Hey, remember Overwatch?
Just kidding – ‘course you do. It’s an awesome FPS that’s colourful, clean and slickly presented. Precisely what you want from a Triple-A game, with fast, frantic gunplay (and swordplay, and arrow-play, and…), and a host of characters that appeal to just about every play-style out there. So why does no-one really talk about it anymore?
You should totally check out this piece dissecting how marketing almost killed video games in 2016. Or not.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s still being played, and enjoyed (because it’s bloody great), with a 15 million player count, and there are active communities stunningly devoted to it. With a massive player surge, which risks an impending crash before the count level out, it’s hard not to see it as a strong GOTY contender. It’s just, four months after release, I never really hear the middle-of-the-road gamers whipping themselves into a frenzy about it.
Blizzard’s FPS is still holding its price in pretty much every outlet, on pretty much every platform. Back in June it was America’s top-selling game. And in the UK, it’s still dominating sales, sitting at the number one spot this week (In part, we’re guessing, because of the weekend’s free play days demo).
But the only time I see folks chatting about it is when the devs are updating the game or Blizzard are trying to turn it into the next eSports games (to varying degrees of success, despite resistance). Contrast that with a game like Destiny. I can’t move for gamers discussing it, getting excited about it. Part of that, no doubt, is because while Overwatch‘s hook is its tactical depth, Destiny is focused on pick-ups and loot-drops – guaranteed to addict just about every player.
But I think there’s something else going on here.
Remember when Blizzard first announced the game? The record-breaking beta? Man, this was gonna be the greatest experience in the world ever! Thank you, Blizzard! When the Hype Train was pulling into Hype City Station, we caught glimpses of a war brewing between Overwatch and Battleborn, before Overwatch steamrolled the ‘competition’ with barely a whimper from Gearbox’s colourful MOBA. But a lot of that tribal war stirred not from praise for Overwatch, but hatred of Battleborn, which wasn’t as smooth or accessible as its rival – which is true, it took gamespulp a while to get into it.
That was followed by the apparently ‘sexist’ row over Tracer’s coy pose. And then what? The game came out and… it all quietened down. It dominated my friends list for about a month before being downgraded to the cameo-like frequency of Dead Island (anecdote = evidence right?).
Part of the problem with that comes from one of Overwatch‘s strongest assets: It’s characters. Now, as a narrative-games man, I love strong, developed characters, and Overwatch‘s 22-character cast is incredibly strong, in a genre typically filled with military men, all drab and raging.
While the marketing for the game was sound as a pound, it was the characters, not the gameplay, that snatched the broader audience’s attention. That’s an important distinction, and you can see the same thing happening with Titanfall 2‘s marketing campaign now, with characters placed front and centre. And there’s a damn good reason why Overwatch’s hype was based more on characters than gameplay.
Overwatch may be a fast-paced battle of button-smashing skill, timing your abilities to the second for maximum damage to bastards your opponents, but it is in no way a game-changer.
You can’t have a rolling conversation about Overwatch as you can with other games – for starters, there’s no unlocks (loot boxes don’t count, mate). You boot up, you have all the characters, all the abilities at your finger tips. So where can you go with that?
For rookies, the conversation is, ‘Have you played Overwatch? There’s a really cool dude who can hook players and pop ‘em with a scattergun facial’. For pro players, is about dissecting last night’s awesome new tactics and plotting possible strategies. And everyone in-between, well, you can always tell your pals you finally ranked up to level 37, earned a new spray… And that’s it. There’s not much conversational scope for average or core gamers. All you can do is play. And play. And play. Overwatch is exemplar of the classic easy to play, hard to master.
I find Overwatch so bizarrely contradictory. It has bags of replayability, but it’s so totally lacking in maps, modes and genuine originality. Territorial base capturing, shooters with power-ups, working as a squad of well-rounded characters (Fuck you, by the way, if you’re a team of Bastions with no healer). It’s all been done before. Maybe not to the same degree of slick game-play, but while it’s refreshing, it’s not new.
The Play of the Game feature is a neat touch, a superior take on COD’s final kill-cam that showcases the top moment in the game, usually a kick-ass kill-streak. And Overwatch is, as the magisterial Rich Stanton said, ‘built around the abilities much more than the gunplay,’ that ‘leaves traditional FPS gameplay intact through certain characters while introducing a new layer of more ability-based tactics with others.’ The game’s quick-loading skills offer a rare change of pace in a genre that’s usually devoted to the simplistic shoot-reload-die ad nauseum. Or camping in the corner with a sniper rifle, if that’s how you roll.
No-one, that I can think of, said that Overwatch was the indigo child of the gaming world: super-special, precious, unique. And that’s because it’s not. Think of how Call of Duty: Modern Warfare forever altered the gaming landscape with its addictive multiplayer. Or how Battlefield gave us it’s take on frenetic, atmospheric all-out war.
Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, GTA changed the way we played games. Bioshock and Portal changed the way we thought about games. Telltale’s The Walking Dead or a game like Journey changed the way we felt about games. Overwatch brought in the enjoyment factor, but no totally original game-play – it’s a buffet game, cherry-picking the best parts of others, and blending them into one beautiful little package.
How long can the hype-less honeymoon last? Overwatch season 2 has just kicked off, bringing a raft of changes to competitive play, but if the game’s going to compete against the likes of Infinite Warfare, Battlefield 1, Blizzard will need to start spinning some of their own unique and creative gameplay to complement those wonderful characters.