Blizzard's Overwatch is, in the grand scheme of shooters, kinda simple. Each character has one weapon, levels are straightforward, and movement speed feels like everybody is a giant moon ape—not just, you know, the giant moon ape. At first I wasn't impressed, but then I discovered how interesting its characters are.
It took me a little while to warm up to team-based shooter Overwatch, to understand exactly what sort of fun I was having. Let's go through that process moment-by-moment:
My First Match—It's the Egyptian-themed Temple of Anubis level, and my team is on defense. We've got to stop the other team from capturing points all the way to our base's front doorstep (do pyramids have doorsteps?), and I pick Tracer, the rad warping British girl who did a bunch of cool flips in Overwatch's Pixar-esque reveal trailer. Her two rapid-fire pulse pistols do decent damage, and warping—while limited to three successive uses—makes me feel like a really irritating fly nobody can swat (who is also part-ghost). She's super fun and lobs charming quips almost as fast as she dispenses hot lead. I pretty much immediately adore her.
I die immediately.
The other team rushes out of their gate, I panic as soon as I see a walking robot tank wielding a hammer bigger than me and a holo-shield bigger than god, and I warp face-first into a wall. Somebody quickly puts an end to my childlike flailing, probably while laughing.
It's not an auspicious beginning, but it is kinda exciting. The rest of the match, however, unfolds in a pretty standard—albeit chaotic and competitive—fashion. If nothing else, I'm impressed by how good and tight the shooting feels. Blizzard's never made an FPS, but you wouldn't know it by playing Overwatch.
Each point capture is a tiny war of attrition with bullets, arrows, and teleporting death wizards flying, but the other team pushes us back. Each time I die, I slowly trudge back to the center of the small-ish level because Overwatch doesn't have a sprint button—just movement speed comparative to older Halo games and mobility skills (e.g. Tracer's teleport). Mobility skills are fun, but it feels strange to me that I can't just, you know, sprint from time-to-time. It feels off, especially for a PC shooter.
I get bored of Tracer as the 10-or-so minute match progresses. Warping is fun, but it's not proving effective against the other team's Reinhardt push, wherein they get behind the aforementioned mecha tank man and shoot through his shield while our bullets sink into it like puppies piling onto a Tempur-Pedic mattress. Tracer is too squishy. She can't quite make it past their defenses.
I do, however, come across one really great feature: I can switch between any of the game's many characters mid-match. So long as I'm in my team's spawning zone, I need only hold down H to go to the character select screen. I insta-switch to the hooded, smoke-spewing Reaper, but he and I don't get on so well. He's very slow in an already slow game; he walks slowly, he reloads slowly, his long-distance teleport (functionally very different from Tracer's short-distance insta-warp) takes ages to go from start to finish.
We lose the match, and my first impressions aren't super positive. I mean, it wasn't terrible. I just felt like I played a slightly slower-than-I'm-used-to, simple shooter on a map that was visually interesting but otherwise unexciting. It didn't hook me. Blizzard definitely took elements of Team Fortress 2 and sliced off oily mounds of fat, but did they slice off too much?
The Great Snipe-Off—Next I decide to try out Widowmaker, the chilly lady sniper. Now, I'm not a great sniper, but I'm a middle-of-the-road one. Mainly, I want to try out her mobility skill, which is a grappling hook—aka The Tool All Games Should Have Even If They're Farming Simulator. We're defending on a confined city level, King's Row, and I quickly find a couple areas to grapple onto. Nothing too crazy or high up, but the thrill of Batman-ing my way around a level few other characters can explore that way is undeniable. The place is largely non-vertical, though, and I find myself disappointed by that.
I clamber up onto a sniper perch right above a courtyard where my team is taking potshots in the general direction of our enemies' base. I peek out around a corner, only to nearly swallow my own heart. Another sniper has taken a clock tower on the other side of the courtyard, and a friendly "hullo!" bullet grazes my temple.
It. Is. On.
We trade kills for a while, like you do, but my favorite moment comes when I've dealt enough damage to unleash my character's ultra: a screen overlay that briefly shows my entire team where the other team is. Every movement, every attempt at subterfuge or subtlety. Despite the fact that I'm no longer doing so hot in the sniper showdown, my team uses the information I've provided to push hard. We manage to keep the other team pinned down until the clock runs out, and we win. When it's all said and done I'm hardly our team's number one individual player, but I feel like I tipped the scales in our direction at the end. It's a good feeling.
SYNERGY—It's not until my third full session with Overwatch—after a couple two-round matches—that things begin to really click. It all begins when I witness the coolest thing. On the attractively gothic King's Row level one team needs to deliver a payload (via a hovering tram) from one side of the level to the other. Easier said than done, but I steel myself for more basic back-and-forth run-and-gun.
Then something truly awesome happens: we secure the payload, and my team's tank, mecha man Reinhardt, hops on top of it and holds out his shield. Suddenly, a cybersteampunk light bulb goes off in the head of our engineer, robo-dwarf Torbjorn. He hops on top of the tram too, immediately deploying his turret. Unstoppable force and immovable object, together at last. With our powers combined, we form low-rent DIY Voltron.
We absolutely steamroll the other team. The match is over in, like, five minutes. I refer to it as the Death Turtle Gambit, but apparently around Blizzard it's known as The Killdozer. Whatever, my name is totally better.
Admittedly, it's also the first of many pieces of evidence that Overwatch is—in this early state—hideously unbalanced, but that's kinda to be expected at this point. Granted, with so many different characters and abilities, I imagine balance will always be an issue for this game. Whether Blizzard's nerfs and buffs strike with lightning-like speed and accuracy or painful slowness remains to be seen.
There's A "Me" In "Team" Because I'm The Greatest—After playing four or five matches, I start to feel comfortable with the general flow of Overwatch's matches. More importantly, I find the characters that allow me to fit into that flow to the best of my abilities. One of my best moments come when I'm playing as floating robo-monk Zenyatta and I team up with a particularly solid Reinhardt player. I quickly affix a healing orb to him, and it's like the old saying goes, "The tanks get tanker." (Note: no saying actually goes that way.)
He then holds up his shield as most of the other team assaults the point we're trying to capture, and I intermittently pop out from behind it with a fully charged orb attack. Thanks to my support abilities and his shield, we're super survivable, and the other team doesn't really know what to do. Meanwhile, my charged strikes land oh-so-satisfyingly, bringing down baddies one-by-one. We take the point, even though there are only two of us and four or five of them. It's a total rush.
My best single moment, though, comes when I'm playing as Hanzo, the hyper-mobile samurai assassin. His primary attack is a simple bow and arrow, but two of his other three abilities modify it. One arrow type reveals enemy locations on a small scale, but the other—my favorite—is a multi-shot that ricochets off the walls, positively obliterating smaller spaces like a firework accidentally set off indoors.
We're on the Hanamura, Japan level, and the other team is holed up in a rather spacious temple. We've got them pinned down, but we're not gaining any ground. I let a multi-arrow fly at the back wall, and it bounces into one... two... three (!) people. A triple-kill, in the blink of an eye. This charges the heck out of my ultra, a ghostly snake-dragon the size of a small godzilla that charges through all in its path. I unleash it and then use it as anyone would a screaming embodiment of pure, destructive rage: for stealth. While the other team stares on, deer-in-headlights-style, in a way that seems to say, "GODFUCKHELP, THERE IS A GIANT DRAGON IN THIS FIRST-PERSON SHOOTER," I charge forward in its shadow and plug arrows into the one person my dragon didn't slurp up.
The craziest part? I didn't even get "best play of the game," something that's shown at the end of every match. That honor went to our team's Tracer, who warped into said temple, dropped her ultra—this crazy massive bomb—and then rewound time (probably Tracer's coolest ability) to place herself back outside the temple, completely undamaged. Then the bomb went off. This all happened in, like, five seconds.
After witnessing that I become much better at playing/understanding Tracer, whose personality I dig the most. Really, though, the expressiveness of all the characters means there are plenty of solid picks for personality and power. Overwatch exudes an effusive charm. Maybe the catchphrases and reactions will get annoying in time, but for now they put a smile on my face.
Overwatch's movement doesn't feel entirely perfect to me, the levels need work, and I wonder if it'll have lasting appeal, but in some ways basic is better. Each character is really, actually, honestly different from the others, and that's why Overwatch shines. When players wordlessly dream up inventive strategies on the fly, the ensuing chaos is a perfect reward, a magical rainbow peeking out from behind a storm cloud and then exploding. I can only imagine what'll happen when people really come to grips with the game, turning on a dime to change up characters and strategies mid-match. Here's hoping other elements of the game can keep up.