PolyNerdic Review: Overwatch

Sometimes, not always, but sometimes it pays to put things off.

And oh boy have I ever been putting off my review of Overwatch.

If you’ve been following along you likely know that for most of this month my relationship with Overwatch has been a contentious one.  The biggest issue can be seen below:

That is only fifteen minutes of the problem but for the better part of two weeks whenever I tried to play I would experience long runs of the game doing what it did above, two such instances lasting between 30 and 50 minutes each.  On top of this frustrating issue was the fact that the game was actually considering me “in” a match while it was doing this.  If I quit and returned to the menu it counted as a “leaving early” and eventually I was hit with a -75% experience penalty (I wrote more about it here).

The game had been so universally praised, many outlets I have long respected giving it a perfect score, yet my experience was so utterly negative that I felt a sort of betrayal and was ready to pen a scathing review with a 4 or 5 score.

Thankfully I was able to talk myself out of that gut-check reaction and save my review for a more level headed time.  Of course the two weeks of frustration will admittedly bring the score down but since it is largely running well now it won’t be anywhere near as impactful on the score as it was back at the start of June.

As a team based shooter Overwatch is largely a great game.  Each character brings something unique to the battle, with different characters functioning as counters for other characters.  You can change your character every time you die or when you are in your team’s “base” which technically allows for the opportunity to rebalance the teams throughout the match.  The matches themselves unfold in standard 6v6 fair, with either a control point to capture/defend or payload (read: cart) to escort at a snail’s pace across the map.  The levels themselves are undeniably beautiful to look at but vary in quality when it comes to design.  The focus is obstensibly on teamplay and not simply on Rambo-ing your way through a match to the highest K/D ratio but many of the game’s design decisions fly in the face of that (more on that later).

When Overwatch is working, as in the players are playing the way the game was intended, it is absolutely freaking fantastic.  I’ve played sessions where a complete team of randoms has gelled beautifully and we’ve won match after match.  Heroes are changed on the fly to counter the opposing team’s selections, support characters are being effectively used to keep offensive characters in the fight through healing and offensive buffs and everyone is playing the objective.  Seemingly just as often though I find myself in a team with random strangers who are incapable of playing the objective or who stubbornly stick to the same characters, running into the fray (or into fire from a turret/Bastion) again and again and again.  I feel this often happens because despite the team based game style elements of the game push players into standard FPS play styles if they want to be highlighted in either post match stat screens or the “coveted” Play of the Game replay.  In the last 3 to 3 1/2 weeks I may have seen one or two replays that weren’t some sort of “impressive” killstreak (I put impressive in quotes because sometimes said streak is simply a character using or being a turret while 3 to 6 players run blindly into their line of fire).  While a true play of the game, a moment that turns the tide of the game, could be something like a single player storming the objective, dodging fire and taking out the last one or two defenders and taking the objective single handedly you’ll never see it as the game uses much more simple parameters for its highlight generation.

The ability to change characters on the fly as well as not preventing players from selecting the same characters can also be a major issue with the game.  I have seen matches degenerate into utter shitshows when one team composes itself entirely of one character or another.  Some maps have horrible choke-points and a team full of Torbjorn can effectively lock off the objective with 6 double barrelled turrets.  For the non-Overwatch player, Torbjorn is a dwarvish looking character with an arguably over powered turret that he can place and repair keeping it in the fight.  The turret has ridiculous range and accuracy and will very quickly tear you apart from a distance, making Torbjorn one of the most overpowered characters when effectively used (I once went 31 and 2 with him by simply placing my turret on the edge of the objective and standing around the corner where I could spam the repair function).  I have also encountered teams entirely composed of Soldier 76 (who plays well with the standard FPS crowd) and half to 2/3 composed of Bastion (a robot who can turn into a gatling-gun turret).  A lot of progress could be made by nerfing some of these and limiting character selection to at least two of character on a team.

As I said before the maps are beautifully designed when it comes to visual quality but many of them have some glaring flaws when it comes to gameplay.  Several of the maps have brutal choke-points that can be exploited leading to one team spending the entire match slamming into a wall of death with little chance of breaking through.  Often times the defending team’s base is too far away from the objective, meaning a well timed attack (or poorly handled defense) can lead to enough defenders being killed to start swinging control to the attackers with zero chance for the defending team to slowly (most characters have a single movement speed) make their way back in time.  Inversely matches start with a 60 second countdown during which the the defending team is free to roam the level while the attackers are held up in their base.  Normally this isn’t an issue but I’ve increasingly encountered matches where the entire defending team sets up just outside the attacker’s base allowing them to slaughter them the moment the gates drop and they step out.

There is no standard progression to this game.  As is common in the shooter genre you gain experience through your actions in matches (victories, etc) but instead of unlocking new weapons and such you get a random loot box each time you level up.  When you open the box you get a series of completely cosmetic “rewards” which is either awesome or disappointing depending on who you talk to.  In my experience the rewards are largely useless sprays (you can “tag” the wall, etc in game with character specific or generic markings), emblems for your player profile and the slightly less lame voice lines for the character.  Also very rarely, in my experience, you will get a new character skin for one of the characters.  After weeks of playing I think I’ve received two or three skins for Junkrat, two for Torbjorn and one for four other characters (and that is at my tragically low level 18 which would have been higher if not for the aforementioned penalty I suffered due to Overwatch’s own failures).  You can also do the free to play thing and buy these boxes but that, in my opinion, kills even the smallest bit of progression bait the game offers.

I know most of what I’ve said to this point has been negative but I felt all that needed to get out there.  This game has its problems and as it has zero in game narrative (the story found online about the game and its world is pretty good stuff but it can only be found online not in game) it doesn’t give me as much to write glowingly about.  At the end of the day it is a good game and has a lot of fun to offer.  I really love the character designs from the bad ass looking characters like Reaper, Genji, Roadhog, McCree, Junkrat and Pharah to the adorable (yet no less effective) characters like Mei, D-Va, Mercy, Tracer and Lucio.  I can’t say enough about how great the characters look while feeling very different from one another.  Every character has a distinct play-style and that is truly where the game shines.  My love and/or hate for these characters is on a level that few games inspire, especially in the shooter genre.  No Call of Duty protagonist has ever hooked me the way these characters have, from Reaper’s incessant brooding to Mei’s obnoxiously undying optimism I love what Blizzard has designed here.

I just wish some sort of single player, story driven mode existed.  The world of Overwatch is fascinating to me what with the invading self-aware robot army, the team assembled to fight them, the truce that followed and the uneasy “racial” tension that followed the truce, the in-fighting between Overwatch members, the terrorist group employing Widowmaker, the rivalry and history between Hanzo and Genji and so many more narrative threads to explore.  Sure a lot of these were touched on in the amazing short films Blizzard put out and others can be read about online but it is truly a shame that these excellent characters and the potential stories they could tell with them are nowhere to be found in game.

Final Verdict: 7 out of 10

Overwatch is undeniably a very good game but don’t believe the hype certain outlets have applied to it, it is far from a perfect game.  There are some glaring design flaws and some huge missed opportunities that keep an otherwise fantastic and very fun shooter from shining as bright as it could.  It is heartbreaking to see the framework for something that very well could have been a 9 or 10 go unutilized and for the final product to suffer slightly as a result.

Overwatch is still a lot of fun though and I would definitely recommend it, especially if you can get your hands on the $40 PC version or find it on sale for the consoles.

Just when you do pick it up, promise me you’ll do one thing:

ptfo-men-s_design

-Shad (@PolyNerdic)

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