Overwatch Closed Beta Impressions: You Got MOBA in My Shooter
Last weekend, Blizzard let a bunch of people into the Overwatch closed beta for a stress test on their servers. With the game’s launch no more than seven months in the future, it might be a little early to tell what Overwatch will be like when the game is released to the public. However, a lot of big names in the gaming world have been sinking a lot of time into the latest IP out of the house that Warcraft built.
Since I’ve probably spent far too much on StarCraft and Heroes, I was able to get into the three-day Overwatch stress test. I may not be much of an FPS gamer but I certainly didn’t feel too out of place in the game.
For those unfamiliar, Overwatch is a 6v6 multiplayer first-person shooter. There are 21 characters to choose from who occupy four different character classes. The object of the game is to defeat the other team in a game of capture/defend the point or escort/block the payload.
The unique feature of Overwatch is that characters can be changed mid-match while dead or in the spawning room, players can select a new character to play as. The game is built around team compositions to support completing the objective. The impact of one overpowered character can be nullified if the right team comp faces him. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can’t work around that by picking up six of that character for your team and giving that a try.
To help you with figuring out your team composition, Overwatch gives you tips on the Hero Select screen when picking your heroes. The game seems to have an ideal team composition in mind but I don’t know if there’s any flexibility built into its advice based on the opposing team comp or your objectives. It seems as though the game pushes you to two offensive heroes, one tank, one support/medic, one builder (I think those are just heroes that can throw down turrets or defensive structures) and one sniper. I have no idea if I’m right or not but the game seems to have its own meta in mind but I’d imagine that it’s already evolving at the higher levels of play.
Without getting into the business model, you have access to all 21 heroes upon starting the game. You can pick any one of them without restriction (apart from suggestions by the game and your team). I spent some time in the Versus AI mode to try to figure out which characters I worked best with. There are difficulty ratings with each character and unlike in MOBAs, I actually find these pretty accurate. I was doing a lot better with the one-star difficulty heroes than the three-star (or hardest) heroes. The fun thing is that you can be just as effective for your team with the easier heroes as other players are with the harder ones. If you can put your skills to the best use for the team, it doesn’t matter which hero you choose. That makes it, for now, a very noob friendly game.
Speaking of concepts from MOBAs, each character has abilities on cooldowns. Each hero has an ability assigned to the E key, the Shift key (usually a movement based ability but not always) and an ultimate ability on the Q key. The E and Shift abilities work on just the cooldown. The ultimate requires charging through dealing or receiving damage along with a bonus from a class or character-specific trait. For example, supports get a bonus for doing their job. Tanks get bonus ultimate charging for being a tank.
This all makes for a very different experience than your standard FPS.Where as most shooters differentiate based on loadouts and perks, Overwatch uses the characters as the differentiation point much like a MOBA. It’s a hybrid of the two genres. They key to victory is the characters and the composition but it’s still a first-person shooter so you have to be able to aim and juke and those other FPS skills that I am lacking.
The stress test beta featured three maps for you to play on. There was only one PVP queue and you were randomly selected a map. Each map had its own objective. The Japanese-themed Hanamura required you to capture or defend two points. The slightly industrial Watchpoint: Gibraltar was escort the payload. And the London-styled King’s Row map required you to capture a point to then escort a payload. I expect the queuing experience and map pool to be quite different when the game gears up for launch.
While I understand that the payload objective is what Team Fortress 2 is built around (I’ve never actually played it) and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is built around just the classic bomb mode, it would be nice to see a bit more out of Overwatch. It’s still early in the game’s development so who know what we might see in the next seven months but I know that CS:GO has Arms Race and Deathmatch for those who want to play something other than the main game mode. I would think that Overwatch could easily make modes like Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag work without much need for rebalancing.
Fortunately, the varying team compositions generally does a good job of making the games seem somewhat different. As I was learning the game, there seemed to be fewer absolute stompings. However, it wasn’t uncommon for one team to dominate the other. That should hypothetically be down to skill since players can switch heroes on the fly to counter the opposition. The problem is that these matches can end very quickly because of their design.
When the matches start, the attacking team (the one escorting the payload or capturing points) is locked in their spawn area for 60 seconds. During that time, the opposition is allowed to charge to the other end of the map in order to setup a defence. That gives a massive early game advantage to the attackers. I’ve had games very nearly end at the start because of how well the spawn has been camped. Usually, games are designed to prevent or discourage this. Spawn camping is an accepted strategy here. Turrets and snipers are pretty good here. I’m not much of a sniper but I ran up a five or six kill streak just spawn camping until they found a gap-closing hero to take me out.
If you’re not spawn camping, the other advantage for defenders is that these are single-lane maps with a few cut-outs and alleyways for ganking. While the game tries to keep you constantly moving, it’s often moving you to and through chokepoints. If you can’t win by spawn camping, you can do the same through some of the small door and archways that the maps force you through. Strong defending of chokes will stop and attacking team in their tracks. You can call it smart or skilled gameplay but the defender’s advantage is a real pain when you’re on the other side.
The game currently doesn’t have team scoreboards. You earn takedowns through kills (called final blows) and assists but that’s not shown to anyone but you. It’s very inclusive because nobody’s going to be flamed for doing a bad job. At the same time, you have no idea how you’re doing relative to the rest of your team and the opposition. For all you know, you could be doing very well but if your team got stomped, you’d probably want to switch things up on your end.
Instead, Overwatch has a commendation screen that shows the top players in four categories, often kill streaks, eliminations, healing, damage tanked, successful ultimates and more. You can then give commendations to those four players. It’s kind of neat but it means nothing. I got an epic commendation for getting five commendations from other players but there was no added perk for that. I’m not sure if there are future plans for that.
There is also a Play of the Game feature which features the game selected best sequence of the game. Sadly, I didn’t get one that time I spawn camped and sniped three in a row. The guy that pulled that trick on my team with a turret did get it a different time. The algorithm is a little inconsistent. It also never rewards objective based play. I once kept our team alive in overtime by pushing a payload while desperately trying to not get killed while they respawned. If I ran away, we would have lost. Where’s my play of the game?
From a technical perspective, I thought that the game ran fine. I only had one hard crash and one server disconnect over the course of the weekend but no issues otherwise. For a stress test beta, the game ran far better than I was expecting. The framerate stayed above 60 FPS on medium to high settings (the game’s autodetect wanted me on low but I was having none of that even if I’m on AMD hardware). A quick bit of research says that the engine uses four CPU cores so it’s an upgrade from the SC2 engine.
I thought that the game looks fine. It’s very colourful which probably is also why it gets a lot of Team Fortress 2 comparisons. The art style isn’t as cartoony as TF2. It’s definitely got a bit of a cartoon/comic aesthetic rather than a photorealistic one but I think the graphics are better for it. Your CS:GOs and CODs of the world go that way. To compete, you should try being different and Blizzard wants to make a mark in eSports with all of their games. Just doing the same as everyone else won’t help them.
Besides the gameplay, what has everyone talking is the business model for Overwatch or lack thereof. It was initially assumed that it would be a free-to-play game with microtransactions but it will instead be $40 on PC and $60 on PS4 and Xbox One. We know that price will unlock 21 heroes at launch but it sounds like there will be more heroes coming after that. How much will they cost and how they will be offered hasn’t been revealed yet? The bigger issue is how these characters will interact with the ones available at launch. If a new character is launched, will there be a counter to it already available? What about a composition of all post-launch characters? Will there be sales and bundles or could new heroes come out en masse in an expansion pack? These are important questions for the future of this game and I think Blizzard doesn’t want Overwatch to die after a couple of weeks like Evolve.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m not much of a first-person shooter fan. Overwatch certainly seems more promising for brining me back at release than your Battlefield Hardlines and your Evolves and even your Battlefronts. Having the variety in gameplay through the different characters is a unique touch that I find more impactful than new guns and perks.
So from a little weekend-long beta test, Overwatch seems pretty promising. Like any multiplayer-only game, how good it is will largely be determined by keeping a healthy player base for a long period of time. It’s something that other recent multiplayer-only shooters have failed at. It might be worth a buy at launch. Will it still be worth $40 six months down the road when the hype has cooled? Time will tell.
The Overwatch stress test closed beta was played on Windows PC. The game will be available on or before June 21, 2016, for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Impressions of this game do not necessarily represent the state of the game at release. Your impressions of the game may differ based on PC specs and what you want from the next attempt at a big first-person shooter franchise.