Overwatch: BlizzCon’s Big Surprise

It has been 17 years since Blizzard added a new IP to the hallowed ranks of established PC franchises like StarCraft, Warcraft, and Diablo. At this year’s BlizzCon, the audience was given unprecedented access to the surprise announcement of Overwatch. Attendees were treated to a cinematic trailer, gameplay trailer, and (unexpectedly) plenty of hands-on time with the title itself. Not only is Blizzard taking on one of the most popular game genres out there (and one of the most conspicuously missing in its roster of Battle.net titles) with Overwatch, but things are also moving fast; the beta is scheduled to roll out this year.

In Overwatch, Blizzard takes things to a fantastical future for a 6v6 team based shooter, with disparate characters that all play completely different from one another. In this genre, characters are often defined by the weapon they wield, but in Blizzard’s take on things special abilities play a major role along side class defining weapons this fleshes out the characters and combines with bubbling personalities to create something special.

“Hearing the game compared to Team Fortress 2 is the ultimate form of flattery. That game is one of the most revered games at Blizzard,” says Jeffrey Kaplan, game director on Overwatch. “I think it’s obvious where the similarities are, but I don’t think the differences become quite clear until you start playing the game. In Overwatch, you want every ability to be as cool as the gun you have.”

When you're Widowmaker, you’ll feel like a sly assassin, grappling to forbidden areas to get eyes on your victims, setting poison traps, and using your understated but powerful ultimate ability to provide perfect vision to your entire team. Or perhaps you’re the embodiment of evil doom with Reaper, whose stealthy shotgun-style play can burst a player down in moments or unleash area-of-effect destruction on a protected capture point with his ultimate ability. Maybe you’re on defense and opt for the turtle-turret gameplay of Torbjörn or the “living tower” style of Bastion. Making a push on that heavily defended capture point? Back up your team with Mercy and execute a mass resurrection on your fallen comrades after the initial charge, forcing your opponents to defeat your entire team twice.

Blizzard’s focus on accessibility is evident here, as it’s almost painless to change classes and have a grasp of your basic abilities and weapon instantly. As you play through a match or two, you learn new and interesting ways to use those abilities to greater effect and in different situations. There’s plenty of room for skill and team play to come into the equation, but sitting down with a new character is remarkably easy to do.

Characters are loosely divided into categories like offense, defense, tank, and support, but many can be used in roles outside of their set category, like playing Widowmaker offensively or making Bastion’s stationary hunker down power a mobile nightmare during a payload delivery map. There’s no limit to how many of each character can be on a team, so if everyone wants to play a snipe-squad consisting of Hanzos and Widowmakers, you can but be aware that a Reinhardt on the other team will likely cause you some serious problems with his energy shield. Players can swap characters in the middle of a match with ease to deal with threatening class combinations, making each match fluid as teams swap characters in and out as necessary.

“What’s important to us is making sure each hero is unique, distinct you fall in love with it, you want to play as that one,” says Kaplan. “I want a poster of that one on my wall, I want to be that one when I grow up; that’s what is really important to us. If that means we add five more, so be it. If that means we add 800 more, that sounds awesome too.”

Gunplay is fast, furious, and precise, with combat lasting mere moments from start to finish in many situations. From a lethal sniper shot to a brutal Reinhardt pin-charge, death is doled out with speed in situations where support characters are not present. This ends up working out fairly well, since the respawn time is minimal around five seconds before you’re up and in the action again. Ultimate abilities charge up as players dish out and receive damage; those with lesser impact charge faster, while team-wiping ultimates take longer.

Bringing ultimate abilities into the team shooter sphere also makes the approach to objectives interesting, with players able to clear out masses of huddled defenders or plow through using potent support skills. If you’re a twitch player looking to land your headshots and blitz around the battlefield, there are characters for you. If you’re not a traditional FPS player that still wants to make a big difference, there are characters you can play that require little to no twitch-style gameplay at all. Again, it comes down to the diverse roster of characters handling each map and encounter differently. There will be progression elements to the game, but character loadouts will not be customizable; each is locked to their defining set of abilities and weapons.

“Matchmaking is key to us,” Kaplan says. “Skill-based matchmaking is important, we don’t want players getting crushed. Without getting into specifics, something we want to pursue for this game is, is there more we can do on the social front for matchmaking, like maybe these are some people that you seem to be having a positive experience with while playing.”

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