This year's Gamescom has been a special treat for fans of multiplayer games. Ubisoft has brought Rainbow Six Siege and the all-new For Honor for gamers to try out in Cologne, while DICE used the show to debut a massive 20-player dogfight mode in Star Wars: Battlefront. Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm has been everywhere too, but it's another title from the same company that I want to talk about today: Overwatch. It, along with Gearbox Software's Battleborn, is establishing a new category of team-based shooter games, one where violence and gore are de-emphasized in favor of accessibility and cooperative fun.
A MOBA for FPS fans, an FPS for MOBA fans
Anyone who's ever played Team Fortress 2 will find both of these new games familiar, and they do indeed owe a measure of creative debt to Valve's enduringly popular team shooter. But you can't have a class of games made up of just one, and it's only now that TF2 is finding more games willing to explore its quirky mix of cartoony visuals, frenetic action, and exaggerated weaponry. The typical definition of a first-person shooter (FPS) game immediately brings to mind the Call of Duty series, where realism is prized and storylines revolve around plausible near-future scenarios. You are a soldier with a rifle, and though the specifics of what you and the rifle can do might change, the essence of gritty warfare is generally right at the heart of the game. Big publishers like Blizzard and 2K Games, which is responsible for Battleborn's release, are now investing their time and effort into creating games that take a different approach.
Because FPS games thrust the player directly into the body of the controlled character, they immediately feel more intimate. That's what makes them so exciting and captivating, but it's also what puts off many players who don't fancy spending their afternoon enjoying a first-person view of some bleak dystopia filled with dying screams and smoking shotgun shells. Sometimes, people just want a lighthearted blast-'em-up that doesn't make them feel like homicidal maniacs, and that's where Battleborn and Overwatch come in. They both blend the familiarity and immediacy of first-person shooters with the superheroic aspects of third-person team-based games like Heroes of the Storm. HotS is the newest prominent name in the class of multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games that is headed up by League of Legends and Dota 2. It's because of the wild popularity and runaway commercial success of those games that we're now getting titles like Battleborn, Overwatch, and the Xbox One-bound Gigantic.
Not every shooting game has to make the player feel like a homicidal maniac
Both Battleborn and Overwatch offer highly stylized playable characters with diverse abilities and roles. MOBA veterans will find themselves at home with Battleborn's hero leveling system, which lets you progressively upgrade and augment your hero as you make your way through a mission or a fight. It's probably improper to label these new games as FPS titles, given how much else each player can do beyond merely shooting. They are certainly a hybrid.
These games are fantastic, in both their setting and gameplay
While they share a number of qualities, Battleborn and Overwatch have their differences as well. The latter game retains a greater sense of realism; it still feels like a stylized reality as opposed to a complete other world. Battleborn, on the other hand, is just gleeful in casting off the chains of our world and exploring visual and mechanical caricatures. An Overwatch hero, even one with teleportation abilities, feels much more human than a Battleborn character. Real-world physics are more closely adhered to in Overwatch, which may appeal to fans of traditional FPS that don't want to completely abandon their heritage. Personally, I have fallen in love with the design and gameplay of Battleborn: it's instantly accessible and fun, and its heroes' superhuman litheness means there's rarely a pause in the action. Basically, I feel like Battleborn is the better game, and its fantastic elements serve to augment rather than undermine the pacing and joy of the gameplay.
My impressions of the two games at Gamescom have left me excited for the future of shooter games. I've heeded many Calls of Duty in my time, and was once deeply addicted to Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, but have felt the need for something truly different to diversify the genre. I like what I'm seeing from Blizzard and Gearbox this year, even without knowing the full rosters of characters and abilities that their new games will offer. The potential is clearly there and, in the case of Battleborn, the quality and fun of the gameplay are beyond question. Maybe I'll reach a similarly glowing conclusion about Overwatch once I've had more time to accustom myself to its heroes and learn the nuance of what they can do. I'm looking forward to finding out.