Three new Overwatch heroes made their debut at Blizzcon this weekend, so naturally I spent as much time as I could reasonably dedicate playing them and learning how they operate. Then I played them some more because damn, it’s a hell of a game. I've got a tonne of thoughts on what I played, and some other feelings from the show floor stashed below.
Read about how Blizzard plans to tell the story of these characters through cinematic shorts and graphic novels.
Genji perhaps had me the most apprehensive. His robot-ninja aesthetic is not for me, I somehow having skipped the mandatory induction into Why Samurai Are Awesome that comes with being a nerd. His style not to my taste, I was worried the melee-focused play would be difficult to grasp and lead to a lot of deaths, more frustration, and a quick switch to an offensive character I already knew better.
Genji is weird. From his burst-fire shurikens that also have a shotgun-spread mode to his dashing slice that adds a damage over time effect and resets whenever you take part in a kill, he doesn’t play like anyone else in the game. He has Hanzo’s previously-unique wall-climbing technique of being able to scale pretty much any vertical surface to its top, but also has a double-jump that gives him even more options and speed when getting up behind people. If you do get caught on him, Deflect allows you to reverse all projectile attacks - roughly 80-90% of the offensive tools in the game - back at your attacker or their team-mates, assuming you’re looking at them. Once you’ve done all that, pulling out his main sword is his ultimate mode, giving you 10 seconds of tank-slaying melee attacks cleave in a wide arc.
He’s going to break maps in entirely new ways with that movement kit alone. Just in the starting rooms I found odd paths, leaping from one wall to the other while dashing over gaps, using wall runs after double jumps to gain incredible height quickly. This sort of variance helps keep the game fresh, and a pair of Blizzard staffers both told me how much they still enjoy playing despite the long development time. Shouts of "get on the point" are as common in Blizzard HQ at lunch time as they are on Overwatch's VOIP channels.
Genji only adds more complexity to that already impossible problem of how exactly to win a game of Overwatch. Deflect alone is going to take many hours of play to decide exactly how good it is, and then more for my opponents to discover the weaknesses in it, when to switch targets and for how long. More importantly, every part of his design is fun. His dash is long and can be done upwards, letting you catch Pharah or other airborne enemies when they think they’re safe. It feels broken in its distance and line-based AoE potential, but is balanced out by how vulnerable it can leave you and the low initial damage. I found his shurikens very difficult to get used to the accuracy and aiming technique of, particularly their burst of three was hard to nail. Good Genjis, I’d bet, will be the scourge of any game they’re in, constantly moving vertically and horizontally, leaving you with dots chipping away at HP while they nails headshots from distance with perfectly lead targets and steady aim.
Mei, on the other hand, I find much harder to gain any success with or judge the potential of. On the upside, she’s easily Overwatch’s most adorable character to date. The massive, fetching parka she wanders around in at all times, a slightly confused idle pose and the way she reloads her gun with her pinky finger out like she’s having a proper English cup of tea is the exact right mix of funny and cute to melt my heart. However, her ice-focused gameplay leaves me cold (I’m so sorry) no matter which end of the gun I’m on.
Categorised as a defensive specialist, she’s closer to a heal-less support with the number of utility abilities she’s sporting and low damage she’s capable of putting out. Her primary fire is a beam of cold air that slowly freezes a target over time, stunning them for a reasonable period, offering easy pickings for the icicle alternate fire that has a short wind-up but is deadly on headshots. Targets are also slowed during this build-up, and this is re-used to great effect in her ultimate, which throws a small robot drone out to AoE a large area with a version of this freezing field, damaging, impairing and eventually stunning everyone it’s hitting. As a killing tool, it can be brilliant, particularly against less agile targets who can’t escape, but as disruption it’s almost unmatched in how well everyone involved is set up as targets.
This is echoed elsewhere, with her ice-wall ability able to stop teams and shots in their tracks as it rises from the ground in an instant at almost any range. It can be clambered over or destroyed with significant firepower, but alters the gamestate when it’s used, blocking firing arcs for snipers and Bastions or letting your team’s less mobile characters reach, literally, new heights as it spawns beneath them and lifts them up. Finally she can make herself invulnerable and fully heal over the course of four seconds as a survival mechanism, making up for a relatively small health pool that contains no armour or shielding. It’s immediately familiar to anyone who has tried to take out a frost mage in World of Warcraft and experienced the hell of Ice Block but with one key difference - Mages can actually kill you.
My favourite Overwatch characters are ones that can dish out big damage quickly, even if it takes a little bit of set-up with a character like Zarya. Mei can never do that, requiring the time to freeze before she can pop off her reliable icicles, with some good luck or monumental prediction on her controller’s part needed otherwise. While her utility is interesting and her self-heal annoying, neither presents an actual threat, and relies on team-mates operating correctly to take full advantage of it. That’s just not something I want to rely on when I could just as easily play a real nuker like Junkrat or Widowmaker and rely only on my own skill to put my team ahead.
But I’m fast learning that Overwatch has a huge breadth of character styles, and not all of them are going to apply to everyone. I spoke to one chap who was the first person I’ve ever met who considers the Medic-inspired Mercy to be his main - a character I had dismissed as a boring-if-powerful. He admitted to me that he’s fully aware he’ll never be able to master a bunch of different skillsets, so doubled down on one he enjoyed to enormous success, despite her being one of the more team-dependant and passive supports.
So is Mei simply not for me, or are there innate issues? It’s tough to tell with so little play-time, and thankfully all of this new trilogy should be popping up on Beta servers within the next week, but she got few play of the games and other than the odd ice-wall I didn’t feel her effect when allied with her or find even her highly frustrating stun particularly notable when I encountered it. I was annoyed that I was locked to one place, forced to watch her slowly try to kill me off or her team-mates pound away at me, but if any other character kept me locked in their sights that long I’d just be dead. Even if the slowing effect is helping, it’s at the cost of burst-damage options, long-range potential and/or more survivability. I’d prefer all three in the split-seconds-matter world of Overwatch. I look forward to being proved wrong when she becomes the beta’s latest boogeyman.
Then, of course, there was D.Va.
D.Va was easily the character I was most excited for coming into the weekend. Her background story as a StarCraft professional is one of my favourite things Blizzard have done in a long time. It’s blatant, unapologetic fan service of the type the developer have long been feeding the world, but in a new context as Overwatch gets to exploit its real-world setting for great effect. Plus, she battles in a giant pink mech. That’s what I’m all about.
This anticipation was not unfounded and I’m now very excited to see her added to the beta. She’s unbelievably hard to kill, with a humongous health-pool and a second life granted by getting out her mech whenever its health is depleted. This puts her on foot equipped with just a pistol, which is fast firing and accurate, but pales in comparison to the mech’s abilities.
While piloting the walking chunk of metal, you’re equipped with two infinite-ammo shotguns that continually pump out death at close to medium range. In a game where most heroes are constantly butting up against a low clip size, constantly having access to an offensive option is very powerful. Her jump jets are possibly her strongest ability, giving her incredible movement options on a short cooldown and letting her outflank snipers, healers and Satan’s favourite campers with ease. Meanwhile she gains defensive capabilities from a cancellable six-second frontal cone that prevents her from firing, but automatically destroys all projectiles that enter it, from Pharah ultimates to spews of bullets. It’s ludicrously good for protecting yourself or your team, but useless against the likes of Reinhardt or other heroes that don’t rely on ranged attacks.
Just moving around with her is great fun, giving new life to maps I’ve played many dozens of times with fast flight limited to bursts. She has the same paths as Pharah without the rocket-spewer’s vulnerabilities, while being more mobile than the wall-climbing Hanzo or his new brother Genji. You also feel more rewarded for these flanking maneuvers when it gives you the brief moments to close with a target and bring the awesome power of her guns to bear. She is immediately and completely one of my favourite characters in any game - designed specifically for me in play, personality and lore.
I racked a lot of XP up with her and more than my fair share of ‘Play of the Game’s. The former was actually adding to a track for each character, levelling them up between games presumably for some sort of reward. Rather than a new feature, it was actually from an older version of the game and was removed because it incentivised sticking to single characters rather than the semi-regular switching that Overwatch is designed around. The Blizzcon build and the Beta build were developed almost simultaneously, so each had its own unique quirks. They’ll be ironed out in the coming patches, with the beta version becoming definitive.
Something I realised this year was Blizzard staffers were everywhere, the majority of the office had come out to help with the show this year. I bumped into Diablo Community Managers at burger stands, other random employees looking after statues, still more manning every play area in the main hall or helping organise the cosplayers. It put the passion that Blizzard so often talk about from their employees right into the light and they lived up to the promise better than I could have hoped. After years of development, I saw these folks eagerly sit down to play against newcomers, showing them the ropes then taking their honest feedback.
I got to hear interesting anecdotes, like how excited an artist was to see a prop she had designed up on Blizzcon's big main hall screens. One of the QA guys recounted how quickly character concepts were nailed down during the regular pre-beta playtests. He attributed this to the veteran design team heading up the project, with multiple vanilla WoW experts and others managing it. These folks at the top have more design chops between them I have years on this Earth.
And, based on what I saw this weekend, they’re absolutely nailing it.