There’s a trend amongst gamers these days that it’s cool to disparage certain games just because they’re popular. Notwithstanding that nothing about video games is ‘cool,” the fact is that those tend to be the best games and it’s typically worth your time to play anything that someone seems proud about not playing. Halo, for instance, has earned the acclaim it receives; Call of Duty games tend to be well-polished spectacle machines; Final Fantasy VII revitalized the Japanese RPG in the west and led directly to the era of localization and global gaming that we have today. There are people online who’d tell you that all three of those are overrated garbage and not worth your time. Those people are fools.
Naturally, as one of the most popular games ever created, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is subject to this kind of treatment as well. Yes, there are folks who would have you believe that their taste is superior to every one of the millions who have gotten into WoW. This is nonsense, of course, and this sort of negativity does more harm to gaming as a hobby than any anti-consumer publisher, pretentious indie developer or money-grubbing crowdfunding campaign.
Where am I going with this? Well, I’m tying it into Overwatch, Blizzard’s first new IP in a generation. Bitter, angry nerds are getting upset about this one (of course), proudly announcing they aren’t going to buy it. Such rebels! Everyone else is playing it. The larger part of the video game community is talking about it. You can’t make an argument based on one piece of evidence, but I think this is a pretty strong suggestion that if bitter, angry nerds don’t like something then it’s probably worth a look.
Overwatch hasn’t changed much from the beta we talked about a few weeks ago. If you aren’t familiar with the title, basically this is something akin to Valve’s Team Fortress 2. You choose from one of 21 different Heroes, each with their own weapons, skills and game-changing Ultimate ability; you’ve got Reaper, your close-range shotgunner who focuses on closing the gap and dealing pain; you’ve got Tracer, your speedy harrier who makes life difficult for the enemy team while using her evasive abilities to escape danger; you’ve got tanks, you’ve got healers, you’ve got a pretty sizable selection of characters each of whom demands a unique playstyle and their own form of expertise.
You can swap between Heroes at nearly any point during a match, and learning when to do so in order to suit the current situation on the battlefield is key to victory. You can also customize your Heroes with sprays, voice clips and skins, which are doled out by the game regularly and can also be purchased via microtransactions if you feel the need.
At first glance this isn’t an especially complex game. Overwatch essentially has two game modes: you’re either capturing a point or you’re guiding something to a point. Both of these are reliant on your presence on the point; capturing doesn’t happen unless you’re there and the payload you’re guiding doesn’t move unless it has people standing on it or nearby. This creates natural choke points and areas of conflict, since both teams want essentially the same thing: stand on the thing you’re supposed to stand on while making sure the other team isn’t standing on it. Throw in some solid map design and snappy control and you’ve got the foundation of a great team shooter.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Overwatch so far has been the development of tactics between members of my team, as well as the gradual improvement of other teams as we’ve played more often. In most shooters your success is defined largely, if not entirely, by personal skill, and you improve primarily in the areas of situational awareness, map knowledge and accuracy. Those are all vital to success in Overwatch as well, but the team focus of the game means that I’ve seen small unit tactics organically develop as people keep playing.
Early on you’ve got your usual set of newbies trying to play this like a deathmatch game. You’ll see teams with multiple snipers or shotgunners, too clueless to realize that KDR isn’t going to win them anything. The progression from there starts with adopting human-wave tactics; sending an entire team at a point in order to flood and overwhelm it. That might work for awhile, but proper team composition and defenses will break this plan down and result in shut-outs. Flanking typically comes up next, since if an enemy’s got a solid frontal defense you’ll want to attack from the sides, right? Opposing teams will, naturally, learn to watch their sides and back a little more to counter this.
Next, covering fire and split units become more common as players learn that attacking a point from multiple positions and creating a distraction will result in success; the opposing team’s attention ends up divided too many ways to be of value. Counters for this involve separating defenses into smaller units to counter each front…and so on and so forth.
When I look at what I just wrote above, I’m immediately confronted with the fact that I wouldn’t want to play a game that made me do something like this. It’s not that it doesn’t sound interesting; it sounds like I’d have to deal with other players to do it, and if you’ve ever played a game with random other players online then you know that’s not going to be pleasant. Video games have earned their reputation for toxic behavior, after all, and it only takes one jerk to break down the most solid strategy. Yet here I am, dozens of hours in between the beta and full release of the game, and I can say that there’s never been a point where I’ve logged off Overwatch without having had a fantastic time, win or lose.
How does Overwatch manage this? It’s all a question of psychology. Overwatch constantly and subtly nudges you toward better play at all times both in and out of a match. When you’re choosing your hero, the game will suggest ways in which your team’s composition is deficient to allow you to rectify any problems. Nobody is forced to do anything they don’t want to do and nobody is called out. It’s a brilliant way of generating stronger teams without naming and shaming. Another point: while you can view your kills and deaths during and after a match, they aren’t prominently displayed at any point and are almost entirely obfuscated to other players.
No single person is the reason a team fails in Overwatch; the team itself is the reason they lost, and people who say otherwise are generally treated as the jerks they are. Not like losing is a big deal one way or the other, but the attention paid to reducing toxic behavior makes all the difference.
Instead, if you do especially well you’re tossed into a vote at the end of a match where everyone selects the player they thought added the most to the match; absolutely superlative play is also rewarded with the Play of the Game, an instant replay at the end of each match showing off the most awesome moment. While the algorithm for this can be a little strange, it doesn’t change the fact that everyone’s jockeying for the Play of the Game during the match – and that means that they’re probably playing to the best of their abilities.
All of this in a $40 shooter with cartoony graphics and catchphrases out the wazoo…who would have thought? This is where some people might say that despite its looks, this isn’t a game for kids…and they’d be wrong, because it’s a game for anyone and everyone. I mean, if you’re familiar with Blizzard Entertainment you probably had an idea this was the case – these guys aren’t on top for no reason, after all. It’s no surprise that the graphics are amazing, and naturally it runs on most PC builds and consoles without much trouble. The sound is fantastic too – it has to be, as you’ll learn to use audio cues to evade attacks and reposition away deadly Ultimate abilities.
More importantly, what we’ve got in Overwatch is a game that pushes you to greater heights than you’d thought you were capable of without shaming you or encouraging toxicity at any point. If you lose, that’s fine, you can try again in mere seconds with a better idea of where things went wrong. If you win, that’s great, you can bask in adulation from both the game and your teammates for the next ten seconds and then it’s back into the fray. “Video games are supposed to be fun,” says Overwatch, and it sticks to those words the entire time you’re playing it. It doesn’t allow jerks to spoil anything.
Frankly, I think Overwatch is what we all had in mind back when online gaming was just a glimmer on the horizon. In one way or the other, we all imagined that being able to play with anyone in the world would encourage competition, ceaseless improvement and good sportsmanship among gamers. So far, Overwatch has managed this, and it’s kind of amazing for it. There are still jerks, of course, but much like in Blizzard’s excellent MOBA Heroes of the Storm they’re in the minority. That alone is enough to recommend Overwatch; the fact that it’s one of the best team shooters ever released is just icing on the cake at this point.