Blizzard's take on the first-person shooter sees a generosity of character accompanied by beautifully deep mechanics.
The first time you play Overwatch, Bastion seems overpowered as hell. Here's a character that can, at any time, transform into a turret. An actual turret. If an enemy player gets set up in the right spot like this, they can hold off your entire team with a near-constant stream of machine gun fire. It feels hugely unfair. How are you supposed to reach your objective when the other team has player-controlled robot turrets on their side?! Why are we even using the other characters? The thing is, you're actually being taught a very valuable lesson here. Overwatch isn't broken. The balance isn't off. You just need to start thinking differently.
Every hero has its counter. Although Bastion may be incredibly powerful against opposing characters as they rush to capture a control point, or move through a bottleneck, it can't stand up to a Widowmaker or a Hanzo at range. Turn its turret against a Genji, with his deflection ability, and the only damage you'll deal will be to yourself. And there's the problem that comes with remaining stationary: you'll want to be wary of flanking characters too. If you're not paying attention, a Reaper or a Tracer could show up and you're done for.
Once you've learnt these counters, you'll be thinking about them every time you see an enemy Bastion. Overwatch isn't just a contest of reaction speed and accuracy (although they do tend to play a significant role.) It's also about picking the right hero at the right time.
I'm wary of making too many comparisons to the MOBA genre here, because this is fundamentally an arena shooter, but the character design does follow many of the same principles that guided games like League of Legends and Dota 2. Each hero can be defined by a particular role (offensive, defensive, tank and support), they have a handful of abilities that are used regularly, and one that isn't: the ultimate. However, unlike those games, Overwatch doesn't lock the player into their character selection at the beginning of a match. Here, you can switch heroes after every death.
Now that does something really interesting to a game that already boasts a roster of 21 playable characters (with more planned), all of which have such obvious strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, it's useful to be able to try a different playstyle if you've been having a rough game, but more than that, the amount of variety this offers will be the reason we're still playing years from now. There can never be a perfect team composition, because you'll always need to react to the other team's selections. I think that's really exciting.
It also helps that Blizzard happens to be one of the greatest developers in the world when it comes to making fun characters with fun abilities. That can't and shouldn't be understated. Getting to grips with each of these heroes is a joy, whether it's mastering Lucio's wall running to reach some ridiculous height, or saving your team from a self-destruct using Reinhardt's shield. After tens of hours spent with the game's open beta, I continue to be surprised by what can be accomplished with each character's bespoke set of abilities.
A recent game that stands out saw my team playing on the Volskaya Industries map, which usually begins with the attacking team meeting their opposition under an archway leading to the first objective. It's an obvious choke point and the first half of the game is typically decided here, with the defenders taking advantage of better positioning, while the attackers have a much shorter run back to the action after being killed. Pretty straightforward stuff.
I must have played this map 30 times before I was introduced to a second approach. This time, myself and the rest of the team all played as D.Va, the pro gamer turned colourful mech pilot. Using her boost ability, we avoided the inevitable archway and leapt from the left-hand side of the map, aiming for a distant platform that provided another route to our objective. Before the other team knew what had happened, we'd all but claimed the first capture point without needing to fire a single shot.
Now in all honesty, this is a bit of a daft opening play and most defending teams would have responded a little quicker, but this time it worked. Here we were, playing a map that we'd all played before, and trying something totally new. Overwatch continues to surprise in this way. There always seems to be a new trick, a new secret to uncover that will undoubtedly improve your game. I remember thinking I'd got a good handle on playing as Genji, up until I saw that GIF on the subreddit showing that he can deflect Hanzo's ultimate ability. Or there was the moment someone pointed out how different each character's footsteps sound and how you can use that to anticipate enemy players.
Despite what looks like a fairly barebones launch, with four game modes (if we're being generous) set across 12 maps, all of which involve variations of either Payload or Domination, it still feels like there's loads going on in Overwatch. The game's massive roster of characters consistently makes up for its shortcomings - there's always a new ability to practice, or a different hero combination to muck around with.
The maps themselves, although limited in number, are a delight. As varied as the heroes that fight within them, they're full of alternate routes and clever little vantage points. Many of these are only accessible to heroes that can clamber up walls, use a grappling hook, leap into the air, or straight up fly. Escaping danger, or successfuly springing a trap, because you picked the hero that can teleport onto a platform that other players can't reach is incredibly satisfying. Every battlefield is a playground and Blizzard has provided some excellent toys.
This is a game with such attention to detail. I love the reload animations and the platforms that are just close enough to each other that Tracer can jump between them using a single blink. I love that you can tell how much Mercy has healed a character by listening to the changing pitch made by her healing beam. I love watching the loot boxes open and I love that the Play of the Game isn't always a killstreak, but sometimes a player denying an ultimate or resurrecting their own team.
This is a game I want to play for years to come and so far, Blizzard is saying a lot of the right things to make that commitment seem worthwhile: ranked play will arrive next month, future heroes and maps will always be offered as free updates and the leveling system will only ever grant cosmetic rewards. I continue to be impressed by the Overwatch team and their willingness to both talk and listen to their community. If that keeps going, Blizzard's first new universe in more than 18 years could go on to match the likes of Diablo, Warcraft, StarCraft and that puzzle platformer with the vikings.
But most importantly, this game is brilliant fun right now and you owe it to yourself to watch as a Reinhardt charges past you and falls off the map. That never stops being really, really funny.
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