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It’s not clear if a bunch of developers got the same memo about team shooters, or if they accidentally all used the same focus group in a comedic mix up such as would feature in a gentle BBC programme, but for some reason everyone’s banging one out.
If you believe the hype – and there’s been a lot of hype – Blizzard’s one, Overwatch, is already the best, even though some of the competition is yet to even ship. It almost doesn’t matter what I write here, because you’ve probably already made up your mind about Overwatch either from playing the beta or from the slick, purring Blizzard PR machine. But for better or for worse this is my job, so let’s push on: Overwatch is a very good game. It’s annoyingly good.
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There are no better weapons or clothes to buy that’ll boost your powers, no pay-to-win skulduggery. Overwatch is a level playing field, but one flooded with high concept, brightly coloured, and slightly ridiculous characters which are, above all else, extremely well designed. So while the HUD, and indeed the entire screen, can get very busy, every attack is distinct and clean enough that you can recognise exactly which hero is doing what. I have encountered no lag, no matchmaking issues, no glitches, no crashes. Everything about Overwatch makes it easy to play.
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The full roster of 21 heroes is daunting at first, but it’s split into the necessary roles (Offense, Defense, Tank, and Support) and they all have a difficulty rating based on how hard they are to play. At the start of a match the game tells you where the weak points of your team are, so you can switch characters if necessary. Each of the heroes has definite strengths and weaknesses, so they all feel different to play (and though Blizzard has stated that the idea is to switch between characters and play reactively, you can already see most people have picked favourites), as well as each having a backstory. Tracer, for example, the time skipping cover girl for the game, was a test pilot for an experimental plane. Winston the tank is a super intelligent gorilla who was raised on the moon. Genji and Hanzo are warring brothers from a Japanese crime family. Many of the character descriptions sound like pitches for films produced by Adam Sandler, but in context they all, somehow, work.
The more you play Overwatch the more you realise Blizzard thought of basically everything you might criticise it for. Want to practise without the crushing embarrassment of being beaten by real life people? Check those AI options. Don’t like team voice chat? The characters shout out proximity warnings as part of the in-game audio: “Enemy turret up ahead!”; “Watch your back!”; “I’m on the objective!” One of the most common concerns is that it might not have enough content, but if Blizzard is as good as its word there will be more heroes and maps down the line.
It’s the most accessible a team shooter has ever been, far more so than Team Fortress 2, which is the easiest game to hold Overwatch up against for comparison. It’s not inventing anything new, and the game modes are all familiar: Escort, Control, and Assault all use payload/king of the hill/capture point mechanics that people know. It doesn’t matter, because it does what it does extremely well. Overwatch is always, always helping you to enjoy playing more. When you die you get an on screen tip based on which character you’re playing and how you were killed, which is, in its own quiet way, astounding. It’s like if TF2 were released again today, stripped of a decade’s worth of smug players and optional hats.
It’s a frustrating game to score because every time you try to pick holes in Overwatch you find that Blizzard got there first, filled it, and is now waving you toward a tiny pro-gamer in a bubblegum pink mech suit going ‘Yeah but look, she’s one of the tanks you can actually play as in the game, do you have no joy in your heart? Because we can fix that. Look at this guy, he’s an Old West style gunslinger.’ Chances are you’ll be having enough fun slamming about all over the place that you wouldn’t notice problems even if there were any to really moan about.
This is a game that performs superbly; the design is so tight it probably steals toilet roll from hotels and would never lend you a fiver, and it’s an enormous amount of fun. The main issue is that it’s not breaking the kind of new ground people think it is, but, then again, most of us like standing on something solid anyway.