I'm excited by the Story Missions in Overwatch 2 and encouraged by what I played at BlizzCon 2019. Finally Blizzard can push the Overwatch story forward and not just flesh out backstory - and it can do it in the actual game. What's more, there will finally be a meaningful, non-temporary, non-competitive side to the game. We've had a sniff of what Blizzard can with the Archives PvE events, but Overwatch 2 takes PvE to the next level.
There are two aspects to it: Story Missions and Hero Missions. Hero Missions were not playable at BlizzCon but were described as being endlessly replayable like Adventure Mode in Diablo 3. In Hero Missions, you can choose from the full character roster and level your heroes up, and when you reach levels 1, 10 and 20, you can choose a talent.
Tracer's talents, for example, are:
- Level one: Adaptive Reload - Pulse Pistols reload when using any ability, or
- Level one: Chain reaction - Pulse Bomb causes secondary explosions on enemies that are damaged
- Level 10: Flash - Blinking through enemies damages them, or
- Level 10: Hindsight - Recall causes damage to all recently damaged enemies
- Level 20: Vortex - enemies are pulled towards the point of Recall and snared, or
- Level 20: Speed kills - killing blows speed up your cooldowns
Other character's talents include Reihardt's Epicenter, which makes Earthshatter travel in all directions; Sojiro's Guidance, which makes Hanzo like Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy, and fire an arrow which hits anyone detected by Sonic Arrow; and Snowball Effect, which makes Mei a boulder of ice after using Cryo-freeze, able to tumble into enemies and knock them down.
In addition to talents, it sounds like heroes get stronger each level they rise. "Just like when you play WOW or Diablo, you're levelling your character up, they get more powerful, they can survive more, they can do more damage," said game director Jeff Kaplan in an Overwatch What's Next panel.
Precisely because you get more powerful, progression will not carry over into player versus player Overwatch modes. "Any kind of talents or progression, or anything like that, is not going to come into the competitive side of the game," Kaplan said. "We're not going to make it so my Tracer is more powerful than your Tracer. We want to keep it a fair playing field."
Originally, progression was only for Hero Missions, but because Blizzard put it in the BlizzCon Story Mission to show it off, the team now apparently likes it there and is toying with keeping it in.
Story Missions, on the other hand, are directed experiences with specific characters - the Rio de Janeiro mission at BlizzCon featured Mei, Lucio, Tracer and Reinhardt. It's because they have their own in-engine cinematic intros and outros, tailored voice lines and boss fights.
Naturally, Lucio played a big part of the Rio de Janeiro mission, he hailing from that part of the world, and we even got to nose around his home (he has a framed box of Lucio-Ohs on the wall). From there, we fought through the streets of Rio de Janeiro - a map twice the size of any in Overwatch - while facing the varying forces of Null Sector. There were foddery enemies as well as tougher ones - flying as well as on the ground - and pitched altogether at you, can represent quite a challenge. But if you do die, friends can revive you, and if you wipe, you can try again.
Another new thing in Story Missions are power-ups, which you loot from a cache along the way. They're a mix of grenades, turrets, and shields, and come in varying strengths and rarity. I wasted my turret but it didn't seem to matter; however, on expert difficulty, I'm sure it would.
I liked it, Story mode. It reminded me of missions in Destiny, albeit faster and cheerier, and I'm a sucker for the Overwatch heroes, especially with their over-the-top new abilities. It's also lovely to see the characters fleshed out more, both in the intros and outros, and in their constant chatter throughout the level - especially Lucio, who was due some time in the spotlight. But it won't only be the goody two-shoes Overwatch task force we'll follow - some of the baddies like Junkrat and Roadhog might get a look-in too.
"There's such an incredible diversity of heroes in the game that provide so many opportunities to tell different perspectives and different stories, and we are very much are excited about that," Overwatch executive producer Chacko Sonny told me in an interview. "We wouldn't have done that work to set those characters up as interesting as they are if we didn't think that was something we wanted to do."
The way the characters look has been updated for Overwatch 2, and you can compare some new and existing looks on the Overwatch website with a fancy slider. But it doesn't really give you a sense of the facial changes, which is where particular attention has been paid. In Overwatch 2, faces are so much more alive with expression, which is essential if Blizzard is going to tell a story in-engine like this.
In addition, Blizzard has completely upgraded the HUD for Overwatch 2, with the goal of getting it out of your way and only showing you what you really need to see. In fact, every interface in Overwatch 2 has apparently been redesigned.
Hero Missions and Story Missions are the big new features in Overwatch 2, but Push, a new mode, was another key announcement for the game. It's the first core gameplay mode added since launch and will be mixed into the roster and played as high up as the professional Overwatch League. Push is a tug of war - in fact, Kaplan said it was referred to as "tug of war" internally - where the rope is a robot both teams fight over. When in control of the robot, it pushes a slab-like marker along a course for you, but if the other team comes along and kills you, the robot goes to their side and pushes the marker back along the course for them, and it moves with surprising speed, stomping off in a hurry the moment your back is turned.
I played a round of Push and it's fast, pacey fun. There's none of the bunkering-down-type gameplay associated with other modes, and flanky and manoeuvrable heroes are particularly useful. Blizzard has intentionally designed it that way - the hope is to break up the protection-based bubble of other competitive modes.
Push will come to both Overwatch 1 and Overwatch 2 but it's not clear when.
Overwatch 2 will of course come with new heroes and maps as well. Canadian hero Sojourn, the first of these new heroes, was shown, but not in any detail.
"There will definitely be multiple heroes in Overwatch 2," Chacko Sonny said. "[But] there's challenges when you talk about the total number of heroes for the game at this point. As an example: if the game were to release with the same number of heroes as in original Overwatch, it would be pretty disruptive to the PvP balance, right? So while we're not confirming any specific numbers, Overwatch will definitely have multiple heroes."
It's not clear whether Echo - the robot we saw last year in McCree's cinematic, and this year in the Overwatch 2 cinematic will be one of them. "We're not confirming anything about Echo right now besides the fact she's a character in the universe," Sonny told me. But he did say she had some "pretty unique abilities ... that are going to be important for Overwatch as a group in the future".
Crucially, all of the new maps and heroes coming to Overwatch 2 will be given to people playing Overwatch 1. This is a fundamental part of the message and mindset behind Overwatch 2 - avoiding splitting the playerbase at all costs.
"Obviously we want everyone to come along with us to Overwatch 2," Sonny said - "we hope that there's a really compelling package with all the PvE and PvP stuff etc. But we recognise there's this huge base of people and there may be some who just want to play PvP multiplayer, and we want to keep them all together. If you want to play Overwatch 1 with the heroes from Overwatch 2, and the maps from Overwatch 2, as a current player, you'll be able to do that."
Overwatch 1 players may also see some of the improvements being made to Overwatch 2. "There'll be a single shared client," explained Sonny, "so [if there are] technical improvements we're making, they will transfer over to people who are playing Overwatch 1." You won't be, then, at any kind of disadvantage playing the older game. "No, no, no," he said. "We want everybody to be able to play - certainly for competitive game modes - on the same footing. Everybody plays side by side - shared multiplayer environment, shared client. That's going to be where we go."
This shared approach means Blizzard will be making content for Overwatch 1 even when it has moved wholesale to Overwatch 2, which is clever, but the worry is what happens right now, before Overwatch 2 comes out - will an already slow update cycle slow further because the team is working on Overwatch 2? Unfortunately, it sounds like the answer is yes. Jeff Kaplan said there won't be a new Archives event this year because the team is working on Overwatch 2.
And Chacko Sonny told me: "I don't think it's a surprise to people who've been following Overwatch over the past three-and-a-half years that we're not a huge team - there are a lot of teams that are bigger than us - and our team does best when we're focused on very concrete, clearly defined goals. We firmly believe that the biggest moment for Overwatch, coming up, is the release of Overwatch 2. But that said: we absolutely don't believe that means we should not be continuing to support the live game."
Kaplan mentioned a couple of new features coming to the current game - including a new deathmatch mode for people queuing, which sounds cool - but didn't say anything about new heroes or maps. Mind you, I'll be very surprised we get no new heroes or maps until Overwatch 2 comes out.
It's a bit of a waiting game for now, then. Blizzard is going dark after BlizzCon, after a fairly bare-bones showing, and lots of questions remain - not least the question of whether loot boxes will carry over (all your cosmetic content will, by the way). Blizzard wasn't talking about it. "The thing I can say," Chacko Sonny told me, "is obviously we're paying attention to feedback, broadly from the community and out there in the industry. Overwatch 2 gives us this really excellent opportunity to look at everything and consider, 'What's the best way to move forward?'"
I think a battle pass will be the answer, particularly after Jeff Kaplan openly praised battle pass design as "fantastic" when I spoke to him last year. The reason it isn't in Overwatch 1 is because "it would be a tremendous amount of work to switch Overwatch from loot boxes to Battle Pass, or even just to add a battle pass". But in a new game...?
Which brings us to the question of when Overwatch 2 will likely arrive. "I don't know," said Jeff Kaplan in the Overwatch 2 panel - "I have no idea!" Which doesn't bode well. "Let us make it great. We don't have a date in mind."
Nevertheless, Blizzard has committed to PC, PS4, Xbox One and - unlike Diablo 4 - Switch as platforms for release, so even if we're well in next-gen territory by the time Overwatch 2 comes out, the old machines won't be excluded (probably).