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Overwatch Beta: First Thoughts

Who overwatches the overwatchers?

Welcome to the land of Overwatch [official site] beta thoughts. It is a land populated by shooty guns, caveats, health packs, potential excitements, potential concerns and the knowledge that a big old Overwatch presentation is going to take place at BlizzCon, 2am GMT on Saturday so I'll probably have a bunch more information to factor in as I continue playing.

Blizzard's team-based shooter currently allows you to pick a character from a roster of eighteen. It'll be twenty-one by the game's Spring 2016 launch. Each has a different skill set but they've been grouped into classes – tanks, defenders, supports and offence. In each match one team plays attack and the other is defence. You'll either be capturing/defending fixed points on the map or protecting/advancing a payload.

I'm going to put all the beta caveats here in a lovely box so you can read them before we go on:

  • It is a beta
  • The characters and maps and abilities and interface and goodness knows what else are all subject to change because it is a beta
  • It is rather unlikely but I guess if they really wanted to they could get to the end of the beta and decide they wanted to turn it into a dinosaur sim after all and scrap all the assets and programming and materials they have made up until this point because this is a beta
  • It could change a lot
  • Because it is a beta
  • Overwatch is in beta
  • Okay so.

    My interest in and excitement about Overwatch has oscillated a little. I started off not particularly engaged – the videos made the combat seem a little weightless and I didn't really get an idea of whether the game was going to be fun so I watched the stream of videos and character bios trickle out without being drawn in. Then I was at Road to Blizzcon a month or two back and had a good time with the hands-on demo kiosks. Demo kiosks tend not to be representative but I'd had a decent enough time, racked up some kill streaks amidst the deaths and noted some characters I wanted to spend an evening playing to find out how they worked.

    Upon gaining access to the beta it was a bit more of a bumpy ride in terms of finding that spark. I think that was partly because any time a beta like this opens people are trying to find their feet – the game isn't stable yet so it can feel like people are behaving erratically or you're either stomping or being stomped. I was also trying out some support characters at the time because I was paired up with a friend and the game feels really bad at rewarding or recognising support characters. I'll get to the specifics of that a little later.

    Having played a lot more matches solo, I'm starting to find that interest again. I've got some favourite characters and fellow players seem to be playing more consistently – there have been fewer of those wild swings between success and failure as your teammates change. I've even had some nail-biting finishes with our side only just stealing a victory demonstrating a more evenly balanced matchup. So this is a post written while I'm feeling cautiously positive about the game but not fizzing with excitement.

    When you boot into a game you'll pick a character. There's a bit of guidance towards team composition in that the interface will tell you if you have no supports or tanks or whatever but you can choose who you fancy. Once you're in the game you can switch to a new character if the current option isn't working for you or the team needs a different set of skills. You can switch when you die or if you go back to the spawn point. You'll lose progress you've made towards your ultimate ability though.

    Looking at the roster, I'm going to pick out my favourites and explain why:


    Zarya's a tank character. She can deploy a shield around herself with the left shift key to help stay safe. E places a shield on an ally so she can block some of the damage they take. Her gun has a short-range beam that damages or you can right click for an explosive charge. Her ultimate ability (it's assigned to Q by default) is Graviton Surge which basically creates a gravity well, sucking in enemies caught in its radius and doing a bit of damage.

    I love playing as Zarya because she suits my playstyle. I like being ranged and the explosive charges she fires let me loop shots up and into various doorways where I suspect enemy snipers might be lurking. The shields let me have an element of support play so I'm keeping an eye on allies and trying to keep them safe as well as being able to mitigate damage I might be taking so we can survive longer on capture points or while taking them.

    That graviton surge is what makes her sparkle for me, though. It's that kind of showy support ability that I love in my preferred MOBA characters. You have to use skill and thought to place it effectively and when you do it's devastating, allowing you and your teammates to finish off the trapped enemies as they're held in place.

    Soldier: 76

    Soldier: 76 is from the "offence" pool. For his shooting you can switch between pulse fire and an explosive single burst of rocket fire. His left shift ability is just a regular sprint and his E plants a short duration biotic emitter which heals in a radius around it. His ult is Tactical Visor which locks onto the threat nearest your crosshairs – a "snap to" accuracy option.

    I like him for a lot of the same reasons as I like Zarya. It's the combination of utility and deadliness. He can get kills, he's got sprint to get out of trouble, and there's a self/ally heal option which means there's that element of teamwork. The ult is about single target elimination instead of crowd control which is nice for getting some extra kills in too.

    I get really smug about a well-placed biotic emitter. It can be the difference between your team holding or losing a point. There was an extended scuffle on a payload map where we were defending, trying to keep the payload from reaching its destination. Repeatedly planting the emitter in the right places meant we could sustain our defence and outlasted our foes as they tried to chip away at us.

    Other character I'm liking are a support called Zenyatta who can mark foes for extra damage or allies for healing, a hyper-mobile offence character called Tracer who teleports and backtracks time, and explosive-chucking Junkrat.

    With the others it's a bit more hit and miss. There's Bastion who can be really great for defending a point – he's the one who can just turn into a gun turret. I think people really struggled with how to deal with him in the early games of the beta and I remember squishy characters just running in one by one and getting gunned down. The game shows you a "play of the match" at the end and in those early days it was Bastion killstreaks as far as the eye could see.

    I've also had some fun with Widowmaker (the sniper) and Pharah (who has a rocket launcher and a jet pack). But there are a fair few who feel unrewarding to play. I particularly dislike playing Lucio (a rollerskating healer) and McCree (a Western-themed bounty hunter).

    My problem with McCree is that his basic attacks with his six shooter feel… weightless? It's such an unsatisfying thing to unload on your foes. It's the sort of weapon that needs a different aiming mechanic otherwise, visually, you're just firing from the hip in this weird inconsequential fashion. I've seen some really impressive McCrees in terms of getting a lot of kills but when I play him I get bored and feel unfocused. The thing I can't help comparing it to while I'm playing him is the shooting in Destiny. Bungie have worked out how to give their shooting heft. It feels really rewarding to play. Overwatch doesn't have anything on that level but I feel it the most with McCree.

    Lucio is a DJ-themed healer. He feels supporty in the way that I associate with MMO healers, following people around applying healing and move speed buffs. He can switch between providing move speed and health for those around him, can knock others back with a wave of sound, can boost those movement or healing effects for a time, and has an ultimate that provides other characters with a brief shield effect. He can also do little wall runs thanks to his skates so you can skip over some bits of the map.

    This kind of support in Overwatch just felt miserable when I played. If you have the beta and like him I'd be really interested to hear why. For me he's about following teammates around and boosting them, keeping them alive but not getting the kills (although I have seen the official preview footage that has Lucio basically going on a rampage). Overwatch is a team-based shooter. Yes there's the team part of that but there's also the shooter part and when it comes to a character so focused around buffs and boosting other people I feel like the shooter part gets lost.

    The game itself doesn't seem to have worked out how to reward or incentivise playing as Lucio-type character either. I have never seen a Play of the Match that didn't involve a multikill. I have never seen a Play of the Match go to a Lucio. Sometimes he pops up when the breakdown the match comes through. You get the names of all of the player and then the game generates four cards which go in the centre to show noteworthy achievements. I've seen him in there with a "most healing" achievement but the thing with the card system is that you can pick one of the four players to commend. This is anecdotal rather than scientific but it seems to be that the commends go to the players with the outrageous killstreaks far more than the defensively oriented options.

    With characters like Zarya and Soldier: 76 I could do a bit of supporting without sacrificing my own lethality. With Lucio I think you can feel a bit invisible and like it's all team and no shooter. As a person with a Lucio on the team I also found myself picking up the health packs on the map rather than relying on their healing anyway. That co-ordination aspect would be better with voice chat but, and here is where your experience might be a lot different to mine, I will never use voice chat with strangers. It's an uncomfy thing where, when I've done it in the past with other games, it's been noticed that I'm a girl. Nothing terrible has happened but just the fact that you still get "there's a chick in here?" changes the experience. So like I say, your mileage may vary on that one.

    My last point on the character front is that the buttons (as you may have realised from what I've said about Zarya and Soldier: 76) aside from WASD map to very different things depending on each character. It's not a case of stealth or speed variations all being mapped to the same key. As a result switching from one to another mid-game can require a bit of re-reading (F1 brings up their skills) and you might sometimes fall victim to some treacherous muscle memor ymishaps.

    The visual feedback I queried when I was at Road to BlizzCon has improved. For example, when shielding another character as Zarya you get told that you've blocked x amount of damage. I'm not sure how I feel about the end of match information though. There are the problems I described above – that some character seem far better placed to get Play of the Match and to garner those commend cards.

    To add a bit more about that side of things: I like that you don't get everyone's exact breakdown at the end. Instead you see how you performed on particular characters and how that relates to your averages and career bests. It's about outdoing your own previous performances and that's pretty cool because I like the personal progression and improvement side of these competitive team games. I really dislike that they seem to have put a limit on commendations, though. At the moment you can only commend one player at the end of a match and you can only pick that player from those four highlight cards.

    Competitive team games can have some nasty aspects to them because people want to win and if that's not happening they can lash out at other players. I don't get why you would place a limit on people being able to say nice things about each other at the end of a match or why you're only allowed to commend particular things. It seems utterly daft. What if someone was really nice or helpful in team chat? Where's the option to say "Yay, that person!"

    Am I missing it? Is there a secret way to commend people who aren't the chosen four?

    In terms of maps, different heroes can open up different pathways. Pharah's jetpack and Hanzo's wall climb let you get up high. Symmetra has a teleport pad as her ultimate. Mercy can fly to a target ally, thus getting to spaces they can reach and she can't by herself.

    Last week people were still figuring out how to deal with choke points and getting ripped apart by characters like Bastion who just needed to sit and shoot the invading team. This week there's definitely been an improvement on that front with fewer feed-a-thons and more in the way of trying to exploit other routes. I also seem to be getting a better selection of maps. Last week I played a handful of games and got a lot of a Russian-themed capture point map called Volskaya Industries and no payload maps whatsoever. This time around it's been far more varied. I'm not sure if I got unlucky or they tweaked the algorithm but it was a better experience as a result.

    That said I'm not particularly enamoured with any of the maps yet. They don't feel particularly interesting or full of personality. Full of colour, sure, but not personality. They lack texture. Everything is cartoony and shiny and polished and it gets a bit samey. As the game progresses, it's also a pain to get back to the action. You start to become VERY aware of the trudge back if you're a character without a move speed buff or augment. Hooray, this series of rooms again! *plod plod plod*

    At this point I'm going to bring up Team Fortress 2. Every time I talk to people about Overwatch I'm asked how it measures up to TF2. I'm not the best placed to answer that so I've asked Graham on your behalf. He seems trustworthy:

    "If you like Team Fortress 2 and are wondering whether you'll like Overwatch, I think it probably depends on which Team Fortress 2 you liked. If it's the game that was at launch, which had nine classes with strict roles and in which everyone has a discernable purpose within a match, then maybe not. Overwatch has more in common with Team Fortress 2 as it is today, where those starting nine classes have diversified into subclasses and where you're as likely to meet a Demoman with a pickaxe as with a grenade launcher. Basically: you will die sometimes in Overwatch because you don't yet understand the abilities of the oddly named enemy class you're facing.

    "That said, it can offer some of the same satisfaction. If you liked playing Sniper with the Huntsman, then you might like playing Hanzo, Overwatch's class with a bow and arrow and the ability to scale walls. If you liked playing Soldier and rocket jumping about, you might like whichever Overwatch class it is that can boost itself straight up into the air and kill me so many times while up there. I think, as whole, Overwatch has about as much in common with Team Fortress 2 as it does with Destiny or Warframe or any other class-based shooter, but there are individual experiences in there that are broadly similar to what you'll know from Valve's shooter."

    So there you go.

    There's not a lot else I can really say at the moment. What I've detailed above is the experience I've had with what's in the beta along with concerns and points of interest. Making predictions about the future seems ill-advised because a lot will depend on how the beta develops and if/how they tweak the characters and feedback systems. There's also the addition of ice-themed defender Mei, tanky mech pilot D.Va and sword-wielding Genji (who is also Hanzo's cyborg baby brother, btw) to factor in.

    This evening Blizzard did confirm that the game will be available for purchase rather than as a free-to-play model. There's a basic digital release for PC only including the 21 heroes Overwatch will have at launch. That one's £29.99 at the time of writing.

    There are also an Origins and a Collectors Edition which come with a lot of extra gewgaws and will be available for PC, Xbox One and PS4 (so I'm wondering how that balancing will work out). The Origins edition is listed as £44.99 on the pre-purchase page while Game has the Origins physical edition at the £49.99 and the Collector's edition at £99.00. No word on what happens about access to future maps and heroes if you buy the game at launch so I'm thinking those might end up being separate purchases as, I suspect, will character skins and the like.

    Smite does this thing called the Ultimate God Pack where you pay a single price for access to all the game's heroes - current and future - and then it's just the cosmetics that are paid-for options. I like that model so I'm hoping it turns out that Overwatch will adopt that one but given Blizzard haven't explicitly said so I doubt it.

    Overwatch in its beta form has improved even in the single week I've had access. I'm fond of several of the characters and there have been a few memorable moments in matches – points where I've felt really good about a play or the team has pulled off an unexpected victory. That said I still don't really feel the pull to return. I'm not partial to any of the maps and too often games (and the shooting itself) feel inconsequential or unmemorable. If I want a team-based shooter my instinct is to head elsewhere – to Destiny's Crucible or to Counter-Strike: GO – and if I want a team-based abilities game I'll go to a MOBA. But it does have promise. I haven't formed a connection with it yet but I do want to keep a close eye on it.

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