When Blizzard senior vice president Chris Metzen took the stage for the opening ceremony of BlizzCon 2014, he showcased a flurry of emotions. He seemed alternately terrified and elated, and his relief after playing the first trailer for Overwatch was palpable. At the time, the cynic in me wondered if his display was genuine or if he was just hamming it up for the crowd. Now that I’ve played the game for myself, the truth is clear: he must have known he was unveiling something truly special to the world.
Overwatch is Blizzard’s first attempt at the shooter genre, and their first new property in nearly two decades. Taking objective elements from games like Team Fortress 2 and the idea of heroes and abilities from MOBAs, the game attempts a new fusion that the creators are calling a “hero shooter.” At its core, the game gives you 21 characters in various classes to choose from and several different objective modes to play with. You and five other players are pitted against another team to control points, take territory, or move a payload throughout a map.
Each of the available heroes is completely unique from one another, even among other characters of the same class. A few fit into well-established archetypes like the sniper Widowmaker or the healer, Mercy, but others offer something completely new and different. For instance, there’s Zarya, who relies on power she acquires from shielding attacks, and Lúcio, a DJ support hero who uses sound to heal teammates and distract enemies. Keys to success in Overwatch are learning how each of the characters work and how they interact with one another, and those interactions drive a significant portion of the game’s strategic nature. The resulting variety will ensure that each player will find a character or two that suits their particular style.
On top of being mechanically unique, each of the characters has personality to spare, complete with rich backstories and lots of charm in the form of voice lines, emotes and animations. From the sassy former pro gamer D.Va to the intelligent ape Winston, it’s easy to feel a strong connection with the heroes, especially when they have cheeky conversations amongst themselves while you’re waiting for a match to start. As you play, you’ll also earn randomized loot boxes that give you skins and other accessories for your characters, allowing you to further customize them to your liking.
The personality of Overwatch doesn’t end with the characters, though. Each of the 12 included maps has its own unique style, and the environments are scattered with posters, props, and other fun Easter eggs that make them feel like lived-in cities and towns. The game drips with a style that presents a larger-than-life version of a future Earth that looks as incredible as it sounds. From the gorgeous lighting to the satisfying pings of a connecting headshot, the entire visual and audio language of this title presents a seamless experience that rivals anything on the market.
All of this charm would be meaningless if the game itself wasn’t actually fun to play, but there are no worries on that front. Put simply, Overwatch is the most exciting shooter I’ve played in years. From the moment you’re let out of the starting gate, you’ll experience frenetic action that doesn’t stop until one team snatches victory from the other. Each match captures the electrifying roller-coaster of emotions from a game like Dota 2 or League of Legends and distils it down to 10 minutes or less. It’s rare to experience a game so engaging that doesn’t have an intense time commitment.
In a game with nearly two dozen totally different characters to tune and balance, every choice in Overwatch feels just right. The mobility options and weapons feel great, and while some of them take getting used to, each hero has their own checks and balances. Yet, in a game where no hero is truly overpowered, Blizzard wants to make sure that you actually feel powerful. No matter who you’re playing as, when it’s time to unleash your ultimate ability, you can single-handedly turn the tide of a match in your team’s favor.
Perhaps Overwatch‘s best feature is that it wants you to succeed. Every system in the game is designed from the ground up to allow all types of players and heroes to have their moment of glory. Even if you’re not great at precise aiming or have slower reaction time, there’s a role for you to play, and the game does everything in its power to de-emphasize the traditional ideas of kill-to-death ratio and instead inspire teamwork and objective-based play. There’s no in-game scoreboard that tells you who has the most kills, and commendations at the end of a match are awarded based on factors like how long you stayed on an objective and how effectively you helped out your team. Sure, eliminations are still a big factor, but they’re far from the only one.
In addition to a solid tutorial that doesn’t assume you know a single thing about the genre (or games in general), the game naturally guides you towards success through great notifications before and during matches. While assembling your team of six heroes, Overwatch offers you tips on areas you might be missing or ways our team might be lopsided. This advice isn’t enforced, so if you want to try something off-the-wall, you’re more than welcome to. And as you progress throughout a match, you’ll get nifty context-sensitive tooltips whenever you die, giving you some tips on how to avoid that fate in the future. More on-the-job training comes in the form of visual and audio cues, like a character on your team barking, “They have a teleporter. We need to find it!”
With Blizzard’s pedigree, Overwatch wasn’t really in jeopardy of being a bad game, though it could have ended up with a worse fate as a mediocre copycat. But the sheer amount of care and polish that has gone into this release is apparent in every facet, from the tight controls down to the options screens. This game isn’t simply an also-ran that was shoved out the door for a quick buck. It’s leaps and bounds better than anything in its genre, and it sets a high bar for future competitive multiplayer games of all kinds.
This review is based on the PC version.
Overwatch delivers an unprecedented amount of fun and excitement to a genre that desperately needed a shot in the arm. The charm and personality of the characters and environments only serve to enhance the game's pitch-perfect action and fine-tuned mechanics.