Blizzard is not a conventional AAA developer, even after being merged with Activision. When its massive MMO project codenamed Titan failed internally, resulting in a cancellation, it would have made sense for Blizzard to move on. Instead, the studio directly shifted gears to Overwatch, and let the same project lead head up development.
It was a bold move, and considering that Overwatch is a perfect marriage of casual and hardcore FPS gameplay, it certainly paid off.
Overwatch (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Released: May 24, 2016
MSRP: $39.99 (PC), $59.99 (Console)
You can’t help but take note of the attention to detail immediately, even during the first few seconds of booting it up and watching a random character emote on the title screen. This arena shooter (not a MOBA) looks, sounds, and feels great, with the polish of a Pixar film without feeling overly childish. That extends to every facet of the experience, from its 60 FPS frame rate (even on consoles), beautiful locations, and insanely detailed character models.
The more I play it, the more I notice, like this slick reload animation from Lúcio, one of the game’s support characters. These aren’t caricatures — Bastion isn’t just a robot, he’s a remnant of the Omnic Crisis, where robots rose up against their human overlords. This commitment to detail isn’t just evident in their backstories either. Reaper throws down his dual pistols in anger to reload, and so on. Their personalities leap off the screen, despite the first-person viewpoint.
It takes a rare game for me to like every single cast member but that’s just what Overwatch did. From Zarya, the famous strong-woman athlete who can use her Particle Cannon to shield allies and herself, to D.Va, the South Korean pro gamer turned mech-warrior, everyone is fun to play. There are many, many characters you haven’t seen amidst the Tracer-heavy marketing scheme, and it was a thrill to meet them all. They’re also fleshed out, as they have real names beyond their callsigns, and are from all over the world — a commitment that meshes well with arenas that also follow that same globetrotting theme.
Despite the fact that each combatant only has several abilities, all of them have depth. For instance, Symettra’s turrets can be used as an alert system rather than a defensive option when guarding hallways, as they notify the user when they’ve been destroyed. Teammates can shoot through an allied Reinhardt’s shield, providing a respite for stationary or otherwise vulnerable characters like Bastion. Because of the absurd amount of synergy that different compositions can provide (especially when you consider that players can pick the same character on a team), people can come up with some crazy strategies, like using multiple Lúcios to boost an entire team across the map in seconds with multiple speed song Amps.
For that reason, the lack of modes is easy to overlook. Consisting of familiar Domination and Payload archetypes and lacking a campaign entirely, Overwatch isn’t going to win any originality awards in that department. Really, it’s how the characters interact on these very open and diverse maps that counts. 12 is more than enough for me at launch, mostly because almost every mechanic is tailored towards having a a good time.
There’s a “Play of the Game” and a spot of voting (where you can even nominate enemies) after every round, and when you’re featured, it feels like a massive pat on the back. There’s XP bonuses for players who join in progress, so losing battles still grant you some sort of compensation for your time and won’t embarrassingly display your Kill/Death ratio. And even then, matches only last 10-15 minutes on average anyway, so it’s easy to jump into a series of games and net a consecutive play bonus.
The only thing that’s not in right now at launch is competitive play, which is being retooled based on feedback from the beta. If you absolutely positively cannot live without it, wait until it actually arrives and make a judgment call then. Until that time, I’m happy blasting away in quick matches with friends, ramping up my rewards and learning the intricacies of the game along the way.
Speaking of those rewards, the monetization scheme is also spot-on. Overwatch is a premium purchase ($40 on PC, $60 on consoles), and all future characters and levels will be free. Outside of that, you can unlock “Loot Boxes” by leveling up (there’s no level cap), which grant random cosmetic unlocks like skins. If you want, you can spring for additional Loot Boxes for a fee, but the game is in no way “pay-to-win,” since everyone is on the same playing field with all of the same content.
Say what you will and take whatever stance you need to about “it never being okay for premium games to have microtransactions” (much respect), but this feels like an inoffensive, long-term solution for Blizzard to support the game for years to come. Not only is it an easy system to ignore (since it’s literally all fluff), but as long as Blizzard stays the course, it won’t fragment the userbase when new modes, levels, and characters are added for free.
It’s a smart move that will help ensure the longevity of the game without charging for map packs or expansions. Surprisingly this is also one of the smoothest Blizzard launches yet. Outside of a snafu that caused the game to launch 20 minutes late, I have no major complaints. There’s no massive lockouts, no annoying error codes that you have to Google — it works, and every character, level, and gametype is unlocked from day one.
Truly, I believe that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Overwatch in the years to come. Blizzard has a great track record when it comes to long-term support, and given how good it is out of the gate, it can only get better from here. Blizzard has truly snatched victory from the draws of defeat.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]