Overwatch Beta Preview: Strong Together

In-game screenshot
In-game screenshot /

Blizzard’s surprising new title, Overwatch, releases this year among a crowd of other, similar games from other developers. Does it have enough unique features, gameplay, and charm to distinguish itself from the rest?

In recent years, Blizzard seemed to have taken a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” mentality about their franchises, with each new IP really just a mash-up of characters, settings, and ideas derived from existing ones such as Warcraft and Diablo. The announcement of Overwatch, a massively multiplayer FPS with a fresh universe populated by new characters and ideas was a delightful surprise, and Blizzard has only fed the hype with its character shorts and familiar tradition of feeding characters from one IP into others (introducing Tracer into Heroes of the Storm).

And yet, Overwatch’s release will be pushed against by competitors Battleborn and Paragon, making it considerably more difficult for Blizzard to make an impression with their new title. Can Overwatch truly distinguish itself amongst its peers with Blizzard’s flair for the unique and compelling? I got a brief taste of what’s to come from the game this weekend, during a special closed beta stress test preview.

Overwatch Beta
In-game screenshot /

Tag In, Tag Out

A brief tutorial on the basic functions of the game is the only introduction you’ll get to the fast-paced, high-energy play of Overwatch, but that’s okay. Each character is so unique that there’s no good way to introduce the varied styles of play you’ll encounter as you test out every set-up. The best way to learn is to do, and Overwatch offers plenty of comfortable space to learn. Apart from matches against other humans, you can practice on your own, build custom matches with friends and NPCs, or play with friends or strangers against AI of varying difficulties. Matchmaking is quick and painless, and there’s the added perk of being allowed to run around the battleground as heroes of your choice before the match begins, to practice abilities and get the lay of the land.

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One of the best things about Overwatch is the way players are encouraged to continuously swap out heroes. Sticking with one character the entire match is a recipe for failure: not only will you be hurt by the natural ebb and flow of the match, but you can bet the other team will be throwing new surprises at you every few minutes, so you’d best be prepared to counter them. Some heroes are amazing at attacking and capturing points; others excel at defense; still others are good for escorting payloads or disrupting the other team. Certain hero combinations, too, are deadly. In one match, we nearly swept the other team with two Bastions in turret mode, Reinhardt standing in front of them defending, and Zenyatta healing…until the enemy swapped to Tracer and Genji, snuck in from behind, and tore apart our set-up.

Furthermore, the roster is delightfully varied. No two heroes are alike; in fact, no two heroes are remotely similar. Though they have broad classifications such as defensive, sniper, support, etc. (and recommendations for which your team needs are offered on the Hero Select screen), those classifications poorly describe the offerings. Reinhardt, D.Va, Zarya are all classified as defense heroes. Reinhardt is an enormous melee attacker with a huge shield, D.Va pilots an explosive mech, and Zarya can throw shields directly onto her allies and has solid range damage, too. Familiarity with the roster is vital to playing Overwatch well–when your team desperately needs a support, and you’re in the best position to swap heroes, you don’t want to be the guy who insists on playing Tracer again and again and again.

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World Travelers

This particular beta weekend featured only three maps: Route 66, Hanamura, and Nepal. Each map hosted a different game mode. On Route 66, the attacking team escorted a payload through two checkpoints to the defending team’s base. Hanamura contained two points that must be captured by the attacking team or held by the defending team. Nepal contained one central location for both teams to attempt to capture and hold over two rounds of play. More maps will be available at launch, though presumably with just those three game modes for now.

Overwatch is beautiful, with detailed maps stuffed with little easter eggs and lore (I found a game of Hearthstone on a tablet on one map). Various conversations between characters will occur as you play, with quirky bits of dialogue spicing up the scenario. There are plenty of bonus dialogue clips, poses, skins, and more unlockable by playing enough matches to level up, or by purchasing with real money through an in-game shop once the game launches.

Overwatch is definitely a game best played with good friends.

The gameplay, itself, is smooth and mostly fast-paced. It’s at its slowest when you die–there’s a lengthy respawn timer, and then the run back, so if your team is losing you may be kept out of play for a good chunk of the game if you can’t find a good niche to get back in. The constant interchange of heroes, objectives, and skills kept my team constantly on its toes. All in-game systems are polished and working beautifully with the exception of the match queue, which was painfully slow and involved several black screens. This can be expected, as this weekend was a stress test, so let’s hope Blizzard got the info they needed to beef things up before launch.

Overwatch features in-game voice chat (and it works well!), but I wonder how much use it will see. Communicating with party members is all but essential (I was fortunate enough to play most of the weekend with friends), but there’s a certain courage it takes to be the first to strike up a conversation with strangers over voice chat. Overwatch is definitely a game best played with good friends. Teaming up with strangers in silence quickly gets old, and without any driving campaign or progression system beyond “level up for more loot,” Overwatch hype may not last long unless you can form teams with pals.

Overwatch Beta
In-game Screenshot /


Regarding gameplay quality, systems, and pure fun, Overwatch excels and will likely far outstrip its genre competitors this year. And yet, there’s simply nothing to do in Overwatch except run matches again and again and again. Though Blizzard has promised more game types and other features later down the road, it’s impossible to tell at this point if whatever else they offer they can keep the spirit alive. Certainly a wider variety of maps will make things more interesting, but overall there’s no reason to keep playing beyond the first few weeks unless you want unique character skins and icons.

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Blizzard’s beautiful universe populated by dueling heroes is merely there to be demolished again and again by the same combinations of optimized heroes as players learn who is OP and who isn’t. As it stands now, Overwatch may only be worth your time if you can find pals to join your team, are brave enough to make friends over voice chat with strangers, or if Blizzard delivers on their promises for more gameplay content in a significantly interesting way.