The problem with Sombra & the joy of Overwatch Arcade

Overwatch [official site] aka The Shooter You Secretly Fancy And Draw Pictures Of On The Bus To School, recently got a new character, a new map and a bunch of new game modes. No multiplayer FPS has grabbed me so joyously since I murdered thousands of my peers in Halo 2. I think it’s great. But I also like to point out the flaws in things I love. In Sombra, the Mexican hacker with a thing for noses, there’s a lot to like but also some frustration. Likewise with the new map, set in Antarctica, and the new 3v3 elimination game mode. I’ll try to articulate my problems with all of these. Come with me if you’re an Overjerk and you want to froth at the mouth about my opinions.

Sombra

As a character, Sombra is wonderful – a trollish hacker who harasses and surprises the enemy. But she’s also difficult to play well. Jeff Kaplan, big design dude at Blizzard, recently revealed powerful upcoming changes to Symmetra because she is too “situational”. Meaning she is never as valuable to her team as during the first half of a defence (when her teleporter is most useful). But I’d argue that a similar problem exists with Sombra, in that she is most valuable on offence (obviously, she is an offensive character) but a vague and unaffecting hero on defence or during control point-wrestling. Most of the following observations are nitpicking at a generally well-rounded design – I am still loving the booping hacker. But that doesn’t mean we can’t explore some of the problems too.

To begin with the obvious, her primary weapon is useful against weaker or hurt characters, and a quick, clean hack can turn a stalwart Roadhog into a gibbering target. But her value drops off hugely when played on defence, more so than the other offensive characters, all of whom are designed to be useful “in any situation”. Her hack ability is also interrupted by incoming damage, and this feels overly punitive – no other character can be interrupted so easily. This may be because it is such a powerful action that, unrestrained, it can be debilitating to the opposing team. But I would far rather have a longer cooldown on the hacking skill than for your most valuable ability to be cut off like a bad record any time you take a grazing hit.

Her ultimate also feels instinctively underwhelming, even though it isn’t. Being able to shut down all abilities and ultimates in a decent-sized radius is a hugely powerful move in a game that often comes down to a dire and desperate last-minute battle of ultimate versus counter-ultimate versus uber-ultimate. But when you trigger this, you often look around like a confused chimp, thinking: “did that do any good?”

Partly, this is down to feedback. If you fluff McCree’s High Noon, walking impotently into the middle of a road and seeing nothing but air to shoot, you can tell immediately that you’ve banjaxed your chances. The same goes for most other ultimates, a badly-steered Junktire or a mis-timed killing spree visor. With Sombra’s EMP, it’s often hard to tell at a glance who has been helped or hindered by your blast. It’s hard to examine the detailed effects of the purple shockwave. That enemy Pharah’s missile barrage might not have even been ready. Maybe that Roadhog’s hook was on cooldown anyway? It’s hard to know.

You can help yourself by triggering the EMP at the exact moment you hear or see an ultimate being called – this is the sort of high-level instance where Blizzard wants it to be used, and you’ll feel like a monstrous king when you do it. But this is very conditional, far more reliant on outside factors (ie. the enemy) than the ultimates of other characters – you need to be in exactly the right place at the exactly the right time, meaning as Sombra the temptation is to bank a charged ultimate for much longer than other characters, always hoping that this moment occurs. Often, it doesn’t.

Of course, every hero has similar contextual weaknesses of their own. The question is whether those weaknesses are too punishing. Mostly, I feel Sombra’s problems are based in a lack of instant feedback. With Reinhardt, I can tell immediately if my shield is helping out or not. With Lucio, I know how many people are being healed at any time, just by looking at a number. But with Sombra, I hack a Junkrat and think: “could that time have been better used shooting at him?”

For every instance where you hack a Pharah out of the sky and watch with satisfaction as she falls to the ground like a wet sock, there are three or four instances where the person you hack was under attack and likely to die anyway, regardless of your efforts (they need to be distracted, otherwise they’ll simply shoot you and interrupt the hack). As a victim of Sombra, it’s easy to tell when her hacking has cost you your life – especially if she disables a useful “getaway” ability like Mei’s cryogenic ice cube or Tracer’s time travel. But as Sombra herself, a lot of your game comes down to hacking peeps and hoping that it did something useful for someone else on your team who was already shooting them.

As ever, many of these shortcomings can be fixed if you are an excellent player. Good use of the stealth ability will put you behind and out of sight of your foes, and the translocator will get you out of trouble. But if you are using all three abilities to hack a single target every time, it can feel like an over-investment. It’s a lot of fun, but thinking competitively, why not just be Tracer or Reaper and cause the same behind-enemy-lines pain without the annoying ability interruption? Like all the heroes, opportunity cost has to be considered.

Like I said, these are nitpickings. Sombra is, most importantly, a fun hero to play. And when you get it right, she feels powerful and annoying in that gurning, mischievous way of all the best Overwatch herodorks. Small additional abilities – being able to see critically injured players through walls, the speed of her stealthy running, the practice of hacking health kits – only add to her charm and usefulness. I just wish I could more easily tell when what I have done has actually helped. Maybe an on-screen number following her EMP ultimate, like Lucio’s healing tally, which shows how many people it has struck (but also maybe showing how many of those affected had ultimates ready). I don’t know.

Ecopoint: Antarctica

A couple of new modes have been introduced – a 1v1 duel where both players face off as the same randomly-selected hero, and a 3v3 elimination event where you have only one life and can only change heroes between rounds, as opposed to during play. Both modes are played on a new map, Ecopoint: Antarctica. It’s a place I can’t help but feel is a little bland. Part of this is down to the necessities of a less-populated game mode. By design, the map has to be smaller, tighter, symmetrical and easily navigable. Antarctica is all these things. It also looks great and has all the tiny details that lore droolers enjoy, such as hints about a character’s past (in this case, a cryo chamber where Mei chilled out for ten years). But that uniformity also means it is a less interesting space in which to brawl.

I still get a kick out of the duels and elimination rounds, I just wish there was something else going on in terms of environmental hazard. In the symmetrical maps where teams have to fight for control of a single point, there are often pitfalls, for example – the well of Ilios, the narrow bridges of Hanamura. Another Ilios map sees you wrestling to control a shallow pit, making anyone who stands in it as vulnerable as a beached jellyfish. Antarctica doesn’t have anything like this because, by it’s very nature, it can’t. This means that, as good as the new modes are (see below), that “geographical” element of the fight has also been diluted.

Antarctica still has some sneaky verticality – open-plan rooms from which you can drop down, and a couple of shacks to duck into at short notice for cover. As ever, Blizzard have neatly trimmed every sight line to avoid dominance by long-range heroes. Overall, the map is well-made and it has a good reason to be this clean and clinical and free of oddities – because pitfalls might benefit heroes like Pharah or Lucio far too much, for instance – but that doesn’t stop me feeling like it is definitely Overwatch’s least interesting arena. But I’m hopeful more maps will get added to these modes, if only for variety’s sake.

Arcade mode

The game modes, however, are very pleasing. The 1v1 duel feels like a focused contest of wits and capabilities. And since it’s played over several rounds (best out of ten) there’s opportunity for both players to excel as their best characters, but also a chance to flail around like a dying gazelle. Your strength as a Hanzo might grant you a morale-boosting round one moment, and the next you are trying to remember which button makes Bastion do his turret thing. This mode performs the same trick as the old rotating brawls did – it forces you to play as characters you wouldn’t otherwise choose. I rarely play as McCree (I’m a terrible shot and I always forget to roll) but that makes winning as him in a 1v1 even more satisfying.

Another old brawl mode, the 6v6 “Mystery Heroes”, has also been promoted to a permanent spot in the Arcade and it appeals for the exact same reason. It assigns characters willy-nilly. So you get to try out rando Overbros without the pressure of your team judging you for being awful. I’ve seen and heard folks complaining about this mode, annoyed by a loss due to having, say, two Zenyattas and two Mercys on attack for much of the game. But this misses the point of the mode entirely – you enter this mode to dick around. Winning is almost a secondary concern. The same feeling of carefree shooting is captured in the “All Brawls” mode, a constantly cycling playlist of the old brawls – there’s one with all offensive characters, another with just Mercy and Pharah, another in which – perhaps as a hat tip to CoD – everyone is Soldier 76, but with less health (I know, it’s awful).

The 3v3 elimination mode is where many players are planting their murderous flags, though. I have mixed feelings about this mode. In terms of competitiveness, it’s excellent. With the team size chopped in half, every player’s hero pick is twice as significant. The pressure is on to choose heroes that work well together, and once you’ve chosen there is no mid-match switcheroo. There’s also no health to pick up. All this has two effects. The first is that the rounds are tenser and unforgiving, the players much more cautious. The second is that people take it very seriously, the direct opposite of the haphazard joy found in the rest of the Arcade. If the team does not gel well, then blame quickly starts to spew forth.

I’m not usually a “my team sucks!” kind of guy, I tend to go into Overwatch assuming everyone is a six-year-old who just likes the nice robot with the bird. But even I felt irritated by players who didn’t stick together or act as one in this mode. If one person underperforms, it is much clearer and more noticeable than during a 6v6 blunderstorm. I’ve both been the underperformer and suffered the underperformer. It shouldn’t matter, it’s a videogame, but in 3v3 more than anywhere else in Overwatch (apart from seasonal competition) it feels like it does matter. Recently, I’ve seen more mud-slinging in this mode than in any other. In conclusion, I think we all need to chill out.

Anyway, that’s my mish-mash of thoughts on the rejigged Overwatch. There are other recent tweaks I think improve the game a lot – limiting each hero to one pick in Quick Play was a much-needed alteration, for example. And Pharah’s ability to hover pretty much indefinitely is also something that gets a thumbs up. But my opinions are objectively and dangerously wrong. What are your opinions? Do you like 3v3? Are you liking Sombra? Do you think she’s as useless as a Roomba on a beach? I’m asking you because you usually know these things.

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14 Comments

  1. PikaBot says:

    I don’t agree about Sombra; I think she’s significantly stronger on defense than offense, because attacking teams are much more dependent on medkits. Attacking teams use strong medkits as staging areas before moving onto the point without even realizing they’re doing it. By hacking critical kits, Sombra makes attack an uphill challenge.

    • Ansob says:

      The medkit hacking is really good and definitely her strongest ability, but I agree that both it and her ult could do with stronger visual indication that you’ve done something. Stick big glowy purple pixels floating up over people who’ve been disabled instead of the current super-subdued effect, for example.

      (Basically, make the people-hack effect look more like the medkit-hack effect.)

  2. airtekh says:

    I like Sombra, but it has taken me a little while to get used to her abilities. I have to always remember to drop the translocator before entering combat. BEFORE.

    Mystery Heroes is my favourite mode, I’m happy it has a more or less permanent place in the game now. I haven’t really tried the other options, they seem to make the game more deathmatch-y and take the focus away from objective based gameplay, which is what I like.

    I’m even more excited about the upcoming changes to Symmetra. I’ve seen videos of her new revamp on the PTR and she looks super fun to play now, can’t wait for it to hit the live game.

  3. aircool says:

    Have they made any changes to the colourblind mode yet? It’s the only thing stopping me from getting back into this great game.

  4. technoir says:

    My problem with Sombra is that despite her gameplay consisting mostly of roaming the map alone, she feels super-dependent on her team. If her allies aren’t creating any openings for her to ambush lone or wounded opponents there’s very little she can do.

    From what I’ve seen of her she seems like a kind of a “win more” hero: she can only really contribute when her team is already doing well, both in the context of a single fight and the whole match. If you manage to hack someone during a fight without getting interrupted, chances are they were going to die anyway.

    I also think Sombra’s actually better on defense than on offense. When you’re attacking the enemy team is usually gathered around the map objective and forcing teamfights, which is not a good situation for a hero specializing in 1 vs 1 fights. On defense you have a lot more opportunities to catch lone enemies attempting to flank your team or waiting for their team to respawn or group up.

  5. Frank says:

    “the narrow bridges of Hanamura” — I think you mean Lijiang..?

  6. Josh W says:

    Seen as she’s a troll character, I wonder if Sombra would benefit from frustration sounds emitted from characters whose ultimates were about to go off? Something only she hears, but that lets her know that she’s inconvenienced a load of unseen of players.

  7. Symarian says:

    See you later.

    Almost as gross as Tracer’s voice lines

  8. Person of Interest says:

    To me, Sombra is the least pleasant character to play as or against, and I think she makes the game worse.

    Playing as Sombra, it’s quite boring to do routine hacking upkeep on the important health packs, but you’re obligated to do it because 1) it helps your team, and 2) if you don’t keep them hacked, the enemy team’s Sombra will grab them.

    I struggle with managing her teleporter cooldown. I’ll get the hang of it over time, but right now I get frustrated when my teleporter is on cooldown because I threw it 13 seconds ago and failed to use it. Or I get rewound 10 seconds because I think I’m throwing a new teleporter pad, but my old one is still lying around behind me somewhere. And I have to learn a whole new aspect of the map layouts (how far can I roam before my 12 seconds are up?) that are only useful for one character.

    Also, there is a specific subset of ultimates that can be shut down by Sombra’s ultimate: it’s the same ones that get terminated by a hook/flashbang/sleep. But those interrupts are still somewhat effective on a non-canceled ultimate, whereas a hack does nothing at all. It highlights the un-intuitiveness of how each ultimate works.

    Playing against Sombra is no fun either. I tend to roll my eyes after getting hacked, because it means my character instantly becomes more boring to play for the next 5 seconds (or 10, if Sombra follows up an ultimate with a hack. This is the worst.) Ana’s abilities had this same problem–extra long CC, and a long heal blocker–that can sometimes win a teamfight, but often just slow the game down. I’m not impressed that both of Blizzard’s post-release heroes have this trait.

    Also, Sombra’s escape ability is especially frustrating. For every other fleeing character, even Tracer, I can pursue them to some extent. But when Sombra teleports across half the map, it feels like my fight with her is made pointless. Either I do 200 burst damage, or I may as well have not done any at all.

  9. lastkingofhearts says:

    My face when I’m a widowmaker main.

  10. Josh W says:

    Also, on an unrelated note, Sombra’s face really reminds me of the “disney model” of female characters. Ok, basically you’re talking a heart shaped face with relatively big eyes and a pointy chin, so it’s bound to be in the vicinity, but still, seems strangely similar.

  11. SaunteringLion says:

    Sombra’s niche is too specific (“Opportunist”). For her to play well, your team needs to be really well-oiled and coordinated, to make use of knowing healthpacks are down and she’s got a hack incoming.

    And the situationalness of her Ult makes it iffy. The fact that it activates instantly his handy, but is it a better shut down for a push than an unexpected Death Blossom? Being dead on a push is going to shut you down for longer than being hacked and possibly recovering.

    Her escapes are often too situational, compared to Tracer or Reaper, and she needs a much closer range to be effective than McCree. The Translocator often feels like the window of use is too narrow, and Thermoptic Camo can be jolted by any strange bullets, and takes times to windup, which means it’s ineffective, so you’d better hope your Translocator is in its small window of usage.

    Because she’s got a relatively high skill-ceiling, I’m sure we’ll be seeing great plays from topnotch players with her. But I doubt she’s going to see much play in really focused compositions.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Zorgulon says:

    While I agree with Sombr’s ult needing a bit more visual feedback, I notice that the recent update brough subtle change in that you can see certain enemy’s alt-status int he form of a glowing tick above their head. Therefore it is possible to activate the EMP in response to an enemy who is ready to ult.

    Similarly, I think the ult-cancelling aspect of Sombra’s EMP makes her better on defence, rather than offence. I find her mobility and ability to pick off weak targets makes her very viable on symmetrical KOTH maps.

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