Current State: Overwatch

Welcome to Current State, the series that covers ongoing games. In this series, I take a look at how continuing releases have withstood the test of time. To this end, both the core experience and updates or changes are considered.

In this entry, I’ll be taking a look at Overwatch. Some might say that it’s the ideal subject, as it won “Best Ongoing Game” from The Game Awards. Is Overwatch really the best ongoing game? Read on to find out more about the game’s current state.

I’d be shocked if any readers haven’t heard of Overwatch, a hit game from Blizzard Entertainment. The game is a team-based, multiplayer first-person shooter, and also a popular esport. It belongs to the subgenre of hero shooters, which contains other prominent tiles like Team Fortress 2, Paladins, and Dirty Bomb. Overwatch has become such a high-profile release that Twitch recently paid Blizzard $90 million for exclusive rights to stream professional Overwatch League matches. Blizzard is well known for its popular multiplayer titles, with hit releases like World of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, the Diablo series, and the Starcraft series.

Considering Overwatch’s status as the most popular title in the hero shooter subgenre, I’d like to take a moment to go over what a hero shooter is, as there a few features that set this genre apart from other shooters. Compared to games like Call of Duty or Battlefield, Overwatch has a much longer time-to-kill, meaning players typically soak up more damage before dying, and a smaller team size. Hero shooters feature heroes rather than more customizable characters or classes, and balance of strength between these heroes is something developers constantly revisit and work on through updates. In the case of Overwatch, each hero has access to specific weapons and skills that determines how one plays them, and players can only edit them on a cosmetic level. These elements make hero shooters play like something between shooters and MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arena).

As an illustration of hero diversity, one such hero, Mercy, features a healing and buffing weapon, a dash which carries her to a targeted ally, a resurrection skill, a self-buffing ultimate, and a fairly weak pistol. This means that anyone who plays her as intended will be a support. Then there is Reinhardt, whose only weapon is a mace. He has a lot of health, a big shield, a rocket boost, and a single ranged flame-projectile ability. Clearly, he is meant to be a tank, protecting his squishier allies while harassing the enemy team.

Overwatch’s heroes are a diverse bunch, and the roster offers a variety of gameplay. Considerable effort clearly went into making them look, sound, and play uniquely from one another.

In terms of plot, Overwatch essentially has none, though this is not particularly abnormal for multiplayer titles. The game does have a basic premise, something about an AI uprising and the game’s heroes fighting them, and then each other. But that’s not what Overwatch is about. The narrative is essentially an excuse for team-based gameplay, so don’t come to this title looking for story.

Overwatch, like most other esports, is all about the gameplay, and if you’re not the type of person who enjoys that, it’s probably not for you. It’s session-based entertainment, but Overwatch included a ton of features to help make it fun, like awarding “play of the game” and the ability to save some of your best highlights. I can’t stress enough how well designed this game is and how much it deserves to be recognized as a phenomenal esport.

There are four mission types in Overwatch. I find this impressive, as many esports struggle to provide diverse experiences. There is escort, where one team tries to push an objective on a cart towards a destination, and another team tries to hold them off until the timer runs out. The teams swap roles after the first match, and whichever team escorts the payload in less time wins. There is control, where two teams struggle over a neutral control point, attempting to hold it long enough to reach 100% ownership. These games are played in best two-out-of-three format.  There is hybrid, a mix of assault and escort. Finally, there is assault, where one team defends capture points, and the other tries to take them. These mission types are each associated with the different maps; you don’t choose which to play, you are assigned objectives based on the map you’re playing on. While I enjoyed all these mission types, I preferred escort, as I felt like the experience promoted teamplay most effectively.

Looking at how Overwatch has been maintained, I’m well satisfied, if not particularly impressed. In the almost two years since Overwatch’s release, Blizzard has provided five new heroes, five new maps (11, if you count arena), countless cosmetics, and regular events, and the developers have worked to maintain game balance with each update. Since release, Mercy has become more viable offensively while less annoying to play against (due to the resurrect change and addition of Valkyrie as an ultimate ability. They also gave D.Va a new ability, micro missiles, a while back. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say they reworked her, I do feel that this change along with several minor tweaks helped cement her identity as a brawler tank.

I would point out though that Overwatch hasn’t received as much content as some other popular ongoing games (Final Fantasy XIV, World of Warcraft, Warframe) or even other ongoing esports (League of Legends, Dota II, and Heroes of the Storm). What I think makes Overwatch unique is that it’s a popular, mainstream non-moba esport. In previous years, MOBAs have been the most popular esports, but with the massive success of Overwatch and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, we’re starting to see a bit more variety. I think that all this makes Overwatch an excellent choice for “best esport,” but less so for “best ongoing game.” Just for clarification, I’m not saying that Overwatch is better than the other popular esports which The Game Awards passed over, simply that it’s a very strong esport title and worthy of recognition.

To conclude, while Overwatch isn’t my favorite game by any stretch, I have had tons of fun playing it, particularly with friends. The core experience is a well-designed game with great production values, and it’s been maintained well enough to hold its fans’ interest. I’ll say this much: Overwatch is, hands down, my favorite hero shooter, and, despite being lukewarm toward the genre, I find myself regularly going back to it. In terms of a score, I’d give Overwatch a 9/10. It has created more variety in esports, and I look forward to years of casually enjoying the title in my spare time. My only complaint would be that, given how popular Overwatch is, Blizzard should have dedicated more resources to the game’s ongoing development, but more on that next time.

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