PAX East 2015: Porting and Power Smashing in Overwatch!

Even with the unexpected side project turned enormous hit that is Hearthstone, Overwatch may be the most unexpected project to ever gestate in the Blizzard offices. Some of that stems from its original concept as a futuristic MMO that would join World of WarCraft as a persistent online world with a monthly subscription revenue model, but its reconfiguration into a first person shooter was still a tremendous surprise when announced at BlizzCon last year.

The good news is, the amalgam of redeployed Titan elements and a new vision for those disparate parts has resulted in a fun, fast and frenetic combat experience. The first thing that hits you is the speed: Overwatch is a shooter built on starting at maximum speed and redlining through the entire match. The default control layout has the main keys mapped around your left hand: the standard WASD moves you around while 1 + 2 toggles weapons, Q + E deploys hero specific abilities and R reloads your weapon. The Space key is bound to jump, but it doesn’t seem particularly useful when many heroes have a fast travel ground or air based travel option.

It looks and feels like a hybrid of Team Fortress 2 and Destiny that combines the personality driven and highly differentiated character choices of the former with the smooth futuristic look and intensely satisfying weapon feel of the latter. Blizzard has a huge setup of 48 machines to support 4 simultaneous 6 versus 6 matches on the show floor, resulting in a pleasant surprise in back to back games for each attendee in line. Combined with the quick hero change option during each kill cam playback window, I got a chance to rotate through a lot of the available heroes by toggling after every 2-3 deaths which happened a lot as a lower performer in consecutive blowout losses (sorry, fellow press teammates). My hot takes:

  • Bastion: Primary assault rifle is an excellent suppression option but slow to kill opponents in head-to-head combat. Self-Repair is incredibly useful when ducking for cover, plays a lot like Sergeant Hammer in Heroes of the Storm (which may be deliberate).
  • Mercy: The abilities to both heal damage and amplify damage for your teammates is invaluable in heavy skirmishes, the blaster was surprisingly effective in desperation scenarios when I was isolated and being charged by aggressive attackers.
  • Reaper: Twin shotguns sound incredible, but I couldn’t get a feel for how short their effective range was. He seems like a high degree of difficulty but tremendously powerful hero, nailing his teleportation ability for ambushes and breaking up either turtle defenses or escaping pindown situations will be key to winning matches. A Heroes of the Storm point of comparison that comes to mind is Falstad.
  • Reinhardt: I couldn’t get a handle on his combination of melee attacks and lumbering speed. Even with a deployed forward facing shield, I was immediately sniped or flanked by the mainly fast moving and rapid firing opposing heroes that comprise the majority of Overwatch’s current roster.
  • Symmetra: She seems like an imperfect compromise, built with a mix of an inferior sentry turret and a continuous fire weapon that takes too long to build in damage to defeat rapid fire or high impact explosive weapons.
  • Tracer: My early favourite! She attacks and moves at a breakneck speed, abilities that pair with an ability to see allies or opponents through the map geometry for brief moments for strategic advantage. Her appearance and play style are akin to Nova in Heroes of the Storm, the Ghost assassin who struggles as a main point of attack but can wreak havoc as a free safety type of roving force.
  • Winston: The main hero featured in the debut trailer, he’s the basic soldier unit with a consistent automatic weapon and a blend of sporadic mobility and defensive boosts.

The demo map is often vexing in its lane focused structure and the Play of the Game algorithm currently has a heavy preference for kill streaks over style, degree of difficulty or overall impact on the end of match result; these are quibbles that can be easily adjusted during Blizzard’s lengthy testing and feedback oriented development process. Overwatch is the most exciting pre-release game I have played since Heroes of the Storm was brought to PAX East 2014, this is a game definitely worth lining up for.

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