REVIEW: Overwatch – The Heroes We Need.

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Formats: PlayStation 4 (REVIEWED), PC, Xbox One
Released: May 24, 2016
Copy purchased via PlayStation Network.

So…this is awkward. Last April, I was pretty much done writing for Periodical Media. But Jordan Hass, my former Editor in Chief and owner of Periodical Media, recently told me he was shutting down the site. After a couple of days of hard negotiations with lawyers, we decided it would be best if I was the owner of Periodical Media. That’s right. Look at me, I’m the captain now. Now look, this whole “running an independent website” is new to me but I promise to continue writing content for this site periodically (hence the site’s nom de guerre). I’ve even opened up a Patreon Page where you can donate money to keep the site running and let me know that there’s an audience reading these articles. You don’t have to donate but I’d appreciate  any positive support for my new role as the owner of Periodical Media. Anyways, ON TO THE REVIEW!

Overwatch has been out for a couple of weeks and its already taken the world by storm. Blizzard Entertainment’s first foray into the realm of online first person shooters has been praised for its unique take on the genre and its characters have been celebrated in all manner of fan art. But does Overwatch live up to its massive hype?

“The war goes on.”

Set in an alternate future Earth, you play as members of Overwatch, a UN peacekeeping origination of champions/mercenaries who saved the world from an evil Artificial Intelligence uprising. But after serious allegations from the UN and the destruction of their base, the heroes of Overwatch disbanded. With a new threat on the horizon, the members of Overwatch reunite to save the world…by killing each other in a series of game matches. The biggest problem with Overwatch is that while the game’s mythology feels fully realized, the game doesn’t do a great job fleshing out why these characters are fighting each other. The lack of a single player mode compounds this issue as the Origin Edition’s $60 price point only grants you the game’s 21 characters, 3 game modes, 12 maps, 5 exclusive character skins, and other DLC for Blizzard Entertainment older titles.

Similar to Team Fortress 2, Overwatch’s core gameplay has two teams of six players competing in four modes. Assault/Defend features one attacking team trying to capture two points on the map while the defending team has to keep the opposition at bay until the time runs out. Escort has the defending team stopping the attacking team from pushing a cart up into the defense’s goal post. Control has both teams fighting over control on one point on the map in a best-of-three round format. The last mode is a hybrid of Assault and Escort. While these modes may seem basic to the casual observer, they’re quite intense as players need to work to together in order to succeed like knowing where to set up Torbjörn’s turrets and maximizing the effectiveness of Zenyatta’s harmony/discord orbs.

“Stand Together, Die Together.”

If you haven’t figured this out by now, Overwatch is a game driven by its characters. The games initial roster of heroes are incredibly diverse in their appearance and abilities. Using the “anything goes” style of character design that has benefited MOBA’s, each of Overwatch’s heroes are brimming with personality and purpose. From Roadhog’s Mad Max inspired attire to Tracer’s “happy-go-lucky” outlook, there’s guaranteed a character that players will gravitate towards.

The fundamental makeup of each hero is based on MOBA’s. All heroes have a primary weapon and a series of skills unique to that characters. Getting enough points from killing the opposition and objectives will build up an Ultimate ability that can change the flow of the game. For instance, Zarya’s Ultimate creates a black hole that sucks enemies in for your teammates to take out while Symmetra’s Ultimate activates a teleporter to help teammates traverse the map faster. Aside from a rudimentary tutorial, Overwatch doesn’t explain how to utilize each character’s skill sets effectively but the game’s allows plenty of room for experimentation. It feels so satisfying to figure out that Hanzo’s Dragonstrike ultimate can be triggered from behind walls or that Mei’s Cryo-Freeze can be used to prevent death from an Ultimate Attack.

Each of Overwatch’s characters fall in one of four distinct classes. Tank characters have high heath and are great at disrupting enemy attacks and protecting allies. For instance, D.Va’s Mech has a Defense Matrix that deflects bullets while her chain gun has infinite ammo. Tanks possess slow walk speeds but Reinhardt and Winston’s charge abilities provide them with some mobility options. Offense characters are high mobility glass cannons; great at dealing damage but terrible at taking it. Genji’s Shrikens are deadly accurate at medium to close range while Pharah’s thruster pack and rockets makes her extremely versatile in open air scenarios.  Support characters provide buffs/debuffs to all characters, but their basic attacks can’t dish out a lot of damage. Lucio’s passive speed/heal buffs makes him ideal for capturing control points whereas Mercy’s active health/damage boosting makes her best suited for escorting the payload. Defense characters are great for holding up choke points and for creating areas of denial. Widowmaker’s sniper is great for taking out enemies’ from afar while Junkrat’s grenade launcher and traps keeps the opposition away. No one character in Overwatch is an island as each hero’s strength compensates for another’s weakness. The game encourages switching characters on the fly so knowing which character to use at any given moment is crucial.

“Let Them Eat Cake.”

Overwatch feels great to play and it looks great too. The game runs in a native 1080p resolution at 60 frames per second. Aside from a few dropped frames and long wait times to find matches, the overall performance of Overwatch on the PS4 is commendable considering Blizzard’s pedigree with PC games. The art style is reminiscent of Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles which feels appropriate considering the game is about a band of colorful heroes coming out of retirement to save their cynical world. The meticulous touches put into the design of each map, stamp, and character artwork makes Overwatch feel iconic. Not “Ubisoft Iconic”, actually iconic. Even the generic Soldier: 76 stands out among the multitude of forgettable soldier men by having a well defined personality expressed through his moves and wardrobe. Sound design is also superb. From the ding of each kill to the eagle screech everytime McCree declares “It’s High Noon!”, every sound effect is memorable. The voice cast is top notch with each actor delivering every one-liner and game specific expository dialogue with flair.

Unlike more modern console shooters, you don’t earn new abilities/better equipment and it doesn’t tabulate everyone’s kill/death ratio. Instead, Overwatch has a post-match voting system which displays the four highest stats of a match. Players can vote on which player was “epic” in a match based on factors like who dealt the most damage, who got the most healing, and who pushed the payload the longest. The super memetic “Play of the Game” showcases the best maneuvers at the end of a match. The game will allow up to five highlights at a time but the Play of the Game’s focus on only kill streaks and shutdowns belittles the principle teamwork aesthetic. Blizzard has addressed they are fine tuning this feature so players won’t have to see Bastion racking up a 5+ kills in his mini-gun turret and tank form for the Godzillionth time.

In case you were wondering…

Leveling up grants Loot Boxes for players to unlock. Each box contains four cosmetic items like character specific skins, voice packs, and stamps. Impatient players who want the best stuff can also buy Loot Boxes with real money. It feels like a miserly move on Blizzard’s part as every loot drop is random so it’s not a guarantee that you’ll score Reaper’s super cool El Blanco skin if you spend $40 on boxes. While these aesthetic microtransactions don’t negatively impact the gameplay, they create a have/have not ecosystem that may turn off players. The upside to this money grubbing is that Blizzard has promised that future content like new maps, modes, and characters will be freely available for all characters. This means that the games community won’t be fractured by any arbitrary pay wall but as players learn new mechanics and Blizzard keeps adding new content, the skill floor for newbies will only rise.

“The World Could Always Use More Heroes.”

It’d be easy for me to chalk up Overwatch as a TF2/MOBA mashup and call it a day. But the sum of Overwatch’s parts feeling wonderfully refreshing in a console generation dominated by more cynically designed shooters. The colorful, cartoonish art style and blasé launch modes belie an impressive gameplay suite. Its focus on dynamism and experimentation constantly rewards players. Overwatch absolutely lives up to the hype but the $60 price point is a bit steep for casual players expecting a ton of content at launch. Still, Overwatch’s easy to play/difficult to master gameplay is addictive, fast paced, and fun. 

A lot of content is planned for Overwatch including a competitive playlist are coming in July. But right now, Overwatch feels so rewarding, so refreshingly polished, I keep playing just one more match to my attempts to learn new ways to play. If you love competitive online shooters and have a couple of friends, then Overwatch is a must play.