I hate first person shooters.
I'm awful at them, and frankly, they stress me out. The combination of my poor aim and the general frenetic, twitchy pace of most games in the genre often leaves me a fringed heap of nerves and regrets.
The last time I played an FPS and enjoyed it was Goldeneye on N64, and that was primarily because I was a 13 year old and we were jamming the game at sleepovers until we bled from our eyeballs and our mothers came tromping downstairs to yell at us to turn the TV off I mean it's 3AM for chrissake.
More recently, I borrowed a friend's Xbox to try out Destiny. The game looked gorgeous, the world design seemed awesome, and I was open to giving the genre another shot. (Heh, shot.)
I got 20 minutes in, died repeatedly to the first boss fight, and promptly gave up.
Which makes what I'm about to say perhaps all the more surprising: I'm loving Overwatch.
Yeah, this revelation probably isn't surprising if you're at all into video games or follow video game news. Overwatch launched to a flurry of strong reviews. It's also the newest title from Blizzard, a publisher known for its genre-defining, high quality games.
However, I had my doubts that I'd enjoy the game, even as coworkers and friends expounded its virtues. It's been some time since I considered myself a "serious" or "hardcore" gamer, and first person shooters in general have an unfortunate reputation for competitiveness and potentially acerbic communities. The few times I've ventured into the genre resulted in strong sentiments of "this game isn't for noobs or casuals."
So far, Overwatch hasn't felt the same.
The game is fast - fast to pick up, fast to learn, fast to jump in and start playing. Matches are equally quick, running on average between 7-10 minutes. That match length makes sitting down to play much less of a commitment. You can breeze through a match or two before bed, or binge for hours on end running games back to back.
Central to the game's appeal is the cast of 21 heroes, each with their own special powers, roles, and flavor. From heavily armored tanks, to fast paced teleporting gunslingers, to medics who fly across the battlefield on angel wings, each character has its own playstyle and backstory. Also worthy of note is the incredible diversity on display - not just in play and mechanical design, but in the heroes' characterizations. We have heroes of all nationalities, genders, shapes and sizes - including a gorilla, a robot, and an omnic (which are future death-dealing-robot-turned-buddhist-inspired-zen-masters? ...I need to watch more of the story videos - more on that later.)
The gameplay itself is easy to grasp - two teams of 6 battle to control mobile payloads, guard and capture areas on a map, and vie for control of key positions. The complexity comes with the make-up of the teams. Characters fall into four role-types, meaning a balanced team of offensive, defensive, tank and support heroes will fare better than a hodgepodge of too many of any one role.
Each hero feels vastly different and offer unique ways to play and contribute to your team's success. A lot of the fun comes from the layered discoveries that occur over the course of playing. Initially, the fun comes from learning the way a hero's ability set works together to create a coherent strategy or approach. As you get better with a hero and solve the puzzle of their abilities, the next level reveals itself - discovering how your hero combos with your teammates to play even more effectively, and learning what abilities counter your opponent's strengths and weaknesses.
The game also gives plenty of tools for a newer player to build confidence and learn. There's an enormously helpful Practice Range mode, where you can take all the heroes for a test drive against robot targets to learn their abilities. You can battle with other humans against AI opponents on Easy, Medium and Hard difficulties. Then, when you're feeling ready, you can dive into smart-matched battles vs real players.
And if you're anything like me, you'll then proceed to die. A lot.
And lose. A lot.
And somehow, it will be really fun.
At first, as with learning anything new, games felt mildly mystifying and impossible. Overwatch is, after all, still a First Person Shooter - the gameplay is fast and twitchy, and oftentimes I died and had no idea who or what killed me. On my first game on the first map I encountered, I charged out the gate - and promptly ran off a cliff and fell to my death.
After that, I mainly stuck to playing Mercy, a hero who heals folks mainly by tethering herself to teammates and holding down one button.
I can handle one button.
Then I started testing out some of the other heroes. Each hero has a handy 1 to 3 star Difficulty Rating to give you an idea of how hard they are to master. I actually managed to kill some enemies with Bastion, a one star difficulty hero that's a robot that can turn into a mini-gun turret (just go with it).
I can point and click.
Fun fact: when your hero dies in the game, a "Kill Cam" shows you how you died as you wait to return to life. While in other games this often feels like a gratuitous rubbing in of how much you suck, I actively learned about positioning, strategy, and enemy abilities with Overwatch's Kill Cam. (And I was also reminded of how much I suck.)
And that's the thing. Losing is fast (7-10 minutes!) and relatively painless. There's tons of new heroes and playstyles to learn and try out each time. And breakout moments of success and learning are exciting.
Tonight, I decided to pick up the first Hero I tried out - Widowmaker. It's a hero that plays as a sniper, shooting from afar. Widowmaker requires deft aiming, smart positioning, fast reactions and strategy. AKA, everything I'm terrible at.
The first time I picked up this hero, I got destroyed by a Widowmaker on the opposing team that absolutely outplayed me in every regard.
The game tonight, however, I managed to get a few sweet shots in, found some fun hiding spots on a map that I knew better now that I had played several games, and actually contributed to my team's win. I copycatted the positions and strategy I saw my opponent do, I had faster reactions from having a few games under my belt, and had a blast playing.
I'm never gonna be a pro at this game, and I probably won't be dipping my toes into the new competitive mode that will be unveiling in the near future. But this is a game I know I'll pick up and play for a long time.
Additionally, (and for me, more career and work related), I'm immensely excited by how Blizzard is unveiling the narrative and story behind Overwatch. The game doesn't have a story mode - rather, we learn about the characters and world of Overwatch via beautiful animated shorts, comics, and other media outside the gameplay itself. This elegantly tackles a challenge often faced by games clearly designed with esports and competition in mind - how to tell story in the bizarre context of an open arena / battle style game.
Blizzard's answer is to simply not.
Rather than justifying why Widowmakers are sniping down opposing Widowmakers, it weaves its story outside the context of the game, giving further depth and showing characters off in standalone mediums. It also creates opportunities for fandom and enjoyment of Overwatch for folks who may not actively play.
By putting the thrust of storytelling outside of gameplay and as free and accessible nodes of content available online, Blizzard enables fans to organically share and access the story. It empowers fans to consume the story of Overwatch without the need for gameplay, widening the appeal and reach of the game and brand. In short, it fuels and grows the potential audience and spectators of the game, which in turn strengthens the e-sports potential of the game itself.
If you're playing on PC, you can pick up the most basic version as a digital download for $39.99. You can check out some awesome videos and comics here.
If you have the chance, check it out. And come play a game or two with me. We can be terrible together, nerd out on the story, and talk about how impossible it is not to have a crush on Tracer (British accents are totally cheating).