With Overwatch, Blizzard is promising a new, or at least tweaked kind of online competitive shooter.
The idea is that players will have more to do than kill each other, with the game focusing more on teamwork, tactics and staying alive long enough to get to know the character you're playing. Every avatar has a back story and some special abilities. Instead of logging in and watching them die over and over, Blizzard wants you to feel something for them and to gradually understand the relationships they share with the other characters, relationships which will ostensibly be formed via those non-violent, team-orientated interactions.
But at the moment, none of that seems to be coming through. Overwatch is a playful, colourful and enjoyable shooter, but it's not so different from Call of Duty or Battlefield. The few matches I've played at BlizzCon all devolved quickly into standard deathmatch fare, with competitors eschewing the objective-based gameplay in favour of fighting and killing each other using each of the characters' various perks.
I think this is where Blizzard is going to have a problem.
With games like World of Warcraft and Diablo, the company basically invented a genre, invented a market. The players of those games may have gone in with some expectations regarding mechanics and aesthetics, but, especially with WoW, the size of the world and the litany of available interactions was unprecedented.
It was absolutely something new. Blizzard wasn't just able to lead the way people would play, it was able to open and subsequently control the financial element. Almost every MMO since has followed WoW's subscription model and dozens have emulated its style and accessibility. But with Overwatch, Blizzard is facing a saturated market, and one that it is completely untested in. The game might have noble intentions, but the years players have spent in games like CoD will colour the way that they play.
Likewise, attracting existing shooter fans into Overwatch, and finding a niche way of charging for the service, will be difficult considering that other franchises have things more or less sewn up.
That said, Blizzard isn't going this alone.
The developer is part owned by Activision, which publishes both Call of Duty and Destiny, perhaps the game that seems to have most inspired Overwatch. If any one big studio has the expertise in place to launch a new shooter IP, it's Activision-Blizzard.
Chris Metzen and Jeff Kaplan are the creative, charismatic face of the game and they'll no doubt be instrumental in drawing WoW, Starcraft and Hearthstone fans into this new franchise. At the same time, Activision will engineer a way to get the so-called hardcore shooter fanbase interested.
So it could well work. I hope it does. If Overwatch develops into the "less lethal" multiplayer FPS that's been talked up at BlizzCon, personally, I'll find that a refreshing change of tact to what I'm used to playing. Metzen's line about increasing "up time" and giving players the chance to gain some "context" for their characters and gameplay really stuck with me.
To date, I've found it hard to emotionally involve myself in online shooters. I'm certainly one of those people who logs in, gets killed and has to respawn almost constantly. That's not because I'm bad at the game (check out my Battlefield 3 kill/death ratio, ladies) but because multiplayer shooters are often geared more towards mechanical, twitch-based challenges than anything else.
I want to be able to form stories, like I do in maybe Fallout or Skyrim. I want anecdotes and occasions to remember, distinct games of multiplayer that feature more than just the repeated act of killing and then dying. If Blizzard can build and then sell Overwatch properly, it could really be something special.
Even if not, it's still a smooth, aesthetically distinctive online game. Visually it reminds me a lot of XIII, the PS2 shooter based on the eponymous Belgian comic book. That kind of cartoonish, almost cel-shaded look lends a levity to the gameplay that military shooters – serious, heavy, so-called realistic – never carry off.
I like the idea of dipping in and out of Overwatch, of it being almost like a handheld game which I can imbibe briefly before moving onto something else. CoD involves so much sitting down, logging on, tooling up and moving out – it really demands an armchair. What I've played of Overwatch tells me it'll be breezier and more light-hearted – in a word, enjoyable.
And kudos to Blizzard for getting the balancing right. To see how far I could push things, I went straight for the archer character, Hanzo. Given that basically everyone else has some kind of gun, I thought the guy with the bow and arrow would be totally outclassed, but no. His arrows kill in one or two hits and the movement speeds on most enemies are enough that you can get some pretty accurate shots off.
Same goes for the rest of the characters. Some have lower health, others have more powerful weapons, but nobody seems to have an advantage over anyone else. Tracer is a personal favourite, the woman who can teleport 30 metres in any direction and rewind time by three seconds to reverse any mistakes. It's smart how the rewind only affects her. In theory, you can teleport up to an enemy, plant a bomb on their face, then hit rewind and instantly blink back to where you were just in time to watch it explode. I expect the people who master Tracer will be absolute sods to kill.
I hope Overwatch succeeds. I really do. Despite my presence at BlizzCon, I'm not much of a fan of either WoW or Starcraft – this whole conference I've felt a bit like Louis Theroux, smiling patronisingly while a group of Americans talk about orgies.
But still, I'm rooting for this game. It's the first title Blizzard has put out that I feel like I might be able to "get". WoW and the rest have put me off consistently because of all the grinding, numbers and commitment they take. Overwatch, if it turns out right, could be the ideal combination of narrative pretension and accessible mechanics.
And maybe, just maybe, it'll end up on consoles. When asked about Xbox One and PS4 versions, Kaplan insisted the PC issue was "all Blizzard was talking about this weekend." But that's just PR code for "yes, but we're not allowed to say so yet," so keep your ear to the ground.