If Blizzard has proven anything over the last few years, it's that it has a magic touch when it comes to experimenting with new genres. Both Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm were the studio's first forays into their respective game types, but both excelled by breaking those genres down to their purest parts and producing their own accessible and impeccably polished takes. Overwatch sees the developer jumping feet-first into the highly competitive shooter space, and it has the same eye for design that has earned that sterling reputation.
As the studio's first original universe in nearly two decades, Overwatch immediately puts to rest any concerns that the studio has lost its touch. The characters bubble over with personality, and the designs have a unified artistic vision that allows a bespectacled gorilla and a knight in shining armor to look perfectly at home next to each other. It's especially striking having just recently played Battleborn, another character-driven shooter. That game had pockets of its own brilliant designs, but they felt more disjointed. Overwatch is a testament to artistic cohesiveness.
The stage layouts are similarly gorgeous. In the heat of battle I found myself staring out at Mount Fuji, or appreciating the architecture of a bridge. The aesthetic makes such great use of the full color pallette that pathways are subtly signified in ways that I could intuit in the middle of a match, even if it was my first time in a map. While the world is extremely static in its architecture--I fired a rocket at a bell expecting to hear it clang, but it stayed motionless and soundless--it looks rendered with all the love and attention of an animated movie.
That's no accident, because Overwatch seems to be staged very explicitly for transmedia efforts. Its various characters and factions suggest a history to this world that the game itself doesn't explore. The style would lend itself well to more animated shorts or comic books, but I do wish the game itself carried more of the narrative weight.
Tell Me a Story
Overwatch doesn't really have a story, it has a premise. And then, it has gameplay that doesn't particularly match. It feels bizarre to open the game with a rousing speech about the world needing heroes, only to have the gameplay consist of those heroes haphazardly killing each other for no particular reason. I understand this is a multiplayer game, and I make a point not to judge games by what they set out to do. But Overwatch is so primed for an excellent story, and even sets the stage for a great one, and then doesn't follow through. I can only hope some form of adventure mode is in the works.
While I would count that as a shortcoming, it's easy enough to forget when in the middle of a tense match. Overwatch makes a point to be inviting, with a tutorial that explains mechanics that many shooter fans take for granted, to little touches like giving tips on team composition at the start of every match. Blizzard has become known for games that are easy to understand and hard to master, and this yet another example of that core design philosophy.
What's more, Overwatch makes a point of emphasizing the various ways players can contribute to victory. It very consciously eschews the standard K/D stats, in favor of specific stat types for various class types, be it healing delivered or damage absorbed. While the Play of the Game highlights usually favor offensive strength, it's perfectly possible for someone to gain the honor by reviving downed teammates to turn the tide of battle. A voter-decided MVP system encourages friendly competition, as many times the votes will go towards the player who contributed the most, even if they were on the opposing side.
And as a Hearthstone acolyte, it's hard not to see the influence of Blizzard's breakout hit card game. The loot boxes pack randomized items--cosmetics instead of cards--and earning them is enough to inspire a constant "one more game" mentality. Meanwhile, the weekly Brawl is taken straight from Hearthstone, name and all, with specialized rule sets that promise to keep games fresh.
That said, the launch started on a clunker, as this week's "Arcade" Brawl makes characters much more resistant to damage and seems to throw off the game balance in key modes that have one side defending. It's almost enough to make me wonder if the shooter foundation has as much room for wacky rulesets as the collectible card game, but time will tell and the rest of the game makes me optimistic.
Overwatch is a collection of firsts, but it carries itself with the confidence and proficiency of a veteran. It has plenty of room to grow and expand, but as our first step into this world, it's inviting, competitive, smartly designed, beautiful to look at, and fun to play. You can't ask for much more than that.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 download code provided by the publisher. Overwatch available in digital and retail stores now, for $39.99-$59.99. The game is rated T.