sometimes quite literal “ass load” of porn, and still aren’t sure if you want to pick it up. Considering how many people are playing the game as of writing this article, that’s probably not likely, but a twenty-something amateur game journalist can dream.
Wonderfully Designed Gameplay
It’s funny how a common critique of a developing MMO can turn into a philosophy that drove the design of Overwatch. Back when Blizzard first new IP in seventeen years was known as the MMO Titan, said criticism was that the game wasn’t really any fun. So, back at the drawing board, the small team that was assigned to what we now know as Overwatch insisted that every design decision that they made was to make the game fun. Based on the glowing reviews that it’s gotten since launch, I think it’s safe to say that the team behind Overwatch succeeded in its mission. Blizzard has brought back the fun of 90’s shooters while still combining it with Blizzard’s famous “easy-to-learn, hard-to-master” core philosophy that makes it easy for players less versed in multiplayer FPS games to pick up and play.
Gameplay is fast-paced and consistently satisfying no matter whom you pick out of the game’s current twenty-one hero roster thanks to the various contextual character strategies and team combos that the game practically teases you to experiment with mid-match. It’s thanks to this and the ability to swap heroes during matches that even losing a game can feel surprisingly good, as I almost always feel like I’ve learned something new about a specific map or character. An example I can give from my own experience is learning about new sniping spots on a map that can be utilized while on the attacking team. And in the cases of matches that come down to the last second, these team combinations can mean the difference between a satisfying shut-out or a heart-pounding comeback that will definitely make you jump up and scream out in either frustration or excitement depending on which team you’re on.
Every character on offer has something fun to play around with thanks to the small ability pools they have. Every character only has about two to three abilities, along with an ultimate ability which charges over time, and an alternate weapon or firing type in the case of certain characters. Because of this, casual players are able to learn simple strategies that can be incredibly effective, even against seasoned opponents, while also allowing for hardcore players to develop more contextual-based strategies for each character by utilizing certain ability combos.
However, while every character has incredibly useful weapons and abilities, none of them can be relied on to win a match as the “best character”. Every character has someone that can counter their abilities and, thanks to the subtle but useful telegraphs every character has; even their ultimate abilities can be countered in some way. Blizzard has done an astounding job in terms of balancing each hero, making sure that they all have an equal level of drawbacks to match their strengths.
This is best seen in Bastion, the game’s current whipping boy for “most annoying character”. This little guy is a robot with the ability to transform into a high-damage turret at any time. With this ability, he’s able to mow down the game’s more fragile characters almost instantly and take down the more beefy characters within a matter of seconds if they stay within his range. However he has two main drawbacks to balance this seemingly overpowered ability out: the first being that while in turret mode, he cannot move, making him incredibly easy for a sniper to pick off. The second being that this turret mode also has a slow turning ability, meaning more speed-based characters can pop off bursts of damage on him as long as they keep moving.
Despite being grouped together into the categories of attack, defence, tank and support, every character has a completely unique playstyle that will cater to just about everyone. Want to be a support without worrying about juggling the health of every team member at once? The passive healing Lucio has you covered. Want to get behind enemy lines and take the enemy team down before they can see it coming? Reaper and his teleporting abilities are perfect for you. But even though you may find a character you feel comfortable playing as, the game will lure you outside of your comfort zone to try out other characters. This may be just out of pure curiosity, the team composition requires a character type you’ve never used before, or perhaps the match isn’t working out in your favour, but it ensures that you won’t get complacent with playing as just one character for very long.
I also love how, while the maps have different mission types and objectives, they’ve all been designed to allow characters with various movement abilities to veer from using the most straight forward routes. One of my personal favourite examples of this can be found in the Hanamura map, in which the defending team attempts to keep two objective points from being captured by the attacking team. When the attacking team is attempting to capture the second objective point, there are three routes that can be taken. The first is the most direct route to the objective, which the defending team can see you coming from a good distance away. But there are also two other side routes that allow for any character on the attacking team to attempt a flank on the defending team, despite their varying movement speeds and abilities.
Satisfying Story and Compelling Characters
I think it’s fair to say that while Overwatch has a really interesting story and compelling backstories for each character, you shouldn’t go into the game expecting to find them on the actual game disc. Beyond a quick little recap of the game’s background during the game’s opening cutscene/open beta trailer, all that you can determine about the game’s story and characters are the little, cryptic piecemeal bits found in pre-match character voice clips. Other than that, you basically have no idea what the background of these characters are, their motivations and relationships with one-another or what is the story behind each map’s particular mission. Since the game is obviously about the arcade-like, colourful and fun shooting gameplay, the lack of story on offer in the game doesn’t really become an issue.
In fact, I’d argue that the story given via character interactions and dialogue actually serve to whet the appetite of those who are interested to find out more about the game’s story. Because, as it turns out, Overwatch’s story is found online through wiki articles, MP3 files, blog posts from the world of Overwatch, and comics found on the game’s website. But if animation is more what you’re after, there is also some story to be found in the beautiful character-centric cinematics made by Blizzard that impressively stay true to the game while also being able to stir up a few feels. Just for the record, my personal favourite of the bunch is the one focusing around brother characters Hanzo and Genji, ‘Dragons’.
By the way, can I just say that I absolutely love the character designs in this game? It’s one of the few games that you see such a diverse cast of characters in terms of races, genders, species, and body types. Every character has been very carefully designed to, as a player, give you a general idea about not only the character’s abilities, but also give you a little peak into their personality as well. You know that the character design in this game is amazing when everybody on the roster looks so iconic and recognisable, that even with their more outrageous, and yet oddly suitable skins equipped, you can still very easily tell who is who while in the heat of a match.
Speaking of skins, perhaps this is a better time than any to finish up this currently 1570 word-long fan rant of an article with my one and only real complaint about this game: The Loot Box rewards system.
Ludicrous Loot Boxes
Basically, every character in the game has a bunch of unlockable cosmetic items. These include alternate skins, emote animations, end of match poses, play of the game intros, profile images, voice lines and Counter Strike-style sprays. These can be unlocked randomly in groups of four thanks to loot boxes, given to you per level, or via in-game currency, which is also given out randomly by the loot boxes. In concept, this system isn’t a bad way of motivating you to play more of the game so that you can be rewarded with neat items that give each character your personal flair to show off during matches
However, in its current state almost a month after its initial date, the current loot box system is quite frankly an infuriating pile of burning garbage. Why? Because despite being a AAA game with a $90AUD price tag, this rewards system utilizes the worst tricks used by free-to-play games to make players shell out money by testing both their patience and their wallets.
The first being that it teases you with the things that you want the most, the most visual cosmetics found in skins, animations, poses and intros, promising that you can indeed unlock them and show them off so that you can be the coolest mariachi skeleton on the playground. But when compared to the annoyingly large amounts of user icons, sprays and voice lines, the chance of actually getting the much nicer items becomes rather slim. It adds further sting when you realise that the super duper awesome skins that aren’t just straight up pallet swaps of a character’s base costume have been placed under “Rare” and “Legendary” categories, further minimizing their chances of appearing. And even when the planets and stars align in just the right way for you to find one of these sought-after items, it may not even be for the character you want, since all of the items you unlock are randomly selected from EVERY characters item list.
Personally, it just seems like the loot boxes should pick random items for characters you’ve used in a previous match might make more sense considering that the only time I’ve ever found a “Legendary” skin was for Pharah, a character I’ve maybe spent two minutes playing as since I bought the game. I’m still waiting for my steampunk and wooden Bastion skins with bated breath.
Of course, I may be waiting a while considering that there is also the possibility of unlocking duplicate items that you’ve already found. Essentially meaning that not only will you most likely get items you don’t even want for a character you probably don’t play very much as, but because the system has been designed so that items aren’t locked off once unlocked, you can get the same unwanted crap again!
Of course you may think that perhaps I’m being a little too hard on the Loot Box system. Sure, it’s designed a little stupidly, but I did mention that items can also be unlocked with an in-game currency. Well, yes, it is the most logical way of working around the randomness of the lootbox system; at least it would if the in-game currency didn’t feel non-existent for how useless it ends up being. This is because currency too is completely randomised; making it incredibly frustrating to save any of it up for an item you want. This is especially grating when you realise that the amount of currency that you get from loot boxes is honestly pretty damn low, ranging between 150 coins at best to 15 at worst from what I’ve seen so far. So when you consider that the currency is designed to be used to purchase items you actually want, their cost is just far too much for how little and how randomly the currency is given out to you. As a personal example of how annoying this is, I’m currently saving up for one of the 1000 coin cost skins and after playing the game almost every day since launch, not spending a single earned coin that the game has given me, I only have 365 coins so far. Perhaps in another month I might finally reach the goal I always waited so long to buy: a safari skin for Winston.
Because of how this system has been designed, I’ve honestly started to dread getting loot boxes, knowing full well that it’s most likely going to be nothing but uninteresting items again. And it’s also why I find it incredibly insulting to their pre-existing fan-base that Blizzard is offering microtransactions for packs of loot boxes. By doing it this way, it feels like Blizzard is simply offering impatient players paid shortcut to grinding with the exact same results, making them feel like they need to spend money rather than want to. The loot box system may as well just be a slot machine, a literal one in fact for those who pay for loot box packs. The only difference between Overwatch and a real slot machine is that at least with the slot machine you’re less likely to be disappointed when you manage to hit the jackpot.
Overall, it’s kind of hard to ignore the fact that the game has this quite frankly disgusting kind of microtransaction model in a game with a premium retail price tag. Even if it is only for the purpose of getting cosmetic items, it doesn’t excuse its ugly presence in the game. That being said, while the microtransaction system found in Overwatch is disappointing, it doesn’t dampen the fact that this game is still just…awesome. It’s fast, it’s colourful, it’s cartoony, but most importantly, it’s just a ton of fun. It’s a game that knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn’t need to be anything more. With the continued support of Blizzard behind it, Overwatch serves to bring its already massive fan-base even more to experience later this year and hopefully beyond that. Seriously, if you haven’t picked up this game yet, the article is over, mate, go grab it! You’re missing out on one of the best gaming experiences you’ll have this year.