Overwatch Review

Posted May 31, 2016 by John Clark in Video Games

Platforms: PC [Reviewed], PS4, Xbox One

Release Date: May 24, 2016

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment

Publisher: Activision Blizzard

Price: $40 [PC], $60 [PS4, Xbox One]


There’s thirty seconds left on the clock. The payload my team need to deliver has been stalled for what seems like forever, just shy of its destination and now guarded by an eclectic assortment of enemy heroes: a maniacal, grenade-lobbing Australian criminal, a bird-loving robot that can transform into a team-shredding turret, and a small Chinese woman in a parka spraying ice from her gun and ice puns from her mouth in equal measure. She’s the worst of them all. With just enough time for one final push, I, a seven-and-a-half foot German knight in power armor and wielding a rocket hammer, charge into the fray, pinning one enemy to the wall for an instant kill. Behind me, I hear it: “NERF THIS!” as a glowing mech drops onto the point, and before the enemy team can flee, I knock them down with my ultimate attack. As the mech explodes, wiping them all out, the payload reaches its destination, and “Victory” sprawls across the screen.

Charging people as Reinhardt is endlessly satisfying.

Charging people as Reinhardt is endlessly satisfying.

Representing Blizzard Entertainment’s first foray into the FPS genre, Overwatch is simultaneously ambitious yet surprisingly safe, hewing close to its obvious inspirations–mostly Team Fortress 2. Taking place about sixty years into the future, Overwatch is ostensibly about the rise and fall of an elite military organization designed to counter a robotic rebellion, but the story itself isn’t the focus. The primary appeal is clearly meant to be the 21 characters that players can choose from. With a long-running, and no doubt expensive, marketing campaign that includes comics, animated shorts, and in-character blog posts, Blizzard went out of the way to endear us to its cast before the game even came out, and judging by the fanart, they’ve succeeded. The characters’ unique aesthetic and emphasis on diversity brings MOBAs to mind, and their gameplay design furthers this comparison. Each only has one kit of weapons and abilities, with special abilities like Tracer’s blink or Pharah’s concussion grenade bound to cooldowns.

A game of Overwatch takes place across a dozen maps, with each team attacking and defending points, escorting payloads, and doing whatever they can to generally disrupt each other’s attempts to do the same. Team synergy is critical to achieving victory, both in terms of hero selection and communication, and most wins are earned through a combination of calling out pushes, coordinating defenses, and taking advantage of the ability to switch characters mid-match to choose the right hero for the job. If you’re trying to defend a point you’ve captured, Torbjorn the dwarven engineer and his mechanized turret are a solid pick. If you’re trying to move a payload along, he might not be the best decision–unless you can plant your turret on top of the payload itself and have a tank like Reinhardt or Winston shield it, which is a solution I’ve seen win more than one game. Mechanically, the game holds up well, with both hero-specific and general abilities working well. Most weapons handle like you expect them to, and map traversal skills, like wall-running or climbing, don’t take long to grasp, even if the execution on them takes longer to master.

It’s hard to overstate how character-driven the game is. The maps are certainly appealing, with walls to climb, chokepoints to turn into death zones, and back paths to try and sneak through, but while they manage to avoid blending together thanks to interesting lore-heavy touches all over, they aren’t in your face, demanding your attention. The cast is. When Roadhog comes lumbering onto the field, spraying scrap all over with his gun and sending people flying, he forces you to deal with him. A scatter arrow that breaks into a dozen projectiles dropping into the fray alerts you to the presence of samurai archer Hanzo, emphasizing the importance of neutralizing the enemy sniper. These abilities, both visually and aurally, are incredibly distinct, making it easy to parse the specifics of a chaotic battle after only a few hours of play. This is symptomatic of Blizzard’s usual polished approach, rough edges worn away by obsessive testing and tweaks. The graphics and soundwork are a critical part of this equation, the former bringing to mind Pixar movies with colorful backdrops and cartoonish characters, the latter made up of audio cues for each major ability underscored by vibrant music.

There are references to Blizzard's other properties everywhere.

There are references to Blizzard’s other properties everywhere.

To nobody’s surprise, Overwatch is polished, but the question many had going in was if it would have enough depth to justify its $40 ($60 on consoles) price tag while being multiplayer-only, save for bot matches. I’m not a professional-tier gamer, but having clocked over thirty hours of playtime in Overwatch so far, I find myself still learning something new every match. Since I started, characters that seemed laughably overpowered proved to be easy to counter with the right counter-pick or tactics, while others I never looked twice at are suddenly wiping the floor with me. If not for the ability to swap heroes as many times as I liked in the middle of a game, I might have had a negative opinion of the game’s balance, but the simple truth is, if your enemies are doing something you can’t beat, the answer to it is like to be found in a change of character; with twenty-one to choose from, one or more of them will be suited to the task with a bit of coordination from your team.

Overwatch won’t be for everyone. It doesn’t have a campaign, and those easily frustrated will definitely not want to play it alone; I’ve come to terms with the consequences of solo queuing, such as the inevitability of having three people determined to play snipers while attacking a point that needs to be stood on to capture, and I could see that being a dealbreaker for those who play these games to win. Ultimately, however, I’m convinced that Blizzard struck gold yet again. Overwatch is a fast, fun shooter that is doubtlessly going to be many peoples’ first foray into the genre, just like it was for the company who made it, and it’s obvious that Blizzard knew that. While the basics are easy to learn, I still feel I’m nowhere close to mastering it, and that suits me just fine.

About the Author

John Clark