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Our Overwatch Impressions

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Here are our impressions of Overwatch and various thoughts on its direction and launch, following our chance to play it at Gamescom.

 

This year's Gamescom provided an opportunity for thousands of gamers to try their hand at Blizzard's newest game: Overwatch. This is the third such opportunity after Blizzcon 2014, where the game was first announced, and PAX East 2015.

 

We took full advantage of the situation and set out to play as much as we could during Gamescom. We did also play Overwatch at Blizzcon last year, so here are our impressions with regards to how the game feels, when it might be launched, and how its future as an eSport looks.

 

What is Overwatch?

 

For anyone who is not aware, Overwatch is Blizzard's version of a team-based First Person Shooter (FPS) game. It is played in a 6v6 format, with the two teams fighting over map objectives. Players respawn at their base a few seconds after they die, and this "deathmatch" style continues until the attacking team conquers the map objectives, or until the time runs out and the defending team wins. The game features several maps, each having either payload or point capture objectives.

 

Players can choose to play as any one of 16 currently available heroes, although more are to be expected before the game is released (we recently covered the latest content addition). Each hero has their own weapon as well as a set of unique abilities that they can use throughout the game. The heroes are categorized by roles (these being tank, offense, defense, and support), and teams are able to create a variety of different compositions.

 

If you were to ask "What game is Overwatch like?", the answer would be Team Fortress 2.

 

Extremely Polished Game

 

This is the one thing that everyone I've spoken to about Overwatch can easily agree on. The game feels about as polished and ready-to-play as it did 9 months ago at Blizzcon; and that means that it's still really very, very well polished. The same was true of Hearthstone (although some game-breaking bugs plagued that one for a long time) and Heroes of the Storm, so things are quite in-line with Blizzard's MO.

 

All the existing heroes feel very solidly put together, with their abilities synergising well to give each one of them a strong identity. Indeed, in this respect the game feels much more like an RPG or a MOBA, where the player can truly feel how they are different from everyone else on the battlefield. You are not an offensive hero, you are Reaper. You are not a support hero, you are Lúcio.

 

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Lúcio heals allies around him but remains a formidable threat to enemies, although his projectiles are difficult to aim and easy to avoid.

 

The maps are likewise well polished (although only the two new maps - Numbani and Volskaya Industries - were playable at Gamescom). They feature an impressive amount of visual details to give them their own individual feel. Backstory is also provided, giving players a good idea of what the context of the battle is.

 

The maps are not there just to give players something nice to look at - they provide many opportunities for strategic choices, creative individual plays, and viciously satisfying moments. For example, it is possible to fall off the side of some of the maps, which leads to an instant death. Combine this with the fact that several heroes have the ability to knock enemies back, and you've got the potential for some outstanding kills.

 

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Volkskaya Industries provides many opportunities for players to be knocked off the map.

 

Unexpectedly Addictive

 

One thing that is immediately apparent when playing Overwatch (as soon as you've set up your mouse sensitivity and gotten used to the basic controls) is just how much fun the game is. It does not matter if you don't understand what all the heroes do, or even what all the map objectives are - the game will still have you cheering or kicking yourself (depending on your results) before long.

 

It is a game that is easy enough to grasp and get into, but which has great depth, allowing players to leverage their superior skill and experience (with Overwatch or shooters in general) to dominate their opponents. We can only imagine how actual teams, making use of strategies and hero synergies, will push the entertainment factor of the game even further. While its future as an eSport is uncertain (more on that below), I have no doubt that the game will be a massive hit for the "casual" gamer.

 

Beta and Launch

 

A few days ago, Overwatch appeared on players' Battle.net launcher, and while it is not yet playable, this is a good indication that Beta is not far off. A Beta in 2015 has been seen as more or less a sure thing, but this latest development sheds a bit more light on the matter.

 

If we look at Blizzard's history with their other two free-to-play titles, a trend is not immediately evident, but some predictions can be made.

 

Hearthstone was announced in March 2013, its closed Beta started in August 2013, and the game was launched in March of 2014.

 

Heroes of the Storm was announced in November 2013, its closed Beta started in January 2015, and it's launch was in June of the same year. It is worth noting that between March 2014 and January 2015, the game was in Technical Alpha, which gave a sizable number of players access to the game.

 

This means that, to date, Overwatch has had the longest period of time between its announcement and when any significant number of non-Blizzard employees were able to play the game. It seems that closed Beta can take anywhere between 5 and 9 months (and I'm sure Blizzard has no restrictions on this - they have always seemed to do things at the pace that works best for them).

 

Given all of this, and the fact that the game has been playable by Blizzard employees for 3 months, I predict closed Beta in September or October of 2015, with a launch some time in 2016 (as early as February, but possibly as late as July).

 

Overwatch as an eSport

 

In the competitive FPS genre, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is by far the biggest name at the moment. Overwatch will have to compete with CS:GO, or carve its own separate niche, if it is to be a successful eSport. Most likely, it will have to do both. We have seen that with Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard has taken the established formula and tweaked it just enough to attract players from those games, but still be in a slightly different field. So far, this does not appear to have produced the desired effect (HoTS is still a long way from being on even footing with the two MOBA giants), but a lot of time remains.

 

Therefore, it stands to reason that this is also Blizzard's logic when it comes to Overwatch. Take the established games (Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike) and tweak them just enough. It is hard to say if Overwatch is equipped for this task as it stands, but there are a few elements that can give cause for concern.

 

The most glaring potential problem I noticed is that Overwatch games can end quickly - extremely quickly - if one team is massively outplayed. Having the entire defensive team die in a battle (even if the fight was a close one) will almost guarantee that the attacking team will capture the contested objective (since respawning and running back takes quite a bit of time, and objectives do not take long to be captured). Have this happen twice in a row, and the game is over. It could all take less than 5 minutes.

 

This is probably unlikely to happen with teams of even skill (but we would have to see games between organised team to really be able to tell), although it still has a much different pace than Counter-Strike matches. Part of the appeal in spectating Counter-Strike is that, despite the individual quick and dynamic plays, the game is slow enough to allow spectators to appreciate situations, and to allow commentators to explain them.

 

Obviously, the way in which Overwatch was made available to players at Blizzcon and Gamescom is not conducive to understanding exactly how competitive mode will work, and we will see a lot more about this topic in the coming months, but I feel Counter-Strike's formula (which has been successful since 2001) is excellent, and something Blizzard will have to be very careful when innovating on.

 

Another concern is that while the 6v6 format allows for much-needed customisation and team variety in a game such as this, Counter-Strike's leaner 5v5 could make it easier for teams to form and practice routinely.

 

Conclusions

 

Among a sea of expansions and additions to their current franchises, Overwatch truly feels like a breath of fresh air from Blizzard. It feels like a project into which they are putting their heart and soul, much like they did with Hearthstone (and not as much with Heroes of the Storm). I am confident that this will reflect in the final quality of the game, and that players everywhere will love the game as much as most of those few who had a chance to play it already do.

 

Edit: Added a mention that Overwatch was also playable at PAX East (the article previously claimed it had only been playable at Blizzcon and Gamescom).

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