When Blizzard first announced Overwatch two years ago during BlizzCon, one of the questions most frequently asked during each of the game’s panels was, “Will there be a story campaign?” The need for one seemed just as obvious to con-goers as those of us watching from home. Didn’t Blizzard excel at connecting great story with great action? Isn’t that why we fell in love with Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo to begin with? I distinctly remember watching the face of one attendee as a Overwatch spokesperson revealed Blizzard’s new game would have no story. I remember wearing the same exact quizzical expression.
Blizzard’s decision to skip out on a story campaign for Overwatch—the company’s first big, multiplayer first-person shooter—seemed mind-boggling then. And it still does now. Even after finally getting a chance to sink a few hours into the game during Blizzard’s last beta weekend, I find my opinion hasn’t changed. There’s no denying the game’s overall fun factor or the fact that Blizzard’s doing some great things with Overwatch, but the lack of any type of single-player story mode is a huge loss.
The developers, instead of focusing on a story mode for the game, decided to try something new with Overwatch. Instead of giving us a campaign that explains the game’s story, lore, and universe, Blizzard is providing little “chunks” of story in the form of impressive CGI-animated shorts and comics. Each of the comics and shorts (besides the game’s gorgeous trailer) focuses on one particular hero. All are excellent, by the way, if you haven’t taken a look yet.
Here’s the thing about the animated movie shorts, though. They’re great to look at, yes. Blizzard’s animation team is doing a superb job with them. They’re seriously almost at the level of Pixar animation, with real emotions, humor, character building, and all the little personality quirks I’d hoped to see from each of the game’s extremely diverse heroes. They’re also…just animated shorts. Tiny things we watch on YouTube before promptly moving on with our day.
The comics are also fun to read, but again, short comics without full story arcs are something we look at, maybe even drool over, and then forget. Dishing out lore this way misses the whole point of why gamers flock to the medium in the first place. Gamers enjoy video games because they like to experience gorgeous action instead of just gaze at it. If Blizzard had released all this complementary stuff in addition to a story campaign, I don’t think anyone—myself included—would be complaining. Cross-media goodies are certainly welcome in today’s digital-hungry age, but they can’t take the place of good, solid gameplay. Not for an audience of gamers.
The shooter genre has proven that it can tell great stories, after all. There’s no shortage of memorable storytelling, from Halo and Half-Life to Deus Ex and BioShock. Even going back years ago, most of us still fondly recall spending hours playing N64’s GoldenEye 007. Blizzard got one thing right when designing its shooter: the best titles in the genre, including the above examples, are often character-driven. But without a good story campaign to support Overwatch‘s characters, players don’t get the opportunity to be fully immersed in the world and stakes of this character-driven shooter.
The best single-player campaigns mix action and cinematics in a perfect balance that lets us see the story—but also play it. Experience it. See what’s at stake and become part of those stakes. We beat the super tough boss, feel that adrenaline, then boom, we watch that awesome cinematic. That cinematic is our reward for beating the tough fight, but also a taste of beautiful eye candy that—if animated well—leaves us eagerly awaiting the next frantic battle. It all boils down to immersion. The best story-heavy games know when to snap us into the action and when to slow things down to tell their tales, and they leave us always wanting more.
Immersion is why so many of us are drawn to video games in the first place, and Blizzard knows how to keep us invested in a game better than any other publisher. World of Warcraft’s leveling experience has showcased that perfect balance of story and action since the beginning and especially in expansions like Wrath of the Lich King, Mists of Pandaria, and even Warlords of Draenor. With every expansion, WoW’s increasingly impressive cinematics are better integrated into the action.
I have no doubt that Blizzard could have created a fantastic story campaign for Overwatch. The characters are uniquely diverse, the action is intense, and the exotic locations beg for further exploration. Even the game’s skeletal backstory seems well-defined from the animated shorts and bits of text we’re able to read on the game’s official site. There’s just so much that grabs your eye and sparks your curiosity in Overwatch‘s aesthetic. So why do we get tiny comics and movies that feel more like 20-second teaser trailers than anything truly immersive and meaningful?
A story campaign would allow this collaboration of fighters from all edges of the universe to become more than just a row of boxes to select in a menu before jumping into a random match. The cast would be fleshed out by struggles, unique challenges, meaningful backstories, and actual risk. Not just sleek design and character abilities. When we did jump into multiplayer, we’d choose favorite heroes based on who we loved to play as in the story campaign or which stories we felt the most invested in. Heck, Blizzard could have created a story campaign where we got to play through each character’s story for 15 mins or so—enough to get a brief snippet of their lives, pasts, goals, and dreams—all the while familiarizing ourselves with their weapons and unique abilities. Blizzard had some wonderful opportunities here, but chose to go with YouTube instead.
In its current state, we have a match-based game with some neat characters and map backdrops, but ultimately—that’s it. We can pop in for a game and randomly pick a cool-looking hero or pick whatever role the team needs most. We may feel invested in certain heroes at the start just from the promotional information we’ve received, but it’s a lot like playing League of Legends. Pick a character that looks shiny and go for it. Sure, most LoL champs have some lore behind them, and some players even base their selections off that lore. But for the most part? Shininess and cool abilities always win.
I had a ton of fun with Zarya in Overwatch, as an example. She’s a tank (I always enjoy tanking), and, well, she’s all kinds of badass. Did I enjoy playing as her? You bet. Did I feel particularly immersed during my matches because of my selection? Not exactly. Zarya grunts something in Russian when she fires off her ultimate and I remember thinking, “Okay, whatever,” the first time I heard it. I didn’t think, “Wow, that’s gotta be a cool reference to something!” I didn’t think, “Oh man, that makes sense that she would say that!” I didn’t even bother Googling the phrase until days afterwards, when I looked up the translation (“Fire at will!”). Why? Because it didn’t matter. I didn’t feel particularly invested enough in her to actually be that curious.
If I had played through a short story campaign featuring Zarya, I may have seen some personality behind that grunting. I could have experienced what drives her, realized why she takes on the role of tank, and why she tosses shields out for her teammates. I also would have been able to have more practice using her abilities, enabling me to feel more comfortable in my early multiplayer matches.
Blizzard seems to inevitably be trotting down this road where signs are posted everywhere, proclaiming that “everyone, everywhere, must play all of the Blizzard games!” Instead of concentrating on why folks love the depth of Blizzard games, they’re choosing to focus on creating more new games, more cross-game ads, more cross-media and cross-everything ads (all hail the Overwatch Taco Bell cups), and arguably—less experience-driven, story-based content.
Games like Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm obviously don’t need a lot of story, but Overwatch‘s completely unique universe is just waiting for an awesome story to be built around it. The characters, as well-designed as they are, are begging for fantastic backstories that players can experience for themselves. Instead, we get road signs pointing to fast food chains and YouTube. It’s a shame.
I won’t lie: I’ll be among those definitely buying Overwatch, but every now and then I’ll inevitably wonder about the incredible story campaign that could have been.
Laura Hardgrave is a staff writer.