Video Games Review: Overwatch (PC, 2016)

You might be thinking to yourself, boy it’s been like a week since Overwatch came out, David. What’s the hold up on that review? I’ll tell you: I haven’t been able to stop playing it long enough to form a coherent thought. I am actually using every ounce of will I possess to write this review instead of playing it right now.

Blizzard Entertainment, as you may know, is a legendary developer in their own right, best known for the unstoppable MMO juggernaut that is World of WarCraft, the original Warcraft and Starcraft strategy titles and the Diablo RPG series. Not only does Overwatch constitute Blizzard’s first new intellectual property in 17 years (!!), it is also a genre-first for the developer.

Blizzard actually have a rather diverse portfolio these days. They’ve built a genre-defining MMO, Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void proves their real time strategy pedigree is still peerless, they’ve made an accessible MOBA in Heroes of the Storm and a Magic the Gathering-style CCG in Hearthstone. They even made (but never released) an adventure game, Starcraft: Ghost, many years ago. A shooter would seem to be the only other thing Blizzard haven’t tried their hand at yet. Based on the results, you’d never pick them as first-timers.

Overwatch is a team-based multiplayer shooter that features 12 maps and (currently) three game modes — Attack/Defense, Payload and Point Control. Initially the lack of modes can seem as though it hurts the game’s replayability but, like Team Fortress 2 at its best, every match plays out differently.  Also offered are vs. AI modes and a weekly brawl where status effects and other bonuses are applied to the characters to liven things up.

What it lacks in game modes, however, it makes up for in character choice. The game features a 21-character deep roster of heroes that fall into four subsets — Offense, Defense, Tank and Support. They fill each role in a way that recalls heroes in a MOBA — healers, builders, DPS and damage sponges are all present and accounted for. Further, they each build up an Ultimate move that can be used to devastating effect if deployed correctly, but that’s really where the similarities end. The blood of the late-nineties team shooter runs through Overwatch‘s veins.

In fact, the moment I started playing Overwatch, I felt like I was playing the multiplayer shooters of my formative years again. There are shades of Quake III ArenaUnreal Tournament and Team Fortress Classic. It reminded me of the heady days of vanilla Team Fortress 2. Back then, it was a game that demanded you be nimble with every class and play them well if you wanted to win. You needed to adapt.

Overwatch has adopted a similar strategy. The large pool of characters encourages jumping between heroes to deal with certain situations. If you’re getting stonewalled by a well-built team, consider which heroes will counter them best and start changing up your roster. Problems with Bastion? Keep your distance and pick at him with Widowmaker. Hanzo getting you down? Switch to his brother Genji and get up in his personal space. Sick of being High Noon’d by McCree? Keep an eye out with Soldier 76 and spray him down before he can devastate you. Always keep them guessing and never let them see you coming. As was the case in vanilla TF2, picking a class and sticking to it, even when the team makeup wasn’t working, is a great way to lose almost every game.

Visually, Overwatch is something of a rarity in games these days. Taking its cue from Team Fortress 2‘s Norman Rockwell-inspired visual aesthetic, Overwatch apes the look of a Pixar film. Each of the game’s heroes burst with character. This charm and character also helps you tell each of them apart on the battlefield, even in the midst of a fray.

Even the textures and visual style of each level, pulled mostly from real places around the globe, feel more alive than many games that strive for realism. Colours pop, the lighting is perfect and the textures are crisp. I wish more games gave themselves over to this level of whimsy in their style choices.

In reviewing Overwatch on the PC, I’ve also found it to be rather agreeable with mid-range rigs. My GeForce GTX 770 is able to run the game at 60 fps even when cranked to max settings.

It’s not all beer and skittles though. As mentioned, mutliplayer FPS veterans may balk at the small number of modes and maps available at launch. Blizzard will surely add to each pool as the game continues to age, and it’s certainly not a problem for me — I’m just looking for a good, fun match — but right now there may not be enough to keep content hungry players hooked.

The other facet of Overwatch that could be discouraging to some is that it doesn’t do anything particularly new. Team shooters have been around for twenty years after all, and we’ve seen all of Overwatch‘s modes in other games before. The thing is, what Overwatch does do, it does exceedingly well. It’s been years since I’ve played a team shooter that was this tightly-wound.

From my own experience, I have only two real criticisms to level at the game. The first is in the map design. There are a number of maps in the game that force one team into choke points — some of which are directly outside of spawn. This team must funnel into certain death to reach and capture an objective. It’s only after securing this objective that the level will open up and things will become a great deal more balanced and interesting. It can make the early part of a match a real grind, even as you all try to change up your heroes to counter the defense.

The second criticism comes from the matchmaking. While it has been for the most part pretty damned reliable, especially during this time of high player counts following launch, I’ve found that I’ve only really gotten the most out of the game when playing as part of a group from my friends list. So much of Overwatch‘s meta comes from being able to communicate and strategise effectively as a team. The whole game is built around it.

When you jump in by yourself and match with randos, you just aren’t able to do that easily and it all goes to pieces. The game drops you into a push-to-talk voice chat but I never had anyone listen to me when I tried to use it. Further, it’s likely you’ll be matched against a team of crack shots, all on TeamSpeak and in constant communication. Please, if you’re playing on your own, just try to work together. Lone wolves won’t last long in Overwatch.

The game also includes an XP system, now a familiar sight in multiplayer shooters, but this one works a little differently. Rather than providing you with an advantage over lower-ranked players in the form of weapons and armour unlocks, Overwatch simply awards you loot boxes. These loot boxes contain random cosmetic drops that allow you to differentiate your character. Each character has skins, sprays, voice lines, victory animations, taunts and poses to make them your own. You can also purchase loot boxes if you wish, but you’re honestly better off just unlocking them through the course of regular play. You may not always get what you’re after (and you can slowly accrue in-game gold to buy the ones you do like) but you’ll always get something.

In total, Overwatch is another feather in Blizzard’s very crowded cap. Accessible, addictive and so much fun, it is well worth the price of admission. I can’t wait to see how Blizzard continue to build on this strong foundation into the future.

Alright, review done. See you on Battle.net.

Score: 8/10
Highlights: Gorgeous looks; So much fun; The best team shooter in years
Lowlights: Some may decry the lack of modes
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: May 24, 2016
Platform: Windows PC, PS4, Xbox One

Reviewed on Windows PC.