Game preview: uld Blizzard’s Overwatch be the FPS of the year?

GameCentral has played the console version of Blizzard’s new online shooter, but will it be as big as Warcraft and Diablo?

It’s often forgotten that World Of Warcraft maker Blizzard started off making console games. The likes of Rock N’ Roll Racing and The Lost Vikings were well regarded at the time, but admittedly it wasn’t until Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo that the company really made their name. When they did, they quickly seemed to abandon not only consoles but traditional action games in genera. But Overwatch is a surprising return to both. And from what we’ve played of it so far a highly successful one.

Before this week we’d never played Overwatch before, even though it did have a closed beta on PC last year. What we had done though, is conduct a very encouraging interview with the creators at last year’s Gamescom event. At that point they hadn’t decided how the game would be sold. But despite rumours of it being free-to-play or subscription-based it is in fact being sold as an ordinary full price retail game. There have been vague hints of cosmetic microtransactions, but otherwise all talk of DLC and post-launch content is that it’ll all be free.

Thanks to the likes of Star Wars: Battlefront and Street Fighter V, online-focused multiplayer games have been through a rough patch lately. But the one thing you can’t accuse Overwatch of is a lack of content, at least in terms of the number of characters. There are 21 in the game at launch, organised into one of four class types but very much presented like fighting game characters in terms of their colourful personalities, radically different designs, and equally varied abilities and weapons.

And while you’d expect Team Fortress 2 to be the more obvious comparison, there’s a real old school Capcom feel to Overwatch. From the endearingly colourful art design to the instantly likeable (or hiss-able) characters, this feels like a modern day arcade game; one that remains relentlessly cheerful even while you’re pumping fools full of lead (or plasma bolts, or freeze rays, or whatever).

There’s nominal lead Tracer, who’s a chirpy cockney with time travel powers, and a Clint Eastwood cowboy stand-in called McCree. Both of these are in the offense class but the support types include a robotic yogi called Zenyatta and a DJ named Lúcio who can help speed up his allies.

The defense types include a distaff Mr Freeze called Mei and a bow and arrow-wielding samurai called Hanzo. While the tanks include a cybernetic gorilla called Winston and what looks like a sci-fi version of a Dark Souls knight. We tried to play at least briefly as all of them, but you can read up on them all here at the official website.

At the website you’ll see that each has their own unique weapon and abilities. Sometimes multiple special abilities, sometimes alternative fire modes for their guns, but nothing is regimented and everything seems designed to make everyone feel as unique as possible. Offense types Solider: 76 and Reaper were early favourites amongst many players at the preview simply because they looked and played like regular first person shooter characters, but hopefully that will only be a passing phase as people get used to the weirder options.

Perhaps because we were playing Doom over the weekend, we favoured Pharah – an Egyptian-themed warrior with a missile launcher who can also boost into the air and hover, and fires wrist-mounted missiles. The latter, like all abilities, works on a short countdown timer, while everyone also has a super move meter that slowly fills over time, and more quickly as you take and receive damage. Pharah’s is a giant swarm of unguided missiles, which as you can imagine comes in handy in a crowd.

We actually got MVP with Pharah, while our other most successful stint was as Junkrat – a peg-legged scavenger with an unconvincing Australian accent. He’s armed with a mortar that fires bouncing grenades, but he can also lay traps and has an infinite supply of remote-controlled mines. His special move is to turn into a giant exploding tyre, and he also has a special post-death ability to drop a handful of grenades as he keels over.

If you’re sneering at these descriptions, complaining that they’re all too silly and unrealistic, then it could well be that Overwatch is not for you. But we loved it. And that’s not just because one of the characters is a transforming robot that turns into a Gatling gun turret and can repair himself (and has a pet bird).

Importantly, the first person shooter controls and gunplay are extremely solid. But they are atypical, in that most characters don’t have a zoom or iron sights option. Someone like Widowmaker does with her sniper rifle (she also has a grappling hook and poison gas mines), but most do not. That seems a bit odd at first but you soon get used to it, and it’s almost impossible that you won’t find at least one character you like playing as. Especially as you can switch every time you die, to keep trying a different one.

If we have any complaint it’s that the three game modes we saw weren’t very distinctive or exciting, and all seemed to blur into one another. Assault is King of the Hill, except with two areas on the map you’re trying to claim/defend; while Control is basically the same thing but with one control point and a best-of-three scoring system. Escort has you following a vehicle as it moves from one end of a map to the other, which also isn’t terribly original.

But if they can make the game modes even half as interesting as the characters Blizzard should be onto a real winner here. Especially as we haven’t even mentioned the Korean pro gamer who pilots an anime style mech that you can self-destruct before carrying along on foot. Or the dwarf guy who collects resources to build turrets and armour packs for other players, or the cybernetic ninja that can climb up walls and shoot shuriken, or…. well, you get the idea.

The game itself is out on May 24, but if you pre-order from GAME then there’s a closed beta that starts on May 5. Or if you’re more cautious you can join in for free from the 5th until the 9th. We had no strong feelings on the game going into the preview, but a few hours later and it instantly became one of our most anticipated games of the year. We can only imagine how we’ll feel about it after a few more hours of play.

Formats: PlayStation 4 (previewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: 24th May 2016

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