The enduring appeal of Blizzard’s Overwatch

The videogame Overwatch continues to grow in popularity. But what's its appeal?

“Are Mei and D.Va sisters?”

“I don’t think so Lil, one is Korean and the other is Chinese.”

“Okay, but Hanzo and Genji are brothers?”

“I think so, though one is a cyborg.”

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“And Ana is Pharah’s mum.”

Above is a small snippet of a very lengthy discussion between me and my seven year old daughter before she went to sleep one night. A discussion in which we debated the family connections present within online multiplayer team based shooter Overwatch. That a seven year old, whose other obsession is mermaids, can be this deeply involved in the world Blizzard have created with their latest game is a testament to its enduring and far reaching appeal. Overwatch has transcended being simply an online shooter to something that people of all ages, can get truly invested in.

Overwatch arrived last May from Blizzard, and immediately it was a game you could easily lose many hours to. I purchased it at the same time as I did Uncharted 4 and chose to play Overwatch first; it’d be two months before I finally got around to starting Nathan Drake’s latest adventure. Eight months on, I now sometimes have to figuratively fight with my wife and daughter for a turn on the game.

For the uninitiated, the basic premise of Overwatch sees you playing as part of a team of six, choosing a character from the array of offer and going up against another team of six in a variety of game modes. Characters are divided into four classifications – offensive, defensive, tank and support – the idea being that a team should be balanced with a range of traits in order to work together as an effective unit to overcome the opposition. Teamwork, over simply running in all guns blazing, is the firm emphasis in Overwatch, something that has been key to its longevity. Finding out which of the characters compliment each other and can be used together, provided your teammates also realise this, has been greatly rewarding.

It’s those characters that are perhaps the initial lure of Overwatch, even if the mythology behind the game is still somewhat sketchy as to where each of them fits in. Overwatch was a task force featuring some of the playable characters that was assembled to stop a robotic uprising and then disbanded by a thankless government after infighting within their ranks. A number of short animated films have been produced to help fill in some of the history between the characters with a graphic novel promised at some point in the future but for now, we’re still mainly making guesses as to how a lot of them are involved. That hasn’t stopped the game from presenting a colourful and diverse roster though.

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The characters peppering the Overwatch world are a wide range of super hero types, each one with their distinct strengths, personalities and weaknesses. Although it’s good to try out each character at least once, every Overwatch player I’ve spoken to has quickly developed their favourite, go-to characters. My first choice is always D.Va, a Korean teenager who stomps around in an ED-209 style mech suit which she can send the opposition scattering from when she sets it to self-destruct with the cute quip “Nerf this!”.

For reasons we’ll come to later, no one ever seems to want to play as a support hero, so I often find myself playing as Brazilian music sensation Lucio, skating around behind my team mates in attempts to heal them whilst they do battle. If I want to really go on the offensive, I’ll plump for Overwatch’s newest character at time of writing, Sombra, with her invisibility power and kick ass, machine gun, and once in a while I like to play as undead, smoke monster Reaper, for close encounters.

These are just my favourite four of the characters on offer. If you were to ask someone else, they’d probably choose a different four. Lots of people like to play as transformer-type tank Bastion as he wields a tremendous amount of fire power and can be near indestructible if placed in the correct position on the map, something that was fantastically frustrating when the game was first released and everyone wanted to play as Bastion in the hope of getting the honour of ‘play of the game’. I recall playing against teams which had four Bastions defending a control point. Four!

Whoever you choose to play as though, you feel like you’re playing as a proper character, with a proper history and personality which defines them and makes them unique. You can feel genuinely attached to these characters in the same way you can Nathan Drake and Ellie in The Last Of Us. They aren’t the faceless soldiers of Call Of Duty or the bland rebels and stormtroopers found in Star Wars: Battlefront, a game which manages to make even playing as Boba Fett a bore.

The vast range of characters that a player can choose from has been one of the main strengths in Overwatch’s continuing appeal. Even if you get a bit bored of playing as one of them, there’s a whole host to choose from and try your hand at mastering. Personally, I curse every time I get taken out by someone playing as archer/sniper Hanzo as a) I’ve just been killed and b) I am ridiculously bad as Hanzo and jealous of superior shooting ability.

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A refreshing element of Overwatch as a shooter, and one which I’m sure is a primary reason my seven year old daughter finds the game so engrossing, is the equal number of female characters to their male counterparts. The ladies of Overwatch are arguably far more interesting than the men, the likes of Tracer, Mercy, Pharah and Widowmaker all great, playable, well-designed female characters. My daughter rarely plays as any of the male characters. D.Va is also her favourite, and she’s my wife’s too. We’re a pretty big D.Va loving family, and there again lies another of the reasons Overwatch is still a near permanent fixture on our PS4. It’s a game that we’ve all found engaging and can watch each other enjoy. Some families watch Let It Shine on Saturday nights. We’re playing Overwatch.

Another feather in Overwatch’s cap is that all its updates come free of charge. At one time, Overwatch itself was going to be a free to play game, but at least we don’t have to shell out for DLC. Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the aforementioned Star Wars: Battlefront was that it was debuted with a pretty sparse set of maps and content and players were going to be expected to cough up the same again for the periodical updates. To date I don’t know anyone still playing Battlefront but I know a lot of people still playing Overwatch.

As well as tweaks to character abilities, attributes and some seasonal offerings, Blizzard have so far furnished Overwatch players with two new maps and two new characters at no extra cost since launch. The two new maps, Eichenwalde and Oasis, have helped keep the game feeling fresh as players work out how to best use their favourites amongst these new surroundings. Oasis has this fun, anti-gravity chamber which has proved great to boost Mei up from within before sticking up one of her ice walls to block the opposing team from taking the control point, but it’s new payload escort map, Eichenwalde that has proved the most fun of the two new offerings.

Set in a not so pictureresque anymore German town, the map tasks one of the teams with moving the payload through a set of ruins and into a castle. Initially those playing as Bastion worked out they could set themselves up on one of the high towers along the route and blast anyone going near the payload. Players of course got wise to this tactic, as they do with most, but it’s the continuous finding these little advantages and plays, and then ways to thwart them, which makes every game of Overwatch feel like a fresh challenge. Playing as D.Va, my wife found a nice trick if you’re on the attacking team is to turn immediately right out of the starting hub and go around the back of the buildings, emerging at a point where you can use your mech’s flying ability to boost up and over the bridge, landing you in the zone where the payload awaits whilst most of the enemy team are still dealing with your cohorts elsewhere.

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But aside from its impressive range of playable characters, free updates and fabulously detailed maps, Overwatch endures because of the unique gaming experience it presents. A lot of people are not huge fans of online multiplayer shooters, myself included. But in Overwatch, they’ve found a game where it isn’t a case of who sees their opponent first, who has the time to up their skill level to get the better weapons or who can simply shoot straighter. Overwatch is about working as a team, as one cohesive unit.

This is something that given Overwatch’s huge popularity, some of its players find harder to grasp than others. They’ll go immediately to playing as Soldier 76, the gruff action man of the game, and spend the entire match charging around, gunning down members of the opposition, ignoring their team mates and the objective you’re fighting for or defending. Kill count and scoring the mantle of Play of the Game is all that matters to these people, and that’s really not what Overwatch is about.

I mentioned earlier that no one ever wants to be a healer or support character. Nine times out of ten when faced with the character selection screen, the words ‘No healers’ are visible on the right hand side and some players will resolutely never change their own choice to remedy this. They don’t realise that having a healer is essential if you’re going to stand a chance of winning. These characters are the life blood of a team and most people playing should have learnt first hand by now what happens to a team without support. Spoiler alert – you lose! Yes, a support character isn’t going to rack up that many eliminations but can often be the unsung hero in steering your team to victory.

It’s the finding out of how a support character will work say, with a tank character in harmony that is part of the joy of Overwatch. Using Mercy to help keep D.Va healthy as the latter pushes a payload across the finish line is a blissful moment of teamwork. When you get these moments, with a team of people you will never meet in real life, it feels amazing, like you’re all in it together, making it work. You don’t have to be fantastic at shooters to enjoy Overwatch. You just find the character that suits you and away you go. Someone else on your team will be good at the other stuff. Do your bit and don’t deliberately mess up your team’s chances, like the player I came across playing as Mei who spent the entire match doing nothing else other than putting a continuous ice wall over our base exit. Don’t be that person.

The world of Overwatch looks set to only continue expanding with Blizzard reporting that devotees can expect new maps and characters this year and probably for many more to come. Eagle eyed players have noted that the next character to debut will likely be known as Doom Fist as several posters bearing reference to the character have popped up on buildings throughout the game. Blizzard teased the introduction of Sombra in a similar fashion. Hopefully there’ll be more of the fantastic animated shorts along the way that support the game and this rumoured graphic novel too. A second wave of Overwatch Funkos was also recently unveiled.

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This is all great news for a game which isn’t even beginning to feel like it’s approaching the middle, let alone the end of its lifespan. Eventually I feel that Blizzard will have to introduce some new game modes to compliment the attack, defend, escort ones that they have in place but that must be something they’re aware of.

At a time when the biggest game releases of late 2016 all seemed to be met with a rather collective shrug, Overwatch is still standing tall and taking on new fans of all ages and gaming types. If you’re not already on board, it’s time to pick your favourite character, say hello in their trademark voice and group up with me because “I’m taking the objective.”