Overwatch hands-on gameplay impressions

It's almost standard for us to say a Blizzard title feels ready for launch immediately after its debut. The company rarely shows off a title prematurely, waiting until the game feels good before they even publicly announce the project. Overwatch feels much the same. If it launched today, it would be received as a fun, solid game, if small in scope.

The UI feels complete, a simplistic approach that works well for this sort of game. All necessary information is provided in a clean, slick HUD that draws no attention to itself. In my (admittedly brief) play session, the gunplay and ability usage felt intuitive, taking me only a few moments to get a feel for the controls. The only hitch came from my lack of map knowledge, something that can't be gleaned in its entirety in just a few frenetic matches. However, the playable maps were small -- surprisingly small, even -- and it's unlikely hundreds of hours of play will be necessary to understand every hiding spot and back alley of the game.

The BlizzCon demos feature the Payload ruleset. If you're unfamiliar, here's a quick rundown: the offensive team must secure objective points on the map to release the payload. The offense must then escort the payload to move it through the map to reach the final capture point. The defense must prevent all of that from happening within a certain time limit. In a game of payload, there are two matches, so you'll have a turn at both offense and defense.

My first match, I was on the offense. I began the match with Symmetra, thinking clever forward placement of her turrets would help our team push the objectives. My initial turret placement didn't work and I bailed. We simply didn't have enough time available to experiment that way. Upon Symmetra's quick death, I switched to playing Pharah. It was as simple as hitting the H key after respawning in the spawn room and choosing a new character. Back into the action. With Pharah, I managed a little more forward momentum. My team secured the first capture point and pushed toward the second -- but our map knowledge failed us. We didn't know where we were going well enough to avoid being turned into a bloody red mist time and time again. The defense had the chokepoint to the objective completely locked down. There were alternate pathways, but we didn't really know where they were. Pharah's rocket boost ability was nice for getting on high ground, but lack of map knowledge meant I couldn't take advantage. The defense held us there and won the match.

The match I played on defensive made me feel a bit better about my play because the opposing team didn't really know much better. I went back to Symmetra for this one, laying down turrets as fast as my cooldown could recover and shielding my teammates. One of them chose to play Torbjorn, laying down his monster of a turret, and another player on our team chose Bastion, who can become a turret. The opposing team tried to find alternate methods of approach, but it rarely worked in their favor. Torbjorn and Bastion locked down the main avenue with their one turret each, and I ran to every newly discovered avenue to lay down numerous turrets of my own, each less powerful individually than those of the other two characters -- but still effective. With Mercy backing us up and an allied Reinhardt providing much-needed beef, we were a brick wall.

Even the opposing team's Reinhardt -- the character already notorious for being "overpowered" by those who've played the demo -- had no luck advancing. The turrets went to work on his shield, and Symmetra's charged shot felt highly effective against it, breaking it down almost as quickly as it went up.

My instinct tells me the defense has an incredible advantage in Overwatch, but my logical brain reminds me it's entirely because none of us really knew what we were doing. A fortified defense probably is impenetrable when everyone is charging it head on, but charging it head on is not the intended method. That also makes it difficult to gauge Blizzard's claim of the game being "less lethal" and allowing characters to have more uptime, more interactivity. If death is supposed to come more slowly in Overwatch, I couldn't tell. When we died, we died hard and fast with hardly any time to react to the situation. Of course that would happen, though. We were sticking our faces into a freaking turret. Widowmaker's sniper rifle didn't help.

While Overwatch's emphasis on hero mobility felt cool, it also felt awkward. Having previously played military shooters, or futuristic military shooters, I often tapped Shift out of habit to sprint. Overwatch has no sprint. Any character with a movement ability most likely has it bound to Shift. What resulted was my poor Pharah banging her head because I tried to sprint indoors and, instead, jetpacked myself into a ceiling. The movement abilities are cool, but utilizing them properly will take some practice and an adjustment period to rewrite that old muscle memory.

I played a small handful of other characters just long enough to suffer a single death. For one reason or another, they either didn't appeal to me or weren't appropriate for the situation. With Hanzo, for example, I realized almost immediately that he'll be a character with a high skill cap. Using his bow wasn't as simple as a point and click -- there was an element of timing and memorization, something I didn't feel I could achieve in a single match. Torbjorn didn't grab me, either, but for a different reason: he's the Engineer from Team Fortress 2. Point for point. He has a pistol or a shotgun. He must collect Scrap to build his turret. His turret is built in three stages by hitting it with a hand tool. Torbjorn's only significant difference is the fact that he can toss allies an armor kit.

And Blizzard can tell me he's from Sweden all they want, but that dude is a dwarf that flew in straight from Ironforge. His ultimate is called Molten Core. Come on.

Overwatch is very much in line with Blizzard's mantra of easy to play, difficult to master. Hearthstone introduced a brand new generation of gamers to CCGs and I expect Overwatch will be much the same for the FPS genre. Though brief, my playtest gave me the impression that the game very well might be near ready for a limited testing phase -- much in the same way Heroes of the Storm opened up its technical alpha.