Overwatch: Preview

There is no deathmatch in Overwatch. Let that sink in for a moment. Here’s a first-person shooter wherein simply offing your opposite numbers for the duration of a match and then seeing at the end if your team has won or lost just won’t cut it. When you pick a hero or villain to participate in any of the game modes (of which currently two have been revealed), you’re very patently playing as part of a coordinated group. Blizzard’s aim is to drag your concerns away from your own kill/death ratio and focus them onto your co-players, to the point where the go-to game mode included in almost every multiplayer first-person shooter going is not only totally surplus to requirements, it would be actively detrimental to the game’s philosophy.

It all sounds very Team Fortress 2, doesn’t it? But, for Blizzard, pushing on from Valve’s long-running, one-of-a-kind team-based shooter and ushering in a new benchmark for the genre means throwing in the added spice of a huge roster of deeply varied characters and their intertwining abilities. Oh, and painting the whole shebang in more colour and verve than you’d find if Pixar were air-dropped in to sort out the costumes for the Rio Carnival.

“I would say there are two main things that sum up Overwatch,” says Jeff Kaplan, the game’s director. “One is the absolute focus on epic heroes that you love as characters. Heroes that have the coolest, craziest abilities that you never thought you would see in an FPS before.” You can judge for yourself over the next few pages as to whether or not Blizzard is succeeding in this regard (spoiler: it is).

“The second part,” continues Kaplan, “is an emphasis on team play. It’s not just about you going out and looking at the scoreboard to see if you’re at the top of it. We really want the focus to be: did our team win? Did we collaborate and achieve the objectives?”
“Heroes that have the coolest, craziest abilities that you never thought you’d see in an fps”
Trace’s High
The first of those two aforementioned game modes, Payload, sees attacking and defending teams battle over its titular mobile objective. Point Capture, meanwhile, is about taking or retaining critical locations across each map. These modes, as well as the maps themselves, are designed to inspire unique approaches depending on the characters each team rolls out with. In fact, when building the stages, Blizzard tests them constantly, running through them with each and every hero to ensure they contain satisfying traversal routes regardless of if you can jetpack, teleport, or, uh, gorilla-charge about.

Back to those character ability combos, though. One example of an inspired tactical approach, which Blizzard playfully dubs “the killdozer,” sees Swedish, turret-building bearded chap Torbjörn activate his Molten Core ultimate ability, encompassing him in a lava-tinted suit of protective armour. He then leaps down to quickly build a turret atop the mobile payload objective and leaps out again. With this done, the tank character Winston lobs a Shield Projector down, ensuring the turret is protected
from incoming fire by an arcing neon bubble as it travels towards its objective, obliterating any enemies it meets along the way.

Some perspective: this is a cross-character combination thrown up with just the two players acting together. With 14 characters announced so far, and more to come, each boasting four or five unique skills, there’s a startling number of ability combinations to consider, and as such a mountain of depth for you to mine.

Move Over Moba
This blending of co-operative skill combinations might sound familiar to veterans of MOBAs such as Dota 2 or League Of Legends, but Overwatch is set to follow Blizzard’s other attempts to open up traditionally hardcore genres to wider audiences. Much like Hearthstone did for the collectible card game and Heroes Of The Storm is currently doing in open beta form for the no-longer-humble MOBA, Overwatch is about taking the groundwork laid down by the likes of TF2 and opening the whole thing up like a rocket-hammer to a piñata full of other rocket-hammers. In fact, this focus on accessibility is an area which the team is constantly feeding back to itself on.

“One of the things that we learned is that we have to do a better job of educating people about team composition; that it matters. They [the players] get that it’s a team game. Now we need to do a better job of making it easy to play and communicate with your team, so that’s informed a lot of our decision making.”

Most importantly, Overwatch wants to make sure there’s a character and a combination of skills that will resonate with everyone, regardless of how good they might be at first-person shooting. “For us, it has nothing to do with player skill,” says Kaplan. “Players from all skill levels need an approachability ramp into the game. Even the hardest of the hardcore player needs some level of approachability.”

This inclusiveness spreads outward into the visual design of the characters, too. You don’t have to look hard to espy heroes from minority backgrounds and ethnicities you’ve not seen represented in gaming’s triple-A halls before.The game’s array of body sizes and shapes plants sticky explosives to the backsides of your tired, stereotypically white beefcake shooter protagonists.

Zen At Work
According to Kaplan there is no one approach when it comes to putting these characters together; ideas can spring from concept art, narrative writing, or a gameplay idea too good to not chase down.

“We have people like Arnold [Tsang, Overwatch’s lead concept artist] he draws some of the characters and it just blows us away. Sometimes he’ll draw a character and we will just say, ‘That has to be a hero. We don’t know what it’s going to do yet, but we’ll figure it out.’”

Take Tracer. The teleporting tearaway with spiky hair and a cockney cheek to her was the first character in the roster to be developed. “It all started with Tracer,” Kaplan reminisces. “She started off [as] a hero with a short-range teleport, that was the core design concept. Recall [an ability allowing her to travel back in time to restore health, ammo and position] came later, and Pulse Bomb [a time-delayed sticky explosive with a high-damage blast radius] came later still. And then the fact that she was Tracer, this time travelling former RAF pilot who’d gotten caught in a chronal rift. And then came Arnold’s beautiful character design.”

With Zenyatta, Overwatch’s debuffing-focused character, the whole foundation of his design sprung from a minor scribble in an initial internal design doc.

“Zenyatta was actually designed by [lead system designer] Scott Mercer; he was one of the guys who designed a ton of the Raid encounters on World Of Warcraft. And in his design doc he sort of mentioned in, like, a footnote: ‘Oh yeah, by the way, he’s a cybernetic monk.’ And then Arnold and Chris Metzen [Blizzard’s senior vice president] just really latched onto that concept and created who I think is one of our strongest heroes.”

The story of the game takes place about 30 years in the future, after a robotic rebellion has almost caused the collapse of humanity. To combat the rise of the Omnix robot race, the world’s best fighters banded together to form the peacekeeping Overwatch organisation of the game’s title. After their robotic foes were successfully defeated and time passed, however, the ties that bound them together began to fray...

The moon is inhabited by intelligent gorillas. No, really. Winston was a part of the Horizon Lunar Colony’s genetically-modified gorilla population, intended to test how shacking up in space for longer periods of time affected living habits. It all got a bit, uh, hairy, though, when the other gorillas staged an uprising, killing all the scientists, including Winston’s namesake mentor. He escaped and joined Overwatch.

While trafficking arms on the wrong side of the law, Jesse McCree was captured by Overwatch as part of a sting. Seeing how useful he and his Peacekeeper revolver could be in a scrap, they gave him a choice: either kick his heels in prison, or join up with their shadowy Blackwatch covert arm. When Blackwatch turned bad, a reformed McCree took off by himself to become a gun-for-hire.

This mysterious cyborg ninja has so far only appeared in promotional artwork no-one knows his (or her?) name yet. Kaplan teases, “We’ve tried to do a good job at dropping some hints of things to look forward to. We were very deliberate in the fact that there were a couple of heroes there that we’ve never really talked about. We leave those out there as something for everybody to think about”.

After losing her parents to war, brilliant surgeon Angela Ziegler became an advocate for world peace. While she came to loggerheads with Overwatch’s leaders due to their occasionally violent approach, Angela eventually developed her Valkyrie swift-response suit. When the organisation disbanded, she left to help those affected by crises around the globe, but still steps into her suit when she needs to.

Encased in his Crusader armour, Reinhardt Wilhelm became known as a staunch and vocal champion for good. Adopting a code of honour similar to that of a knight of old, Reinhardt holds valour, justice and courage in the highest esteem. After being forced to retire, and then watch as the heroic force he once held dear capitulated, Reinhardt, now aged 61, has donned his armour again to defend the innocent.

Weapons engineer Torbjorn Lindholm was often described by peers as paranoid for his deep distrust of intelligent robots. Overwatch looked to him and his weapons systems when said bots turned on their human masters. He and his creations proved essential to maintaining peace, but many of them fell into the wrong hands. Now he travels the world determined to prevent them from harming the innocent.

After an experimental Overwatch flight program went wrong, former RAF pilot Lena Oxton, call sign Tracer, was left decoupled from time, disappearing uncontrollably for hours and days at a clip. She was saved by gorilla-in-arms Winston, who invented a clever device that keeps her anchored to the present and as a lovely bonus, allows her to manipulate the time-stream as she joins the good fight.

It can’t be a coincidence, right? That this studio, which once upon a time earned its keep putting together The Lost Vikings and Amiga ports, is now one of the few development behemoths in the world with nary a blemish on its back-catalogue. As Blizzard dances through action-RPGs by way of MOBAs and MMOs, however, it doesn’t explicitly look for a gaming hole that needs filling. The truth, according to 13-year studio veteran and game director Jeff Kaplan, is much more palatable.

“I would say the conscious effort is not [that] we want to tackle as many new genres as possible,” he says. “Rather than analysing the market and asking what are popular genres, or where do we see a big opportunity in terms of capturing market share… That’s just not how we work. The way that we’ve enjoyed success in the past is, as a company, we’re super passionate about a certain game type and just want to make a game in that genre. That’s what happened with World Of Warcraft, that’s exactly what happened with Heroes Of The Storm, Hearthstone and Overwatch. It was because we had a passion for other games that we loved, that led us to venture out into those genres.”

The path to Overwatch was not so smooth, however. It was born from the ashes of Blizzard’s attempt to craft another MMO in the wake of World Of Warcraft. But “it just wasn’t coming together as a game,” reflects Kaplan, who spent five years of his life working on this ill-fated project. Titan, as the mysterious MMO was called internally, inspired the team with “high expectations for what we wanted to do.” But the welcome burden of Warcraft’s incredible success proved too great.

“In a post-World Of Warcraft world, how do we make another great MMO? We let the expectations overwhelm us and overwhelm the project. At a certain point you just realise things aren’t coming together.” Even after so much time and money had been spent on Titan, they knew they had to pull the plug. That type of leadership, being able to kill something when you just know it’s not working, rather than forcing it out of the door, has sort of defined Blizzard over the years.”
“In a post-world of warcraft world, how do we make another Great mmo? the expectations overwhelmed us ” 
What remains of Titan in Overwatch, though? Aside from the fact that it was to be set in a similar sci-fi world, Kaplan tactfully dodges this direct question, revealing instead how the development squad actively looked to all of the other teams and projects in the studio’s 4,000 person strong army of talent.

“There’s definitely influence from Titan in the game… but when you have a broad reach of games behind you, you tend to pull from all of them in some ways. A lot of our environmental and world design influence comes from World Of Warcraft. The bright colours, you know nothing’s dark and dreary. We definitely look at the previous experience on other projects as a strength that we can leverage,” he adds. “We should be talking to each other and learning from mistakes so we don’t repeat them.”

Two successes in Blizzard’s back catalogue immediately spring to mind: Hearthstone’s free-to-play experiment coming good, and Diablo III’s console edition on PS4 and Xbox One. We put both of these before Kaplan, and ask if Overwatch will learn from them.

“We’re still working out the entire business model,” he says. “And as part of that, we’ll be looking into other platforms. Obviously we want our games to reach as many people as possible. You want to engage the community [on] any level that you can. But right now the only platform that we’ve announced is PC.”

You can read as much between the lines there as us. One thing we do know for sure: whatever it’s released on, Overwatch looks ready to follow in the footsteps of its raft of illustrious predecessors. Roll on the autumn beta…

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