Not since Team Fortress 2 has a multiplayer shooter conveyed this much vivid personality. Say hello to Overwatch, the first FPS from Blizzard Entertainment, which marks the first wholly new universe from the studio since StarCraft’s debut in 1998. Because this is a multiplayer-only game where the online infrastructure will make or break your experience, it’s too early to give Overwatch a definitive verdict just yet. What you’re reading now is our review-in-progress, as I’ll be putting the at-launch matchmaking and latency through their paces over the coming week. But having played plenty of the closed and open betas before launch, I can tell you this: If you like multiplayer shooters even a little bit, especially when played with friends, you’re going to have a good time with Overwatch.
In the most simplistic terms, this is a 6v6, objective-based team shooter, putting you in the shoes of the charismatic heroes and villains of a superhero-filled future. You can swap your character choice at any time during the 10-to-15-minute matches, with multiples allowed on the same team. Those are some easy-to-grasp basics – and when it comes to the presentation of that core concept, Overwatch is a marvel. This is easily one of the most aesthetically pleasing games currently in existence, where Pixar-grade character models move swiftly and sharply across picturesque, visually stunning vistas from around the globe. Every animation exudes personality and dynamic energy, and the use of vibrant, saturated colors in both the hero and map designs is a treat for the eyes, like the optical equivalent of snacking on rainbow sprinkles. The soundscape is equally excellent, with heroes spouting plenty of quotable lines that convey a tasty morsel of lore or telegraph their most powerful abilities (without getting on your nerves, thank goodness), all backed by grandiose music that surges with the ebb and flow of each match.
Each of the 21 heroes at launch (with more promised for free in the future) is brilliantly designed, all dissimilar in appearance but universally appealing in their own ways. It’s a bit like the cast of a fighting game: everyone on the roster is bound to be somebody’s favorite, both in terms of personality and playstyle. And like a fighting game, everyone has a handful of unique abilities, attributes, and weapon types (all comfortably mapped on a controller) that you’ll need to be aware of before you’re prepared to take on all comers. Heroes are grouped into one of four categories – offense, defense, tank, and support – but they’re all malleable enough to serve a wide variety of functions in the hands of a skilled player. I love using the rocket-blasting, jetpack-boosting Pharah to hold down a fort, while defense-oriented heroes like the weasley demolitions expert Junkrat or friendly frost maven Mei can be utterly devastating on the attack.
An asymmetrical standoff between offense and defense will be the lion’s share of your Overwatch experience, given that nine of the 12 maps at launch use this format. Assault mode sees teams duking it out to capture/deny control points, players must push alongside a payload in Escort mode, Assault/Escort combines the two structures, and Control is the only symmetric game mode where players fight over a single capture point in a best-of-three on multiple, mirrored map layouts. And so far, the by-definition-balanced blueprints of the Control maps offer some of the most consistent fun in Overwatch. While every map is stunning to behold, some are definitely more fun than others – and unless you’re organizing a Custom Game, you don’t have any say in which mode or map you’re plopped into once you jump into the Quick Play queue.
The issue is that the layouts of the Assault and Escort maps give some matches a very swingy, not always satisfying pace, particularly if there’s any imbalance between teams. While these maps have multiple pathways and plenty of vertically-scalable scenery that make for interesting skirmishes, these alternate avenues of attack feel underutilized when everything eventually funnels into constricting chokepoints. Once you’ve played a map a few times, you’ll have identified these hotspots and start to realize that the space in between them is typically uncontested, because there would be no tactical advantage for the team on defense to hunker down there. And, as is the case in any multiplayer experience, you can start to feel the fun waning whenever you’re mismatched against far better or far worse players. If the offense is too strong, the match seems to go by in the blink of an eye; if the defense is dominating, opposing players will feel like they’re trying to break through a vault door using nothing but the velocity of their own bodies.
That’s the danger whenever all of your gameplay is rooted in multiplayer: your team’s cohesion will usually determine how much fun you have. Sometimes, you’ll be part of a balanced team composition, with players who communicate effectively via party chat or the handy radial menu for tactical cries (and adorable emotes). Other times, you’ll be hopelessly trying to make an inch of forward progress while your three sniping teammates can’t score any kills but refuse to switch heroes. Team Fortress 2’s 12-vs-12 skirmishes afford some room for self-centered or uncooperative jerks on either team, because a core group of coordinated players can still keep their focus on the objective and win the day. But it’s much harder to compensate for dead weight on Overwatch’s six-player teams, which is a gateway to the dreaded blame game in which everything about your loss feels like everyone else’s fault. Again, this can happen in any multiplayer environment, but Overwatch sometimes has a way of amplifying that negative sensation, especially if you’re playing with strangers.
Conversely, clutching out the win after a hard-fought battle or pulling off the ultimate ability that pushes your team through what feels like a barricade makes for an invigorating natural high, and whether you win or lose, there’s almost a reflexive need to jump into another match. Overwatch also does an outstanding job of commending little victories, awarding miniature medals for the top performers in a myriad of categories (damage, healing, collaborative kills, etc.), and encouraging players to give pats on the back to enemy and ally alike in the form of commendatory votes on exceptional stats at the end-of-game screen. But nothing compares to the thrill of seeing yourself in the spotlight for Play of the Game: a mini-highlight reel showing off a particularly game-changing play. Yes, sometimes it’ll simply be the chirping battlemech Bastion mowing down people in his turret form – but when everyone’s being treated to a replay of your valiant efforts, it’s an absolute thrill (especially when you could feel yourself turning the tide in the moment, only to be validated post-match).
I could go on and on about Overwatch – and I plan to in our final scored review, so check back for that in the coming week. But for right now, all I want to do is get back to playing Overwatch. Those Play of the Game highlights aren’t going to earn themselves, you know. Unless you’re Bastion. Then maybe.