Overwatch is an intimidating game. It serves up frantic online competition without meaningful single-player modes to act as a reprieve from the disappointment of testy teammates. It cultivated an obsessive, mouthy fan base before it was even released. Its cast of unique playable characters is large and each one comes with a swath of special moves, weaknesses, and hidden intricacies. Its sprawling cranny-filled arenas have multiple permutations or are segmented into distinct chunks that encourage shifts in strategy, and there are no explicit game types on display before entering a match, all of which makes cobbling together something resembling a plan more difficult. There’s a lot to learn. It’s fortunate, then, that Blizzard’s mega-hit is a marvelous teacher.
In crafting its first shooter, the veteran developer rethought the way these games judge us and, in turn, the way they force us to judge ourselves. Typically when playing online with random teammates, the harsh opinions of good-intentioned know-it-alls or, more likely, angry blowhards are only rivaled by our own frustrations and disappointment over a poor personal performance. Overwatch attempts to curb those sources of demoralization by deemphasizing the genre’s usual metrics and in-team rankings. There is no scoreboard that places teammates in a pointless pissing contest for the most awesome “kill-to-death ratio.” In fact, there is no mention of kill-to-death ratios at all. And why should there be? In a game where players are coming together as a team and filling various roles with different goals, such measurements are meaningless and do more harm than good.
Instead, Overwatch singles out relevant statistics for each character, and goes to great lengths to applaud stellar individual performances. At the end of each match, there’s a screen highlighting four players who put in great work for their role. Whether you absorbed lots of bullets with Reinhardt’s mobile force field or healed a ton of damage with Lucio’s medicinal music, these contributions are all placed on equal footing. By giving kudos for specific actions, the game is teaching players what they should be doing and reinforcing the idea that no one teammate is more or less important than the rest—lessons every player should take to heart as soon as possible.
The only person Overwatch wants you comparing performances with is your past self. The game always takes time to show how your stats match up with your average numbers for that character and rewards you for meeting or exceeding that baseline. Even when things go poorly, the game automatically moves between matches so quickly that there’s hardly any time to dwell on failure. Within a minute after defeat, you’re whisked away to the next scenario with that last match never to be brought up again. It’s the game’s way of saying, “Buck up. You’ll get ’em this time.”
These are all such seemingly insignificant changes. After all, they’re just methods of presenting information that have no real bearing on how the game plays. But together, they reflect a new, thoughtful approach to providing positive feedback and encouraging personal growth. We’ve become used to games exploiting our psychological tendencies to keep us playing or spending money—and make no mistake, Overwatch has those insidious hooks as well—but so few, if any, have taken advantage of the way we think to stamp out negativity and gently teach us to be better players quite like this does. It’s a remarkable game design feat that seems so obvious in hindsight. There really is power in positivity.
That eye for communication and feedback bleeds back into Overwatch’s action. With six players on each team and a location to either capture or defend, there is a lot going on at any given time. Matches often break down into firefights that can get indescribably chaotic, especially if the clock turns to overtime and the attacking team is forced into making one final push toward victory past the defense’s valiant goal-line stand. But even in the most heated of situations, the game provides enough clear markers and sound cues that it’s easy to keep track of what’s going on and what you should be doing. Enemies are given a helpful red outline. Healers can see their teammates’ health bars, accompanied by a special “critical” marker for emergencies. Every character’s “ultimate ability”—spectacular attacks that charge over time and have the potential to change the outcome of a match—is accompanied by a vocal declaration that everyone hears regardless of proximity. The same goes for the automated chatter that characters spout, calling out threats as specific as an enemy attacking your healer.
Much like Valve’s Team Fortress 2, Overwatch’s clearest inspiration, the exaggerated character designs are just as much about creating a diverse, lovable cast as they are contributing to this easily readable gestalt. No two combatants look or move the same, meaning you can quickly figure out the specific dangers ahead of you and act accordingly. Sometimes, that means swapping to a new character that’s better suited to taking down the opposing team’s threats, like bringing in a cyborg ninja to get behind enemy lines and assassinate a pesky turret.
Gaining the knowledge to capitalize on that deftly presented wealth of information and the meta-game of strategies and counter strategies is a significant hill for players to climb. It takes time and experimentation—and maybe a little extracurricular research, if you really want to get serious about it—but through shunning some of the poisonous aspects of competitive games and going to unprecedented lengths to make everyone feel like their contributions are meaningful, Overwatch makes that journey as pleasant and manageable as possible. From its commendably inclusive roster to its varied, dramatic action, it’s brimming with an welcoming liveliness that’s all too rare in games, multiplayer or otherwise.
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PC
Price: $60 for the Origin Edition, which includes several digital tchotchkes; $40 for a stand-alone version, available only on PC