Sean went to London to play Overwatch on PS4. Here are his thoughts on Blizzard’s first foray into First-Person Shooter’s:
I remember a time when I was excited for the release of new first-person shooters. I queued up for midnight releases, booking a few days of annual leave to do nothing but blast through campaigns and get my K/D ratio up – but that was years ago now.
After 15 years of playing first-person shooters, assaulting Nazi fortresses, defeating entire alien races and buying the new £50 Call of Duty map pack each and every year, I meet the release of new first-person shooters with an indifferent sigh these days. My desire to play shooters was on its death bed, its relatives gathered around to say their last goodbye’s and squabble over who gets what in the last will and testament.
That all changed when I played Overwatch at a preview event last week. It took just under 2 hours for Blizzard’s up-coming game to get me excited about a first-person shooter again for the first time in years.
Unlike a lot of my friends and colleagues, I don’t have a love affair with Blizzard. It took me an hour to decided that World of Warcraft just wasn’t for me. I’ve enjoyed the Diablo games but only as much as I’ve enjoyed other RPG Hack-‘n’-Slashers. Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm didn’t click with me and were deleted after a short trial. But Overwatch is different. Being a predominantly PlayStation-only gamer (and having a PC that struggles to run Minesweeper, never mind an online shooter), I hadn’t had chance to play the Overwatch Beta and this preview event was my first chance to get my hands on it.
And I was very, very impressed.
This footage of Overwatch running on PS4 was captured at the preview event.
Overwatch is part of an emerging shooter sub-genre that many have dubbed as the “Hero Shooter”. At launch, the 6-v-6 strategic, objective orientate shooter will have 21 different characters to play as, each of whom has a unique set of abilities. These characters are split into 4 self-explanatory categories – Offence, Defence, Tank and Support – but even within these categories, the characters are divergent with subtle and important nuances. Take 2 characters from the “Defence” class – Junkrat and Bastion. Bastion is a lumbering automaton that has the ability to transform into a mid-range turret. Sit Bastion in a choke point and you can hold back the opposition with a sustained barrage of mini-gun fire – but get flanked and Bastion won’t last long. On the other hand, Junkrat is a crazy, grenade launcher toting trapper that can spam an area with explosives, lock opponents in place or lay mines – but he’s also unable to shoot an opponent directly. If somebody get’s close, you either get a direct hit with his grenade launcher or be prepared to watch the re-spawn screen. Both of these character’s are part of the same Hero category and are best suited to defending an area but must be played entirely differently.
So how is this any different to any other shooter? Well, unlike other FPS’s that have replaced generic ghillie’d no-names with specific characters (such as CoD: Black Ops III and the “Specialists”), Overwatch allows you to change your Hero on the fly within the spawn area or when you die. This means that matches ebb and flow as you change character to suit the situation. Playing as an Offensive character and notice that your team is getting hit hard, you can swap to a support character and back up your team mates to push forward. If your team is getting picked off by a sniper, you can switch to one of the flying or fast moving characters to get in behind them. Overwatch isn’t a game where you pick a character and are stuck with them for the entire match (although you can if year really want too). It’s a game that gives you a tool bag full of spanners, scalpels, hammers and shields and it’s totally up to you to choose which tool you use and how you use them.
One of the other aspects I found to be refreshing is that there are no experience based unlockables in Overwatch. Right from the start, all of the Heroes are available and so are all their abilities. It’s a risky decision by Blizzard, opting not to use a system that keeps gamers coming back to Call of Duty, Battlefield, etc year after year but it also means that matches will be won with skill and tactical know-how rather than the weaponry advantage you have unlocked by playing a game for longer. Winning a match in Overwatch feels like an achievement because its tight gun-play, strategic outmanoeuvring and team play that are the deciding factors, not just one guy on a hot streak that uses kill-streak reward after kill-streak reward.
One of the aspects I was interesting in before heading to the Overwatch preview event was the lack of Single Player content, something I know is a deal breaker for some gamers. I was curious how a game built around charismatic Heroes could possibly leverage the personalities of 21 distinct characters to make me care for them without a single player campaign. How could Blizzard make these characters stand out from the thousands of other faceless FPS protagonists I have played as over the past 15 years without telling me their stories? Quite effectively, as it turns out.
You see, each character has alliances, friends and enemies within the roster of Heroes and they expand upon those relationships during gameplay. During one match, I was playing as Tracer and on my team was Zenyatta, a robotic Shembali monk. As we started the match, Tracer started to speak to Zenyatta, stating what a privilege it was to meet a member of the Shembali. The two Heroes have a full blown conversation before we set out to take down the enemy team. It was these small but integral interactions that started to flesh out these characters. Further depth is added via the masterfully designed maps (most of them based on a near future version of real world locations), each featuring bottlenecks and paths that accommodate different character movement and attack range. The imaginative take on iconic world cities really complements the characters. When accompanied by the animated short films that Blizzard are releasing on YouTube and the planned comic books and novels, the world and fiction of Overwatch starts to look quite deep.
“The sheer amount of polish (even at this stage in development), the quality of the game play and the subtle way that Overwatch characters expand on their stories during game play mean that I’ve already pre-ordered it”
While preview events should rarely be used as a benchmark for a game’s technical performance, it’s worth mentioning that the PS4 build we played at the preview event was superb. No slow down, no lag, not a dropped frame in sight.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Overwatch is such an original and refreshing twist on the First-person Shooter genre. Blizzard have a spectacular track record of taking a genre, putting their own twist on it and becoming the gold standard for others to follow – something I am happy to admit, even though I’m not a fan of all of Blizzard’s games. But I was surprised, predominantly because there are aspects of Overwatch that would normally totally switch me off. The PG-13, cartoon-like visuals are at a stark contrast to the realistic visuals I normally prefer – but they are actually quite detailed, vivid and refreshing. I’ve not been a fan of the “Hero” model used in several games recently because it is often used to rinse players for further heroes via micro-transactions – but Blizzard have promised that any further Heroes and Maps will be provided as free DLC for anyone that buys the game. I rarely buy games that are without a single player campaign – but the sheer amount of polish (even at this stage in development), the quality of the game play and the subtle way that Overwatch characters expand on their stories during game play mean that I’ve already pre-ordered it.
In short, Overwatch is the very Blizzard-y concoction of Team Fortress 2, Borderlands, Heroes of the Storm and a Dreamworks version of Akira. Sold.
If, like me, you were on the fence about Overwatch I urge you to try the open console Beta that starts on May 5th. If you pre-order the game, you will get early access to the Beta on May 3rd ahead of the games release on the 24th of May 2016. Blizzard’s shooter blind sided me and rejuvenated my lust for first-shooters and it’s shaping up to do the same to the industry when it releases in May.
Disclaimer: I drank a can of soft-drink at the preview event. It was warm. I paid for my own travel