Too little, too late?
For the past two years or so of my life, Overwatch has been at the forefront of my gaming habit. The team-based hero shooter struck gold when it released in 2016 and has grown to become one of the most well-known brands in the world, one with its own league and LEGO line. As it conquered the market in ways most Blizzard games do, another company was on its way to striking gold as well. In 2017, Nintendo released the Switch and soon, developers were figuring out ways to port their top-tier titles to the system.
Early on, things didn’t look good for an Overwatch port to the system. In 2017, shortly after the launch of Switch, Jeff Kaplan referred to the possibility of getting it on the console as “very challenging.” But Kaplan wanted it to happen, explaining earlier this month that he was inquiring about the possibility of a port from day one. As with most ports, it would require some sacrifices. Graphics and framerate would have to be scaled back as would resolution. Whether you think those sacrifices are worth the trouble of creating a port at all will likely be determined by whether or not you’ve played Overwatch on any other platforms.
Overwatch (PC, PS4, Switch [reviewed], Xbox One)
Released: May 24, 2016 (PS4, Xbox One, PC) / October 14, 2019 (Switch)
Do I need to explain what Overwatch is?
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid any information about this game over the past three years, let me be the first to welcome you out of your coma. It’s an online-only hero-shooter where the main mode features two teams of six characters — divided up equally between tank, damage, and healers — completing objectives on a variety of amazing maps and also Junkertown. There are also other modes available in the arcade, including seasonal events.
If you are coming to this fresh, untainted by the experiences available on other platforms, it actually isn’t too bad. The game runs more or less the same in either docked or handheld mode. Character models feature a decent amount of detail and I’ve had no troubles connecting to matches. Overwatch also supports native voice chat, which is a godsend for this type of team-based game, where communication is a key component to victory. I also haven’t had some of the issues I’ve read in other reports on the game. I can’t think of any moments of significant button lag when using hit-scan characters.
That’s not to say I haven’t run into performance issues, the most prevalent of which affects my ability to actually see the other players. At the start of a majority of matches, my teammates and opponents only appear as small glowing orbs. This isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to Switch as I’ve had teammates on my PS4 fail to properly register on my screen. The difference between the two versions is the time it takes for the game to actually render the character models. On my PS4 it’s less than five seconds. On Switch, I’ve gone up to about 30 seconds in a match fighting against orbs. The problem is almost always worse when I’m added to a team in the midst of battle, rather than starting fresh at the beginning of a match, or when I’m watching from the sidelines in spectator mode.
It’s a weird compromise and obviously one of the sacrifices Blizzard had to make to get this to run on Switch. The game’s failure to register characters almost always carries over to the Play of the Game, where I regularly watch the recipient rack up a nice kill count without ever seeing the characters they gunned down. Part of me wonders if the known existence of such an issue prior to launch kept Blizzard from adding the Switch’s video record feature to the final product.
Now again, if you’re coming to Overwatch with virgin eyes, these issues might not be dealbreakers. But as a veteran of the game, someone who has logged hundreds of hours in it since he first hooked up his PS4 Slim up to the internet, it’s easy to be disappointed by the many missing details from the other versions. While stages contain all the necessary components to keep them equal across platforms, they’re missing a lot of the character Blizzard designers have painstakingly implemented into each one. There are no banners of any type to be found here, bars lack glassware, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single Pachimari plush in any of vending machines. The look of the Switch port compared to what I’ve lived and breathed on my PS4 reminds me of the late PlayStation 2 era when developers would port games from that system over to the PSP.
Graphics are one thing, but I think the far more consequential sacrifice Blizzard made with this port is the framerate. On all other platforms, Overwatch runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second. Here, it’s halved to 30, though it does tend to drop below that. Without that fluidity, my whole approach to the game changes. I act and react differently, I have to be more considerate when using certain character’s moves like Moira’s Fade, Reaper’s Wraith Form, or Mercy’s Guardian Angel.
It’s a sacrifice other ports to Switch have managed to avoid. Games like Rocket League, Mortal Kombat 11, and Cuphead managed to pull off 60 frames per second. It’s also standard in Splatoon 2, though I recognize the difference between a game tailor-made for the hardware and one that’s just trying to keep it glued together. I’m not one who argues that it’s “60fps or nothing,” seeing as I enjoy and will continue to enjoy Warframe on the device, but it’s difficult not to see it as a major downgrade having years of experience with Overwatch on the PS4.
One avenue where the Switch version might have an advantage is with the controls. Rather than keep it kosher with the other console versions, Blizzard added motion control options here that can give the most dedicated players a decent advantage. I say dedicated because it will take some time to fine-tune the motion sensing to your liking. There are three factory presets with pro controller, handheld, and detached Joy-Con, with the latter attempting to replicate how you’d play this game if it were on the Wii. I wasn’t comfortable with any of those presets. However, with a little bit of tuning and researching what the hell pitch axis, yaw axis, and roll axis are, I was able to get to a point where I was confident using the optional motion capabilities would be a boon to my team. Specifically, they made me a better McCree than I’ve ever been on PS4.
While these controls are fully customizable, it would have been nice for Blizzard to include more preset options. Limiting motion to just the Y-axis would be a great addition for starters as it was something I attempted to configure but wasn’t able to. There is also only one custom control set-up which is silly considering there are three different control schemes available. I did run into an issue where the motion controls would revert to a factory preset without my knowledge, but this was a rare occurrence.
If you’re the proud owner of a new Switch Lite, you’ll be happy to know Overwatch is at its absolute best when played in handheld mode. The picture is sharper than it is on my big screen and many of the missing details aren’t as noticeable. Handheld mode is also where the motion controls shine brightest with minimal tweaking needed to give me an edge. It’s also the only way I can use voice chat as none of my controllers have headphone ports.
When I first booted up Overwatch on my Switch I was feeling cold toward it. Three days in and my feelings have certainly defrosted a bit, but even as I continue to level up my profile, I can’t shake this feeling that releasing this game is a very un-Blizzard move. Say what you will about the company, and there’s a lot to say about it these days, Blizzard has generally only released products of a certain high standard. People love Blizzard because its games are generally the best available no matter the genre. That’s why I bought Diablo III on Switch day one. That port managed to keep the high standards of the versions that came before it. The same can’t be said of this Switch port, but I’m not so sure that’ll matter to the target audience.
To give you an idea of what I mean, let me take you back a decade and some change. It’s 2008 and I’m stoked about the upcoming release of Call of Duty: World at War. I’ve devoured videos of it posted on GameTrailers, though I’m realistic about my expectations. As stunning as it appeared to me, in the back of my mind I know it won’t look anywhere near as good on my console as it does in those videos, because during this era of gaming, I hitched myself to the Wii bandwagon. So the game I end up preordering – the only Wii copy preordered at that particular GameStop – shares only a slight resemblance to the videos I watch in the run-up to its release. My game has stilted facial animations, a crappier framerate, and worse graphics. But I don’t care. All that is going through my mind is that I am playing Call of Duty on my Wii. Yeah, there were superior options out there, but I didn’t mind settling for this lesser version so long as I was having fun with it.
I believe the same idea will apply to anyone booting up Overwatch for the very first time on Switch. Personally, I don’t see myself giving up my PS4 account to start new with Nintendo because I’ll never be able to think of it as anything other than a diminished experience. But if I were in the same situation I was a decade ago, with only a Nintendo console at my disposal, I don’t think I would mind the compromises Blizzard made. Then again, I probably would have given up waiting for a port by now and have become completely addicted to Paladins instead, but that’s a topic for another conversation.
[This port report is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]