If Overwatch was an animal, it would be a small, cute, friendly dog, intent on meeting everybody and licking their faces.
From the off, Overwatch is one of the most accessible and inviting games you will ever encounter – which is some achievement, given that it clearly wants to establish itself as a cornerstone of the burgeoning e-sports scene, whose existing games are notoriously forbidding for the uninitiated. Then again, it was created by the mighty Blizzard, of World of Warcraft and Diablo fame, so you would expect it to be a mould-breaker.
Overwatch certainly delights in confounding existing conventions. It's essentially an online-only first-person shooter-slash-brawler, but eschews the usual grey, black and brown colour-palette employed by such games in favour of ultra-colourful, cartoonish graphics and a general cheery vibe. However, underneath the friendly graphics lies gameplay which is deadly serious and infernally addictive.
Overwatch review: Simplicity prevails
The key element in Overwatch's appeal is its simplicity – not an attribute with which e-sports games are generally overencumbered.
It pitches you into a succession of six-versus-six team matches, in which you will be randomly assigned one of just three game-modes: Assault, in which team defends two capture-points while the other attempts to wrest control; Escort, in which one team escorts a sort of hover-lorry travelling down a predetermined path, while the other team attempts to stop it; and Control, in which teams vie to assert overall dominance over three capture-points.
Selecting Quick Play pitches you into the game with minimal fuss; seasoned players can setup custom games with friends, in which they can set their own rules; you can opt to play as a member of a human team against computer AI opponents (with selectable difficulty levels); and there's a Weekly Brawl option, which sets players varying challenges. Blizzard is also readying a Competitive Play mode, which is where those who fancy themselves as the next e-sports stars can go to build a reputation.
Overwatch review: Heroes and heroes
Overwatch's simplicity isn't just structural: it extends to the gameplay. The one choice you must make for each round is which of the 21 Heroes to play as – they are very much the beating heart of the game.
There's no gun-swapping or anything like that; the vast majority of the Heroes have just one gun (although a couple have a second weapon, and most have an alt-fire mode with a cooldown). Each Hero has two special abilities, with cooldowns, mapped to the gamepad bumpers on the console versions of the game, as well as an ultimate ability which is charged up by kills and general good play.
Your role within the team and play-style within each round is entirely governed by which of the fantastically diverse Heroes you choose. There are four broad Hero types: tank, assault, offence and defence. In the lobby area the game lets you know if your team is deficient in a certain type.
The Heroes run the entire gamut from support characters who can heal or erect shields, via snipers, melee-specialists, to builders who can erect turrets and dish out armour packs and more conventional soldier-types. Everyone will find a few that they favour, and working through as many Heroes as possible as you get into the game is a real joy. If you don't get on with one, it's easy to swap the next time you respawn.
Overwatch review: Frenetic matches
Overwatch's matches are fast, frenetic and incredibly good fun. Another of the game's secrets is the way in which Blizzard has balanced the characters, so that any of them can take out any of the others, given the correct approach. There is a tutorial, but once you start jumping into live matches you immediately pick up techniques.
The levels are great – pretty closed-in, typically featuring rabbit-warrens of streets and a decent amount of verticality. You soon learn the importance of sight-lines and hiding in nooks and crannies, as well as how best to employ the Heroes' ultimate abilities. Which range from Widowmaker's Infra-sight, which lets all her team-mates see incoming enemies, to Reaper's Death Blossom, in which he spins around, discharging dual shotguns in all directions.
One slightly controversial element is the lack of any character progression – when you level-up, you're rewarded with ephemera, such as new victory-phrases for particular characters, but everybody plays with Heroes that have exactly the same attributes. That policy is absolutely central to Overwatch's appeal: you won't find yourself being battered by ninja-players who have ground their characters up to superhuman levels. And anyway the matchmaking, as one would expect from a Blizzard game, is exemplary.
If one were to quibble – and it feels a bit churlish – you could question whether Overwatch is still a game you'll playing a year down the line if your skills don't place you in the potential-pro-player category. But Blizzard, with its World of Warcraft experience, is a past-master at adding new modes, maps and so on, so we suspect that won't be an issue unlike with, for example, Star Wars Battlefront.
Oh, and we encountered some pretty vile comments from players over the voice-chat, which would certainly have been inappropriate for youngsters; you can turn off individual voice-channels, but it's far too fiddly a process for you to perform in the hurly-burly of a match.
Blizzard has pulled off quite a feat with Overwatch: it's an inviting, addictive, enormously enjoyable game for the masses which also has a good chance of establishing itself as an e-sport.
Overwatch is wonderfully polished and gloriously well-balanced, and the ideal first port of call if you want to find out what all the online gaming fuss is about. The legend of Blizzard rumbles on.
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