Blizzard like to hop between genres, that much is clear. At their Gamescom conference they talked about Legacy of the Void, an RTS; Hearthstone, a collectible card game; Heroes of the Storm, a MOBA (or ‘hero brawler’, if you accept Blizzard’s nomenclature); and Overwatch [official site], a first-person shooter.
But after playing Overwatch, which visually recalls Team Fortress 2, I’m starting to think Blizzard’s games all have more in common than their surface suggests. I’m beginning to think there is as much a ‘Blizzgame’ formula as much as there is a ‘Ubigame’ formula.
Overwatch is a team-based multiplayer shooter in which both teams choose from the same selection of character classes. Those character classes are aadmirably diverse bunch of colourful, cartoon irritants. For example, at Gamescom they announced Lúcio, a dreadlocked Brazilian DJ from the streets who says things like, “Let’s drop the beat!”. He looks like he should be leaning at a jaunty angle against a hapless talking bear voiced by Matthew McConaughey and I instantly dislike him. But when given the opportunity I choose to play as him anyway, because he’s new and my commitment to journalism is unbreakable, and because he’s about fast movement and wallrunning with his rollerblades, both of which look and sound fun.
They are fun. Lúcio is a support character and his main abilities are that he’s able to buff nearby teammates by playing ‘go faster’ music or ‘heal up’ music. This makes it easy to be useful even when you’re not much good at aiming, but the speed also lets you harrass enemies with your weak laser-pulse-gun. I enjoyed diving recklessly into skirmishes with opponents, occasionally grabbing a kill, but otherwise sprinting away quicker than I could be followed if I got into trouble. This tactic is aided further by your weapon’s alternate fire, which shunts enemies back – and often off ledges on the Russian-set map I played on, which was also new.
Even when playing this way, there was little reason to be good at aiming. Although weak, the laser-pulse-gun – it probably has a name but I didn’t note it down, so let’s call it the Wubinator – fires rapidly and its projectiles are large. Get up close and you’ll hit something.
Conversely, in the next round I played as Hanzo, an archer. Bow and arrows are the best weapon in almost any first-person shooter and Hanzo’s comes with the added bonus of being able to climb high walls. This significantly changed the feel of the Russian map, as now I had access to rooftops and sniper nests that were unreachable – or at least seemed unreachable – when playing as Lúcio. Like the art style, the bow and arrow is reminiscent of Team Fortress 2’s Huntsman in terms of its speed and arc, and the consequent need to lead enemies with your shots. I scored a few kills this way and each one was satisfying. I found less success with X’s skills, which are alternate arrow types – one that bounces on impact, which didn’t seem useful in the outdoor areas of the Russian map, and another that releases a pulse which tracks enemies within its radius. If ‘skills’ seems like the wrong word for an ammo type, keep in mind that these are theoretically infinite in number but limited by a cooldown timer.
This is where I come back to what I said at the start: all Blizzard games have more in common than it first appears. Mainly, they are games which emphasise the gathering of knowledge more than of skill. Overwatch is no different. For example, at one point during the matches I played I encountered an enemy controlling the Reaper character. I hadn’t seen Reaper before but he has a mask, a hood and dual wields two heavy-barrelled guns. What I didn’t know – and had no way of knowing based on any part of his appearance – was that Reaper also has the ability to place a marker within a certain location and then teleport to that position. I discovered this when the enemy I spotted, down below the building I was standing on, suddenly vanished and then reappeared next to me on the rooftop.
I might have already known this about Reaper if I had engaged with any of Overwatch’s Blizzard-created class videos or user-created wikis, but neither option sounds very appealing. Instead I learned by dying, and considering the varied roster of other characters and that each character has multiple skills, I foresee a fair amount of learning by dying while playing the game.
I’ve had this experience in other Blizzard games – whether it’s encountering new strategies and units in StarCraft 2, new heroes in Heroes of the Storm, or new cards or builds of cards in Hearthstone. Blizzard games don’t just contain this kind of knowledge; they’re about that knowledge. Attaining and recalling it is necessary in order to win, whereas the baser skills – aiming and shooting, for example – are often downplayed. Obviously other games are similar, but compare Overwatch to a game like Counter-Strike in which the knowledge you’re gathering – of sightlines and spray patterns, say – is far less explicit and far harder to apply than remembering which character has which push-button ability.
For me, this makes Overwatch a less appealing prospect, even though it’s not exactly a criticism. I understand why it is satisfying to achieve mastery of a game by collecting knowledge like a squirrel collects nuts, but that’s not why I personally play shooters. I can see space in Overwatch for the things I do enjoy – striking with Hanzo’s arrows is fun – but it’s not as satisfying as the same action is in Team Fortress 2. Overwatch is simply about something else. It’s a different kind of game. A Blizzard game.