Tuesday, February 9, 2016


"Name's McCree". The announcement is jawed and chewed, a cigar playing as much a part as the tongue. Eyes a-squint. Behind the gaze, nary a thought. His six shooter by the name of Peacekeeper is loaded with Justice in need of dispensing. Death brings peace, obviously and I get a sour aftertaste - a meal gone bad, rebelling in the pit of my stomach - in the back of my mouth. On the opposing red team the very same is happening. But nobody cares. Blue McCree steps into the limelight together with other enthusiasts from the cosplay convention. Next to him is Steve in angsty teenage powergarb. Clearly practicing for the upcoming stage show, taking on the most dramatic and threatening pose imaginable. The pose is meant to instill some fear into its beholder. Yet nobody cares. That's just Steve, he does it all the time. Steve dresses up like Darksiders and The Matrix. Steve's favourite class in D3 is the Demon Hunter. Steve is a bit of a prat.

Steve Cosplays ReaperSteve sure knows how to work the camera.

Welcome to Overwatch. Pause for the dramatic musical interlude and late title card. So cool. The concept of Overwatch is quite solid. A team based, competitive, hero based shooter, with familiar game modes. Take inspiration from the rich history of ego shooters and model them onto likable, in some cases awe-inspiring, characters. Soldier 76 is a Call Of Duty facsimile, Mercy seems like the StarCraft addicted daughter of the Medic from Team Fortress 2. Tracer is your flanking, Run 'n Gun class. Widowmaker a Kerrigan inspired sniper. Reinhardt leads, Torbjörn does machines.

His name is McCreeHis name is McCree.

As hinted at, Overwatch cannot escape comparison with Team Fortress 2. It also can't by proxy of Blizzard sibling Heroes of the Storm, to DOTA. Coincidentally: both of those are Valve games. Sadly for Blizzard, both of those are, as of now, still better games than Overwatch. From a gameplay perspective, and tonally, Overwatch falls closer to TF2. The former has a murder of static hero characters, the latter has a handfull of editable classes. These heroes are Overwatch's main drawing factor. Whereas gameplay surely is the main attraction for TF2. Well, next to the hats that is. The gargantuan divide between the two is their setting. TF2 left much to the imagination whereas Overwatch has a universe that is quite pronounced.
To say overwatch has excellent character design isn't a sleight against TF2's characters, because they are iconic and well thought-out. No, I'm not just talking about recognizability of the silhouettes. The actual character designs also show some sophistication. Watch some of the character specific shorts Valve made and you'll get the point instantly. The sniper is a bureaucrat with a sniper rifle. The honest Brawn of the heavy is the perfect counterpart for the sly intellect of the, Frankenstein-like medic. The Demoman design, a rambunctious Scotsman, sidesteps any racial stereotyping with some creativity.

Context matters.

Less specific nature of characters, such as those of TF2, pushes them a bit into the direction of a blank slate - which makes them more approachable. In contrast, Blizzard wants to nail every stereotype as hard as it can. "Name's McCree", his diction is terse, there's no such thing as a chatty gunslinger. Gunslingers smolder menace in silence and need to have the linguistic effeciency of a telegram. Each hero spurts the one liners you'd expect. All of which are said in a vacuum. The characters aren't aware of their colleagues. By comparison Call of Duty: Black Ops 3's heroes, called specialists - yes they have them too - do party banter. So why can't Overwatch's?
These characters are similar to those in Capcom's Street Fighter, each has their own global origin. Yet they do not have the associated cultural link. indian Dhalsim is a yoga master. Japanese Ryu embodies a Ronin lifestyle, Chu-Li wears Chinese garb and does kung fu. Guile is the American family man. Overwatch's Pharah wears metroid armour avec arm-mounted rocket launcher, obviously she's from Egypt. I'm sure the link is clear... Uhm. The Chozo? Ah, Pharah-oh!
For fear of stating the obvious, Street Fighter has a Japanese perspective on the world, and Overwatch has an American perspective on the world. Yet Blizzard has many, many (international) world class creative talents. The flaw of Overwatch's setting is borne out of excess whereas it could have benefited from restraint. It needs some 'less is more'. Why? My real problem with Overwatch lies with the way how gameplay is completely severed from its setting.

Tracer and Widowmaker have a momentThe Overwatch Cinematic Trailer is full of nice little pictures.

The game, not very clearly, has a host of less than good-aligned characters. Like Reaper and Widowmaker. But the game doesn't really acknowledge the absurdity that villains are fighting besides the, presumably, heroes. Said good guys are also killing other good guys. The teams themselves have no polarizing element that sets them apart on the battlefield, save for their differently coloured name and outline (UI fixing a problem character design doesn't). Other than that there's no real telling that these are rival factions. Their goals and motivations equally nebulous. Why is defending McCree shooting attacking McCree? Both are claiming justice as their motivation while fighting over a payload on its way from A to B. Presumably the organisation known as Overwatch was created to safeguard the world, like our real world UN, from terrorists like Reaper. So I think it it safe to assume that all these characters are just mercenaries and that, regardless of how lofty their motivations, they are all villains. Or maybe this is just another instance of American policy where it doesn't matter why you have the war.
Rumour has it that Overwatch is all that's left of Blizzard's aborted Titan project, which was rumoured to be another MMO concept. Could it be that faction based gameplay (say: horde vs alliance) was dropped and now anything goes? This also means that whatever reason for conflict there once was, is gone, yet conflict remains.

just behaviour or treatment.
"a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people"
synonyms:     fairness, justness, fair play, fair-mindedness, equity, equitableness, even-handedness, egalitarianism, impartiality, impartialness, lack of bias, objectivity, neutrality, disinterestedness, lack of prejudice, open-mindedness, non-partisanship.
a judge or magistrate, in particular a judge of the Supreme Court of a country or state.

Overwatch has a universe that is really only useful for a trailer. TF2 has could be seen as what happens, or happened, during cold war times where 2 sides of a conflict would be doing very similar things aimed towards the other. Expending gigantic efforts to prolong a stalemate. A zero-sum game of two perfectly balanced parties where neither can get the upper hand - and so the game is played indefinitely - which explains why the game is allowed (do not read as 'granted by an authority') to be played/happens again and again. A more cartoonish take of Orson Welles' '1984'. A capture the flag game mode revolves around "the intel" without ever naming what the intel actually is. Valve could have gone ahead and explain that the intel are the plans of the deathstar, but the game is served just as well by just "the intel", the characters also acknowledge this. All they know is that it needs to be kept. There's only one of them and the enemy can't have it. Grunts as tools, in this instance the players, they are kept unaware because it simply doesn't matter. All the game needs is something to fight over. It's the notion of just because that links it to the often absurd nature of armed conflict. Particularly fitting as the setting of TF2. Its characters are just one amongst many. None of them make any special claim to fame, none of them goes beyond the call of duty.
But Overwatch plays with none of the concepts at its premise. The game seems like it just wants fancy characters to shoot at each other. They could as well not have bothered thinking up a universe for them.
Black Ops 3 has the same problem: factionless characters fighting each other in opposing teams, but solves it by framing death matches as simulated training programs. The game is presented as a video game, which makes it pretty honest.

His name is McCreeHis name is McCree!

Overwatch adheres to the Big Bang Theory style of funny, where funny isn't actually intellectually stimulating.

One of the most severe shortcomings of Overwatch is that it isn't self aware. Funny though the character designs may have been intended. Each of them only hit one note. His name is McCree. See how that's funny? He's a gun-slinging cowboy, just like in those movies where they all sound like that. She needs to raise her APM... because she's Korean. See how that's hilarious? She repeats it every 2 minutes. Maybe even just to make sure you get the joke. Overwatch adheres to the Big Bang Theory style of funny, where funny isn't actually intellectually stimulating, but just an out of the blue reference that is supposed to contrast or compliment with the current context (I had to strain to come up with that explanation - because there very well may be none). But It usually needs the support of a laugh track to signal when the funny bit happens. His name is McCree, and "justice won't dispense itself". Ha... What justice is that again? The only conflict I can see between characters is because they aren't on the same side for some reason. Is difference of opinion (come to think of it, not even that) a crime that requires justice? I think McCree has seen a few too many westerns and is imitating Clint Eastwood while high on psilocybin and sarsaparilla.

The characters themselves don't care either. His name is McCree... and that's all he has to say on the matter. That's all anyone on the team has to say about it. Other than hitting all the cliché one-liners you'd expect: "it's high noon", "much obliged". I didn't hear "this town isn't big enough for the two of us" yet, but I suspect the line is recorded with cleched jaw seriousness and is archived on a secure server somewhere. In fairness, I'm picking on McCree because he's such an easy target, but every characters received the same treatment. There's no true comic relief, yet it's desperately needed because its subject matter is absolutely gruesome. Unfortunately this game has no wit to it. It just has cool art design.

What it also lacks is good level design. Granted this is a beta but the maps lack sophistication. Sight lines, sniping spots, flanking routes, all these may come with future maps, but the ones I played were very basic. What's makes the maps even worse are their bottlenecks. Fights often result in a prolonged stalemate while everyone is cornercreeping to take potshots till someone forces a breakthrough by activating an ultimate skill.

Steve doing workA rough approximation of what Reaper's Death Blossom skill looks like.

Reapers ultimate skill is called 'Death Blossom'. Where he does The Matrix and people fall down in a series of one-hit-kills. Many ultimate skills resemble hacks or cheats from other FPS games. Reaper pronounces "Die, Die, Die", like the dirty terrorist he is. If you play Overwatch you'll probably hear it more than a few times each match. In no way will it ever become repetitive, boring, dull and trite. Not even after playing the game for one whole hour straight, I know because I tested it. His name is McCree. Who cares.

Each match is ended with the once-in-a-lifetime bookmark moment in Overwatch history. Nobody cares. I'm sure it won't lose its luster.

Another event you'll grow painfully accustomed to is the "play of the game" replay. During which a feat of strength, judged by the algorithm, is displayed to all participants of the game. The feat is set to a really heroic sounding score which indicates that something once-in-a-lifetime has occurred. When I say heroic, I really mean it, it's so heroic that the next Medal Of Honor game will only be able to top it by having Nazi soldiers pause in their combat to salute the player character whenever The Star-Spangled Banner plays on the soundtrack. Masterfully paced, it has both the weight of the unstoppable giant and the speed of greased lighting - which is so vividly evocated on the screen that you'll want to find your graphics card's warranty.
But after a few matches you realize each match is ended with the once-in-a-lifetime bookmark moment in Overwatch history. They are all the same. His name is McCree. Each match is ended with the once-in-a-lifetime bookmark moment in Overwatch history. Nobody cares. i'm sure it won't lose its luster. Make them all the same because otherwise some kids will feel left out when they also do not get the good ending. In a game I played the heroic ending was a killing spree of 2. Which instantly undermines the effect and made it seem much more like mommy enthusiastically clapping. It also made me feel like I was riding a tame theme park ride that assumes it's your first time riding it. Isn't this fantastic? While in reality, you've rode it the entire weekend and you're on it because of the view on Widowmaker's ass.
Play of the game also signifies the discrepancy between its team play concept and its ego-feeding rewards. The PotG makes it seem as though the player on display did something special. But in reality the algorithm only seems to detects spectacular kill streaks. Yet the objective of the game is not to score lots and lots of kills, but to get the payload to its destination. What's even worse is that the defeated team may also receive the PotG. Which alerts players that the game isn't even about playing the objective at all. Yet another sign that this game is only really about fancy characters shooting each other.

Overwatch feels light, loose, flashy and fast. On the scale of sugar rush it feels properly Nintendo.

Overwatch is another Blizzard anime game that tries to appear happy Go-lucky but takes itself way too serious. A bit like Starcraft 2 did. Sure it's expertly crafted: the characters, though cliches, do feel really unique and the range of gameplay the game has on offer is pretty impressive. The game feels like it aught to in all it's arcade-like glory. It doesn't have that heavy movement feeling you'd expect from a serious shooter, nothing really hits hard - but it feels light, loose, flashy and fast. On the scale of sugar rush it feels properly Nintendo. But it doesn't offer the statistical depth, the player customization, gameplay modifiers progression horizon of other games. Yet.
I realize I'm critiquing a beta. The amount of room for improvement is substantial and gives a big hint at the game's potential. If it'll live up to that potential is another matter. I'm sure it'll get a ton of progress bars. I also get the feeling Overwatch has been added much sugar, colours and attitude to make it palpable to the widest possible audience, coating the bitter pill that is team play and has done it up to the point where it's mostly sugar. After playing Overwatch, like the latest binge of sweets I had, I felt really quite bad.

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