RPS 2016 Advent Calendar, Dec 18th: Overwatch

Ho ho, you’d thought we’d forgotten about you! (We did) But never mind, we’re here now, sweet friend, with the eighteenth door of our advent calendar, teasing it open like a silky gown, showing you its lacy stockings, its hairy chest, its coy grin. What could it be?

It’s 2016’s best multiplayer shooter, Overwatch!

Brendan: Overwatch should have been the Jesus Day game, and everyone at RPS who disagrees is a soulless reprobate. When I first saw friends yapping about this, I looked at trailers and thought: “that looks terrifying”. At a glance, it is a busy and crowded colourscape. It looks like Jackson Pollock invented a first-person shooter with Walt Disney and then both of them died before they could explain it to anyone. After years of carpal tunnel and trying (failing) to re-learn my skills as a teenage FPS monster, I was also afraid to play.

But that was silly. There are heroes in Overwatch that don’t even require precise aiming. A gorilla who fires a spread of electricity, a rocket-launching Egyptian with a jetpack, a dwarf with a handy automated turret, a big fella with a magic shield and a hammer. I loved them all within a few games. While shooting skill matters, it still matters less than knowing who to target and when to use your silly little powers.

I’ve always understood the appeal of the MOBA, with its plays and counter-plays and tactical shifts and glitzy ultimate abilities. But I was never able to get into one for more than a week or so. To me they are slower, drawn-out battles, more concerned with numbers and meters than with quick thinking or improvising (don’t @ me). By shoving a lot of those same cogs into an FPS, however, it turns out you can create an absolute beauty of a shooter.

I also adore the way some fans have been moulding the characters, completely ignoring the developers’ efforts to control their backstories. A weird consensus has built up around many of the heroes – Soldier 76 isn’t the gruff, reluctant marine that Blizzard created, he’s a grumpy and exhausted Dad who doesn’t understand his children. D.Va isn’t a sexy pro gamer, she’s a Dorito-munching gremlin who sits in front of the computer in her parents’ basement, slugging Mountain Dew and shouting at the screen. A diet, of course, identical to my own, as a reputable games journalist.

Alec: I put playing this off for the longest time. Something about it seemed so bland, so focus-grouped, and the slew of memes and fan art/slashfic felt contrived immediately. I also felt as though I knew exactly what it was already, with all those colours and big fonts and OTT poses.

The latter turned out to be true, but only in a positive way. To play Overwatch for the first time is to feel that you’re in something you’ve played all your life, that you already know intimately – that welcomes you, that wants you to play it. Homecoming, every time.

Yes, you can feel the focus grouping, and to a cynical eye it is glaringly obvious that each character has been designed for maximum cosplay potential. Kieron Gillen, formerly of this parish, once told me (and no doubt many others) that, when he and artist Jamie McKelvie were devising their now best-selling comic The Wicked + The Divine, they ‘knew how to fill a dancefloor’ as a result of their previous work. One need only look at its Tumblr, fan art and cosplay following to see how true that was.

I recognised the exact same intent and result in Overwatch, albeit at gigantic and impossibly expensive scale. Overwatch is a heatseeking missile, laser-targeted at amassing a fan community, maintaining a drip feed of character reveals and selling merch.

It’s worked, and if the game didn’t feel so damn good in the hand, I might sneer at it.

The natural heir to Team Fortress 2, sacrificing the former’s black humour for breadth, diversity and a certain kind of accessibility that saves cowards and weaklings like me from definite humiliation. It’s almost impossible not to have a good time in Overwatch, and that’s one hell of an achievement in the often grindy, toxic online shooter space.

Pip: Overwatch has managed to work its way into the gaming landscape so quickly and so seamlessly that I keep forgetting it has only been out for months rather than years. It’s such a pleasing thing to dip into regardless of how little time I have, plus quick play mode doesn’t seem to come with that same sense of pressure to instantly excel which can be so toxic in the lane-pushing games I play so I find it far easier to return to Overwatch if I’ve been away for a while – not so self-conscious.

It has also been fascinating hearing people who worked on the game talk about their jobs. There was a sound design talk at GDC earlier this year which explained how things like how the footsteps are tuned to make sure they tell you about the character approaching, as well as which side they’re on and how far they have to travel before they get to you. There was also a match-making ranking talk which I was properly nerding out over.

I will admit that I’ve done that awful thing I do in every MOBA which is to immediately get comfy with a handful of characters and then have total muscle-memory panic every time it looks like someone might winkle me out of my niche. GIVE ME ZARYA OR GIVE ME DEATH.

Graham: I felt something of the fear of Brendan, and a little of the skepticism of Alec. Overwatch is a Blizzard game through and through: knowledge about cooldown times and opaque hero abilities is as important to your success within it as is your ability to aim straight, and it is undoubtedly a game being gradually shaped for more and more competitive play.

Yet, for now at least, it’s a game which you can have fun in while being a bit shit. I am shit at it. I do not know everyone’s abilities and I am blindsided by opponents who do things I had no way of knowing they could do, but no one is that difficult to pick up and play and unlike many of Blizzard’s other favored genres I’ve played enough first-person shooters to get by with Overwatch. It’s the only multiplayer game I played with friends this past year, and I’ve never played a round of it I didn’t enjoy.

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18 Comments

  1. Henas says:

    Rainbow 6: Siege is still the best multiplayer shooter of 2016 ;)

    I think I hold Alec’s scepticism too though I like OW, it feels a little lightweight. Maybe it’s better in the higher ranks?

    • Banks says:

      R6 Siege is also the best multiplayer of 2017.

      As for overwatch, I loved it the first two weeks but then the lack of depth became so apparent that I couldn’t get myself to play it anymore. Also, the post-launch support has been abysmal. 2 maps and 2 characters in 7 months, I expected a lot more in that regard.

  2. Abacus says:

    Overwatch was weird for me. I got back into TF2 early this year for the express reason of sharpening up my skills for the release of Overwatch. But once Overwatch came out, I played it for about a week before I went back to TF2.

    My little sister enjoys Overwatch though, so my money wasn’t completely wasted.

    • Meat Circus says:

      Haven’t seen any hard numbers on this, but popular wisdom seems to be that TF2’s player numbers have been pretty soundly annihilated by Overwatch. Perhaps that’s not surprising, but maybe that means we’ll hear rumours of a Team Fortress 3 one day?

      Oh wait, Valve doesn’t do 3. I’ve been a bloody fool.

      • MultiVaC says:

        I’d say the numbers were more likely annihilated by the shitty matchmaking system they forced on everyone around that time. It pretty much killed my desire to play anymore, at least.

        • wyrm4701 says:

          Yep. The matchmaking system managed to both finally annihilate non-Valve servers AND make it more difficult to play a game of TF2. I’ve several thousand hours in TF2, and between the terrible matchmaking and the cash barrier to entering the competitive ladder*, I have no interest in logging another minute. Why they’d add more impediments to playing a nine-year-old game is well beyond me.

          * I’m not giving my phone # to Valve for various reasons. They clearly don’t need it for security reasons surrounding competition access, as they’ll accept cash in lieu. I’ve given a lot of cash to TF2 already.

    • BooleanBob says:

      It left me pretty cold too, and I didn’t get more than a week out of it. Most of the maps just felt a bit too much like choke-point heavy spam fests, and the power of the ultimates just made every Xth death feel like it was completely unavoidable.

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      Gnarl says:

      Yeah, if Overwatch is TF2’s heir, it’s the lazy, not as good as its parents one.

      For both the free weekends I played, the only thing I would say was an improvement was the prettiness. And even that felt like it just made things harder to see.

      I mean it’s a very good game, but it doesn’t feel as tight or fun. Especially for the low of skill. But at least Overwatch has a character pick limit now, which I’ll miss as I go to play on another 5 sniper team in TF2. But I’ll probably still enjoy that game more.

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        Grizzly says:

        I defenitely feel like Overwatch is the far tighter game of the two. TF2 started introducing a lot of random items which influenced game balance, and although a lot of those items were very interesting they made the design of the game rather busy. Overwatch feels a lot closer to how TF2 had been designed originally, with an emphasis on instantly being able to see what an approaching enemy was capable of. TF2 has that less now as the differences in the later updates dependend on choosing different items for your character and depended on actually having those items. Overwatch sidesteps that problem by having different heroes for every combination, and it allows you to play anything at any time.

        TF2, with it’s updates, fell foul to the problem that most online shooters these days have: That you can get killed by an unbalanced weapon that is nerfed by the time you unlock it.

  3. Disgruntled Goat says:

    I appreciated that Blizzard allowed a free weekend of Overwatch so I could definitively confirm that it is not the game for me.

    • Tritagonist says:

      I made use of that and the beta program to arrive at the same conclusion. The all too familiar dynamics of class-based combat, numerous incentives for individual heroics, and a seemingly mute playerbase fond of quitting when things don’t go their way reminded me too much of why I stopped playing Blizzard’s other PvP games and/or modes.

      The world and character design also struck me as rather uninteresting, but perhaps my view of it was coloured by the history of the game. Still, Overwatch was prominent enough for it to be one of the few 2016 games I’ve actually played – so to see it on the list is no surprise at all.

  4. Meat Circus says:

    In higher comp tiers (platinum and above) the game stops being the relatively light hearted murder simulator of quickplay and starts being something much more SRS BSNS sadly. But this is what competitive modes do, especially those feeding a pro scene at the top.

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      cpt_freakout says:

      That’s also the case in the lower competitive tiers too, which makes playing it without friends a bit of a mixed experience that too often falls into the SRS BSNS category.

      I love both quick play and competitive, the earlier because it’s just a lot of fun and the latter because when it works and both teams are in sync you get some truly exciting, nail-biting rounds. However, when a team isn’t working that well (this is Gold rank, mind you) there’s almost always someone who’s gonna start laying the blame on (wait for it) supports and tanks. That’s when the fun starts draining – and holy shit have I encountered some bitter people in the lower ranks, in a different sense than platinum and above simply because they believe they’re in gold rank because everyone else is pulling them down. It’s… sad, because Overwatch is so thematically silly and stupid in an amazingly happy way, but oh well.

  5. airtekh says:

    Overwatch is my personal GOTY.

    It had to be. I fell in love with those first trailers that came out 2 years ago and was anticipating release ever since.

    It’s not perfect; in fact I outright disagree with some of the design decisions in the game. The ultimate system for example; often in OW I’m fighting in a 1v1 scenario and winning, up until my adversary panic presses Q and kills me.

    Higher level play almost entirely revolves around successful ultimate usage/denial, which IMO devalues the other abilities the characters have. It’s no surprise that I prefer game modes where ultimates are less of a factor in determining the outcome of the game.

    The matchmaking system is infuriating. With no ability to filter what maps or gamemodes it throws you into, it is incredibly frustrating when you get put into the same map 3 times on the trot, or constantly get control maps (I hate control).

    For all these faults though, I look at my ingame stats and see I’ve played it for over 200 hours since launch in May. No other game can come close to that this year.

  6. Greg says:

    Overwatch is a great game when the servers are stable and the players are objective focused. Unfortunately, most people appear to be more interested in obtaining “the play of the game” than actually winning. To make matters worse certain players will quit the game when they feel they haven’t qualified for “play of the game” and/or player voting at the end of the match. So players that do play the game as intended end up getting screwed out of all the XP they would have received (you get this win or lose), you get nothing if the game “re-instances” (restarts the match from scratch) due to a lack of players. So if rage quitting and player griefing is your thing, then Overwatch is a great game no matter what.

    • Deadly Sinner says:

      Uh, what? No one cares about play of the game, certainly not to the extent that you’re describing. (And, indulging your bizarre premise, how would a player know whether they will qualify for the play of the game, as it can happen at any time, often at the very end?)

      Also, the game will only shut the match down for lack of players at the pre-match countdown. The only reason you lost xp is because you quit yourself.

  7. MasterWuu says:

    I’ve been an avid FPS hater, especially online multiplayer modes. I simply sucked at em. But I’m hooked on this game. I play mostly tanks and supporters. Sure there r bitchy whining kids in chat, but all online games do (another reason I usually avoid online multiplayer games), but when u meet that one random team where everyone clicks, it’s pure joy.