Four Months in, I Still Can’t Get Enough Overwatch
No matter how many hours I log into Blizzard’s Overwatch, I never get tired of defending the second point on the map Hanamura.
It’s essentially a box; the main room in a simple, Japanese temple. There are three points of entry, one on the front, one in the right, and a pathway across the back. Keep your team there long enough and you win the round. There’s also a trough in the front, a lower-level area with a small bit of cover, connected to the main area at a right angle by narrow stairs and a catwalk. As a combat arena, it gives the defenders an advantage, but also features enough complexity for an effective offense to take it.
I love this area because it encourages team cohesion, with every player in the game forced into the same narrow space with the same obvious goals. It’s a crucible of powerful abilities robbing the temple of its tranquility. Flying red dragons from the arrows of a Hanzo, the concussive disruption of D.Va’s self-destruct ability, the hypnotic light of Zenyatta’s protective aura.
Overwatch, the competitive team-based shooter released by Blizzard in May, hinges on its ability to stimulate, and reward, moments like this. A shooter like this one, based on map objectives, is a series of skirmishes, small victories and defeats traded across a broad swath of terrain. Overwatch needs to grow and change over time to keep those skirmishes surprising, tense, and accessible for players. Four months in, it’s doing an amazing job.
Blizzard has stewarded the game through a steady trickle of well-considered tweaks and changes, which have revitalized and expanded the play of its most interesting characters. D.Va, who started the game as a fragile target with booster jets, is now a juggernaut. I’ve taken to playing her as a battering ram, throwing her mecha into large groups of enemies, knocking them away from my team, only to use her shields to back away before peppering the enemy with gunfire from a safer distance.
McCree, the guy who seems to be a cowboy just because it’s fun, has gone from a frustratingly powerful assassin to a viable but more niche sharpshooter. As Blizzard tweaks and tweaks, the space of possibility represented by the game’s wide character base keeps growing.
So far, Blizzard has released new content slowly: one new map, one new character. This has given the Overwatch community ample time to adjust to and digest new changes into the broad experience of play. New character Ana is a brilliant addition: she’s both a sniper and a healer, letting players show off their twitch skills while also coming to the aid of their teammates.
Adding to those successes is a revamped competitive mode, which Overwatch always needed. By giving players ranks and rewards in response to their performance, competitive mode transfigures Overwatch into a sport, a place for bragging rights and brilliant saves, grudge matches and grueling losses.
It heightens Overwatch, gives the individual games continuity, and, perhaps most importantly, encourages better play. In Overwatch, that means play more focused on team dynamics and coordination. Competitive mode is the place to go when you want to avoid—to the extent that it is possible—the lone-gunman antics of random egoistic jerks on the internet.
The problem is, the original iteration of competitive mode didn’t work. It placed every player on a single 1-100 ranked continuum, from the most casual to the best players in the world. As such, getting above a 50 was an accomplishment for a lot of people. It constantly felt like failing a college exam. The second “season” has scrapped this whole conceit. Now it ranks you from 1 to 5000, so comparisons to others’ “grades” don’t seem so bad. The sudden-death system has been scrapped, and ties are now allowed, replacing the sudden death system that also often felt like a beatdown instead of a lift up.
Through all of this, Overwatch still feels like a game that is growing. Whereas most shooters seem to contract as they age, with strategies calcifying and the player base shrinking, Overwatch seems to expand the more players join in. The more it grows, the deeper into it I fall.