Overwatch: A Universe Is Born - Games Weekly

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Overwatch: A Universe Is Born

Blizzard don’t just announce games now, they announce universes. Overwatch’s thunderous Blizzcon reveal felt almost ominous, as though Blizzard had opened a portal and summoned forth a monolithic multimedia entertainment kraken, of which the Overwatch team shooter is but one dangling appendage.

As my seat vibrated to the chords of the Avengers esque orchestral theme, I felt as though I was at the epicentre of something huge and scary, something that would first consume a generation of kids yet to be wowed by Marvel’s PG-13 constellation of superhero movies before moving on to their mums and dads, and then me. In my mind’s eye I didn't just see the game, I saw the movies, the comics, the cartoon series and the action figures. I’m sure I detected a maniacal edge to senior VP Chris Metzen’s response when asked about such. “I tell ya, I want it  all,” he said.

It all started with an ape. The ape is important. Overwatch was introduced with a short film from Blizzard’s exceptional animation team, who have overperformed for years building Blizzard’s in-game cinematics. Wearing its Pixar influences openly, the sketch showed young brothers examining an exhibit devoted to Overwatch a team of superheroes who once saved Earth from a war between humans and machines. The tour is interrupted when an intelligent armoured ape falls through the glass ceiling, chased by a purple woman with an assault rifle.

The ape is called Winston. He wears glasses and fights with a lightning gun and comes from the moon. He’s also the first of Overwatch ’s huge school of playable heroes to be shown to the world. In such an important film, produced with enormous care, it’s a clear statement: yeah we opened with the talking moon ape, we can go anywhere from here. Cowboys, cyborg samurai, a futuristic knight, a flying rocket suit,  Overwatch  lets you hop from one pop culture archetype to another every round. Each character fights with a unique weapon and a selection of unique skills. It’s dizzying.

Overwatch  is set on Earth 60 years in the future, and structured around six vs six battles in which you capture control points or push a bomb down a track in a mode so similar to TF2’s Payload, the cart is actually referred to as ‘the payload’. The attacking team must stand near the cart to drive it, the defending team tries to stop them and run down the clock. The modes, visuals and characters like the dwarf Torbjorn who can build sentry turrets by hitting them all invite comparisons to  TF2 . But while  Overwatch ’s battles do feel similar, they’re faster, and crazier, thanks largely to the addition of ultimate abilities for each character.
He screams, then fires three dragons across the map
I had a great time with Hanzo. He’s a samurai archer who can fire bolts that reveal enemy locations, ricochet off walls, or spear at great distance. The knight, Reinhardt, was pushing a choke point with his shield wall as his team cowered behind him and took potshots through the glowing holographic cover. I took a narrow flanking path, dispatched the enemy team’s Hanzo with a headshot, then fired my ultimate through a pagoda into the group’s exposed side. Hanzo’s ultimate is the most spectacular in the game at the moment. He notches an arrow, draws, screams an echoing Japanese war cry and then fires three dragons across the map. I killed enough enemies to be featured in the play-of-the-game video at the round’s conclusion, which shows everyone the game’s most impressive kill streak from the killer’s perspective a very neat touch.

The sudden exchange of multiple ultimates creates crunch moments that remind me of Dota 2 team fights. Reinhardt’s ultimate sees him slam his hammer into the ground to create a shockwave that immobilises those in range. It’s the perfect initiation skill. Reaper can teleport and cause close-range damage with dual shotguns. When he activates his ultimate, the Death Blossom, he spins and unleashes a hail of bullets in all directions, nuking anyone who can’t escape. An organised squad can combine the two to wipe out an enemy team in seconds.

Principle designer Scott Mercer seems surprised when I put the Dota comparison to him. “It wasn’t just Dota or any of the MOBAs. You see those kinds of abilities in fighting games as well. You play, you build up a meter, all of a sudden you unleash something really amazing.” The beat-’em-up comparison makes sense as soon as Mercer mentions it. Overwatch ’s character select screen lets you flick between characters on a horizontal bar: each spawns on screen and strikes a heroic pose that wouldn’t look amiss on the screen of an arcade machine. There’s something  Street Fighter  about the way the earthbound maps cobble national stereotypes into collages of real world locations. I fought on a sandy Egyptian map adorned with hieroglyphs, packed with Anubis statues and located in the shadow of a looming Sphinx. The map set in Japan is full of cherry blossom and temples. The London map has you pushing a payload past a clocktower that looks a lot like Big Ben. I sniped enemies from the roof of a big red London bus. It’s cheesy and lighthearted. It took me a few minutes to realise the bus hovered on jets where the wheels should be.

The fighters even have combos. Tracer is a lithe, chatty cockney who can teleport short distances and rewind her personal time stream to escape tricky situations. Her ultimate is a sticky bomb that causes huge damage. In a video introducing the character, Blizzard showed how she could blink three times in quick succession to get from a ledge to the payload, attach a bomb, and then rewind time to zip back up to the ledge a split second before detonation. This won an admiring “ooooh” from the audience.
 I sniped enemies from the roof of a big red London bus
Overwatch  is very watchable, and Blizzard know it. They rounded off the Blizzcon panel with a match shoutcasted by a couple of the game’s programmers, which inspired cheers from a crowd that had no idea the game existed 30 minutes earlier. That’s largely thanks to the ferocity of  Overwatch ’s ability effects: it’s hard not to wince when Reinhardt the knight charges across the map, grabs an enemy and crushes them against the wall in one movement. It’s also because commentary helps viewers parse the supernova of ability effects erupting all over the map. Overwatch ’s complexity and long-term depth come from the thousands of ways all those hero abilities can interact, but this can be dazzling when you’re thrust into combat. It’s something Blizzard are looking at carefully.

“Right now we're really concentrating on making the game easy to understand,” Mercer says. “Something I think we’ve learned at Blizzard about e-sports is all about how easy it is to watch. If I’m a spectator, do I understand what’s going on? And that all plays back into the super readable characters, the simple abilities and so forth. We think that the game could very well be an e-sport, but a lot of that is really up to the community.”

It helps that the maps are intentionally simple, with readable choke points and clear flanking lines that make use of the heroes’ different traversal abilities. Hanzo the samurai can clamber up walls.

Reaper and Tracer can teleport. The sniper, Widowmaker, has a grappling hook that lets her get to high ledges quickly. The maps help players feel cool for exploiting avenues only open to their chosen hero, while also facilitating interesting scuffles between Overwatch’s loosely defined classes.

The shoutcasted match featured intricate duels between the fast attacking teleporter, Tracer, and the sniper, Widowmaker, while larger defensive tank characters like Winston and Reinhardt defined the battle lines around the shifting payload. At one point the attacking team’s Torbjorn built a turret on the payload and Winston threw a bubble shield around it, enacting what Blizzard internally refer to as the ‘killdozer’ strategy. The payload sailed through the level for a while, mowing down enemy team members as they tried to get close.

Support characters are also important to Overwatch, and not just for their healing and building abilities. They also make space for players new to the genre. Jeff Kaplan says they’re designed to give players “things to do other than put crosshairs over targets.” Mercy the flying medic can heal with a beam from her gun another huge nod to Team Fortress 2 or switch the beam to give her target a damage boost. Torbjorn’s turrets demand good map understanding without the alienating demand for the twitch skills on which most shooters thrive. “We’re trying to make a distinctly Blizzard shooter,” Mercer says, “and for us that means making a very inviting shooter, making something very accessible, and then beyond that really making something that’s over the-top crazy.”

That craziness, driven by spectacular ultimate abilities and huge variation in powers from character to character, gives everyone a chance to positively impact a match without being entirely responsible for a team’s failure. For intensely competitive players this will be unsatisfying in the long run, but as Kaplan points out, those players are well served by the existing crop of competitive shooters. Mercer talks about Overwatch’s gentler intentions, describing it as a game that’s trying to give everyone an interesting story to tell about that match afterwards.

“They come back and say ‘oh, remember how I got behind the team and they were all on the payload and that Death Blossom and I killed five of them and it was amazing.’ Those are the kinds of memories and stories that really stick with you.”

Everyone gets to have these hero moments. Even the most fragile Overwatch  characters are designed to survive for a while in the field so you can spend more time interacting with other players than waiting for respawn timers. Blizzard never want your kill/death ratio to matter. As such, there’s strictly no deathmatch mode. Metzen and game director Jeff Kaplan imply that, to an extent, Overwatch  is reacting against the violence of the competitive modern military shooter and the aggressive audience those games foster.

“We have a long legacy of developing multiplayer games, and it came down to ‘is it even possible to build a shooter that doesn’t feel cynical, that doesn’t feel cruel, that doesn't feel nasty’,” Metzen says. “Can you build one that promotes teamwork and relationships and having fun with your friends, and not getting killed with a thrown knife from halfway across the map as soon as you jump in.”

The aim of the bright, cheerful art, chippy one-liners and bloodless conflict is clear: Blizzard want to forge a positive community. They design heroes to be aspirational so they can appeal to as many people as possible, but they’re also sketching the audience they want: people of all shapes and sizes, old, young, man, woman, robot and ape. Inclusivity and accessibility are useful if you want to maximise your audience, but Blizzard’s business aims mesh with a genuine desire to create safe places for people to have fun together online they’ve been doing it for a decade in  World of Warcraft . Blizzard president Mike Morhaime even paused his speech in Blizzcon’s opening ceremony to call for more empathy in online gaming communities. He seemed to hesitate as he approached the words, as though nervous about halting the unstoppable hype carnival of Blizzcon, even for a few moments.

“There is another person at the other end of the chat screen. They’re our friends, our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters. Let’s take a stand to reject hate and harassment, let’s redouble our efforts to be kind and respectful to one another, let’s remind the world what the gaming community is really all about.”

It’s a truthful moment that touches the crowd, and I’m reminded of another in that surgically targeted intro movie. The troubled and reluctant older brother lands a hit on the villain with a mechanical fist stolen from the exhibit. “Y’know, the world could always use more heroes,” says Tracer as she takes back the glove, and the boy slowly forms an awed, hopeful smile. Maybe Overwatch isn’t a kraken after all.
Blizzard never want your kill/death ratio to matter
The game epitomises Blizzard’s approach to making entertainment. They take interesting ideas, sand off their edges, expertly pluck away anything that might seem too weird or alienating or needlessly complex, and then repackage the concept to have some humour, colour and the broadest possible appeal. It’s the same process they applied to Magic: The Gathering  to create Hearthstone , but a shooter is a more daunting prospect, and an entirely new challenge for Blizzard. Hearthstone  intersects with the world of physical card games, but the shooter has a weighty heritage dear to the hearts of PC gamers.

“It’s a very revered genre, we know,” says Mercer. “We’re going into this very humble. There’s a lot of work to be done from a technical standpoint. We've been making multiplayer PvP games for a long time. This is just our first shooter. There are challenges, we’re conscious of them, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Network latency and responsiveness have been the big technical hurdles so far. Overwatch certainly ran well on Blizzcon’s LAN, though the shooting did lack feedback. I spent some time getting behind enemies as Reaper, firing into their unflinching backs with his huge twin shotguns. They look as though they ought to mince an enemy in seconds, but they felt like toys. Tracer’s burst-fire energy pistols are a great idea, but pumping bolts into enemies to whittle health bars was a little too unsatisfying. There’s lots of tuning to be done, and plenty still to be added to this early alpha build before Overwatch is ready for its 2015 beta.

I am excited about playing another Blizzard game that demands only short bursts of interaction. Hearthstone, Diablo III’s Adventure Mode and Overwatch are moving away from World of Warcraft’s huge time demands, and  Overwatch  will encourage investment in its universe through stories told outside of the game. It’s a pragmatic decision as much as anything. “I can tell you, trying to fit story into computer games for 20 years, it’s really hard,” says Metzen. “In terms of the flow of play, making sure you’re balancing game dynamics and making sure the themes are playing out, you don’t want either discipline to over complicate the other.”

Separating the story from the game gives Blizzard essential freedom. Players can field multiple Winstons on the same team, and have mortal enemies fight alongside one another. The stories Blizzard will tell around the game is the hook designed to draw you in, Overwatch lets you play with the beautiful interactive action figures.

Metzen didn't want to give away specific plans for how the story will be told, but he suggested that Blizzard’s talented cinematics team may find themselves with a lot more to do in the coming years. “I imagine we’ll use various transmedia. What we hope for is a lot of animation and stuff. We had a really fun time putting together that trailer. We want to do more of that, so that’s where we’re leaning.”

Will Overwatch be a self-contained boxed product, or a free-to-play shooter? Blizzard hasn’t decided on any specifics yet, but Mercer says there’s a lot more planned than the 12 heroes shown at Blizzcon this year. “Are we going to be able to get lots more heroes from this game? Is this just the start? Will you see more, especially as we get to that beta in 2015? Absolutely. This is all just the beginning.”

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