On paper, Overwatch is about as 21st-century a game as you could find: it’s an online-only first-person shooter, which clearly wants to become a mainstay of the burgeoning e-sports scene. But those bare facts fail to do it any justice whatsoever. For a start, it’s made by the legendary Blizzard – of World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Hearthstone and Diablo fame – so it represents a departure for the company, which has never before made a first-person shooter and has precious few console games in its back-catalogue (Overwatch is available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, as well as PC). So it will have to be good enough to handle the pressure of continuing Blizzard’s golden streak, while also pursuing the not exactly trivial goals of reinventing the first-person shooter for a new generation of gamers and finally bringing e-sports into the mainstream. No pressure, then.
Does it manage to live up to such lofty ambitions? Hell, yes – and strikingly so, with an irrepressible, inviting demeanour. If you’re part of the camp that firmly believes online-only first-person shooters should be given a wide berth, Overwatch is the likeliest game to make you rethink that stance. That’s primarily because it keeps things really simple.
A short but focused tutorial goes through the basics, but the best place to get to grips with Overwatch is in live play – an exemplary matchmaking system avoids the most common pitfall that blights online-only shooters: finding yourself, before you’ve got to grips with the game, dying constantly at the hands of those who have been playing it for weeks.
Every round you play sees you having to make one big decision: which of the 21 Heroes to play as. The Heroes are the beating heart of Overwatch, and are incredibly diverse. Broadly split into four categories – tank, assault, offence and defence – they take in the gamut of melee-focused brawlers, snipers, all-rounders, tanks with big shields, extra-mobile healing and shielding specialists, a turret-building dwarf, a girl in a mech and just about any play-style you could imagine. When you jump into the lobby, the game offers tips about any imbalances in the make-up of your six-man team, and if you don’t like your Hero, you can swap to a different one whenever you respawn.
The control system also keeps things simple. Ammo is unlimited, and there’s next to no gun-swapping: only a couple of the Heroes have two weapons, although most have a chargeable alternate-fire which can be employed in specific situations. All the Heroes have two abilities, with cooldown periods, mapped on the console gamepads to the bumpers, plus one ultimate ability which charges slowly as you notch up the kills or pull off good plays, and which, when properly employed, can give your whole team the edge in any match for a while.
So essentially, Overwatch is all about trying out the Heroes, deciding which ones you like best, discovering how to make the most of their abilities and carving out a role in your team, which is more or less dictated by the Hero you play as. In order to prosper, you’ll learn a variety of techniques as you go – the game is generous with its tips (and, for example, alerts you when you stray into the vicinity of a sniper) but everything is so self-explanatory that you pretty much learn about sight-lines, pinch-points, types of Heroes to avoid when you play as a particular type and so on by osmosis.
There are just three game modes: one involving either escorting or stopping a hover-lorry as it moves down a predetermined path, one involving battling over a capture-point and one where you must dominate a map with three capture-points. It’s very easy to set up custom, private matches with your own rules, and Blizzard will soon add a competitive mode, for those who fancy a shot at e-sports stardom. Plus there are Weekly Brawls, which include some fairly out-there challenges.
But the key to Overwatch’s success is its simplicity – a laser-like focus on removing anything which is extraneous brings the wildly differing attributes possessed by the Heroes to the fore, so when you find your favourites, you also discover how you most like to play the game. There’s no doubt that Overwatch will soon emerge as a key e-sport, and it’s also great to watch, thanks to bright, cartoonish visuals (a world away from the average, black-and-brown first-person shooter). And it offers plenty of rewards at the end of each match, with the ability to vote for whoever you think did best based on a variety of criteria, and a Play of the Game clip. You do level up, but that doesn’t affect any of the Heroes’ attributes; instead you earn ephemera such as new voice-samples.
If you had to criticise, you would point at the occasional abuse which can seep through the voice-channels – muting individual players is the one aspect of the game which is annoyingly fiddly. And online-only games such as Overwatch always come with a suspicion that you might lose interest in them after the initial euphoria turns to familiarity. However, Blizzard has an unparalleled track record when it comes to sustaining interest in its games (World of Warcraft, for example, has now been around for well over a decade). And Overwatch is just so infectious and fun-filled that you would have to be defiantly miserable in order to get bored with it.
Blizzard has done it again. Having never previously made a first-person shooter, it has managed, via Overwatch, to give one of the most established genres a massive shot in the arm, as well as to create the first game that possesses credibility as an e-sport, yet isn’t remotely intimidating. If you’ve tended to give online-only shooters short shrift in the past, now is the time to re-evaluate that attitude.
• Game reviewed on Xbox One