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The problem with Sombra & the joy of Overwatch Arcade

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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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Who am I?

Brendan Caldwell

Features Editor

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.

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