Has Overwatch been improved by its updates?

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Update Night is a fortnightly column in which Rich McCormick revisits games to find out whether they’ve been changed for better or worse.

You’d not think that a dude who calls himself “Doomfist” would be a particularly complex personality, but returning to Overwatch for the first time since Blizzard started adding new heroes to its team shooter, I found him the hardest to understand. That’s no bad thing. It’s a pleasure to return to a game and find new characters who aren’t simply the Ken to an existing Ryu. Overwatch’s new characters add a variety of playstyles, and have made the game more interesting and challenging. Despite the challenge of all this new variety, it might even have become a friendlier place to spend time since I last played.

Let’s get back to Doomfist. As the name suggests, he’s a melee specialist, and he’s really into punching. Like, really into it. In addition to his basic melee attack (a punch), he’s also got three special punches: an uppercut that launches him into the air, a leaping slam that has him whack the ground in front of him, and a rocket-assisted haymaker that throws him forward fast enough to stun anyone unfortunate enough to stand in the way. Even his sole ranged attack is kind of a punch — press the left mouse button and he clenches his fist and shoots buckshot out of his knuckles.

It sounds simple — punch enemies, enemies get hurt, team wins, yay — but I quickly discovered that successful Doomfist play requires dextrous management of these abilities. He can chain his slams, jumps, and punches together to create some staggering combos, allowing him to pin enemies in place before burning them down with high-damage attacks. At least, I’m reliably assured he can, but apparently only in the hands of other people — I can’t make him work at all.

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I tried leaping forward into the fray and following up with a rocket punch, but my initial hop left me so disoriented that I never managed to connect with my follow-up fist. I tried uppercutting first instead, intentionally whiffing on a target in order to gain the height advantage and more accurately aim my slam, but instead I just ended up stuck in the middle of combat without a viable escape route.

Doomfist is not a hero for me, I decided after my fourth failure of a game with him, but I am convinced that his inclusion is a positive for the future of Overwatch. Blizzard could have just amalgamated existing heroes, but instead, they’ve been comfortable introducing distinctly different play styles into an established battlefield. Doomfist specifically feels like a fighting game character, dependent on combos and careful positioning. Even his special attacks make him feel like a first-person version of Street Fighter’s Ryu, able to shoryuken his way into the air and control space with his hadouken-esque rocket punch.

Brigitte, Blizzard’s newest playable hero, is another weird one. She’s got a shield like Reinhardt, so I started playing her as a frontline tank, waddling right to the front of firefights. That didn’t work, though: I was getting focused down too fast, and my shield barely covered my own body — it certainly didn’t provide defense for my team.

Instead I tried to learn a lesson from Blizzard themselves. Overwatch classifies Brigitte as a support hero, putting her alongside dedicated healers like Mercy and Lucio, so I started to prioritise topping up my teammates’ health with armour packs over absorbing incoming fire. Her shield isn’t tough enough to tank for an entire team, but it does give her an easy survivability that flimsy support heroes like Zenyatta are sorely lacking, and it also comes with a handy bash ability: perfect for stopping Tracers or Reapers sniffing around your team’s rear end.

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Sombra’s similarly different to most of the existing lineup. She’s definitely from the Tracer school of speedy irritants, and is designed to skirt the enemy team’s backline, but has less maneuverability than the chirpy Brit. Instead, she’s got the ability to turn invisible, allowing her to ghost behind opponents and either tear at their health bar with her submachine gun or disable their own skills for a short time with her hacking powers. Like Doomfist, she can be tricky to use for new players — she’s a scalpel, rather than a hammer — but her teleport beacon is an easy way for Sombras who have overextended to yank themselves back out of trouble.

Now’s a good time to be playing her, too. Blizzard’s latest round of regular updates buffed Sombra, who some players felt was a bit toothless on her initial introduction. The developers have been reasonably quick to address disparities between heroes so far: as well as buffing Sombra, they’ve also nerfed Mercy and played with Doomfist’s ranged damage potential in the last few months alone.

These changes are in part driven by Overwatch’s thriving professional scene, which is managed by Blizzard and populated by teams from London, Boston, Seoul, and other cities. The matches between these squads are now neatly slotted into Overwatch itself, with an in-game menu making them easy to track and watch, and a dedicated store allowing lowly amateurs to show their allegiance with skins bought for real money.

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It took Blizzard time to warm up to the idea of introducing totally different play styles. Orisa — the first new character introduced after Overwatch’s launch — cribs most of her abilities from other heroes, albeit with minor tweaks. She’s got Reinhardt’s barrier (except she can place it on the ground), she’s got D.Va’s fast-firing primary weapon (except it’s better at range and not quite as devastating up close), and she’s even got a pocket version of Zarya’s gravitational ultimate (except she can use it much more frequently).

Fortunately recycling those ideas makes for a solid hero. Orisa quickly became my favourite tank, being tough enough to take into the middle of any fight, while also being able to dish out the kind of ranged damage that fellow bruisers Reinhardt and Winston can’t. Her ultimate — a drum-like object that can be plopped down to boost team damage — is consistently useful, too, meaning that its deployment at a less-than-ideal time likely won’t get you into trouble with any arsey teammates.

And you will have some arsey teammates. That’s especially true in competitive mode, where players are ranked on their success, and people are quick to blame failure on others. I’m playing on the Asia servers, where English is rivalled by Korean as the most-spoken language. That has insulated me slightly from some of the worst of the toxicity, but I’ve picked up enough of the language now to know when someone is ragging on someone on their own side in Hangul, and it’s still fairly often.

Toxicity is something of a fundamental issue with a game like Overwatch, where small and specialised squads mean that one bad apple can so effectively scupper a team’s chances. It does feel better than when I first played, though, and less like I’m stepping in to be tarred and feathered every time I play. It’s not clear how much of that is due to players shifting to new modes — or even to different games entirely — and how much is down to Blizzard’s own efforts to reduce toxicity.

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The company have acknowledged that there is a problem with the attitude of the community and appears to be making efforts to solve it, but it’s taken some time to incorporate elements that are already common in similar asymmetrical team games like League of Legends. The developer is only now testing an “avoid as teammate” option, for example, after an earlier “avoid this player” option was exploited by some nefarious Overwatchers who wanted to duck more skilled opponents.

The new characters help, though. None of them feel as potentially useless or selfish as heroes like Widowmaker or Reaper, both of whom became infamous as automatic picks for players who emphasised personal glory over team contribution. Ana, as a sniper, is perhaps the closest, but even her rifle can be used to heal her teammates fairly easily. Certainly, nothing has replaced “Hanzo main” as the insult of choice for the preteen Overwatch player.

And with the unranked quick play mode still hugely active and regularly updated, it doesn’t feel too daunting a task to go in and try to learn these new heroes. I can’t get a grip on Doomfist, but I love Orisa, and I think I might even be quite good with witchy healer Moira. More characters and better balance means that there’s more for everyone in Overwatch than there was at launch, even if the continued presence of some nasty types means it’s not yet the perfect play area.

29 Comments

  1. tsuk13 says:

    No, it hasn’t

  2. Excors says:

    Orisa — the first new character introduced after Overwatch’s launch

    Because everyone loves a pedant, I feel obliged to point out that Orisa wasn’t the first – that was Ana. Then Sombra, Orisa, Doomfist, Moira, Brigitte.

    I like that half of the new heroes are healers. Most players seem to want the glory of playing DPS roles and getting all the kills, but the new variety of healers with fun abilities (including the ability to defend themselves against flankers) seems to make people happier to take those roles when needed.

    • hamandspam says:

      While we’re on pedantry, the article gives the impression that Ana is a solo-y (‘selfish’) sniper character that can also heal. I can’t play her for toffee, but she’s all about the team; while she can heal ‘fairly easily’, if you git gud she has the highest Hp/s in the game, I believe.

      • Zorgulon says:

        Yeah, I’m not sure Rich played much of Ana. She’s very definitely a support hero, and healing with her rifle and grenade is pretty much her raison d’être. Her sniping ability is pretty niche, and it’s safe to say that precisely zero Hanzo/Widow mains have been converted.

      • DeadlyAccurate says:

        I once played with a Widow main who was such a great healer as Ana that it was like being pocket-Mercy’d. A great Ana is practically indistinguishable from Mercy. A pretty good Ana works great with healers like Zenyatta who can then focus a bit more on damage.

        A bad Ana is useless, but you can’t be a good Ana without first being a bad one.

        • Excors says:

          I think the main problem is that if Ana’s target is inside a Winston bubble or a defense matrix, or if she’s in them herself, then even the most skilful Ana is utterly useless, whereas Mercy still works perfectly well (and all the other healers can still work partially). D.Va and Winston are pretty common nowadays, so that limits her effectiveness significantly.

    • clonex10100 says:

      Yeah, this error also defeats the point he was making about blizzard being hesitant to add new abilities. Ana was a radical change, and she was the first.

  3. mitrovarr says:

    I’d say it’s a mixed bag. Some things are good, like the new maps. Some things are/were very bad, like the 6+ months of terribly broken game balance following the Mercy changes. A lot of the new stuff feels like fundamentally bad ideas put in just to put things in, like Doomfist (a character who doesn’t fit the gameplay style of the game at all and will likely never be balanced). The balance still isn’t quite right, with some basically worthless heroes (Bastion, Hanzo) and some significantly overpowered ones (Moira at least, possibly others).

    The constant changes in the game make it hard to nail down anything long term. Like, for instance, picking a hero. My most played hero, Ana, has been amazing, worthless (to the point where the best Ana player in the world was playing Mercy in competition), and is currently niche at best. How do you plan to get better at a game with changes like that?

    • Hartford688 says:

      Well I’m trying to learn Symettra so I can be unpopular in every team I join. Hardly anyone seems to play her.

      • WhiteHawke says:

        Symettra really doesn’t work in the context of a lot of maps in the game right now, and the devs have acknowledged as much. They say they’ve been trying to fix her for a while now, but all of their most recent designs have failed. Here’s Jeff’s most recent words about her:

        link to us.forums.blizzard.com

        link to us.forums.blizzard.com

        Obviously it’s the devs’ fault if a hero doesn’t work a lot of the time, but in choosing to play something that is acknowledged to not work a lot of the time it makes a lot of sense to me why people would dislike you for that. Here’s Jeff explaining that about Symmetra (listen for at least 3-4 minutes from the timestamp for the full message):

        link to youtu.be

        • Zorgulon says:

          I don’t understand why it seems to be controversial to say that some heroes are situational… and that’s fine.

          The roster is now 27, and the idea that all heroes are going to be equally viable at all times and all levels of play is a little absurd. As long as they’re not completely overshadowed in every niche, I think it’s alright. Symmetra could possibly use a bit of a tweak, but she’s a solid defender in enough situations that she’s hardly unplayable.

        • Hartford688 says:

          “…it makes a lot of sense to me why people would dislike you for that.”

          Well OK. I’m generally getting the most kills on my team, or one of the top three. Plus I simply don’t want to main one of the usual handful of “best” characters as I find it dull. You’d be amazed at how you can surprise people playing an underused character. That said, I’m playing at a low tier so no doubt if I approached the upper skill levels I would struggle more and perhaps become a liability.
          I of course misunderstood that this was a game whereas it is of course actually a competitive exercise in winning at all costs. Which is why I tend to focus on other actual games.

        • Hartford688 says:

          And despite my post – thanks for taking the time to post those links. Much appreciated!

      • mitrovarr says:

        Yeah, there’s a reason for that. She’s a pure skill check hero who does well in low ranks but is almost completely non-viable at platinum and above. Even when she’s usable there, she’s extremely situational.

        • Hartford688 says:

          Ah well, I enjoy her (as I lack any skill) – and I heard the devs are currently trying to figure how to change her to make her more usable.

          • mitrovarr says:

            Aw, I don’t think she’s skill-less at all, although people who hate her say so. You really, really have to be good at sneaking up behind people and luring them into traps to get kills and avoid death.

            I think the biggest problem with Symmetra right now is that Moira basically stole her combat style but is far better at it and offers more utility on the side.

      • SaintAn says:

        Funny thing is a year ago when she was changed these same people that don’t want anyone to play as her were screaming bloody murder about how OP she was and that she needed to be nerfed. And these people seriously give other players orders on what to play or else they’ll abuse the report system to have them banned, they’ll harass them, or throw games. I am so sick of the Overwatch community and the incompetent, arrogant, out of touch, burnt out, useless developers.

        The only enjoyable mode to play with mostly non-toxic people that were genuinely happy and having fun was CTF and they removed that for 6 months, ruined it with unnecessary changes for the Chinese New Year Event, and then removed it again because the players are not allowed to have any choice in anything they do (you can only play the characters others want you to play, and you can only play the handful of game modes picked for you by the souless corporation).

    • Excors says:

      In Overwatch League, I think Hanzo was occasionally used with some success on King’s Row. Bastion was used a lot on Junkertown (sitting on the payload with the entire team protecting him). But those are niche strategies – it seems in most cases it’s very important to have mobility and to control the high ground, so that restricts you to the few heroes with strong horizontal and vertical mobility. (And Zenyatta, who has no mobility and whose job is to stay behind as bait and die). That’s probably the biggest issue with balance at high levels, and it seems hard to fix without simply adding movement abilities to every hero (let Torb wallrun!). Maybe Brigitte will be able to counter it a bit, since her stun and knockback abilities can discourage the enemy from diving on her team.

  4. Wormerine says:

    It has a bit, but not as much as I hoped it will. New heroes are neat and two of my favourites were added after launch (Anna, Moira). New maps are fine, but I don’t feel like new maps add much to the game overall. Some needed updates were made (one character per team – I remember times when you would get 3 crappy Genjis in your team). Still, I hoped for something more substantial – an interesting game mode, anything. It’s been getting very stale for a while now.

    • Excors says:

      Does deathmatch count as an interesting new mode? It’s totally unbalanced but I find it a fun way to practise with DPS heroes that I’m terrible at, without worrying about annoying my team. There’s CTF too (sometimes, when it’s in the arcade selection), plus the custom game modes.

      Also I quite liked the Uprising PvE mode, and the new Retribution looks like a step up from that, though maybe they don’t count since they’re only available for three weeks a year. (I think it’d be nice if they were building up towards a permanent co-op PvE mode with a wider range of missions, and perhaps some external mechanism to encourage replayability (more than just achievements and loot boxes which is all they’ve got now). But given how much new content that would require, I guess it’s not going to happen any time soon.)

  5. skyst says:

    Overwatch is great, it is one of the few games that I keep permanently installed on my SSD and return to a few nights every week with some friends.

    Paying attention to the league games and what the top players play may make some folks, like those commenting here, feel that certain heroes are worthless and others are must-picks, but for the average player, a middle of the pack platinum level guy like myself, every hero can succeed. If anything, the focus on league games hurts OW more than anything, as players feel compelled to play heroes that make sense at the highest level, but something simpler would suit them much better.

    • mitrovarr says:

      I dunno, even in high gold/low platinum I felt like there were heros that would sink your team, hard. Torb and Sym being used out of their rare useful situations, for sure (Torb was always a bad sign). Bastion and Hanzo were very bad signs. Widow and Ana were usually bad, but could redeem themselves with good play (not Ana during Mercywatch, though). After his nerfs, Doomfist on your team pretty much meant you were gonna lose.

      • skyst says:

        A player who is good at any of those “bad” heroes can still do really well, I’ve seen incredible Doomfists in platinum that the other team just can’t handle. Would those incredible Doomfists be even more incredible on Genji or Tracer? Yeah, probably. But they still made the hero that they wanted to play work very effectively.

        Bastion and Torbjorn can be very effective on payload missions as well. The “pirate ship” strategy where you plop a turret, Bastion and some shields from Orisa and/or Reinhardt on the payload and move forward, unimpeded can be absolutely devastating against uncoordinated teams.

  6. zauberkraut says:

    I quit Overwatch before Doomfist – enjoyed playing Roadhog, but the endless nerf/buff cycle has put me off from trying to ”git gud” with any of characters.

    • Beefenstein says:

      “the endless nerf/buff cycle”

      It is true, this game — into which I have put around 500 hours — is poorly balanced.

  7. Zorgulon says:

    I guess the natural perspective of someone returning to the game after the best part of two years is to focus on the new character additions, and their impact truly has been great. Overwatch really benefits from an ever-increasing roster of characters, and despite Doomfist having taken a long time to be viable (and still having a high entry bar, as I think Rich has found), there’s not one new hero that I think has been a failure.

    But when talking about Overwatch’s Updates and how they have changed the game, an equal impact must surely be due to the myriad balance changes (which are enjoying a vigorous discussion here, and any other Overwatch comment section) and the seasonal events.

    I think that, yes, Overwatch has been improved by the balance changes. Issues remain, and will always remain. Some people will always complain that the game is an unbalanced mess, as if true balance is ever possible. What Blizzard are striving for, and broadly successful with, is finding a sort of dynamic equilibrium. Many of the more vocal players are far too enamoured with the “meta”, but I think the fact is more variety of play styles and strategies are viable now than they ever have been before. I think there is still plenty of room to practice and succeed with a particular hero (it’s not as if the sweeping balance patches come so fast) – but Overwatch is not designed to be a game where you have a “main”. It’s supposed to reward flexibility, and changing class mid-game.

    For me personally, the game has always been fun, even in the overpowered Roadhog days, the overpowered Mercy days, and yes, even while Hanzo’s egregious Scatter Arrow persists. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

    As for the seasonal events, they are regular and distinct enough that they constantly re-energise my drive to play the game (not that it has waned much since launch anyway), and more than make up for the supposed lack of “interesting [new] game modes”. I think games like this benefit far more from having new maps with interesting takes on the same core gamemodes than trying to crowbar in, say, CTF as a permanent fixture, which TF2 and Overwatch have both essentially established don’t work well in this type of game.