Impressions: Overwatch on Switch offers some unique features, but is severely compromised

Overwatch is my favorite game from the last few years, easily the one I’ve put the most time into. I’ve played hundreds of hours of the PC and PS4 versions, created guides for almost every new map and character, and gotten my hands dirty in competitive modes. I was looking forward to trying the Switch version from the moment it leaked back in August.

After spending a week with the newest version of the game, I have to admit I’m disappointed. Overwatch is extremely well-optimized on PC, and runs decently even on low-end systems. It’s impressive to see the game running in handheld mode on the Switch. But if there was ever any uncertainty about how underpowered the Switch is compared to its competitors, Overwatch makes it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Let’s start with what the Switch version of Overwatch does well. The Switch port is a fully-featured version of the game, with every character, map, mode (except competitive, which must be unlocked by reaching level 25), and non-seasonal cosmetic available right from the beginning. Every update and upgrade added since Overwatch launched on PC and HD consoles in 2016 is represented on the Switch, from the Workshop to Role Queue and everything in between.

The Switch version went live simultaneously with the Halloween Terror event, and started with the same balance patch. Presumably, this means it’ll be updated at the same time the other console versions are, and the same rules will be applied. The only omission is the game’s Record function, and it isn’t possible to save videos of your highlights or replays, though both are saved on the console temporarily.

Getting a fresh start after putting hundreds of hours into the PC version reminded me how well Overwatch works as a casual game. The extremely diverse cast of characters means there’s probably at least a character or two for anyone to latch onto. If the Switch version is anyone’s first time playing Overwatch, they’ll probably have a pretty good time with it.

Blizzard decided to host Overwatch’s voice support natively rather than trying to use Nintendo’s bizarre phone application, and it works well. I was able to talk to a teammate using a headset microphone plugged into the headphone jack and neither of us had any issues understanding the other. The netcode for both the game and voice chat seem mostly solid (there are some exceptions), even though online services haven’t traditionally been a priority for Nintendo.

The Switch port adds a couple of new features which aren’t available on any of the other versions. When playing in handheld mode, players can use the touchscreen to navigate menus or select which hero they’d like to play. Additionally, Switch players have the option to use motion controls when playing in handheld mode, or can use a Pro controller or detached Joy-cons for the same effect. These controllers have built-in gyroscopic sensors, and Overwatch can detect their relative position to help aim more precisely than using a traditional controller. This is similar to the option provided in Nintendo’s own third-person shooter, Splatoon. With a bit of work tweaking the settings, you can enable gyro controls for select characters, or turn it on or off for the entire cast.

I was especially interested to see how the motion controls might affect Wrecking Ball, one of the most recent additions to the game’s cast. This character is notoriously difficult to control since he has an extremely unusual moveset. I had hoped using gyro controls might help me place his tether more precisely and make it easier to land piledriver attacks on the enemy team. I’ve never been especially adept with motion controls, but thought I’d give them a shot after playing a fair amount of Splatoon online.

I’d heard Overwatch’s developers likening the gyro mode to using a laser pointer, and thought this might be a decent substitute for a mouse and keyboard. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this to be the case. I can see how this mode might be helpful for players who favor characters such as Widowmaker or McCree, but I didn’t enjoy playing this way and quickly turned the gyro controls off.

So far, so good, right? It’s a portable, serviceable port of one of the best games to come out in the last five years. Unfortunately, all of this breaks down when playing the game in docked mode. The entire game got a significant visual downgrade, and the lowered framerate (30 FPS compared to 60 on other platforms) is very noticeable when coming from the PC or consoles.

Textures are muddier, there’s far less detail in the maps, and character models frequently take more than 30-40 seconds to load into memory. Both friendly and enemy players are represented by indistinguishable red orbs until their model loads, and if you join a game in progress it can be impossible to tell friend from foe for nearly a minute. Put simply, Overwatch on Switch doesn’t hold up visually compared to any of the other versions currently available.

It’s pretty clear the Switch version of Overwatch was programmed with the console’s handheld mode in mind. The game looks reasonably nice on the small screen, and the lowered framerate isn’t nearly as noticeable. When playing in docked mode, however, the difference between the Switch and my aging desktop was like night and day. For some reason, the game looks a lot worse on a larger screen, and I found it much less responsive.

Coming from the PC to the Switch’s default settings made me feel like I was playing underwater. My reactions were slower and I found it considerably harder to deal with situations I’ve experienced hundreds of times before. Turning up the sensitivity helped to a degree, but on a larger screen there’s a big difference between 60 frames per second found in other versions of the game and 30 targeted here. (The framerate dips below that target whenever the action onscreen becomes more than the Switch can handle; for example, any time multiple Ultimate abilities are triggered in a team fight.) Having literally half the visual data means there’s less information available, and I found it much harder to read enemy animations and tells.

While I thought the game handled connecting to the internet pretty well, I did notice a variable amount of lag, which lessened as I got closer to my home wi-fi hub. (I also tested the game using public wi-fi at a coffee shop, and it worked just fine there.) If you play your Switch far away from your router you may notice some input lag or rubber banding. I haven’t experienced it myself, but have seen other players complaining their skills and abilities were used on their screen, but were refunded and considered unused by the game a moment later.

The main selling point of any Switch conversion is portability, the means to take a popular game on the go. This works extremely well with single player titles, particularly role playing games such as Dragon Quest XI or The Witcher III. Blizzard’s own Diablo III works well on the platform, especially since it can be played offline whenever the player isn’t connected to the internet.

By contrast, Overwatch is a strictly online affair, requiring stable internet to remain connected to the game’s servers. It isn’t suited for long car trips or playing in airplane mode. It doesn’t even take advantage of the Switch’s built in local area networking capability for Switch gamers who’d like to play with friends in the same room. This makes it far less portable than the “Overwatch Anywhere” marketing campaign would suggest.

Overwatch on Switch isn’t a total disaster, and it’s still reasonably fun despite its flaws. That said, it’s unquestionably the worst way to play an excellent game. I don’t think it’s a good sign that most of the time I was playing the Switch version I was thinking to myself, “I could be playing on the PC right now instead.” It seems like a strange choice to release this, especially considering Blizzard has killed entire finished games in the past when they weren’t up to the company’s standards.

So who is this version for? If you don’t have access to one of the other platforms Overwatch is available on, this is an OK, if substandard, way to play. If you plan on playing primarily in handheld mode, it’s a lot more palatable than trying to play in docked mode on a big TV. It’s difficult to recommend over any of the other versions, however, and a lot of what makes the game great just doesn’t translate well to the Switch. 

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