I’ve played a lot of games this fall. You do that when you write about games. My library has become backed up like a traffic jam, though, because of one specific game. I can’t boot up Fallout, fiddle around in Battlefront or try on Just Cause 3’s wingsuit because a single game, actually just a beta for a game, won’t get out of my head.
Overwatch is not only the best beta I’ve played in a long time, but might be one of the best multiplayer games of the year.
After patiently waiting for my time to come, I got to jump into the beta last month and actually get hands-on time with the game. I had watched Twitch streams and YouTube videos, but it isn’t the same—Overwatch is something that needs the full experience, and besides, I was a little tired of watching face-cammers play Widowmaker and try to treat it like Call of Duty.
Because frankly, Overwatch is great because it bucks any notion of trying to imitate or iterate. A six-on-six team shooter, Overwatch’s beta was solely objective-based. You weren’t on the team to kill, but to achieve something, like capturing a point or moving a payload to the other side of the map. The “attack” team wants to get the objective, and the “defense” team wants to stop them from doing it.
This is where comparisons to Team Fortress 2 might be more sensible, but even then, I found more outside influences affected Overwatch than TF2 did. Each hero generally has a single weapon, infinite ammo and a small skill set, including their “ultimate” abilities. Overwatch reminded me of Dota 2 or League of Legends, in ways that would turn most MOBA-imitators green with envy.
The focus is solely on the heroes, and how they interact with each other. Each one brings a unique role and contribution to the team, beyond just being sorted into categories like offense, defense, tank and support. Mercy and Lucio are both healers, but vary wildly in their execution: Mercy swoops down to wounded enemies, healing them and boosting damage, while Lucio is a mobile aura-base that can shockwave nearby enemies with surprising force.
Each time I chose a character, it was a new venture and a completely different playstyle from the previous one. Bastion was a go-to for me when I was on defense, because of his ability to shift into a stationary minigun emplacement with an almost-impenetrable shield in front—but I had to watch my sides, because quick heroes like Tracer could sneak up and take me out before I could disengage.
The ultimates in this game are massive, and have a huge impact, furthering the contribution of each hero to the team. Reaper’s Death Lotus has him spin around, blasting everything nearby with his shotguns for massive damage. D.va, the former Starcraft pro turned mech pilot (Blizzard likes the self-referential humor), can dump her mech for a nuclear self-destruct, screaming out “nerf this!” to everyone nearby as she scurries away.
In a year where so many shooters have rested on their laurels, it’s refreshing to see a game like Overwatch. It takes risks, ones that few others would. Although Call of Duty tried the “specialists” route, it felt like toeing the waters compared to this.
Heroes are complex, and many require skill to play. Roadhog can instantly kill many heroes with his hook combo, but it demands that he both lands his hook and then executes his combo correctly, in the heat of battle. Tracer can die very, very easily (a wayward sneeze would send her six feet under), but played effectively, Tracer can reduce an enemy team’s backline to rubble. Overwatch allows for heroes to exist within a set role, to not be the best at everything and to even fail, which frees them to let heroes be able to shine.
This is embodied in the Play of the Game moment, a short highlight clip that plays at the end of every match showcasing the most impressive feat of the match, and in the post-match commend screen. Players are rewarded for playing their role not just with bits of ultimate meter and a victory screen, but through post-game commends from other players. Did that Reinhardt save you during the match? Did Hanzo’s ultimate clear the way for your final push to victory? You can give them a commend and thank them for their hard work. It’s a really simple system, but it leads to a feeling of teamwork and unity. Rewards aren’t granted in killstreaks or selfish things, but in team victory. You don’t have to kill the most people, just be good at what you like doing, whether that’s setting up turrets, shielding friends from enemies or healing teammates.
This sense of pervading purpose meant that no matter what, you were important to your team. You were a vital component to the offense or defense, and your skills equally mattered. You were rewarded for playing properly, and rarely did you ever feel like you were on your own, without your team there to help. It’s this strange merging of asking the player to play their best, but also learn to rely on their team, that Blizzard has sussed out of the MOBA genre and others like it. It’s some of the best that genre has to offer, and Overwatch taps it and utilizes it.
There’s a lot of typical shooter experiences around right now. A lot of them seek to maintain the status quo, to sate the hungry until the next annual trough-filling, and that’s fine if it’s what you seek. What I loved about my time with Overwatch was that it felt fresh, exciting and best of all, nothing like I had played before this year, or even ever.
Eric Van Allen is an Atlanta-based writer and Paste intern. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.