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RPS 2016 Advent Calendar, Dec 18th: Overwatch

The year's best multiplayer shooter

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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About the Author
Brendan Caldwell avatar

Brendan Caldwell

Former 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.