OVERWATCH is candy-coated candy

image credit: blizzard entertainment overwatch presskit

I’m Level 18 or something in OVERWATCH. I’ve opened a bunch of loot cases. They’re fun; the Christmas poppers of the video game world. I wish the DualShock rumbled when the rewards popped out. In fact, that’s my one legitimate criticism of OVERWATCH. It’s stupid that the controller doesn’t rumble when the rewards pop out.


What is OVERWATCH?
OVERWATCH is a 2016 video game developed and published by Blizzard Entertainment. It’s a competitive team-based online multiplayer first-person shooter, which means you work with other people over the internet to secure goals while shooting one another with fantasy guns. OVERWATCH is surprisingly friendly, and appears on all major consoles and computer ecosystems except Mac and Linux. But even then, it’s not hard to emulate Windows and launch.
OVERWATCH is a game for anyone who’s ever read (but especially produced) fan fiction.

OVERWATCH is a perfect product. It’s Oreos, it’s peanut butter. Better yet, OVERWATCH is a candy store: rows on rows of color and sugar. Try them all, discover your favorite, but keep trying new flavors.

The problem with sugar isn’t just detriments to dental health, calories or food politics. The problem is that sugar, alone, isn’t satisfying, it isn’t substantive. The reason any chocolate bar is going to beat out Nerds is because it has substance, it’s satisfying. Chocolate is bitter and sugar is sweet. They work together.

OVERWATCH is every flavor of candy except chocolate.

It’s delicious. You get a high from every game-defining play, but once you’re done it’s on to the next one. The Starburst you just unwrapped is already swallowed.

OVERWATCH has a long-game in leaderboards and endless cosmetics, but it’s true meta-game is in its characters. The best OVERWATCH analogy has already been written by Patricia Hernandez at Kotaku, who likened the game to playing with action figures. The heroes (and villains? I’m not sure on the lore here) of OVERWATCH are the perfect mix of fan input and developer output. They live rich lives because the fandom gives them rich lives. It’s like the concept that gods or Santa Claus derive existence out of belief. People believe in OVERWATCH.

I think players believe on the heroes of OVERWATCH for two reasons:

  1. Developer/Publisher Blizzard has done a Pixar-level job with character design. Every hero is familiar yet unique. They make you curious about their interior lives while never distracting you from the ludic action of shooting one another.
  2. The gameplay is lean.

There’s nothing wrong with lean gameplay. Contender for my favorite game of all time, THREES! (2014) is fucking rail-thin and dehydrated, but an absolute joy. I’d even say OVERWATCH is lean but muscular — a real Tyler Durden of game. But it’s not quite satisfying.

OVERWATCH is constantly asking you to “go again.” It can’t get enough of your playing it, and usually you can’t get enough of playing it. But when you’re finally tired of OVERWATCH, it’s not with the satisfaction of sitting back and undoing the top button of your Thanksgiving pants. When I finish OVERWATCH, I feel a high I know is going to leave a gross residue. I feel pre-exhausted. I have a sugar high.

OVERWATCH has satisfying mechanics. It feels good to play. It runs so, so smoothly. Graphically, it’s cuddly and clear-lined. Its levels are an ideal mix of Disney and Counterstrike.

The game also nails teamwork in an admirable way. You know when you’ve done good. Even facing an inevitable loss, there’s satisfaction in making that Denzel Washington-in-Glory charge. You are never alone in OVERWATCH.

But the game, in its endless recital of rewards and medals, fails to properly address the team mechanic, which, for this player, is at the heart of that candy-like lack of substance. OVERWATCH is a shooting game that encourages us to cause, heal or block damage. The innovative aspect separating OVERWATCH from CALL OF DUTY is the “heal or block.” Other shooters experiment with both, but not as cleanly as OVERWATCH’s systems manage it. Yet the game doesn’t recognize the more effective tactics, many of which are non-combative and actually require you to martyr yourself. Prime example: Drawing fire and distracting the other team. If you can get two or three enemy combatants to chase you away from the goal, thirsty players that they are, your team’s odds of taking that goal skyrocket.

But that being said, it’s a shooting game and we’re obviously going to shoot. It rewards the shooting, to such a degree that you will get a medal. You are guaranteed a medal. OVERWATCH too often feels like a sugar-covered competition in which I’m rewarded for anything I do, but rewarded most for shooting things.

These are small gripes though. I might be better off complaining that everyone’s a damage sponge, or that it’s too hard to tell when you hit someone with bullets/projectiles. Essentially, that the shooting isn’t 100% satisfying. (OVERWATCH gets bonus points for movement though, which feels so, so good.)

But it’s easy to go back to OVERWATCH. It’s the candy jar on the front desk in an office. You forget it’s there, notice it, take some candy, then keep going back over the course of the day. Until you feel gross, unsatisfied and hyperglycemic.

OVERWATCH gives you diabetes. Even if it tastes good.

EPHEMERA/CAVEAT:

  • As noted upfront, I am level 18. I main as D.Va. (Honestly, OVERWATCH mains and secondaries and the attending terminology is more complicated than 5-person polyamorous relationships I’ve had explained to me.) I’ve gotten a conservative but respectable number of PLAY OF THE GAMES, which I understand the community considers bullshit anyway. (I agree. Except when it’s my play.) The player-determined acknowledgements are nicer, but harder to gauge without replays. But frankly, I’ve not played OVERWATCH half as long as most beginners. I haven’t cracked the Lvl 25 gate for competitive play. So take all I say with a grain of the salt. OVERWATCH seems too friendly a world to dub me a fuckin’ noob. But here I am.
  • I cannot overstate my love for the casual progressive politics of OVERWATCH’s weird, cartoon-violent Utopia. A queer female character as the flagship mascot for one of the most popular video game series of the moment? This sort of smart design makes OVERWATCH more than a zeitgeist. It’s an actual movement.