The first chance I had to play Overwatch came just this last month, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. I waited on line at PAX East with seven of my other friends, and none of us had played before. I was excited to try it out next to my brother, and it had been a while since I had been so excited for a First Person Shooter. Many of my friends hadn’t played an FPS in years, or ever before, but wanted to see what this bright, shiny new game could be like.
As we talked with others in the line, they spoke about how they had been in the closed betas previously, and were excited to see if they could get the most kills in the demo on the show floor. As one of my friends asked me who the characters were, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.
It was six on six. My friends and I got crushed like the noobs we were.
Pro-Tip: You are going to see a killcam of Bastion killing you a lot during this beta.
It was an informative, if bracing experience. It had been a while since I had really tried competitive shooters, and that rust was made obvious very quickly. I was also reminded of two other things: one was how much this game had taken from Team Fortress 2 as an inspiration, and how long it had been since I had played that game. The other was seeing how much Overwatch was going to differentiate itself from the games before it. How much I was going to have to invest to really feel comfortable in the game.
It was with this in the back of my head that I anxiously waited for my open beta download to finish. Was this game going to crush my spirits? Maybe Overwatch and FPS games like this were out of my depth now.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
May 3: Welcome to Overwatch. Here’s Your Murder Hammer.
I’ll be honest, it was Blizzard’s name attached to Overwatch that made me pull the trigger on pre-ordering this game. FPS’s have been hit or miss for me in the past. I have amazing experiences playing Halo and Halo 2 in college, using a really robust LAN system, but fell out of interest as the crowd shifted over to the wider ranging Xbox Live. Team Fortress 2 was a fun game with a great crowd… but it just didn’t capture my long term attention. Sometimes, you see a great game, and you know it’s a great game, but it’s not the one for you.
Reinhardt is what sealed the deal for me, making me take the dive to get into this pre-order. I’ve learned that in many role-based games, anyone with a little practice can be a sniper or have fun with a high-damage character, but learning a tank role made you someone people wanted to have around. Reinhardt is the quintissential damage soaker, and his art direction really helps show that off. He doesn't have a gun at all, instead wealding a massive hammer, and large, plodding steps forward. Many of the characters I tried had about 200 health, but Reinhardt has 500. Still, the short range of that hammer is rough. My first game or two, I found myself being mowed down by the more immediately understandable Bastion, Reaper or Agent 76.
After those first games, you are forced to learn about the abilities that specialize every character, and make each fill their specific role to perfection. Reinhardt was my crash course in how important these were, because without them, he simply can't perform his role. The most iconic ability he has is his force shield, a flashy affair where a wall of light is projected out from him, and you move him slowly up the battlefield. The shield has a whopping 2000 health, and is wide enough that your teammates can walk next to you, shielded from immediate harm. Over the course of the night, I found characters like Tracer and Junkrat were able to pop out from my cover, attack and go on sprees, then fall back to where it was safe. The next is his ability to launch a fiery boulder every few seconds from his hammer. It's a slow attack and has a long recharge, but hits hard; it seems best used to get those enemies that are backing away from you after you've gotten too close for their comfort. After a few hammer swings, most foes are going to be near death, and this is a nice parting shot.
What's his toughest, and most satisfying ability though, is his charge. It has a wind up, but sends him careening until he hits a wall or hard object. Any enemy he hits first is picked up and dragged along with him. From what I can tell, the longer he drags you, the harder that impact is going to be. Walking around to the side of combat and then setting up a charge against a sniper like Widowmaker is probably one of the best feelings I've had in a game for a while, taking them along for a ride into a British brick wall. Then again, another time I set up against three people at once, and they all dodged out of the way, sending me careening down a long alley where they shot me in the back laughing. I've died right before getting to a nest of turrets, and I've also plowed into a den of engineer-like characters, killing three at once. It's the ultimate risk-reward, and it's very addicting to try out.
Reinhardt has an ultimate as well, which knocks down all of your enemies in a wave, stunning them; it's a great trick, but I'm often too busy trying to control the battlefield by throwing up my shield for friends to take a key objective, or preparing for a charge. By the end of the night, I found myself really enjoying myself. Getting kills with Reinhardt wasn't always a sure thing, but leading my team was just as fun. Most matches revolve around defending a point or trying to slowly escort an objective towards your opponent's base, so that shield feels good. Using it as a way to move your team from cover to cover is a blast, and managing to close the distance on a defensive position is very satisfying.
By the end of the night, I had figured out the basics, and some of the more dangerous attacks to watch out for. I had even taken a break from Reinhardt to try out Genji, an assault class that can deflect bullets in hilarious ways. Overwatch was starting to make sense, and adapting my character choice for a particular team was a treat.
The Fine Art of Team Building
Something that was great about Team Fortress 2 was the idea of dedicated roles, and how everyone coming to the battlefield can bring a different strength to the table. Your spy can help assassinate, your medic can heal, and your heavy could lay down that suppressive fire.
Overwatch already seems to change this formula in two large ways. The first revolutionary on its own: the fact that there are so many more heroes. TF2 has 9, while Overwatch has 21. It's a large change simply because you now have more than one option to fill a role. As an example, Reinhardt is an amazing wall of blunt-force trauma, but the charming Zarya is also a tank. She has not as much health, but has a powerful gun that only gets stronger when she uses her tank tricks to shield herself, or throw her shields onto her nearby friends. She can be more mobile, and having long range explosives can pay off for crowd control in a different method than my tanked up German. Where Hanzo is a great defender because he can see through walls and set up arrows that bounce off crowded hallways, Bastion is a force of ruination because of his ability to turn into his own turret.
This is what a solid team line up looks like: two tank characters, two offensive assassins, a defensive character, and a support.
The second change is subtle, but I've seen it affect games already: Overwatch notifies you during character selection about how your team is composed. "Team tips" in the right corner flash and let you know when you have no tanks on your squad; it also lets you know if no one takes a support character, or even if there isn't a character that builds defenses. It's not a glaring siren, but a gentle prod at everone on your team. Sure, I saw a few games where we had two, even three people playing Tracer, but often these little warnings got people to try out a different character. Five seconds before a game start, a warning for 'no support' would get someone to jump over and try out a different way to play.
May 4: Robots, Dubstep, and Teleporters: Fun With Support Classes
Bastion is a jerk. The character model itself is adorable - it's a self-sentient robot that loves birds perching on it - but holy crap, is he a popular murder machine. Given his ability to turn into his own turret, it felt like every time I turned a corner, there was one waiting there for me to deal with. There are ways to deal with him for sure, but expect to see a lot of Bastion in the open beta, and to maybe get a little frustrated. You need a team to deal with getting around that constant gatling fire, either by using tanks or long range explosives, and as people still learn the game, teams don't always come together. I lost a few games because my group had multiple offensive characters on it, or we had three defensive snipers that just didn't work with what we needed to do. A well placed Bastion seems to almost be a sort of 'team check' in a way. Do you change your strategy to deal with him, or just continuously run into certain death?
Battles descend into chaotic frenzies pretty quick around objectives. When trying out a new character, it might be a good idea to do a Vs. AI game first. Trust me on this.
I made a choice to try out support classes on my second night, and so I started with Lucio. Man, after playing Reinhardt, the world seems to be a blur while playing as this roller-blading DJ. He's fast, and if you use his ability to speed boost your team, turns into a blur. You are constantly swapping between healing or speed boost buffs to keep the power of your aura up, and it's a handful to deal with while also trying to fight. In my attempt to learn him, I figured out I was able to get my team somewhere fast, even fast enough to drop off a tank character behind the choke points that Bastions or Widowmakers were covering. Healing them my friends while in this new position was hilarious fun...but his weapon felt impossible to control while moving at those speeds, as well as monitoring my team for healing and buffing them.
After another round with Genji - a character that looks to be very fun, but only after a lot of practice - I went to the next support on my list to try. I loved her so much, I played as her for the rest of the night: Symmetra, the Indian architect. Symmetra is a bizarre hybrid between defender and healer, and I found myself absolutely loving her weird kit. Instead of having large 'standard' turrets, she can create up to six small, tiny ones; tiny turrets which have a short range, but you can attach to anything. One of my favorite tricks now is if there is a car being escorted during a mission, attaching three or more turrets to it. I would watch eager opponents climb on top of it in triumph, just to start crumpling over as their health was sapped from multiple sources.
That's not all Symmetra can do though: her standard attack is a short range homing lazer beam, which is terrible at first, but deals more and more damage over time. Locking onto someone with this when they aren't paying attention can really hurt, or even better, having them follow you into a room you trapped up with turrets thinking they can out-pace your damage can really bring out the sadist in you. Finally, her ultimate is putting down a teleporter. Don't laugh, because map control is everything since most games are based on attacker/defender roles. Having my respawning allies get up to the fight in a third of the usual time sometimes swung the game in our favor, since we could apply constant pressure.
Fine, Overwatch. I'm Ready For More
I’m hooked, and there’s nothing better that I can say at this moment. I’ve had between 4-6 hours to really jump into the game, learn what I can, and figure out what characters I really enjoy. I’ve had enough time to figure out the basics, and find out what I really like, what worries me, and what I want to try next.
What worries me is a little bit of balance, or perhaps just seeing the same characters more often than others. Again, Bastion is a beautiful character, but I saw him nearly every game, not to mention that he repeatedly was favored for getting the 'play of the game' award at the end. Other characters like Mei or Winston were barely seen, but that might also be because some strategies are going to take a little longer to figure out. There might still be some tweaks to characters in the future, because Zarya seemed nearly impossible to get properly working because of her shortened range and small shield window, while D'Va has an ultimate that seems to level everything within a city block. We'll see how things play out during release, but expect to see some faces more often than others during this open beta.
The action is fast, but the game feels crisp and fluid the whole way through - even when you get into melee range and everyone is desperately trying to get away from you
What I really like is how the game feels. It feels smooth and polished, and on the PS4, only had one connection issue both nights. The combat becomes a multi-colored show of chaos, and most levels have multiple ways to approach them, once you have a chance to look them over. Wading into melee range is a difficult task that really feels good as you start busting heads, while the ability to support your team also rewards you. That's crucial to me, because if a game like this only rewards those that deal damage, it ends up skewing who gets played and how often. I like how the winning team gets a little picture of them posing together at the end; as usual, Blizzard wins me over because of the small polishing touches they put on a game.
Another touch I enjoyed was how you could vote for your favorite player each game. The end screen lets you know who was doing what: I ended up as a voting choice once just for how much damage I blocked as Reinhardt, and also ended up on it for how many kills I got with Symmetra's turrets... a statistic the game differentiates. It's a nice touch. Another is the loot boxes, something you unlock just by playing. They are filled with prizes like alternate skins, new voice overs, and even victory poses. Characters have 54 small little ways you can alter them to make them feel more like your personal avatar, and that's always a great way to start a game.
What I want to try next? More characters. I've gotten a few hours in, but this game is deeper than it first appears. Each character has its own methods and tricks, and there are powerful ways to combo skills together. I want to see how well I can play Mercy backing up a dedicated tank, or see how well I do playing some of the more twitchy offensive classes. I'm curious to see more of the levels, and I want to see how much the gameplay has changed by the end of the beta, not because of patches, but because of how players approach the game. I saw a huge difference between the first two nights alone, where the first was a free for all shooting spree of offensive characters, and the second night everyone was trying other roles at once.
Today, May 5th, the beta for Overwatch unlocks for everyone. You might be a die hard FPS fan, or you might be someone trying out a game like this for the first time. What do you have to lose? This beta has charmed me into waiting excitedly for the full release at the end of this month, and I'm going to guess that it'll do the same for many of you too.
See you on the battlefield, either behind my shield wall or at the other end of my murder hammer.