The video game giant Blizzard Entertainment is known for a great many things, ranging from their massively multiplayer fantasy game World of Warcraft to their largely competitive real-time strategy game StarCraft II. They’ve built successful franchises for years, but with the market changing, Blizzard has started to branch out, adding some newer projects to their roster like Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone.

But their newest addition Overwatch brings something truly refreshing to the table, and after a weekend with the game? I can’t wait to play more during the next beta test.

Set on Earth 30 years into the future, Overwatch takes place after a war between humans and robots known as the Omnix. Originally, the two existed in peace, but as tensions rose and the robots started to rebel, an international organization was formed under the name ‘Overwatch’. These bands of elite soldiers came from every nation and fought during The Omnic Crisis, protecting the planet for 25 years before falling apart thereafter without cause.

So now, we as players get to control these elite soldiers, pitting them against each other in 6v6 matches — and the result is downright impressive.

Going into Overwatch, you aren’t expecting much — especially considering the over-saturated market for shooters we’ve become so accustomed to. But whether you view that as a good thing or not, the game is filled with eccentric characters and beautiful, stylized maps built around objectives that draw you into its world.

During our time with the beta, we were able to play on Hanamura, King’s Row and Watchpoint: Gibraltar. Every map looks gorgeous, filled with distinct characteristics and architecture that represent different countries from around the world.

Take Hanamura for example, which is located in Japan. It’s filled with hints of modern Tokyo and ancient shrines, along with beautiful murals and paper lighting complimented by cherry blossoms — which, if you take the time to stop and look, presents quite a beautiful backdrop for the mayhem. It’s also worth noting that they are filled with small easter eggs nodding toward other Blizzard titles, such as a Murloc eating noodles above a ramien shop, which never lose their luster.

Each of these maps revolves around an objective-based game mode, Payload or Point Capture, where players must either move a payload to the delivery point by standing near it or capture a series of points while the opposing team works to defend the objective. Now, these modes aren’t anything we haven’t seen before; but when complemented with Overwatch’s various characters and their abilities, they turn into something refreshing for the shooter genre.

Currently, Overwatch has 21 playable characters that are classified as either offensive, defensive, tank, or support. But, these role classifications don’t necessarily define how each hero should be played — and that’s a good thing. Instead, they tend to serve the purpose of balance, making sure that each team is filled with a variety of characters whose abilities complement each other on the battlefield. The end result of this mechanic is fantastic, with most players branching into different heroes each match that work well together and provide a great experience on a match-to-match basis. Granted, this doesn’t always end up perfect, but most players during the beta tended to focus on balanced teams instead of picking their favorite hero; a trend I hope carries into the full release.

Each hero has a unique backstory and set of skills that go along with their class, all of which can be found on the Overwatch website. What’s interesting about these short backstories though, is how they add to the lore behind the game — which is actually quite extensive if you start digging through hero bios and descriptions. For example, if you take a look at my personal favorite hero Reaper’s bio, you find out he is hunting down Overwatch agents without cause, suggesting he might be one of the reasons the organization fell apart in the first place.

But all lore implications aside, the gameplay behind each hero is solid. They all have a primary weapon, two secondary abilities, and an ultimate ability — each of which are designed to be unique to that specific character. Take Reaper for example, who is an offensive powerhouse. Not only does he teleport and become a wraith immune to damage, he reloads his shotguns by tossing them away and generating new ones in his hands out of thin air. Trust me, I was excited every time I reloaded too.

But offensive heroes aren’t useful without support, defensive, and tank heroes to back them up because they can be picked off so easily. Sure, I could jump into a pack of baddies and unleash my ultimate ability to gun them down, but I sure as hell wouldn’t make it out alive without someone watching my back or healing me as I ran out of the engagement. That’s why it’s so important to team up with heroes who benefit each other in Overwatch, because without these combinations? You’re almost guaranteed to lose the match to your opponents.

Overwatch isn’t flawless, though — and a variety of concerns made themselves apparent during my time with the beta. Most notable is the balance of certain characters, such as Bastion and DV.a, who are absolute powerhouses on the battlefield. There were numerous games where multiple players picked Bastion, who can turn into a turret with a shield, and just sat on the objective mowing down attackers with a hail of gunfire. Situations like these can be dealt with, but they’re frustrating and feel unbalanced without a team of communicating players — however, situations like these are what beta testing is for. Overall though, most characters are actually balanced out well for a game this early in development — with every character having a counter to another.

Overall, the Overwatch beta was a pleasantly surprising introduction to the game, bringing back the ‘Team Fortress’ experience from years ago. It’s filled with fantastic personalities, great map design, team-oriented gameplay and a great premise — and it’s something you should definitely keep on your radar going into 2016.

Overwatch releases in spring of 2016 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. You can also signup to participate in beta testing on the game’s website.


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