The recent Overwatch 2 beta gave us our first taste of Blizzard’s vision for its frenetic and fiddly competitive FPS game. So far, it’s felt like a very odd entity.
Most striking is the visual similarity to its predecessor, and a sense of perhaps less radical progress than we might have expected from a sequel. But there are changes, and they have revealed themselves to have real impact. And I’m not just talking about what those beastly developers have done to my poor, beloved Bastion.
The move from 6v6 to 5v5 is the headline alteration. It’s a pretty simple tweak, one that might just as easily have been made in the original game, but it totally changes every mode, every team composition choice, every mode. Blizzard went with a 6v6 format in the first place for Overwatch in part because it put less responsibility on individual players. Particularly in the first year of its release, one amazing Winston or Zenyatta could carry a team of bumbling Soldier 76s and perma-respawning Tracers, and even as the standard of play elevated over the years, you could be concerning yourself with a fight away from the objective and the rest of the team would still be alright in your absence.
It’s a different story now. Picking the right Overwatch 2 heroes – not just the right roles, but the specific combination of abilities, weapon projectile speeds and passives – feels absolutely crucial. So much so that if you do get it wrong in the opening minute of play, it’s difficult to adapt, pick different heroes, and try to claw something back from the round.
It’s focused the action, too. There aren’t often those side scraps going on around the fringe of the objective anymore. Everyone’s gathered near to one chokepoint, and for those of us not bestowed with World Cup-level tactical awareness, that’s a really welcome change. It makes the ebb and flow of a round much more understandable. You see your teammates’ silhouettes and you understand what’s going on right from spawn. You know where you need to be, and you can make those flanking runs off from the side with reasonable confidence that you won’t be picked off by a lone camping Reaper in the process. They just can’t spare the manpower now.
A lot of the hero changes have also made waves during the beta. Some have been completely reworked into different roles, most force you to re-learn your usual plays, and the combined effect of all of them is that stuns and crowd control abilities from DPS heroes are all but gone.
Doomfist’s rework to a tank hero is probably the most dramatic, and he now has more health, no uppercut, faster ammo recovery and a Reinhart-like Power Block ability to that end. Mei’s freeze is gone, slowing enemies and dealing damage instead of sticking you in place to swear at your monitor. Brigitte’s stun bites the dust. And Bastion – lovely, self-healing, undeserving POTG-getting Bastion – is a different proposition completely.
I feel his changes more because, of all the majorly reworked heroes, I played him the most in the first Overwatch. But his self-healing’s gone, and although he can still transform between turret and mobile infantry bot, the turret’s now mobile and on a cooldown – a bit like his old Ultimate, without the artillery. His new Ultimate has you mark three targets for even bigger artillery, in a fashion not unlike an Unreal Tournament Redeemer, and his secondary is a grenade now. He’s proving a popular choice on the servers through the beta – much more so than Doomfist, actually – but I miss the zoning capacity he had in his old turret form. D.Va’s primary fire is probably the closest thing to that now, and the DPS just doesn’t compare.
I definitely enjoyed being stunned less though. Cassidy’s old flashbang is more of an AoE grenade now, for example, and although plenty of the reworked abilities can slow you, it’s now very rare to feel totally negated from the action. Coupled with the more focused action that 5v5 brings, it feels like a complementary and positive sea change.
We’ve had one new hero from Blizzard this far – Sojourn. She feels like she’s visiting from Quake Champions in some ways – pure DPS hero, great gun with friendly damage spread for newer players, and a secondary that’s somewhere between a Quake railgun and a grenade launcher. She’s also been very popular. She feels like what Soldier 76 should have been – a useful, straightforward damage-dealer for those who haven’t yet developed the cat-like reflexes required for Hanzo et al.
So that’s what’s changed, at least so far. And this being a beta, we shouldn’t take any of these changes as set in stone. But what about what hasn’t changed? I’m left reflecting on that just as much after my time with the beta.
There’s a strong sense that Blizzard perhaps only feels empowered to make such sweeping changes to the Overwatch formula by doing so under the banner of a sequel. That seems the clearest explanation as to why this is being called Overwatch 2; it’s running on the same game engine – albeit a tweaked version thereof – and as such it looks quite 2016-y. And this beta didn’t demonstrate the sequel doing anything the original game couldn’t have done via a series of updates. A sequel for community management’s sake, rather than a tangible step forwards technologically or mechanically.
Neither playerbase nor developer would be that happy with a WoW-like delineation of classic and nu-school Overwatch, so there’s a mandate for the number ‘2’ in title in that sense. But if you boil it down to the consumer proposition, what are we being asked to pay for that we didn’t already buy in 2016? Perhaps that will become clearer as the new hero shooter draws nearer to launch.