The Overwatch beta has now been back for almost a month since its holiday hiatus. In that time, I’ve logged about 50-hours in the game, and I now feel seasoned enough to offer a real report on where it stands as of now. Recently, a release date had surfaced and then set for May 24, with an open beta available to everyone from May 5-9, just a few weeks prior to its official release. With those dates rapidly approaching, it’s high time to talk about Overwatch and where exactly it sits in correspondence to its launch.
First off, it’s quite a bit different than last time I checked in. A new progression system has been added (which I’ll discuss momentarily), some new maps (like the Hollywood themed one seen below) and a new mode have been included. And, most heroes have received tweaks, or in a few cases, overhauls. But at its core, it’s still the same (very enjoyable) game I played back in November. So let’s talk about what that is for those of you who may not know much about the game.
Overwatch is a first-person shooter in which teams of six players each (6v6) battle over objectives. Players choose one of the 21 unique heroes, each with their own weapons and abilities, to work together with their team to accomplish the aforementioned objective. The heroes are divided into four main groups: offense, defense, tanks, and supports. Most teams will take at least one hero from each of these groups during their games. However, the game is designed to have dynamic hero choices and counter-picks, so players can always swap their heroes for another when they die, or when they’re in their own spawn area. Additionally, there’s currently no restriction on running multiples of the same hero on a team, although this is something that many beta players are hoping will change.
Modes are directly tied to maps, and there isn’t any option to select which mode you want to play before searching for a game. Whatever map you get in the rotation defines the mode. Most are asymmetric, with one team on attack and one on defense. These maps task the attacking team with capturing a couple of objective points, or delivering a slowly-moving payload across the level while the defending team tries to stop them. A couple of these maps are hybrids of the two modes with an initial point-capture objective that unlocks the payload to be delivered.
The first big change this time around in the beta is the addition of two control maps, in which both teams set out to capture and hold the same objective in the middle of the map for a certain amount of time. These are far more symmetrical, but the gameplay tends to devolve into an endless skirmish in one small area, and certain heroes are much less effective on these maps than on the more common attack and defense maps.
The game looks and sounds wonderful, and the heroes are all excellently designed and fun to play. While balance is still being tweaked, no hero feels useless, and none feel too overpowered. Naturally, some feel a bit more powerful than others, and see more play (especially in the budding high-level scene), but the range isn’t great enough to relegate some heroes permanently to the bench. Notably, over the break, defensive heroes Torbjorn and Bastion both received significant reworks, and they’ve received even more since the beta came back. I expect they’ll be tweaked even more before launch, as will a number of other heroes, like the oft-played cyber-ninja Genji or the ubiquitous AoE healer Lucio. But for the most part, both the aesthetic and gameplay designs of the heroes are excellent, and each features their own unique style of play.
The gameplay itself is highly enjoyable, with responsive controls and satisfying shooting and teamwork elements. Unlike many first-person shooters, only a few of the weapons are hit-scan (meaning the game just looks to see if the reticle was over the target when fires), and many fire projectiles of varying speeds and ranges, making the feel of each character’s weapons feel drastically different. In addition, many characters have special movement abilities, such as climbing walls, flying, dashing, or using a grappling hook, allowing many to really take advantage of the terrain.
The only fundamental gameplay problem lies with the lag compensation coding in the game. Which, while keeping the gameplay looking silky smooth, also means that sometimes you’ll die after you’ve already found cover, or will get shot around a corner. What you see in your opponent’s killcam video after you die may not line up with what you experienced just moments before. Unfortunately, this is a problem that may not be solvable for high-ping players, and its effect is noticeable.
Nonetheless, Overwatch is shaping up to be a competitive game, with the eSports scene already gearing up for its launch with beta tournaments underway and team beginning to take shape. The skill cap is very high, and the diversity of the cast adds a layer of depth to the strategy and tactics of each map. Unfortunately, the maps themselves feel limited, with most having only a small number of approaches and firing angles. Many feature chokepoints through which the attacking team must funnel in order to get to the objective, and form the natural place where much of the fighting will occur. Indeed, most maps feel like a series of arenas, rather than one cohesive map. The asymmetrical design of the game does lead to these limitations, however.
The defensive team needs to hold out against wave after wave of attacks (a player respawns at their base ten seconds after they die), while the attacking team generally only has to win one big fight per objective. So the defending team does need some advantages, and they get them from the map. Personally, this can lead to games feeling a bit repetitive at times, especially if the same heroes are chosen. It also means most of the action occurs within only a fraction of the total map space, much of which goes entirely unused. This is unfortunate, because the art direction is excellent, and there are tons of neat Easter-eggs hidden throughout.
The asymmetric nature of the levels also necessarily means that some players feel that defense is favored on certain maps or vice-versa. The reality is that attacking teams are favored in high-level play, and defense is favored in low-level play, because the defensive advantages given by the map mean less to better players, and attacking has the advantage of not needing to win as many fights as defense. This fact makes asymmetrical maps nearly impossible to balance for all skill levels, but Blizzard is certainly trying. Requiring both teams to play both attack and defense on the same maps before a win is awarded could alleviate this, as some have suggested, but it’s unlikely to happen, except possibly in a future ranked mode.
Certainly, modes and maps are an area where Overwatch has a lot of room for development, even after launch. I expect that we’ll see a constantly updated pool of maps and modes until some show promise of standing the test of time. Blizzard has also done all they can to promote teamwork. Voice-chat is readily available, and the hero select screen provides tips on what type of hero your team might need given the currently selected heroes. Some heroes, like the healer-and-damage-booster Mercy, are specifically designed to work directly with other players, while other like Lucio provide AoE healing or movement buffs.
Good coordination is necessary to success, as playing lone-wolf is unlikely to meaningfully impact the game. The game also promotes good play by awarding medals at the end for doing well across a number of metrics (and an associated XP boost), and at the end of the game, four players are identified as especially impactful and every player can vote on a match MVP from amongst those four. Finally, a play of the game video shows the best play through the eyes of the player who made it. Unfortunately, these are chosen by an algorithm that still needs tweaking, and often simply involves the most kills in the shortest amount of time.
In certain cases, these can be fairly unimpressive or underwhelming, while much better plays were ignored. It also mostly fails to account for impact on the objective, so lone wolf players can unfortunately snag their moment of glory. The lack of a team-wide scoreboard irks some players, but not being able to see the K/D ratios of your teammates is probably a good thing, since you can see your own stats, and some people in the community are bad enough without needing an extra element to attack one’s team over. It also prevents players from simply playing for stats, rather than playing for the objectives.
Progression has also been added to the game, consisting of experience earned after each match towards leveling up. At each level, players are awarded a loot box, which features four random cosmetic items for your character, or in-game currency. The items might be voice-lines you can have your character say, sprays you can paste on the battlefield, skins, animated emotes, win-screen poses, or play-of-the-game introduction animations. Like most Blizzard games, these items come in rarities from common through legendary (legendaries are the special skins).
The currency (credits) that’s sometime obtained from these boxes can also be used to purchase specific items. There’s no way to convert real money into this in-game money, but Blizzard has suggested that they will sell loot boxes directly to players for real money. There’s also no way to earn credits through any means other than loot boxes currently, and items can’t be converted into credits (although duplicate items received are automatically converted into a small amount of credits). Whether this changes in future, such as the addition of quests like in Heroes of the Storm, or through credit awards for game completions or milestones, remains to be seen as there have been no announced plans for these.
The Bottom Line
Overall, Overwatch is in a pretty good state. The things that need to be worked out are minor balance tweaks, and the problematic maps can be cycled out with new replacements over the lifespan of the game (in fact the possibility of other modes is one of the most exciting prospects for Overwatch). Every other element has been pretty well nailed, which isn’t surprising given Blizzard’s track record of excellent games, but it’s still quite the feat given that this is their first-ever FPS.
The bottom line, bottom line, though, is that Overwatch is a ton of fun, and it’s kept me going back for more. If you’re not already in the beta, you can look forward to getting your hands on it on May 5th for a brief preview before being able to pick it up on May 24th for its full release. I look forward to seeing you online.