Hands-on with Overwatch on Xbox One

The “hallowed ground” that is FPS, as Overwatch Lead Game Designer Jeff Kaplan puts it, is one of the final frontiers for the Blizzard to really explore. Being a diehard PC gamer, I generally give console games, particularly console FPS, a wide berth. I’ll admit that I’m guilty of scoffing when I heard about Overwatch‘s announcement; the thought of a Blizzard console FPS seemed a little too optimistic. After playing it myself on the Xbox One for several hours at Blizzard in Sydney however, I quickly had to eat my own words.

Getting down to brass tacks, Overwatch runs at a crisp 60 FPS; graphics are bright, colourful and clean. The resolution appeared to scale with the level of action that was occurring onscreen in order to maintain smoothness – the idling at the start of a match will look a little different to a blazing fire fight, for instance. while it does look gorgeous, it won’t look as clean and smooth as the PC version.

Gameplay is slower on console, as to be expected. Movement and turning lacks precision, which gives fast-moving or hard to hit heroes a minor advantage. Blizzard have stated that while cross-platform play won’t be a launch feature, the concept could be on the horizon somewhere down the line. The obvious concern is the gap between the precision of a mouse and keyboard and a controller. It’s a problem more prominent in some heroes rather than others: control-heavy heroes are at a clear disadvantage simply because utilising their full skill set can feel quite clunky. Maintaining Pharah’s jetpack while firing and moving with obviously be simpler and more effective on PC, as will the added precision of a mouse give a boost to Tracer and Widowmaker. Future skill tweaking may mitigate other shortcomings, such as folding two button presses into one, but for now, the real saving grace is the option to completely modify the control configuration, allowing players to set their own custom control schemes hero by hero.

The heroes themselves are Overwatch‘s biggest draw. Each is louder, more colourful and more heavily characterised than the next, and each have their own unique lore, back story, look, feel and mechanics. Blizzard plans to add new maps, game modes and most importantly new characters to the game with periodic and free game patches. These free content rollouts will be synced across all platforms as closely as they can be.

Familiar game modes abound. In Assault, attackers contend against defenders for map control, in Escort, one team moves a payload through checkpoints to an end-zone, and Control sees each team compete in a best of three objective capture. Simplistic game modes were an intentional choice; Blizzard wants each map to allow the characters themselves to take centre stage. I enjoyed assault most: the synergy between good offensive team play was evident when the team was highly specialised. The would tank advance, soaking up fire and assisted by a healer, while assault classes remove obstacles placed by the opposing team and skirmishers sowed havoc behind enemy lines.

I can see there being a problem with players that have a fondness for a particular character, or perhaps a play style associated with that character, however. For example, the kit of Soldier: 76 will feel very familiar to traditional console FPS players. He totes an assault rifle, a sprint, rocket ability, and a self heal ability, and his ultimate ability is 6 seconds of auto-aim. I found myself effective playing as him in particular – his simplistic skill set suited my woeful console FPS skills.

However, if a player drops into a server and the roles they play are already filled, they either have to change to fill the role the team needs, playing a character they have little experience with, or persist in playing their favourite, potentially lop siding and hamstringing their team. A team of tanks won’t be able to generate enough DPS to take down a team of offensive heroes, for instance. Problems like this occur in games like League of Legends, the difference is that a particular champion in League has wider utility to the team; almost every champion can play at least 2 of 5 roles effectively depending on the items you build and the way you play. Riot’s answer to this was to grant players the ability to select the roles they are willing to play prior to placing you in a game lobby, and has largely eliminated this problem – perhaps this solution could work for Overwatch too.

The huge focus on role-based play really pushes the game into new territory. Traditional multiplayer FPS generally settles into casual, public server death matches, where solo play is the standard and proper team play is hard to find. Conversely, the one man army play style in Overwatch is punished accordingly. Really good plays involve either skilful skill combinations to empower a team – liberal use of Zenyatta’s orbs paired with Mei’s AOE and Pharah’s rocket barrage – or to completely dismantle a strategy employed by the opposing team – using Roadhog to pull Mercy in close so that the tank she was healing can be disabled.

Hero and ability design is heavily based on this philosophy. Some support characters function extremely well as healers and combat support, but in a 1-to-1 setting, they simply won’t match up against a more offensive hero. This design methodology is very deliberate: each hero is balanced in the level of value or merit they bring to the team as a whole. Interesting and effective team compositions and ability combinations set the stage for extremely competitive play.

Problems aside, I’m still very excited for Overwatch‘s launch, and was happy to discover that it was such a blast to play on console. Blizzard have always been the company to shirk expectation and labels. First, they were the “console port company”, then the “RTS company”, followed by the “MMO company”, and now they’ve made moves into the MOBA market with Heroes of the Storm and TCG market with Hearthstone. Every major endeavour into a new space has borne fruit, even the launch of Diablo 3 to consoles was very successful. There’s really no reason to believe that Overwatch won’t do the same.

The open beta for Overwatch will be available on Windows PC, Xbox One and PS4; it will run from the 5th to the 9th of May, however players who have pre-ordered the game on any platform will be able to start playing from the 3rd. The game is set to launch worldwide on the 24th of May.

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