In a genre occupied predominantly by YouTube montage videos highlighting twitch shooting skills of pre-pubescents, Overwatch delivers a more considered, tactical affair.
A game about assessing and reacting, never before have I made as many moment-to-moment decisions in a shooter: on positioning, map layout, abilities, character selection, enemy position, everything.
As an example: in a game of Payload – a mode where attackers must escort a loaded flatbed while defenders try to stop them – I opted for Reinhardt; a big, hulking metal mass armed with a hammer and deployable energy shield.
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In this mode, the payload moves only when your team is near, so I pushed out of the starting gate when the round kicked off, keeping the rest of my team behind my shield. It was taking a lot of punishment and started to crack, so I released the controller’s trigger and put it away, using the payload as cover for a few seconds while the shield recharged.
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This tactic continued up the map, as we kept pushing the enemy team back. Every now and then I'd fire a projectile at an enemy who looked too comfortable; sometimes I’d use Reinhardt’s rush ability to surprise them, cornering them in a room off the payload's path, finishing them with devastating hammer swings. A team-mate had chosen Mercy, a healer, and was using my shield to advance, keeping me topped up with health – I didn’t even die. The match was over in around five minutes. We won.
We were successful not only as a result of the small decisions we made as a team – knowing when to press, who to pick off and when to hang back – but it was also because of the bad choices our opponents made. There’s a reason Overwatch has a large cast of 21 unique characters with varied abilities: they’re all built with a specific purpose and there’s a counter for every play.
Someone in the opposition could have easily switched the Reaper, Widowmaker or Genji, using their powers to teleport, grapple or dash to my exposed flank. Overwatch allows you to switch between anyone in its large roster every time you die, so every death is an opportunity to change tack, your desire for revenge burning as you trudge back into the skirmish.
It is the fluidity, along with all the variables, that really makes Overwatch great. The characters and their abilities make the shooter feel completely different to your usual classes of engineers, medics, snipers and support characters. Overwatch’s heroes are still defined by classes – attackers, defenders, tanks and support – but each personality inside that class has a feel of their own, with distinct sets of strengths and weaknesses.
Take the attackers. Tracer is a zippy character who can speed around the battlefield in a series of dashes. She can rewind time and reset her position to a few seconds before, reverting her health and undoing mistakes – seeing her being played well is like witnessing weaponised lag.
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My personal favourite, Genji, can deflect any projectile with his katana, mirroring the damage back at his enemies. He's especially useful against Bastion, a defensive robot hero who can turn into a relentlessly-firing turret – and can also scurry up vertical walls to get to high ground. Then there’s Pharah, a rocket-powered damage-dealer who uses a jetpack to rain down explosives from the sky.
Every class houses as much variety, and the only reason they’re really split into classes at all is so that the game can gently nudge you to build a well-composed team of heroes – you’ll want a tank to soak up and deal damage; you’ll need someone buffing or healing; and you’ll definitely want at least one turret if you’re playing defence. The game never forces you to build a diverse team – hell, you can all be the same character if you want – but warning messages about what you’re missing guide you towards doing the right thing.
Then, in the heat of battle, you’ll be changing your characters to counter the enemy’s own roster tweaks. It’s a clever system, and even without headsets it forces team play in an organic way that most team shooters can only dream of.
This inventive diversity extends to the 12 launch maps, too. They’re all created in a way so that the action is funnelled to a specific point in the map – which is another way teamplay is enforced. However, there are also optional routes that are accessible by only certain characters: be it Pharah’s boost, Genji’s dashing slash, Widowmaker’s grappling hook, Lucio’s wall-running, Reaper’s teleport, or any other of the creative ways you can manoeuvre through these arenas.
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There’s a lot to discover in both the maps and the heroes themselves. Almost every skill in the game can be used in a way you might not originally anticipate, giving the shooter an extra layer to uncover that’s pure joy.
Some people have bemoaned the lack of a single-player mode, pointing to what they see as a bare bones launch – more characters and maps are to be added for free later – but extended time with Blizzard’s FPS proves it has legs in its current form. Whether it’s a quirk of a map or a new way to combine or use a character’s skills, Overwatch is constantly surprising, fresh and a load of frenetic fun. If you buy one game to get your online fix this year, make it this one.
Overwatch is a first-person shooter that oozes personality and charm, but beyond that surface layer lies a deep, tactical game where your most powerful weapon is your brain. If, like me, you’ve recently fallen out of love with online first-person shooters, play Overwatch long enough for it to deliver one of its many standout moments and you’ll be renewing your vows in no time.