Trends are a funny thing. Fickle flows that swing and sway each year, predictable yet bizarre in nature. The hot trend in gaming is the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), a strange genre that no one can seem to lock down or define and yet generated over a billion dollars last year for previously unknown development house Riot Games with League Of Legends. Blizzard, once the forerunners of trends, have found themselves left behind. MMORPG player numbers are plummeting, World of Warcraft a fading behemoth of the bygone era. Meanwhile Heroes of the Storm, their own attempt at a MOBA, arrived a little too late for the party and has failed to gather a large fan base. Blizzard are playing catchup, something of an irony given that this MOBA genre was created essentially from player mods of Starcraft and Warcraft 3: their own creations. And yet, trends are a funny thing. Perhaps soon MOBAs as we know them will be on the decline, perhaps the next big thing is just around the corner. Enter Overwatch, a energetic take on the team-based genre yet played from a first-person shooter perspective.
In a way it is a clever blend of the most popular gaming styles of the moment: the FPS, the Call Of Duty franchise still generating a huge amount of sales with each release, and the MOBA. At the beginning of each game players choose their hero from a cast of twenty-one, each with different and very specific skillsets, and then join together into a group of six to battle against an opposing team. There are a variety of missions to play across (something that sets it apart from most MOBAs, DOTA 2 for example is usually only played on a single map) each with differing objectives. These range from holding marked zones to slowly pushing a vehicle across the level. The key difference between Overwatch and similar FPS games is that team construction and clever coordination of the heroes’ skills is usually more important than individual talent, instant reactions and pinpoint accuracy.
Of course this blend of FPS and team-based skills is nothing new, Team Fortress for example is a game where players must carefully balance their team to win and more recently Battleborn attempted a very similar approach. However Overwatch manages to achieve something rather special: The Moment. Everyone who has ever played a team-based game or sport will know The Moment and the feeling generated when you do something special, unexpected, spontaneous, an action that may well win you the match. Yet Overwatch manages to capture this feeling over and over again. It’s all down to the ultimate move of each hero.
Every hero has an ultimate that charges throughout the game, usually a few minutes for each use depending on the hero and their performance, and when unleashed it often covers the battlefield in spectacular lighting and sound effects. The game lets everyone know that you’ve pressed that button and you are the cause of all this mayhem. It feels good. Hanzo, a noble archer who usually stays out of sight and fires arrows from a distance, is one such example. Usually silent, his ultimate instead releases two monstrous ghostly dragons, spinning together in flight, that rush through walls devouring all foes in their way. Timed and positioned well, this skill can kill everyone on the opposing team and that is The Moment. Similarly Pharah, a rocket-launcher laden maiden of destruction, has skills that allow her to jet into the air, while her ultimate rains hell on the earth below.
But it is not simply about aggressive ultimates. There are the counter-ultimates, surprises that throw chaos into the opposing team’s plan. Perhaps the most obvious is Mercy, the healer of the game with a ray-gun that fills up the health bars of allies or overcharges their guns to deal more damage. Her ultimate simply resurrects all heroes that have died recently in the area. Her Moment falls when the opposing team thinks they’ve pulled off an unstoppable move, everyone lies dead in front of them, only for Mercy to fly in from the side and pulling her entire team back out from the grave. The enemy team, most likely now out of position, with ultimates down, will fall moments later.
Each of the twenty-one heroes can provide something to the fight and while there do seem to be some balancing issues at the moment there is something special about each of them. Part of the enjoyment of the game comes from figuring out how to combine all their different skills. Mei, a strange childlike-lady obsessed with freezing everything, has skills that hold her enemies in place. While doing very little damage herself it means that her allies can take advantage of the slows and stuns to finish them off. Meanwhile a personal favourite at the moment is Symmetra who seemingly has no effect with her guns, but can lay down small turrets across the map that do a surprisingly amount of damage. These combined with her ultimate that builds a teleporter from the team’s respawn point, allowing very quick returns to fight following death, makes defending a position extremely effective.
Overwatch excels when your team understands their heroes’ skills and limits, everyone working together in harmony to overcome the enemy. Unfortunately it is also one of the game’s biggest issues. As a solo player you will struggle to ever reach this point. Early on, particularly with the lower level players, your team will rarely have a support player as no one wishes to play the role that does no damage and gets no kills. These games feel messy and incomplete as if you are only getting half of the game’s full experience. Which, in a way, is true. The designers at Blizzard have tried to balance things out by informing the players in what the team requires on the role selection screen but few will pay much attention. Instead you’ll probably get five Tracers (a terribly-voiced British lady who can zip across the map and then rewind to where she was a few seconds earlier) because she is excellent fun to play. Roles can be swapped at any time in the game, but whether anyone will or not is a different question.
At the end of each match, which usually lasts around ten minutes but can vary depending on the level and team balance, the game displays an action replay of the play of the match. Often it will be a recreation of one of those Moments and you can relive the glory, but sometimes it turns out to merely be a few undramatic kills in a row. Then players are offered the chance to vote for their favourite player - the winner receiving a small boost to their experience level. Interestingly at no point in the game can players access a scoreboard to see where they are standing. One imagines this is a statement towards the effect that Overwatch is purely a team game, and that a single player killing or dying continuously does not completely alter the state of the battle. That being said there will be many competitive players who will be put off by this lack of information.
When Overwatch was released at the end of May, it was clear that there were many other such functions missing, particularly when you compare it to other MOBAs or indeed FPSs. It is still completely absent of any single-player content other than playing with hilariously incompetent bots. Similarly there is no real plot, context or background to these battles. They simply happen in some rather caricature environments between characters who switch allegiances every few minutes. While the same could be said about countless other multiplayer games, the fact that players can select the same heroes at the same time, and then swap them moments later when they die, it simply feels contrived.
It is not just in style and plot that Overwatch lacks either. While twenty-one heroes measures up well against Team Fortress’s nine, and the twenty-five of Battleborn, it is a pitiful amount compared to other MOBAs (both League of Legends and DOTA2 have over a hundred). Games begin to feel a little bit stale too quickly as you learn all the heroes’ moves and possible combos and eventually you are rarely surprised by a team’s tactics. Similarly the twelve maps, while elegantly designed in themselves with sneaky tunnels and clever sniping points, become repetitive a little too soon. Adding to this frustrating repetition is the game’s complete lack of modes. Originally there were only three options for the player: the quick play mode which will search the online matchmaking for players of a similar level and dump you into a game at any position, often in under thirty seconds. Custom modes which can only be played with friends or bots, and the weekly brawl which is often a comical battle between a limited set of heroes or changes in their statistics.
But one of the most interesting components of eSports-based games is that they are meant to evolve, keep players hooked in for years and becoming a property that does not simply rely on the original single lump sum investment, but rather a continual flow, something that Riot games with League of Legends have ultimately achieved. Blizzard clearly have high hopes for Overwatch: in the two months since release the competitive mode that many players were waiting for has appeared as well as a new hero. The competitive mode helps alleviate some of the issues mentioned early, with each match feeling slightly more intense as players compete to raise that ranking. It also requires players to be level twenty-five simply to enter which means competitive matches are less prone to turn into nonsensical brawls with ridiculous team setups, especially since in this mode teams must be composed of unique heroes.
Meanwhile the new hero Ana, a support sniper, shows how Blizzard intend to merge the barriers between the specific categories of heroes. From a distance Ana can deal a fair amount of damage (though it is limited compared to the other snipers such as Widowmaker), but rather bizarrely can also heal teammates with the same bullet depending on who she targets. She also wields a grenade that has a similar effect and a dart that can knock out foes for a few seconds. With the cast of heroes growing at this rate we could see Overwatch stretching the already rather intricate levels of hero skill combinations to a rather fantastic depth.
Overwatch is something refreshing and new from Blizzard, neither an intensive FPS or a strategic MOBA but something that bridges the gap superbly. This along with their ever popular card game Hearthstone shows how the aging production house is adapting to the more modern structure of gaming. It’s not perfect by any means, it lacks the finesse of multiplayer Call Of Duty and the dizzying depth of DOTA2 but it offers such a fun and distinct form of gameplay that is disturbingly hard to put down, and when you finally pull off that Moment you know you’ll be heading into the next game right away to try it again.