The name of the game may be Overwatch, but we all know what we're playing is a slice of a bigger project Blizzard would no doubt rather forget. Titan, the long-in-development game designed to revolutionise the MMO genre, never quite found its flame - save, that is, for one bright spark that Blizzard couldn't quite put out: a team-based shooter that went into beta last week.
Overwatch's combat characters are split into four different categories: offence, defence, tank and support, and there are some interesting surprises to be found in each one. In the offence category, for example, you have the usual assortment of short-range gunslingers, but Tracer can bend both time and space to blink out of danger, or warp back to an earlier moment when her health bar was more plentiful.
Defensive characters range from turret-dropping mechanical monsters to Mad Max villains capable of firing deployable wheels that detonate on demand. Slingshot snipers can hook themselves through the air from statue to rooftop in order to scope out and upset the enemy team's next path of least resistance. Only the Tank category currently feels a little underwhelming, with its assortment of rather same-ish, shield-bearing damage sponges that provide cover for their team.
It seemed fairly sensible to me that a good plan of attack would be to experiment with each character in a series of ten-minute matches, and get a feel for the broader flavour of combat. As I already knew full well, however, I'm a pretty hopeless soldier and an even worse sniper - one who's always sniffed out first before adding a single kill to the team's tally. Instead, after a handful of frustrating matches, it was a random selection from the Support category that lead me to my first real love in Overwatch: Lúcio.
Lúcio's gun emits a steady musical pulse of what can best be described as late-90s Eurotrash. By default, this heals every ally around him continuously, but a tap of the Shift button switches the tune over to a radiating speed buff instead. As a result, your challenge is to efficiently swap between the two effects as you race towards near-death comrades in order to boost their health, or simply ferry fallen soldiers from the spawn zone and back into the thick of battle nice and fast. As a character, Lúcio's every inch the skate-culture-youth-type as imagined by a committee of advertising executives, but there's a playful charm about him that's very easy to love, and an air of urgency to his raison d'etre that's nothing short of thrilling.
As with all of Overwatch's characters, Lúcio's role changes subtly depending on both the map he's being played on and the objectives at hand. In Payload matches, where teams must first capture a vehicle and then compel it towards its destination through proximity alone, it's more important to stick close to a shield-bearer while you keep the healing vibes flowing. In base capture or defence battles, greater fluidity of movement and combat method is critical as you react to the changing nature of the forward-pushing forces.
Having found your starting niche, it then becomes much easier to branch out into those other characters whose shoes you might have feared stepping into before. In learning your own natural role, you gain a greater understand of the others'. As you watch snipers race to cover choke points, you understand how you too might perform better in that role. When you see a teammate fire a spectral Chinese dragon that roars forward, annihilating everything in its path, you're more than a little incentivised to give that character a second chance after all. From animations to combat capabilities, there's something tantalising about dipping into every one of them.
That there are balancing issues in the earliest stages of a beta seems almost unreasonable to dwell on, but they're there nevertheless. The automatic turrets that certain characters can place around the map feel grossly overpowered - particularly on those maps with hard choke-points. With what seems to be an almost universal field of view, these turrets cleanly - not to mention automatically - snipe anything that gets remotely close, and before the victim can barely register the machine's existence. The lengthy sprints from the spawn point back into a battle make for a powerful survival incentive during open gameplay, but these particular kills often feel cheap.
Yet the design of these turrets might not be such an oversight after all, given the option to switch at spawning to a different character from the roster - perhaps one of the handful that can sneak around the map unseen, disable the turrets, and open the path forwards. Where Blizzard's last game Heroes of the Storm sought to all but eliminate the concept of carry, there are myriad moments where a canny Overwatch player can connect the dots, switch soldiers and save the team from their collective inexperience. In a time before every last scrap of detail has been harvested into wiki format, it's been a delight to peel back the many layers of Overwatch's apparent metagame, and apply your deliciously gleaned knowledge from one fight to the next.
Your own experience and capabilities build over time, and something Overwatch does particularly well is highlight those moments of exceptional glory through its Play of the Game feature. Whatever algorithmic tastes lie behind this end-of-match highlight show, it always seems to do a good job of plucking out the very best and most daring dance from any given match, and give the performer their well-earned moment in the spotlight.
Overwatch is fun - a lot of fun - but something that's missing at this stage of development is that very Blizzard sense of progression. Right now, all characters and maps are available to play on a game-by-game basis, with nothing to show for your performance from one round to the next. A few canny data-miners have tucked heartily into the Overwatch client to find hints of achievement systems, character levelling milestones and currencies, but it remains to be seen what kind of hats and crafting mats might fall out of these systems in due course.
Those things will surely come though. This team-based shooter is an off-cut of the no-doubt epic, broad world that once went by the name of Titan, but that's not to say it's throwaway. Even in beta, Overwatch offers up a moreish slice of the sort of 15 minute thrill-ride that Blizzard's become remarkably adept at crafting in recent years.