by Jed Pressgrove
Note: This review is heavily shaped by my preference to play as Pharah.
Developer Blizzard Entertainment’s design philosophy for Overwatch follows Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s observation about the importance of style: “It’s not what we say but how we say it that matters.” Thanks to an eclectic cast with unchangeable unique moves, Overwatch is an online shooter that carries the spirit of a fighting game, the only video-game genre that consistently attempts to evoke ethnic pride. The combination of diverse playable heroes, straightforward rules, and a team-centric focus (you can be recognized for healing or defending as much as you can be for attacking) gives Overwatch a welcoming vibe that is unlike anything you will find in online shooters, whose learning curves and macho overemphasis on kill counts keep many newcomers at bay. The joy of Overwatch’s aesthetics — as represented by the dueling tactics of visually distinct legends — counterbalances familiar map design, redundancies in strategy, and inconsistencies in logic.
Much has been said about Overwatch’s characters allowing players of different backgrounds to feel more included, but similar to the case with fighting games, this effect is limited though admirable. Not every culture or identity is represented (Blizzard Entertainment making one of its characters gay in an out-of-game public-relations move is not compelling). And unlike Street Fighter II, where every fighter has his or her own specific stage, Overwatch’s settings are more about the dynamics of conflict than a sense of place, background, and purpose. Overwatch looks far more interesting than Team Fortress 2 and the like, but after a while, a passageway is a passageway, an arena is an arena, and a ledge is a ledge, regardless of what location a map supposedly represents.
Still, the different abilities of the characters make these places come to life, especially in cases where the two teams get locked in a seesaw battle for 100-percent dominion over a single checkpoint. Overwatch is at its best when no team gets a short break, with just enough members on both sides keeping the fight alive until the vanquished respawn and rejoin the chaos. Unfortunately, Overwatch’s design doesn’t make this scenario likely enough. Each character has an ultimate move, but the balancing is off with the attack-oriented ones. Some of these moves are tricky to perform (such as Pharah’s Barrage), while others are hard to mess up because of incredible range (D.Va’s Self-Destruct), so it can feel like you’re unfairly rewarded or punished when using an ultimate.
Another issue is the advantage of stationary shooting, which can create repetitive moments of frustration (especially when Bastion and Torbjörn huddle up). To describe how this dynamic can overturn a more interesting game, Pharah seems built for creative flanking maneuvers, but illogically, you will often have more trouble killing an unarmored individual with an automatic than they will have killing you, despite your flying around from a higher position. So instead of making use of her jet pack, you can perch on tiny horizontal platforms and kill people approaching objectives from ridiculous distances. On some stages, this tactic makes the proceedings downright unfair, despite the fun you can have being a cheap asshole. At the same time, the ability to switch characters after you die does allow opportunities to craft a viable, game-changing counter, as you can see the vantage point of the person who kills you after death.
Overwatch’s limitations are ultimately overcome by its unusual dedication to fun shooting for all. This commitment can be seen in the moments before the gates open to the battlefield, when you can destroy property ranging from arcade machines to nice furniture and act silly in front of your teammates. By the time you walk through the gates, the game is more serious and urgent, yet the feeling remains that Overwatch goes out of its way to ensure players have a good time, in victory or defeat, making it difficult to deny the revolutionary tone of the shooter’s popular appeal.