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Overwatch and the new wave of friendly online shooters

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Bad aim doesn't mean no fun

Overwatch

There’s a new multiplayer-only shooter out, and I’m really having a lot of fun with it. Just a few years ago that’s not something you would have heard me say. The genre has historically not been very welcoming to newcomers; the result of entrenched players who are simply way better than you are, and often toxic communities that aren’t very pleasant to be around. No one enjoys repeatedly dying while someone laughs at you the whole time, slowly building up enough experience for a half-decent scope or zoom option.

But thanks to games like the recently launched Overwatch, that mentality is changing. Some developers are now treating online shooters as experiences that can cater to more than just the hardcore; experiences that can be fun for pretty much everyone.

It started in 2014 with Titanfall, a sci-fi game where acrobatic soldiers and giant mech suits coexisted on the same battlefield, and continued with last year’s Splatoon from Nintendo, which felt like a colorful Call of Duty crossed with paintball. Now comes Overwatch from Blizzard, the studio behind iconic games like World of Warcraft and Diablo. Overwatch is a team-based shooter starring a huge cast of superhero-like characters, and it manages to do something few multiplayer titles do — it makes you feel like a superhero even when you’re terrible.

The first thing that makes Overwatch’s world appealing and approachable is, well, its world. This isn’t the dour brown-and-grey shooter you might be used to. Instead, it’s bright and colorful, with a cast of characters that’s eclectic and diverse. You can play as an Egyptian soldier with a jetpack, or an English secret agent who can teleport. There’s a gorilla scientist, a friendly robot (who can turn into a turret), and an Old West gunslinger. It’s like a Saturday morning cartoon turned into a beautiful, modern 3D game. There are 21 characters to choose from — they’re called “heroes” here — and honestly, it’s hard to settle on just one. They all look so cool. And the levels you’ll explore are similarly enticing, whether it’s a Hollywood movie set or a sci-fi rendition of Nepal.

Overwatch

Overwatch’s predecessors both had a specific hook that made them work for new players. In Titanfall, it was a combination of the mech suits and computer-controlled combatants who were relatively easy to take out. If, like me, you were bad at the game, the titan suits gave you a brief taste of power, while killing AI grunts made it feel like you were contributing, even in a small way, to your team’s success. Splatoon, meanwhile, made the experience less about killing, and more about painting. You could still shoot your opponents, but your main goal was to paint the level with as much of your team’s color as possible before the end of the match. If you weren’t good at head shots, you could use a paint roller instead. The tweaks to Overwatch’s formula are much more subtle, and it’s hard to pinpoint one specific reason why it works for non-hardcore shooter players. But all of the changes work together to make it feel much more friendly than its competitors — Overwatch is a game that exudes positivity.

On the surface, Overwatch is a lot like other class-based shooters like Team Fortress 2. You team up with five other players, either friends or strangers, and face off against a similarly composed team. The many characters each fall into one of four different roles, like support or assault, and at the outset of a match you’ll need to choose who to play as. In many games these roles can feel restrictive; if you pick a healing support character, that’s your job, and your team’s success depends on whether or not you do it well.

Overwatch’s characters feel much more fluid. Each role is important, but most of the characters feel multifaceted; there are offensive heroes who can provide a quick health boost, and support characters with entertaining and powerful weapons. Plus, the game allows — and even encourages — you to change your hero multiple times per match. For high-level players, this means you can quickly adjust your strategy based on what the other team is doing. For beginners, it means you can easily try out new characters in order to find a good fit. You’re never stuck in one role.

Overwatch

The other important shift is that Overwatch isn’t a game about killing. Sure, you wield guns and spend most of your time shooting at other people, but unlike most shooters, your main objective isn’t simply to kill as many people as possible. Instead, the stages all have objectives — you need to escort vehicle safely somewhere, for example, or protect a specific building — and success hinges on completing that objective with your team. Running off on your own to chase down kills makes this difficult. In fact, Overwatch actively seems to discourage the typical bloodthirsty shooter mentality; not only does it lack a deathmatch mode, Overwatch’s post-match statistics also don’t include your kill / death ratio. No one will know for sure just how bad you really are.

What’s perhaps most impressive about Overwatch — and it’s something Blizzard seems to have a knack for lately with titles like Hearthstone — is that the approachability of the game doesn’t eliminate the possibilities for high-level play. While players like me can dabble just a bit and still have fun, people who are actually good at Overwatch are doing incredible, highlight reel worthy things. It’s an approach to game design that resembles a public swimming pool; the shallow end is where anyone can play, but the further you venture, the more depth you find.

It also means that Overwatch can be more of a hobby than a lifestyle. You don’t need to dedicate hours of your life every night to get good and reach the threshold of skill necessary to have enjoy the game. In all likelihood your first match will be a blast; I managed to score a “play of the game” award the first time I played the game, using a character I knew nothing about. After a week with the game I’m not sure if I’m actually getting better — but I definitely haven’t stopped having fun.