The attendees at this year’s BlizzCon festival were no doubt expecting something special. The annual fan event, organised by veteran studio Blizzard, was celebrating 20 years of the Warcraft series of real-time strategy titles, and a decade of massively multiplayer spin-off, World of Warcraft.
However, none of the assembled gamers and journalists could have predicted what would come next.
Although best known for its dark fantasy and science-fiction titles, the Irvine developer unveiled Overwatch, a lighthearted, team-based first-person shooter shot through with a graphical style that has more in common with anime and Pixar than the Gothic grandeur of the company’s previous output.
In the first few moments of the reveal trailer, attendees whispered their concerns. “What the hell is this?” one audience member muttered. “Is Blizzard making a fucking kids’ game?”
Well, no, as it turned out. Overwatch – which was reportedly crafted out of assets from the now cancelled MMO, Titan - isn’t a game aimed at children, although it is highly accessible and far lighter in tone than any of the developer’s other IPs. Beneath the super stylised futuristic exterior, it seems to have more in common with Blizzard’s established franchises than immediately obvious – and not just because it’s an online multiplayer game, which has been a part of Blizzard’s DNA for over a decade.
Overwatch borrows a key aspect from the MOBA genre of games in that the action is centred on super-powered heroes who all boast powers and skills that are utterly unique to them. While the different avatars are divided across four classes (Offense, Defense, Tank and Support) and share common traits, no one character replicates the abilities of another completely. Presumably this makes Overwatch an absolute pig to balance – a task made all the more mind-boggling since Blizzard says it has more characters in the pipeline than the twelve available in the BlizzCon build.
The characters themselves are an odd bunch ranging from bow-wielding samurai who can see through walls (Hanzo), to a lithe, lethal sniper with a grappling hook (Widowmaker) to a robotic rifleman with the ability to transform into a turret capable of cutting down even the strongest foes (Bastion). Each character also has a passive power: the dual-shotgun-wielding Darth Vader lookalike, Reaper, for example, heals every time he blasts a foe. There’s also an uber-attack that can be deployed when a meter is filled – Reaper transforms into a pillar of smoke and fires bullets in every direction.
This isn’t a twitch-based shooter and players aren’t locked into playing it a certain way. If you’re absolutely rubbish at shooters – the whole aiming and firing thing – then you can simply select a class that better compliments your abilities (or lack thereof). Players who want to hang back from the action are better off selecting a Defense class character; a couple of them are able to fly away from danger and as they’re also the team’s healers, it behooves the other players to keep them safe from harm. Support class is for players who can be bothered to learn the map and identify its chokepoints. Tanks are – well – Tanks. The two on offer at BlizzCon were a giant ape called Winston who can activate a rage attack and a robot called Rheinhardt, who was armed with a shield and a massive hammer.
In short, there’s a class and a character to suit every player, regardless of how inept at shooters they are. Furthermore, Blizzard says the modes in Overwatch will lend themselves more to team-based play. There’s no Team Deathmatch, and presumably no Free-For-All – instead, the two match types announced are Payload, in which one team has to deliver an EMP bomb to a point in the map while the opposing team has to stop them, and Capture Point, a riff on Domination in which teams capture nodes on the way to the doorstep of their opposing team’s starting point.
Overwatch still needs polishing – this is presumably what 2015’s beta will be used for – and yes, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Valve’s Team Fortress. But then polishing and borrowing are what Blizzard does best. The developer has never laid claim to inventing a genre, but what it does better than any other studio, is tweak and hone games until they’re gilt-edged. Expect Overwatch to be no different…
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