Blizzard doesn't do anything halfway. They don't make new games often, but when they do they bring the full force of their creative and programming prowess to the project. Sometimes, as with Heroes of the Storm, their game takes its place among the titans of the genre. In other cases, as with Hearthstone or StarCraft II, Blizzard's game comes to totally dominate a genre.
While Overwatch isn't the only "hero shooter" around, and it has a lot more competition in the space than Hearthstone did in the digital card game genre, early positive reactions and the massive success of the game's open beta signal a strong start. Thanks to a mixture of engaging, fun-to-play characters and highly polished gameplay, Overwatch looks to be a genre juggernaut despite some clear shortcomings.
21 ways to play (and counting)
Overwatch looks like an FPS, and it can even play that way depending on which of the game's 21 characters you choose, but really it's 21 different first-person games in one. Each character plays differently, with some broad overlap between members of the same category (Offense, Defense, Tank, and Support). There are also some interesting ways gameplay concepts stretch across different categories, as you'll see things like physical barriers, turrets, and healing effects represented by several different heroes.
If you're new to Overwatch, the game makes it just about as simple as can be. Complete the tutorial as Soldier: 76 and jump right into a multiplayer game using him, and you'll be playing what's essentially a stripped-down FPS. Soldier: 76 has an automatic rifle, the ability to fire a swarm of rockets on a cooldown, a team-healing ability, and an auto-lock targeting power as his "ultimate," which you can expect to be able to use two or three times in an average match.
If Overwatch offered nothing more than Soldier: 76 it would be a very shallow game. There's no weapon-switching or character customization (aside from skins and other cosmetic tweaks), so every Soldier: 76 has the same abilities available every game. A 5v5 match full of Soldier: 76s would quickly grow stale.
But Overwatch's real success is in its colorful cast of characters. With that same Blizzard magic that turns every year's Blizzcon into a cosplay extravaganza, they've delivered 21 colorful, distinct, and entertaining characters, and it's trying them all out, mastering them, and playing against them is what makes Overwatch shine. Playing as the engineer Torbjörn (who looks like a Warcraft dwarf but definitely isn't, no sir), for example, turns Overwatch into a sort of tower defense game, in which building, upgrading, and maintaining your turrets is the key to success, rather than actively fighting other players. The healing angel Mercy, meanwhile, barely has any offensive weapon at all, and your role when playing as her is simply to keep your team's health high.
How am I doing, anyway?
As a consequence of having characters that play so differently, some of whom could have a very successful game without ever scoring any kills at all, Overwatch very purposely avoids standard FPS scoring metrics. You can't hold TAB to view your kills, deaths, and assists in Overwatch (though that likely won't stop you from trying, if you're anything like me). Instead you'll be monitoring a few relevant metrics including "Eliminations" and "Objective Time," and you'll know if you're in the top three on your team in these areas (via your gold, silver, or bronze medal).
Overwatch's scoring system takes some getting used to, and though I can clearly see why it is designed the way it is, I often just didn't find it satisfying. In 75% of my Overwatch games I was playing a character focused on killing enemies, and I wanted to know how exactly how many kills I had compared to my teammates and enemies, damn it. I wanted to know my kill/death ratio. Without this information, I often felt like I was having a good match without being sure I was.
If Blizzard was determined not to give me standard FPS metrics in a match, than I at least wanted to know how my performance as a particular character compared against other similarly-ranked players, but alas that was also not to be found. After a match I could see how my performance stacked up against my previous career best in different areas, but that's not as satisfying as knowing for certain I'm a better Junkrat than 90% of other players of my level (which I'm pretty sure is the case, and you can't prove me wrong!).
As we can see in Hearthstone, Blizzard takes careful steps with its multiplayer-focused games to give players a sense of continual improvement and progression. That's replicated in Overwatch, but doesn't work quite as well in this new title. The nagging feeling that Overwatch was keeping secrets about my own performance from me never quite went away, even after hours of play.
Maps and game modes
At launch Overwatch features twelve maps, three each for the game's four game modes. The game modes are Assault (in which one attacking team tries to take control of areas while the other team defends them), Control (two teams battle to control an area for a certain amount of time), Escort (one team tries to move a vehicle through a series of checkpoints while the other team tries to stop them), and Hybrid (which combines Assault and Escort features).
Four game modes may seem like plenty on paper, but once you've played a couple of hours of Overwatch it becomes clear there just isn't a great deal of variety here. Assault and Control have a lot of similarities, and Hybrid isn't its own distinct game mode. Escort is a well-done mode that plays into Overwatch's strengths, but it's the only game type Overwatch offers that presents something significantly different than other FPS(ish) titles.
Blizzard has said that more maps (and heroes) will be coming as free additions to Overwatch, which will be great, but what the game is really starving for is a greater variety of game types. Balancing the drastically different hero abilities across modes like Capture the Flag or even a simple Deathmatch is a tricky proposition, but it's also an exciting one precisely because Overwatch characters would offer gameplay these genre standard modes have never really seen before. Imagine leaping out of danger as a flag-carrying Pharah, or teleporting around a Deathmatch battle as Symmetra.
These modes aren't what Overwatch was designed around, but the need for more variety in gameplay types is very clear. Whether we see original modes like Escort or adaptations of traditional FPS features, it will add a great deal of replay value to the game.
The lack of a meaningful single-player component to Overwatch is a disappointment, and it wouldn't be fair to give this game a pass for it while Star Wars Battlefront and Titanfall were criticized for the same thing. It's especially sad given the colorful backstories implied for the characters and world of Overwatch (and which you can read about on places like the Overwatch Wikia). We see and hear very little about the game's lore in Overwatch itself, and it would have been fantastic to get some character-specific single-player experiences that filled in their personalities and backstories. Imagine something in the style of a Mortal Kombat or Soul Calibur single-player story mode, and it's easy to imagine how this could have been applied to Overwatch.
The real test for Overwatch, as with all multiplayer-focused games, will be whether it can carve out a niche and sustain a player base in the long term. Blizzard has just about the best track record in the industry in this area, and since they've announced plans to add characters (and possibly maps) as free content, it's likely they'll be doing what they can to keep the game vibrant and fresh.
The addition of ranked competitive play (coming in June) and "Brawl" modes with rules that change from week to week are two ways to keep people engaged with a multiplayer game that Blizzard has already used to great effect with Hearthstone, and there's no reason to believe they won't work just as well with Overwatch. And though people may grumble about microtransactions in a premium-price game, none of the unlockable content is anything more than cosmetic, and I found that gradually earning Loot Boxes full of new skins, voice lines, and poses worked well as a reward system outside of simply leveling up.
At the very least, Overwatch deserves our attention because it's trying something new, and it's doing it at a very high level. We're all better off as gamers with Overwatch on the market competing with other multiplayer shooters (and maybe even MOBAs), because the variety of characters and highly-polished experience it offers will force other developers to improve their games or see their playerbases dwindle.
Overwatch is available now for PC, Xbox One, and PS4.