There’s a lot of comparisons to Team Fortress 2 in most of the dialogue about Overwatch. It’s not an incorrect game to mention, either. But there’s also an entirely different element to Overwatch not embraced by any
games in the space, whether it’s Valve’s popular hat-trading FPS, Bethesda’s forthcoming Battlecry or Splash Damage’s Brink 2.0, Dirty Bomb. That differentiator is character and character abilities. For all the MOBA references and team-based F2P FPS comparisons, Overwatch is injecting a serious amount of effort into character variety by way of abilities and powers, as well as more individualised personalities. In this regard, it’s not a far stretch to actually suggest Overwatch is more like someone at Blizzard said “what if we made Street Fighter a team-based competitive first-person shooter?”.
A few tell-tale signs emerge when you sit down at the game. For one, all of the characters are over-the-top anime-inspired death machines, and each packs a very unique manifest of abilities and powers. Even the BlizzCon interface was effectively lifted from a fighting game. The levels are bright and buzzing places -- arenas you could imagine any fighting game battlegrounds looking like, if the camera were taken off its fixed 2D, or mildly confined 3D range, and the chokepoint level design, while not a fighting game trope by any means, still often forces players into fixed standoff zones. Characters also come packaged with very unique and individual personalities that jump off and out of the screen. That there’s little in-game exposition on who, or why, these people exists is also telling, which leads me to my moment of sleuth.
“In [our] other games, they’re immersive experiences where you’re jumping into a world -- you have an environment around you that you can explore,” explains Blizzard’s head of franchise development and the creative lead on Overwatch, Chris Metzen. “Diablo and WoW specifically have this story that is the current that moves you through it. StarCraft’s a little different, but not all that different. And so if you look at those two elements -- the immersive world component of it all and then the purely narrative component of it all, this is where the narrative [for Overwatch] will be pulled out and exist on its own, it will exist through… we’re not really ready to talk about that yet, [and] we’re cooking up some cool stuff but it’s a hard question to answer [but] imagine we’ll use various transmedia in what we hope is a lot of animation and stuff -- we had a really fun time putting together that trailer; hopefully you guys dug that, and that feels good -- we want to do more of that.”
Most fighting game stories are wafer-thin, but their transmedia representations -- specifically in animation -- are explored to the nines. It’s an interesting point though, and given the various Pixar comparisons that were accompanying that initial CG reveal trailer, it all sort of makes sense. There’s also something to be said about the transformative nature of Blizzard as the company stands now with its feet currently wet in the expansion of their worlds by way of the WarCraft movie. None of this should dilute those obvious comparisons, because by the company’s own admission, they borrow heavily from things they love and work to make them their own, with a very specific Blizzard stamp.
“[Overwatch] features really dynamic heroes who’re doing crazy, epic over-the-top actions with a strong focus on team-play,” asserts Jeff Kaplan who is serving as Overwatch’s game director. “[And] one of the things we want to do with the game is really focus on the game design elements that are going to make this game more approachable -- something we like to do at Blizzard is take genres that we love, amplify the elements that we [also] love in those genres and try to make that as accessible to as many people as possible.”
It’s no coincidence two of the game modes announced at BlizzCon are repurposed names from modes in Team-Fortress 2, but it’s the idea that Overwatch is much more than the sum of its obvious parts that makes the game such an enticing prospect.
“I think it’s really coincidence,” Kaplan offers when we ask how and why this type of game appears to be emerging as the next major shift in the FPS realm (and if it’s a result of a magical pub all developers drink at after work). “With the exception of TF2 of course, we had no idea of those other projects (Battlecry, Dirty Bomb and Battleborn). Inevitably some of this stuff will come out and people are, like, “oh, it’s gonna be just like that” but I think there are a lot of big, core differences between what’s going on, but what’s cool is everybody is feeling that it’s time for some fresh ideas in the [shooter] space -- it’s a genre we all love, we don’t want the genre to go away… I thought it was a great moment when Call of Duty advanced the genre out of World War II -- that was a moment
for the genre. I think you’re seeing another one of those movements happen where everyone [is asking] can we push into new spaces where it hasn’t gone before, and for us it’s also about “are there players who maybe wanna try out the genre, but have been turned off because they’re not into modern military?”.
Metzen nods in pure agreement with his partner in crime, and is someone who hasn’t only been in the industry a very long time, but has been the creative force behind cohesively expanding these borrowed elements of the company’s past, and making them their own. The showfloor’s passionate fans donning garb from everyone of Blizzard’s games as if they were actual citizens of those worlds is proof enough.
“I also think, looking back over time, when we started getting into RTS, you know, there were a lot studios doing RTS back in the day,” Metzen adds. “And we always looked at it as “it’s good for the industry”, right? You try your specific version of it and then the guys down the street have their version and it’s kind of like iron sharpens iron. You know, we all get accumulatively better as developers. I think it’s really good, as long as we’re serving the community of gamers and the products are fun, it’s all good.
“There’s certainly no magical pub, though that would be fascinating
On the gameplay front each character also feels fundamentally different. Whether it’s scaling walls as the arrow-shooting Hanzo (whose Dragon special is totally
a fighting game move), or blinking around the map as Tracer, you’ll never feel gameplay and movement repeated character to character. And having this variance as a sort of death-to-death loadout swap system (rather than changing weapons or perks), is in keeping with games like Marvel vs Capcom where you could effectively choose three different characters and either switch them out on-the-fly or have someone capable of backing up the death of another.
Like all good fighting games though, and in keeping the tradition of the shooter side of the coin Blizzard is flipping, balance will be key. They’ve worked around the requirement for precision twitch skills because of each character’s unique abilities, which is a brilliant shakeup to the usual massive barrier of entry newcomers face in this space, but the real battle will boil down to team balance and how maps and conflicts handle individual line-ups, or multiples of the same character. Thankfully Blizzard is no stranger to balance but the one issue I kept coming across while playing was speed, where they either need to option a speed button with a stamina bar to prevent overkill, or to boost the basic movement of all characters regardless. It might seem like a trivial thing and over time there’s a chance it won’t mean much when players are exploiting character systems, but at the moment it felt too long to get back into the thick of it, considering the games often sat in chokepoint cover-and-shoot standoffs.
As far as new IPs go though, Overwatch is a colourful beacon of light at the end of a tunnel many are feeling has gone too dark. There’s a hope it, and its forthcoming competitive companions will help lead us to the next journey in the genre, one littered with more objective-based teamwork-oriented gameplay. Only here, it’s with fighting game flair thanks to over-the-top characters, bright and engaging levels and unique specials designed to craft a different and fun journey.