Blizzard Entertainment shakes things up with its latest hit, ‘Overwatch.’
For decades, Blizzard Entertainment has proven itself to be the master of putting out products that walk the tightrope of pick-up-and-play approachability and appealing to the hard-core set. From the early days of The Lost Vikings to the Diablo trilogy — StarCraft, Warcraft and its insanely popular MMORPG counterpart, World of Warcraft — part of what makes the draw of Blizzard’s games so powerful (apart from being incredibly well-tuned products, of course) is great character design. Topping several Game of the Year lists, sitting pretty with a Metascore of 91 on PC, and inspiring an avalanche of cosplayers and fan art, Blizzard’s smash hit Overwatch is no exception. But it’s been an interesting path. Overwatch started out as very different game.
From the Ashes
In 2007, Blizzard began work on their next MMO, Titan. From what’s been told of the cancelled project (that would go on to share some DNA with Overwatch), Titan was going to have players fill the roles of an entire futuristic world’s denizens — not just as warriors, like most MMOs, but as shopkeepers and landlords, etc., creating a living, breathing world entirely peopled by player-controlled characters. If that doesn’t sound particularly fun to play, Blizzard agreed and scrapped the idea. (What do you mean you don’t want to come home from a long day at work to jump online and sweep sidewalks in a video game?) But apparently there was still some potential in Titan, if not its gameplay. Titan’s look — a splash of anime with silver age sci-fi and Pixar-level cut scenes — became the base upon which they began to build Overwatch, eschewing the MMO idea for an online-arena-based shooter, a genre Blizzard had yet to tackle.
A Fresh Coat of Paint
To be in the room as the world of Overwatch was being put together must’ve been a wonderful thing. It seems the creative minds at Blizzard took a kitchen-sink approach. There’s a robot-armed cowboy, a dwarf-like builder who’s quick to remind everyone he’s Swedish, a cyborg ninja and a movie star who pilots a bubblegum-pink mech. It’s incredibly refreshing, since most online shooters are made up of uninspired locales in which to fight and a selection of playable characters ranging from generic space marine to faceless soldier. Each of Overwatch’s heroes wears their personality front and center. After only a few rounds, you’ll undoubtedly have a favorite or two.
Before the game was even released, if you were to search for any Overwatch character plus “fan art,” you’d get hundreds of images. (Though you may want to activate safe search; some fans really like certain characters.)
Overwatch has quickly come to be known as a very friendly environment for beginners. Here split-second trigger timing isn’t a prerequisite to have a good time or to win. This is somewhat mind-blowing. A welcoming nature is largely absent in online gaming, especially the shooter department — a place typically foaming at the mouth with unpleasantness. But, again, Blizzard somehow pulled it off. It’s a game that appeals to gamers who simply want to have fun (…most of the time, it should be said). Mute with abandon, champion.
A Hero Is Made
Besides a handful of animated shorts unveiled ahead of release, a couple of in-game cut scenes, and a handful of comics set in the Overwatch universe, what we get as far as story within the game itself is fairly limited. A lot of what we know about the Omnic Crisis that set Overwatch’s plot in motion is inferred through environmental storytelling — sometimes with the heroes themselves. The gunslinger McCree has a bionic arm. Torbjorn is, to steal a quote, “now more machine than man.” Some fans theorize Pharah— because it’d be impossible for a person to actually fit inside her armor — might actually be a quadruple amputee, which would make sense because we know she’s a veteran of the Crisis, like her sharpshooter mother, Ana. But beyond aesthetics, in drips and drabs, Blizzard has offered details about their characters that really flesh them out. In the Christmas-themed comic Tracer Reflections, it was revealed the time-hopping Brit, Tracer, is a lesbian. Which, naturally, ruffled the feathers of some who squat and seethe in less enlightened corners of the internet.
And perhaps Blizzard wants to make a statement with Overwatch, to show its inclusivity, a reaction to the online shooter and MOBA lobbies that are typically awash with a black tide of comments so hateful they could melt cement. With that, Overwatch is a breath of fresh air, both with its brilliant take on shooters and its roster of endearing heroes. One in particular, the Russian juggernaut Zarya, with her pink hair, enviable biceps, and particle cannon, has become something of a statement herself, if not entirely on purpose. Before Tracer’s official coming out, fans theorized that Zarya, too, was gay. The conflict being that in her homeland of Russia, homosexuality isn’t exactly thought of fondly and yet Zarya, during matches, is prone to quip about having some serious pride for her country. (More on this can be found in this amazing Kotaku piece.) There’s also fan-made art that thrusts the grizzled Soldier 76 into the role of an overwrought father looking after the entire gang, much to the chagrin of “Dad 76.” Seriously, go give it a look. It’s hilarious.
The Future Is Bright
As the Overwatch fan base continues to expand and Blizzard includes new maps, characters and seasonal events, it’ll be fascinating to see where they take the franchise. Personally, I’d love to see a feature-length animated film (though after the big-screen adaptation of Warcraft failed to impress, this might be unlikely).
From the salvageable parts of what could’ve been Titan, Blizzard has made a colossal hit that’s not only fun to play but serves to comment on current societal issues and spark the creative spirits of cosplayers and artists alike. It’ll certainly be interesting to see where they take things next.