Note: To mark the 4th anniversary and the release of its final hero, we’ve updated our review of Overwatch on PS4, Xbox One and PC. For our review of the Switch version please click here.
After four years and one IGN Game of the Year Award, Overwatch has evolved into a multiplayer shooter that remains at the top of the class. It’s a dizzying amalgam of unique character design, stunningly realised style, and compellingly dynamic action. Minutes turn into hours as you’re caught up in round after magically exciting round, surrounded by gorgeously crafted maps packed with detail and charm. Overwatch, simply put, is the most fun I’ve ever had playing a video game.
Overwatch’s gameplay has remained almost entirely unchanged since launch and centres around taking and controlling points on the map or escorting payloads from one end of them to the other, all at the expense of the enemy team’s health bars. It’s a simple setup and not an altogether original one, but it’s the nuance found in how you go about winning each match that makes Overwatch so brilliant.
Each team of six can be stitched together from the current pool of 32 heroes. Not only does each play differently and bring their own tricks to the party, but they also affect the other heroes on the ever-expanding roster with each new addition. Overwatch is a game bursting with character, not least displayed in the characters themselves. Blizzard has created a world where anything goes and everything flourishes.
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The robust Reinhardt harks from a high fantasy setting familiar from past Blizzard titles. The cyber-drenched Sombra is science-fiction incarnate and wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of Night City. Then there’s the wise and occasionally wild Winston, who could pass as a gorilla cosplaying as beast from X-Men. The beauty of Overwatch is that all of these different characters feel right at home and not simply copy and pasted from other media. They’re lovingly designed as both individuals and a unit, their interactions between each other before and during matches providing entertainment aside from the combat unfurling.
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Most recently, Echo, Overwatch’s final hero (until Overwatch 2), has joined the party. She’s an airborne AI that darts through the sky, dealing damage with her powerful arsenal of advanced weaponry. She’s a really fun character to play, but not without a level of risk attached as she is vulnerable to accurate hitscan heroes like McCree or Soldier: 76, and can lose all of her 200HP in the blink of an eye.
Her ultimate, Duplicate, is a real game-changer though. It allows her to take the form of any member of the opposite team and use all of their abilities, and can even charge up their ultimate at a far speedier rate. Being able to clone an enemy Mercy, thus having two powerful healers on your side, can turn the tide in a game and harkens back to the very early days where multiples of the same hero were allowed on a team. It’s somewhat fitting that the last addition to the roster echoes back to how Overwatch was originally played.
Penultimate addition Sigma, an eccentric Dutch astrophysicist tank, proved difficult to counter at first, especially when paired with Orisa to create a double-barrier hellscape. His persistently moving shield can be a problem to anyone looking to deal damage at range with blasts of Ashe’s rifle or rain fire from above as the rocket launcher-wielding Pharah. This is just another puzzle to solve, though, and his introduction saw a noticeable rise in the amount of closer-quarter specialists, such as Doomfist and Reaper, appearing on the battlefield. As a result, I found myself enjoying stringing together combos as Doomfist, a character I had hardly touched before Sigma’s arrival, and unleashing a rocket punch into the side of an unsuspecting enemy. It just feels so much better than when you’re on the end of one.
A Role to Play
This is in essence the beauty of Overwatch. It offers choice in abundance, and if it ever approaches becoming stale I try out another hero and everything feels completely fresh again. I’ve put an amount of time that would disgust many into mastering Hanzo’s bow and arrow skill set, but when I found myself tiring of him slightly I decided to transfer my sniping skills over to Ana and healed my teammates instead, providing a different form of satisfaction.
Even after 700 hours played, there are still characters that I’m not overly familiar with and some that I look forward to losing time with in the future, even if I’ve resigned myself to never being able to pull off a mildly successful Dragon Blade as Genji. Not every character is for everyone though, and that’s absolutely fine and, to an extent, the point of Overwatch.
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To call Overwatch a “shooter” almost seems reductive at this point. Yes, it’s firmly grounded in solid first-person shooting mechanics, but there’s a vast arsenal of weaponry on display, ranging from the clunkingly medieval to the clinically futuristic and even beyond science, stepping into the fantastical. At times these worlds combine to create heroes that feel like they could only be conceived in the Overwatch arena. This is exemplified best in some of the characters introduced since launch. Brigitte, with her centuries-old mace that’s partnered with an energy shield that feels airlifted from a different era of existence. The geneticist, Moira, who can summon biotic orbs from her palms and then evade all incoming damage by fading onto an ethereal plane. Then there’s Wrecking Ball, a maniacal hamster that rolls around in a spherical mech of death flanked by two chattering machine guns.
Crucially, the full roster of heroes – including those that’ve been added since launch – are available to all from the get go and not hidden behind any form of pay wall or gated by progression, meaning it doesn’t fall foul to systems that other games such as Rainbow Six Siege and Apex Legends do by making you pay to unlock more.
Soldier: 76 is as close to a standard character you’ll see in any other shooter as any of them, while Mercy – although not as essential a healer as she once was – is also a great jumping in point for rookies because she can hang back out of danger and support allies. Yes, some will take longer to learn and, until you do, will be much less effective when you jump into a match. Zarya’s seemingly straightforward combo of particle beam cannon and barriers can seem inviting at first due to the comparative lack of abilities at her disposal, but using her well takes a lot of match awareness and knowledge of teammate positioning. Her ultimate ability, Graviton Surge, can be devastating once mastered and provides optimal synergy opportunities as you watch a Tracer clean up with a pulse bomb and inevitably steal your Play of The Game – the automatically chosen moment of a match that’s replayed for everybody at the end. Watching back these game-changing moments still offers a unique sense of satisfaction even after the hundreds I must have been awarded by now, and never fails to put a smile on my face, even to this day.
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By far the biggest fundamental change to happen to Overwatch during its four year lifespan, however, is the recently introduced role-lock system – something that had been long in demand. In standard Quick Play and Competitive modes, you are now forced to select which role you’d like to play in the team – damage, support, or tank – before starting the match. Each team is composed of two players of each class and what you may lose in flexibility during the match (there are still well over 50,000 team composition permutations available), you gain in a more satisfying all-around experience. For all of those moments you may spend wishing you could quickly switch off of support to dislodge a troublesome Widowmaker sniper with D.Va, you get so many more moments of gratifying team play. Gone are the days of being stuck on quintuple-stacked DPS squads as you scramble around a map looking for a health pack and your jealous eyes gaze over to the opposition’s fully formed comp.
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I have to admit that I was sceptical of role queue when it was first announced, but I couldn’t be happier to have been wrong. A level of flexibility has been lost and yes, it can be a little annoying to have to wait up to eight minutes at times to get into a game if damage is your chosen speciality, but as someone who’s willing and able to fill any role on a team it isn’t a great issue to me. After all, if the chaos of old is what you are craving then classic Quick Play still exists in the Arcade section of the menu for that dose of anarchic nostalgia.
The other arcade modes haven’t changed greatly over the years, but what exists there on a rotational basis can offer a welcome change of pace. None of them come close to achieving the point capturing and payload delivering that the core game modes do, but that is purely down to those being so damn good. Mystery Heroes mode, for example, can be a great place to learn new characters because you respawn as someone different every time you die. Total Mayhem is a personal favourite: health is doubled and cooldowns are halved, and the resulting absolute chaos and completely lives up to its name.
Magical Mystery Tour
In every mode, moment-to-moment gameplay is enhanced by phenomenal sound design that functions in both incidental and informative ways. Each piece of damage you receive has its own subtle noise attached: I can tell instantly if a Genji is near me flinging shuriken into my side, or if it’s the wasp-like Tracer needling fire into my back. It works both ways as well. There’s a distinct satisfaction to the thwomp of Reinhardt’s hammer making contact with anyone daring to stand in its way. Similarly, the metallic plonk of landing a headshot as Hanzo may be my single favourite sound effect in any game.
Overwatch doesn’t stop pumping useful information into your ears there, because the contextual voice lines that echo across the plethora of maps go a long way toward giving you the info you need. The way turrets are pointed out by teammates is chief among these, as well as passive-aggressive nudges reminding you to push the payload rather than chase down a scampering Lucio for a selfish kill. It says a lot about how good these audio cues are that Overwatch doesn’t feel like it’s missing a ping system to communicate with teammates if you don’t have a mic, and although being on voice chat will definitely aid in coordinating attacks, you can play alone happily without much detriment to the overall experience. Steps have also been taken by Blizzard to counter the toxicity seen early on in its lifespan. While never being able to eradicate it completely, systems such as the endorsement initiative, enhanced reporting options and the choice to now avoid other players as teammates have all been welcome additions to the community.
Music cues also play a big part in signaling what you’re supposed to be doing. The tense, crescendoing score that accompanies the end of a match sets the scene for epic tussles. Get into overtime – as the clock runs down to zero your team is making a desperate push to capture a point – and the stakes are heightened once more; the music matching it step for step. The memorable refrains are burned into my mind, and I often know what location I’m about to battle in next by hearing the first few bars chime in before the loading screen. Each perfectly fits the setting without venturing into caricature, from the weaving didgeridoos soundtracking Junkertown to the all-too-catchy beats signifying that Temple of Anubis is incoming.
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The iridescent universe that Overwatch inhabits is clear to see within seconds of booting up. Each map has its own colourful twist on a real-world(ish) locale that varies from moonlit London streets to a man-made colony on the moon. You must navigate the town of Eichenwalde, encompassed by the littered, rusted kin of Bastion the tank strewn across the map. On Watchpoint: Gibraltar, a brief sojourn upstairs in one of the spawn rooms reveals the monitor used by Winston to instigate the fabled recall displayed in the opening cinematic. It’s these embellishments that set Overwatch’s map pool apart from other multiplayer games. They add lashings of style while also providing informative ornamentation for anyone willing to look a little closer.
Not only are they breathtaking to look at but they’re also brilliantly designed on a gameplay level. All of the new additions to the pool since launch have been a roaring success: from the beautiful Blizzard World that is laden with references to the studio’s other titles to the sun-drenched Oasis that provides some of Overwatch’s best close-quarters firefights. The lone exception, in my judgement, is the recently introduced Paris map, which has suffered from the same quarms that many had with Eichenwalde in times gone by: a single choke point can be less than fun to make your way through, especially when the dreaded Bunker composition is deployed, consisting of a whole team taking safe-haven within Orisa’s shield and Baptiste’s Immortality Field.
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Each location provides its own challenge and learning them intricately is mandatory for success. Knowing that using Symmetra to create a teleporter across the left hand side of Volskaya Industries to bypass an intimidating defensive setup can lead to an accelerated point capture. Similarly, knowing where to pull off a devastating ultimate ability can turn a game in your favor in an instant. Getting the high ground on point B of Hanumara’s Dojo and unleashing McCree’s High Noon has won me and my team many a match.
It’s these moments that ultimately make Overwatch so special. The ability to work as a team to win is a wholly satisfying experience, and when all the gears are in motion there’s nothing quite like it. But it also offers those special moments where an individual play can win the match for your team and a rush of adrenaline makes its way through your body that very few other games can replicate.