Overwatch wants you to love it, and it’s hard not to
It’s hard to overstate how important a company Blizzard is in the game space. It’s been described in The Guardian as “The Apple of Gaming“, and stands shoulder to shoulder with Rockstar and Valve as gaming studios that churn out success after success. But while Rockstar reinvents itself and Valve inevitably delays, Blizzard iterates: rarely groundbreaking, but undoubtedly successful. It’s known for successes such as World of Warcraft and Hearthstone – not the first in the genre, not necessarily the most interesting, but the best put together, and the most accessible.
If companies could have a mutant superpower, accessibility would be Blizzard’s. Somehow the company always manages to simplify a game in a way that not only makes it more accessible to those from outside the genre, but also makes it seem so obvious that everyone else is kicking themselves because they didn’t think of it first. Blizzard specialises in making incredibly polished, welcoming games that people love, and now it’s turning its attention to first-person shooters with Overwatch.
Why is accessibility important? For a company, it’s great because people buy your game. 7 million people played Overwatch within a week of its release. For the players, accessibility opens the door to a new genre.
If you’re not completely comfortable with the concept of shooters, there’s a lot to consider when you head online for the first time. How much ammo do you have? What do your guns do? What’s the best gun for a situation? What’s the recoil pattern like on my weapon? Where should I stand? How should I move? When should I use my abilities? It’s a roaring torrent of decision-making that invites you to make a bunch of mistakes and is paired with a community of players that, if we’re describing them charitably, probably aren’t all that understanding of new folk trying to suss it out for the first time.
So Blizzard went in and started hacking away. One of its most radical but simplest changes is that there’s no more ammo. Sure, you still have to reload your guns, but they reload from an infinite supply. You’ve always got as much ammo as you need, and your special abilities don’t run on ammo, either. Want to learn your recoil pattern? Shoot a wall, reload and you’re good to go. Want to see what an ability does? Go ahead. The cooldowns on every skill except your game-changing ultimate ability are short, so feel free to experiment.
It’s clear Blizzard wants you to take chances and test each character’s capabilities, and while the skill-cap on each hero is high, each character is immediately useful as long as you have a vague idea of what their skills do and when to use them.
For the new player, there’s not really any punishment for screwing up.
Playing someone you’ve never used before? A quick tap of F1 on the PC version will bring up the hero page, giving you easily digestible information on what everything does and how to trigger it. The fact you can change heroes at any time and the respawn timer is a matter of seconds doesn’t hurt, either. For the new player, there’s not really any punishment for screwing up.
It’s very readable, too. Many shooters are now clad in a smeary layer of black, brown and grey. Overwatch‘s visual design is a wonderfully bright and inviting world filled with vivid colours and sparking particle effects. Despite all this, though, the team managed to maintain “combat clarity”, something they decided on early in development: when you turn a corner for the first time, the first thing you should see is the enemies, no matter what skin they have or which level you’re playing.
Certain FPS players, myself included, can be rabid about the importance of recognisable silhouettes. Being able to quickly identify Team Fortress 2‘s Heavy as you turn a corner will let you, at a glance, work out what he can do and what level of threat he represents.
Overwatch has taken this much further, altering the colour and saturation levels of the backgrounds and characters so that enemy players stand out to you, in addition to having easily distinguishable silhouettes. It’s also kept the amount of camera movement minimal when you fire your weapon and reduced head bob when you’re moving. It’s a series of little tweaks that means you can see things clearly.
The final big change that’s invaluable for new players is the scoring. Want to know if you’re doing a good thing? The game will give you points for it. Capturing a point, healing a player, moving an objective: these all give you points and tell you the reason you’re getting them.
Not that it matters, because there’s not a scoreboard to be seen. Blizzard’s approach to scoring is sheer positivity. Instead of showing where you fit into the team in play, you’re shown your performance in the team coupled with a few of your own stats. If you’re one of the best in the team, you’ll get a gold, silver or bronze medal appropriately.
The end of the game is like the winner’s ceremony at the Olympics: everyone’s achievements are hoisted up in front of you on the screen, with an encouragement to vote for those you like. The play of the game is still a bit wonky, favouring characters with flashy “kill everyone” ultimates or a turret killing some unfortunate players, but it still fits the celebratory tone. Didn’t have such a good round? No bother, no-one’s judging you. No-one can even see.
Overwatch may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s happy to invite you in for some Earl Grey.
Blizzard has already said that charging for new maps and characters isn’t part of the plan, and all characters will be free, with the company merely selling loot boxes/cosmetics for cash. For casual players, news that they’re not trying to gate-off parts of the game with microtransactions is another win. Overwatch may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s happy to invite you in for some Earl Grey, and that sets it apart from most multiplayer shooters in the past decade.
What we have, as a total package, is an incredibly well-polished FPS that clearly explains its core concepts and is happy to hold your hand for a bit. Blizzard has turned the competitive FPS on its head, and it’s pretty much for the betterment of all involved. If Blizzard maintains support for the game – and this is pretty much guaranteed when you look at its track record for supporting releases – it could have made the first-person shooter that defines this generation. It’s simple to play, simple to enjoy and, better yet, doesn’t punish you for trying to learn it.