It takes a lot for a multiplayer game to stand out these days - and yet, somehow, Blizzard has managed to make Overwatch do just that.
In a sea of boring, modern military shooters, Overwatch's bright colors and huge cast of characters are a very welcome change of pace - but that doesn't necessarily guarantee that Overwatch will be a good game.
This is, after all, Blizzard's first foray into the first-person shooter genre - not only that, but it's the company's first new franchise in nearly two decades (StarCraft launched back in 1998). Considering how badly Blizzard's Titan MMO crashed and burned, there's always a chance that Overwatch could suffer the same fate.
There's also the fact that, like many shooters of the past few years, Overwatch is multiplayer-only. That doesn't make it a bad game, and the promise of free downloadable content somewhere down the line certainly inspires hope, but the question remains: will there be any reason to return to Overwatch once players have seen everything the game has to offer?
Thankfully, the answer is yes. Overwatch is a ridiculously fun game, and one that finally proves that the multiplayer-only formula can actually work.
Overwatch is, at its core, a multiplayer shooter. Everything about the game revolves around taking on another team of six combatants - and, while there are a few modes that replace your teammates with AI bots, Overwatch is only really worth playing if you're going up against teams of actual people.
All matches in Ovewatch are objective-based; if you're looking for something like Team Deathmatch, you'll need to go elsewhere. Players will always be focused on a singular point on the map: you may need to escort a payload through the map, or hold and defend points from an enemy team. Modes are also built specifically for each of the 12 different stages, meaning that you'll never play a game of Escort on anything other than a designated Escort map.
At first, that may sound limiting - after all, games like Halo and Call of Duty typically support a number of modes across several maps. However, because Blizzard designed each arena to work around a single game type, Overwatch features some of the most tightly focused multiplayer maps in recent memory. Each stage is full of different paths and possible strategies, allowing and encouraging each of the game's characters to use the stage in unique ways.
Long story short, the game's modes are all a lot of fun to play, even if they're all relatively similar to one another. Plus, there's still a lot of room to grow: Deathmatch may never make an appearance in Overwatch, but it'd be interesting to see what the team could do with something like Capture the Flag or Oddball.
On top of its different modes, Overwatch boasts 21 characters, each of which falls into one of four classes: Offense, Defense, Tank and Support. Offense players are built to push the front lines forward, Defense characters are meant to stay back and protect the objective, Tanks are meant to disrupt the enemy team and Support characters buff their teammates while avoiding direct combat.
Heroes also possess a unique "Ultimate" ability, an incredibly strong attack or technique that unlocks as the match progresses. This could be something as simple as Soldier: 76′s lock-on Tactical Visor, or a more passive ability like Mercy's Resurrect. Most do a fantastic job of complementing a character's moveset and playstyle - even at their worst, Ultimates can still shift the tide of battle.
The best part about the characters of Overwatch is their flexibility. True, they've all been built for a relatively specific style of play, but they can be used in different ways: for example, Reaper's dual shotguns means that he'll always be fighting at close range - and, while his ability to teleport around the map makes him great for pushing the offense, his Wraith form (and the invulnerability it provides) also means that he can stay back and defend an objective if he needs to. Every character is built with this sort of flexibility in mind, and it makes trying out new characters and strategies both fun and rewarding.
Better yet, each and every one of the Heroes has been expertly balanced. Some may be more annoying to deal with than others (looking at you, Roadhog), but no one character feels like they're better than the rest. If you're losing, it's not because the enemy team is only using the strongest characters - it's because they're outplaying you.
It's this focus on characters that makes Overwatch such a success. Players may jump in with only a single character in mind, but it probably won't be long before you're playing and experimenting with the entire roster. Adapting and switching up strategies to change as a match goes on creates a gameplay flow that players won't find anywhere else. True, it can be frustrating to play with a less-than-effective team - but those moments pale in comparison to the sense of satisfaction when you and your allies work together to systematically devastate the opposition.
The only thing that's a bit of a letdown is that there's no single-player content. That's not to say that Overwatch is weaker because there's no story mode, but it does feel like a missed opportunity. Blizzard did such a fantastic job of creating a unique, engaging world and filling it with interesting characters, but there's nothing that really takes advantage of it. To be fair, it makes sense that the team passed up on a linear campaign, but it's still a shame that most of the lore and characterization in the game comes from bits of random dialogue.
At least it actually works - unlike in other Blizzard games, players should have no trouble whatsoever signing in or getting into a match. That may not sound like much, but given the publisher's prior history, Overwatch has had a surprisingly solid launch.
Simply put, Overwatch is gorgeous.
From a technical standpoint, the game is nearly perfect. Aliasing may be more prevalent in the console versions of the game, but it's a worthwhile sacrifice for the rock-solid 60 frames per second that Overwatch maintains. Granted, there are times where the game simply can't keep up with everything that's going on, but these moments are few and far between.
It's the art style that really steals the show. You'd think that a game featuring an angel, a post-apocalyptic biker gang, a robot monk, a ghost and a talking gorilla would feel slapped together, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. Each and every character is filled to the brim with personality and charm, and smaller touches like hand-drawn effects and exaggerated animations make Overwatch feel something like a classic Saturday morning cartoon.
The game's audio design is equally excellent, and it's obvious that the voice cast had a ton of fun voicing the game's characters. Each Hero has their own, distinct personality, and they're great at providing just enough tactical information (incoming Ultimate attacks, nearby teleporters) without giving players an unfair advantage. Add to that some fantastic music and effects, and Overwatch quickly becomes a perfect example of how audio can enhance gameplay, not simply complement it.
At the end of the day, Overwatch can be a tricky game to recommend. Its gameplay is laser-focused, but the fact that it's such a huge departure from the rest of the genre may turn some players off. It creates a unique and interesting world, but there's nothing that truly takes advantage of the lore or characters' backstories. It's incredibly fun, but only if you're fine with playing the same maps and modes over and over again.
That being said, everyone should give Overwatch a shot at least once. Aside from the 9-year-old Team Fortress 2, there's really nothing like it - and even when comparing Blizzard's latest to Valve's classic shooter, it's easy to see that Overwatch is the better game. The characters, the modes, the presentation - everything about the game is fantastic, even if there's not necessarily a ton of unique content on the disc.
The $60 price tag may sound like a lot to spend on a multiplayer-only game, but if you're tired of the endless waves of boring, by-the-numbers PvP modes, this is exactly what you've been looking for. Overwatch is a ridiculous amount of fun, plain and simple.
This review is based on both PS4 and Xbox One copies of Overwatch, provided by publisher Blizzard Entertainment.