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The History Of Overwatch’s Hero Abilities

Tracing back Tracer, among others

Developers imitate each other, as do writers, musicians and artists, and Blizzard are the best in the business at it. No other company is so good at distilling the sweat of another’s brow and refining it into pure, unadulterated joy. Yet, while it’s easy to see in Overwatch the objective-based gameplay of Team Fortress 2, the team dynamics of League of Legends or the creative movement mechanics of 90s shooters, its various ideas can often be traced back much further, towards older games that the designers at Blizzard may never have played.

I've chosen ten abilities Overwatch's heroes can perform and used them as the starting point for a jaunt through game history. What was the first game to feature grappling hooks, or teleportation, or time-rewinding? Find out below.

Think we've got any of these wrong? Teach us in the comments and we can update this list later.

1. Explosive-assisted sorties against gravity

The first port-of-call for any discussion about the history of 3D shooters should invariably be id Software’s 1996 masterpiece, Quake. Not only were its rocket and grenade launchers incredible feats of weapon design, being both challenging and immensely satisfying to use, but they led to a mechanic that has influenced map design, spurred speed runners and even spawned its own games.

That mechanic, of course, is rocket jumping and nowhere is it more celebrated than in Team Fortress 2. The combination of The Soldier’s high health pool and the Source engine’s forgiving physics allow for some truly outrageous acrobatics, whereby a player with a good amount of forward momentum can ‘skip’ along horizontally with their second and third rockets, traversing great distances in a matter of seconds.

In Overwatch, Junkrat’s Concussion Mine works in a similar fashion, except that he doesn’t need to be near the ground to use it. By throwing down a mine and waiting out the cooldown timer, Junkrat may launch himself into the air, then at the peak of his jump, throw a second mine and detonate it immediately, adding extra lift or radically changing his direction. With this trick a clever Junkrat player can end up just about anywhere.

2. Grappling with the vertically challenged

Yet another character who, like a good toothbrush, can get to hard-to-reach places, is Widowmaker. Her Grappling Hook allows her to easily find vantage points from which to snipe. Rotating between these points is central to playing Widowmaker effectively, as the kill cam betrays her location every time she takes an enemy down. While deadly at her preferred range, the French sniper is outclassed by offensive heroes when up close. Using her grappling hook to remain elusive is essential to staying alive.

Widowmaker owes her primary means of escape to Nathan “Rad” Spencer, the Bionic Commando who, courtesy of Capcom, swung into the arcades and into our hearts in 1987. Rad, initially named Super Joe, could swing and pull himself onto ledges above, a skill which was especially handy considering his inability to jump. This created a game that encourages constant movement from platform to platform, and forced the player to avoid enemies as much as shoot them.

3. Fishing for hitboxes with meat hooks

Another well-known hook is that of Pudge, AKA the abomination from Warcraft 3 as reimagined in Dota 2. ‘The Butcher’ throws out his Meat Hook and drags the first hero it strikes back towards him. The hook does decent damage on its own, but in combination with his other abilities, it is a death sentence for all but the tankiest of characters. Fortunately, despite the 2D plane, landing a hook is far from easy.

The easiest meat hook to land was also the first, and it wasn’t a hook at all. In Midway’s 1992 arcade sensation Mortal Kombat, Scorpion would shoot a harpoon-like kunai into the chest of an opponent and shout “Get over here!”. With few options for dodging the hook, it was just a matter of making sure your opponent was off-balance before throwing it out for a free uppercut.

Roadhog’s Chain Hook on the other hand, has the added difficulty of aiming in a 3D space at highly mobile targets. To combat this, Blizzard have made the hitboxes on heroes quite generous which leads to some strange situations with players getting hooked from around corners. Still, a meat hook is supposed to feel unfair. It’s a brief moment of powerful satisfaction for the predator and of fear for the prey.

4. Cheating like it’s 1999

When Counter-Strike shaped the competitive FPS scene at the turn of the millennium, it popularised not only the Desert Eagle and knife-based athletics, but two of the most pervasive cheats in gaming: wallhacks and aimbots.

Now, anyone who’s ever played local multiplayer will understand that cheating is often half the fun, but that’s contingent on everyone being on the same, uneven playing field. In an online game this is rarely the case, and companies like Valve have been at war with cheaters for as long as they’ve been publishing online games. Blizzard on the other hand, have gone back to cheating’s roots and given both Hanzo and Widowmaker wallhacks with their Sonic Arrow and Infra-Sight, respectively.

This allows the characters to know exactly where their opponents are and when they’re going to stick their heads out from around a corner. A predictable opponent, especially one that doesn’t realise they’re being predictable, is one that’s easy to headshot.

Soldier 76 has received a different kind of blessing with his own private aimbot. His Tactical Visor is theoretically unable to miss, although you do still need to be pointing in your opponents’ general direction, and your Heavy Pulse Rifle takes time to track each target. A real aimbot simply sends a bullet to the coordinates of the nearest available enemy head, regardless of any input from the player, which sounds incredibly powerful, sure, but also pretty boring.

5. Jumping and then jumping again

When Mario and Luigi jumped, the world listened, but a little over a year after the Italian Bros’ arcade debut, another hero had come to one-up them. The 1985 platformer Dragon Buster featured Clovis, an average joe with a dislike of reptiles and the ability to jump not once but twice. That’s right, if the player pushed the joystick up again at the peak of Clovis’ quaint little hop, he would magically find some footing from the thin air below him and leap anew.

Years later double jumping found a home in the PC space in the Unreal Tournament series, a multiplayer FPS with an emphasis on low-gravity acrobatics, booming headshots and taking itself quite seriously. The feeling of launching one’s futuristic gladiator self across a yearning abyss, dallying momentarily with a trajectory of certain doom, only to bounce from an invisible platform of one’s own creation into the waiting arms of solid geometry was one of pure bliss.

Genji’s Cyber Agility is less about soaring through the sky as it is hanging around on ledges being really annoying, pinging this way and that like a bouncy ball in a bathroom. Complaints aside though, it highlights the real benefit of a double jump: being able to rapidly change trajectory in mid-air. Even Mario’s paltry single jumps granted players the power to influence their momentum, much to the chagrin of physics. The double jump is this concept writ large.

6. Jumping on a wall and jumping off again

Go on any forum to express your love of double jumping and someone will invariably proclaim their preference for jumping off of walls. It’s not hard to see why. For while jumping and jumping again often seems at best a crutch and at worst a cheat, wall jumping feels like something the player has earned. It taps into that raw appreciation felt when watching a good parkour sequence, that human beings are capable of great things. This area of extreme sportsmanship is Lúcio’s domain, as he’s able to bounce easily off vertical surfaces, making him a nightmare to try and target in the heat of combat.

Hotness was certainly the focus when Taito released Rastan Saga on unsuspecting Japanese arcades in 1987. The titular, hunky barbarian, muscles bulging, silky hair blowing in the wind would plant his leather boots on the walls of cave and castle alike, and thrust his manly figure, brandishing cold steel, in the direction of any mythical creatures who dared arrest his ascent into the history books as the first wall jumper.

Another example of the masculine form overcoming architectural obstacles was 1996’s Mario 64. Despite always being fairly agile (considering), it was the wall jump in that game which made our favourite moustachioed mushroom-fancier feel less like a career tradesman and more like he was auditioning for Cirque du Soleil.

7. Jumping on a wall and gliding along it

Of course, Lúcio doesn’t just jump on walls, he rides them in futuristic rollerblades. The first game to feature such a skill was in 2000 when Smilebit released Jet Set Radio for the Dreamcast. The brightly-coloured action revolved around rebellious teenagers blading through the streets of a futuristic city, tagging flat surfaces and avoiding getting collared by the powers that be, which, funnily enough, is a good approximation of what playing Lúcio feels like.

Wall riding and running is on offer in all kinds of games now, such as Rocket League, a game about playing football with cars on the moon. Each field is ringed by a giant fence which players may drive around, riding the rails, ignoring the game ostensibly being played down on the ground below.

8. Grabbing ledges and pulling yourself up

God only knows how everyone else gets about in the world of Overwatch but the scions of the Shimada ninja clan (that's Hanzo and Genji) have mastered the forgotten art of grabbing onto platforms with their hands and pulling themselves up. This must have been what our pre-historic ancestors felt like, when they slithered on their bellies from the sea.

It seems kind of obvious to us now, but this was a mechanic hitherto unseen in games until 1989, when Capcom released Strider into the arcade. The game's protagonist, Strider Hiryu, could cartwheel jump, slide along the ground and cut enemies in twain with a plasma sword. What he'll be remembered for, however, is his ability to cling tenaciously to walls, ledges and ceilings, and to ascend when the moment called for it.

Prince of Persia would do the same thing later the same year and, of course, modern games are all over this idea. Imagine the Tomb Raider series if Lara Croft simply gave up when she was waist-high on a platform, choosing instead to ragdoll on an obliging temple floor while you looked on in disbelief. Ledge-grabbing adds weight to platforming. It creates the excitement of just making a long jump, forgives you when accidentally skirting too close to an edge and allows level designers to populate the traversable terrain with obstacles other than groin-high boxes.

9. Disappearing and reappearing somewhere else

If platforming isn’t your thing then you can always rely on Blink. As a mechanic, this one has the most Blizzard pedigree, being featured across the Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo franchises. As you might imagine, it’s a potent positioning tool, capable of landing a Warden, Stalker or Sorceress exactly where the shifting tides of battle demand. In Tracer’s hands teleportation is a tool that allows her to dodge incoming fire, flank around impassable terrain and generally be an exasperating git.

The origins of teleport lie once again in the arcades of yesteryear and in the hands of Taito. This time it’s 1980 and the game is Lupin III. Based on the manga series, the eponymous Lupin must platform his way across a variety of levels while nabbing bags of money for his main squeeze. If ever the action gets too intense and he finds himself hemmed in by enemies, Lupin can hit the appropriately-labelled “magic” button to teleport somewhere else, at random, regardless of whether that’s an improvement or not, which, to be perfectly honest, sounds like quite a few Tracer players I know.

Admittedly, Asteroids' adorable triangle was doing Lupin's trick the year before, but the nature of the game meant that the only time it was safe to warp into hyperspace was when you didn't need to. Warping in the chaos of a packed screen was tantamount to screaming "Farewell, pocket money!" and slamming gleefully into the side of a space rock.

10. Rewinding time without the consequences

In the event of a panicked teleport into certain doom, Tracer can Recall to travel back a few seconds into the past. This kind of casual time travel is a mechanic that has seen consistent use over the years by developers looking to smooth-away player-induced fail states.

Braid is a well-known example of this. The protagonist, whom some call Tim, can rewind and resume time at will, making subtle adjustments to his movements in order to complete precise platforming puzzles. However, Braid wasn’t the first game to make use of this ability. That honour belongs to Pitman, known as Catrap in the US, which was released for the Sharp MZ-700 in 1985. The game was strictly turn-based, so there was none of Braid’s yo-yoing around, but it still encapsulated what makes for a great rewind mechanic: a quick do-over that saves the frustration of restarting a level, or in Tracer’s case: going back to spawn.

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