We interrupt our regularly scheduled story posting for a very important public service announcement.
Now that my life has calmed down a bit, I’ve been able to put more time into that little game I mentioned several months back. Apparently it’s been real popular or something. It’s hard to say. I missed a good two months following it’s launch due to being a traveller and international man of mystery (stealth brag, not sorry). At the time, I didn’t feel like doing a full review of the game because I felt I hadn’t put enough time in it to definitely say much on the matter.
Now I have.
Overwatch won’t last.
I should put up some disclaimers. First, I loved Team Fortress 2. It’s probably the game I’ve put the most time in and that’s saying something since I play Firaxis’ Civilization series. So comparisons to TF2 are not only happening but I can already tell you that Blizzard has remarkably fumbled the formula despite only needing to copy what’s already proven to work.
Second, I hate Widowmaker but thankfully she won’t feature in this little review.
Finally, I’m not a competitive player. I have other things to do in my life and that’s including a mild Steam backlog. I have no interest nor design to devote hours of my day to treating my past time like it’s a second job. The draw of TF2 was its casual atmosphere. After plugging tons of personal hours in it, I then felt like upgrading to a more competitive level to keep the game interesting. Starting in a highly competitive level while learning is merely stress and ego, neither of which are great ways to play a game that I haven’t mastered.
With that out of the way, let’s get into it.
I’ll start off by saying that Overwatch isn’t bad. It’s a fun little game that clearly has a lot of work put into it. I’ve discussed some of its design previously (and where it missteps) but there’s no denying that its visual, audio and mechanical components are solid. I think I’ve experienced one crash. It looks pretty. Too pretty for Derek to play. It sounds nice so long as you can tune out Reaper’s voice lines. Care has been taken to give each individual hero character to separate them from the others and Blizzard’s designs have been improving since launch. The maps are very colourful and detailed. And Blizzard has been prompt in address small bug fixes and balance changes.
Also, there’s a clear schedule to address one of the valid and critical negatives of the game at launch: it’s lack of content.
It’s the very lack of content that has led to this post today and to my proclamation that Overwatch will – despite checking all the right boxes to have a long lasting game like Team Fortress 2 – have very short legs in terms of replayability. Playing the same heroes and maps over and over again isn’t too bad for a multiplayer game, though certainly having a steady stream of content is great to keep retention rates high. But the glaring issues with Overwatch is built into the foundation of the game that ultimately cut these additional content additions off at the knees. And there appears to not only be no foreseeable effort to address these shortcomings but that Overwatch is, essentially, designed to fail.
For, you see, Overwatch is this odd blend of team based, competitive gameplay with casual and mainstream design philosophy. It hopes to capture the Dota/League of Legends/Heroes of Newerth crowd while also luring in the bulk of Team Fortress 2 players. It achieves neither a strong competitive environment nor a friendly, casual online community. In the end, it just ends up alienating both.
It’s the worst aspects of Dota and Team Fortress 2 while grossly under delivering on their best qualities.
How did this happen? Well, simply, it lacks one small yet critical element that kept bringing me back to Team Fortress 2: dedicated servers.
But first, what is a dedicated server? For these games, it’s a standalone server that does not require parent company to own in order to run the game. In TF2 when you logged on, in order to actually play with others you’d need to open a list of available servers and manually join them. Certainly, this is an additional step between the player and their play. I can see how it would be confusing or intimidating for new players to learn this system since it’s not just a matter of finding the server which offers you the best ping. Since these dedicated servers were run independent of Valve, they also had a tendency for operating under their own rules.
There were Valve dedicated servers too, of course. Depending on where you lived, however, you likely had moderate latency connecting to them at best. Every online game runs better when you reduce latency as much as possible. Team Fortress 2 shone when you also found great servers nearby.
Since the owner of the server could dictate the rules of the game, there were numerous factors of which to be wary. Some servers would offer benefits to the owner or his friends through the use of game cheats and the like. Some would give preferential treatment to donors or the like. Some preferred certain maps and play modes. As such, the players each server attracted were different and it was rather natural for communities to sprout up. Over the years, I’d cultivated a list of places that I especially enjoyed. These were usually friendly servers with a certain level of moderation to keep cheaters and trolls banned while also emphasising a certain average skill level. They mostly favoured capture point maps too, because that was my favourite game mode, but there were usually voting options to determine the next map and this function was found on most servers including Valve’s official ones.
And here we get into the crux of my issue with Overwatch.
Leaning more on the competitive angle, Overwatch tracks players skills to formulate a player skill score. Since the game is reduced to such a low team size (6 players), finding a good balance of skill between teams is more important than Team Fortress where one or two poor players can often get lost in the chaos of the game. Having one poor player in a team of twelve is less disadvantageous than one poor player in a team of six.
However, Overwatch couldn’t possibly develop a player skill rating from private dedicated servers especially since Blizzard wouldn’t be able to account for mods or cheating. Thus, everyone is forced onto Blizzard’s servers. This is similar to how Dota 2 works and for Dota 2 it is a system that serves the players best. Unfortunately, it’s led to some severe issues with Overwatch.
For one, there’s absolutely no control over the map selection in Overwatch. You hit the “Quick Play” option in the menu and then you wait for Blizzard to shuffle you around with the other players in the area before cramming you all into a server to duke it out. As such, you have no idea who you will be playing or where you’ll be playing going into a match. For Dota 2, this isn’t an issue because there’s only one map and one game mode. But in Overwatch there are four game modes (King of the Hill, Attack and Defend, Payload and a hybrid of Attack and Payload) and three different maps per mode. I say three because the fourth Hybrid map, Eichenwalde, was released on August 1st and in the two months since I’ve played it three times.
But, ho boy, have I played Ilios and Hanamura a lot in the meanwhile!
Overwatch basically makes it a gamble every evening as to what you want to play. If someone had introduced me to Team Fortress 2 and informed me that there would be a chance every time I logged in that I would have an entire evening filled with Arena type maps mixed with the odd 2 Fort rotation, I’d have given it up on the spot.
Seriously, Team Fortress 2 has amazing content because it’s received many years of updates but also because its design team have learned from their mistakes. I can happily enjoy TF2 without worry I’ll ever step on the stalemate prone and incredibly poorly laid out boards of 2 Fort. And even if against all my desires it happens to come up in a server rotation I could simply quit and find another server that wasn’t playing that map.
Course, Valve updated its server options so you could have a “Quick Play” option and then you simply pick which game mode you’d like and you’d be shunted into a Valve server that only played those maps. Of which you could still vote on what ones will load. Needless to say, I pick capture point every time.
But with Overwatch, I simply have to wait until the random number gods deem me worthy of playing a decent map all the while I pay my dues in the grindfest that is Hanamura. And I’m not certain entirely convinced the Overwatch hero gameplay is suitable for king of the hill. At the very least, Ilios Lijiang Tower and Nepal do not make compelling arguments for it. But we’ve seen with the Arena mode in TF2 that some game modes are not suitable for some shooting design. Thankfully, Valve was able to remove Arena (though still leave it for any masochists who may truly be devoted to it). I’m not certain Blizzard have that luxury with Overwatch. Most certainly they don’t now when there are so few map variations in rotation.
And this is the sort of problem that will only continue to compound as the game receives more content. If in two months I’ve only played Eichenwalde three times, how often can I expect to play a new release? What if they make a game mode that I really love? I could go a whole weeks without seeing it and must throw myself into the well of Ilios in the meanwhile. This is the exact opposite goal of releasing more content. You want the player to be excited for fresh gameplay, not annoyed that they’re held against their will in your old maps.
But even if Blizzard adds a queue option for only certain game modes (a highly dubious direction considering their player base is already split between Quick Play and Competitive Mode) there’s the other issue that irks me. Queue for matches. It happens way too often.
Once again, it has the Dota 2 system where, after every match, you’re returned to the title menu and await matchmaking to find you a new game. And yet again, for Dota 2, this works. But Dota 2 matches are anywhere from thirty minutes to an hours. Having a one to five minute wait between games is actually a much needed break. As such, when a match is found, there is a heavy incentive to stay in the game and harsh leaver penalties.
But Overwatch matches are closer in length to TF2. Rarely do these go over ten minutes. You can have them as short as two or three. In Quick Play, there is no punishment for leaving and you’ll be shunted back to the queue if teams become unbalanced. Typically this is from players leaving. Sometimes, you’ll have a few back and forth matches with the same teams (or even players rotating between teams) and you’ll be thrown back into the queue again anyway.
And my average wait for a match is at least forty five seconds. You can wait up to several minutes for a game. So, imagine sitting down for a night of Overwatch and your first match ends up as Lijiang Tower. You get steamrolled in the first match of the King of the Hill and it’s done in two minutes. Three members of your team quit from frustration. You’re thrown back to the queue. You wait a minute and are matched into Nepal. You stomp the first map, move to the second and manage to drag it out for five minutes. Your team gets frustrated when you lose and two drop so you’re down a player in the third map and it’s over immediately since you can’t contest the point and by the time you get a full team the enemy is already entrenched. You’re thrown back to the queue. You wait two more minutes for a map. You’re back filled into Lijiang Tower as the final members of a team getting beaten badly and don’t have the time or position to change things. You’re thrown back to the queue.
It can feel like a quarter of your time in Overwatch is waiting to play. And there’s no way for Blizzard to address this. Even if they make separate queues to address their map rotation problems, they’ll just be extending the wait time for the next match. You can’t get rid of the waiting for matches because the game only functions if you have two teams of six players each all of relatively same skill level.
In comparison, Team Fortress 2 you can have half empty servers and it’s fine. You can have maps repeat several times, put them on 20 minute timers, have map change votes in the middle of matches and be spending all this time fighting back and forth. And, funny enough, you still get the sense of progression that people love from competitive modes because you still have scoreboards at the end of the match. You can tell when you’re improving whether by taking down that really skilled server regular in a one versus one or by pulling obviously strong plays.
And as for Dota, waiting five minutes for a match is actually nice for a break if you’ve been playing for forty minutes in a tight back and forth game. You’re committed to a long game when you get in so waiting for an even match is that big of a problem.
This doesn’t even touch the benefit of seeing regular faces in the same place and forming friendships online. Your team in Overwatch, unless you are entering the queue with someone from your friend list from the start, are just faceless nobodies who mostly don’t communicate with you anyway. They’re little better than bots. And I can’t really argue with people being quiet. What’s the point in being friendly and interactive with individuals that you’re only going to see at most for ten minutes before the game forces you to shuffle up and play with others.
It’s funny, because I’d picked this game up because my friends were playing it. But as they slowly stop playing (and I keep at it because I’ve paid money and want to get my value’s worth) I dreaded going into solo queue. I’d done that in Dota and it’s absolutely dreadful. But solo queuing in Overwatch isn’t that bad since no one talks. Sure, you’ll get the odd asshole that you have to mute but then he’s shuffled away after five or so minutes replaced with another muted nobody with some lame battletag referencing a Blizzard product. It’s a rather soulless exercise that makes you feel you’re just running the hamster wheel in order to get better for no real gain.
You’re grinding but there aren’t any rewards to grind for. You’re mostly returning again and again for the chance that maybe, just maybe, you’ll load into Eichenwalde this time and be able to push to the third half and actually explore the castle for once.
But instead you launch into yet another Hanamura meat grinder.