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‘Overwatch 2’ is missing the original game’s team-based charm

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)
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The “Overwatch 2” player-versus-player beta has been out for nearly three weeks. The game, which launched with quite a bit of fanfare — including record viewership on Twitch — has since become the subject of greater scrutiny, particularly around whether the game really represents a significant step forward from the original “Overwatch.”

Last week, four Washington Post reporters and editors — some longtime Overwatch players and fans, others less so — gathered to discuss their time with the beta. The conversation, reproduced below, touched on the more individualistic style of play encouraged by “Overwatch 2” and what it means for a game to be a sequel in 2022.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Mikhail Klimentov: Let’s talk first impressions. What are your feelings on the game so far?

Nathan Grayson: Honestly, I’ve played less of it than I thought I would. I played it for the first couple of days and initially, I think I was taken aback by how good it felt to play. But I was also like, wait, this is just how “Overwatch” felt. So, initially I was like, “Oh, I sort of missed ‘Overwatch.’ It’s good to be back.” But after a little while, I felt the same feelings that I did when I played the original game. I’m already getting into the same head space of being annoyed by certain things, like when you lose a match in a landslide, which can be a pretty big problem in “Overwatch.”

It all feels less like a sequel and more like a very substantial update. And I thought, why didn’t this happen years ago? Why was “Overwatch” languishing for multiple years and barely receiving anything beyond seasonal event refreshes and some balance tweaks when this was waiting in the wings?

The ‘Overwatch 2’ beta hit it big on Twitch. That may not be enough.

Shannon Liao: Even though I have an Overwatch chair and I have “Overwatch” on Switch, I never really got into the game. But once I started playing “Overwatch” and “Overwatch 2” around the same time, what I noticed, first of all, is that the user interface for the former is just a lot more straightforward. Overall, I think “Overwatch” is just friendlier to beginners than the sequel so far.

Teddy Amenabar: There’s still a giant question of what “Overwatch 2” is actually going to bring. To Nathan’s point earlier — Why did the original “Overwatch” languish for two years without any updates? — I think the answer will be clearer when we see what “Overwatch 2” actually introduces. The trailer for the player-versus-environment mode has been out for years now. It was described as a “Left 4 Dead” experience, but that’s about it. I don’t know if there’s enough information out to be excited about it.

I think I’m most excited about the possibility for “Overwatch 2” to have enough heroes so that there are not these hard hero counters and bans. I think the most frustrating part about the original game, especially later on, is that you might really enjoy playing Cassidy or Lucio or whomever, but if your team has a certain composition or if the other team is playing a certain composition, it made no sense to play them. And that just makes no sense. Especially when these characters are so lovable and people have their favorites, it can be frustrating to have to stick with Mei or someone you don’t like as much.

Mikhail: Teddy, as an Overwatch League aficionado, how has “Overwatch 2” affected pro play?

Teddy: I think after one weekend there’s not enough data yet. But stepping back a bit, what the pros and the coaches are saying is that “Overwatch 2” is putting more ownership on individual play, whereas base “Overwatch” turned into a game of trading abilities and team synergy. If you looked at the teams who are winning the grand finals toward the end of Overwatch League on the original game, it would always be teams that had a really deep roster, that had a lot of synergy and that played really well to the meta. But what teams hope is that in the sequel, you’ll have more players playing off these incredible solo plays that turn the tide of a match.

Nathan: I’ve seen people talking about how taking things in that direction de-emphasizes teamwork to some extent, so you get matches where people are just kind of running around doing whatever they want. And then I think the other part of it is that there’s something really neat about “Overwatch” when all the hero abilities are working in tandem, and I feel like some of that has been lost. Instead, what you get is an experience that is more reminiscent of other shooters. But if I want an experience like that, where what you really need is very high level mechanical skill, why not go to “Valorant?” Why is “Overwatch 2” trying to do the thing that other games are already doing better when it could instead try to be a better “Overwatch” game?

Teddy: I think this is the open question: Do casual players care about team synergy, or has casual play in platinum and lower ranks always been pretty loosely coordinated?

Nathan: When mechanics are tuned properly, you kind of end up implicitly encouraging teamwork such that, even if players aren’t coordinating over voice chat, they still end up actually working together. I feel like some of the most satisfying moments I’ve had in “Overwatch” were when I wasn’t really talking to people, but we all just ended up working together anyway in a way that was really satisfying. And I think that some of the kits they’ve given heroes in “Overwatch 2,” sort of take away from that.

The ways that Blizzard got people to do that in “Overwatch” were not super elegant. It was barriers, because people naturally grouped together around those. It was a lot of stuns and bashes and things that took opponents out of action and incentivized other players to pile on to them in that window. The idea was: How can we design abilities such that people will work together around them, whether they can communicate directly or not? I like that thought process. I really like the idea of designing a game where characters’ skills just naturally cohere. And I think the further “Overwatch” gets away from that, the further it gets from the original spirit of the game.

It’s not about what’s new to ‘Overwatch 2.’ It’s what’s been removed.

Shannon: “Overwatch 2” was delayed multiple times, and internally, the employees at the company looked at this game as an extension of “Overwatch,” and they weren’t sure if there was enough there to justify a sequel. There was a lot of back and forth internally over the past few years of just, when they release “Overwatch 2” will it be enough for fans? And I think you can kind of feel that when you’re playing the game.

Nathan: I feel like Sojourn is kind of another example of where the game is headed. She’s really cool, and I love sliding around with rocket boots, but she’s a fairly straightforward character who could work in something like “Apex Legends.” The rail gun is neat, but it’s not as out there as some other “Overwatch” character designs. When you launch a new game, whatever’s there at launch is a statement of intent, right? And she’s meant to give people an outlet for mechanical skill. If you’re good at shooters and you like maneuverability, you’ll be good at this character.

Teddy: With two tanks and presumably double shields, that type of hit scan character wasn’t viable in the original “Overwatch.” But from what we can see now, I do think there’s a fundamental shift from a team-based shooter to an arena shooter. And part of the reason is when you have two tanks with potentially two shields, it makes it impossible for heroes like Soldier 76 and so on to do anything besides try to just break shields. So I will miss the abilities that encouraged people to work together, but some of those abilities made it impossible for other characters be viable or fun.

Shannon: I gave Sojourn a try because I wanted to see what this new hero is like. She’s got a very specific play style — kind of aggressive, one where you’re willing to jump in and flank. It definitely isn’t my style, but I can imagine pro players picking that up. I’d like to see what that would do to Overwatch League games in the future. But the fact that there’s only one new character feels pretty limited, though it’s worth noting as well that it’s the first Black woman to come to “Overwatch” in all the years since the game’s been out.

Mikhail: Nathan, at one point you asked, what does it mean for “Overwatch 2” to be a sequel? What did you mean by that?

Nathan: “Overwatch 2” was always planned to eventually merge with “Overwatch.” I think the clients and level selection and a bunch of other things are going to be the same. They don’t want to split their audience, which is smart. But if that’s what your sequel is going to be — functionally just an add-on for a game that already exists — then at what point does it stop being a sequel? Why do we even need to do a sequel here? I think the answer is just because Activision said “we need a sequel,” but I think in the future you’re going to see more and more games just sort of build their sequels into existing games because that’s how the live service model works. That’s what “Fortnite” has done. You could argue that “Destiny” has probably added three or four sequels worth of content at this point. “Warframe” is probably like 20 sequels to itself. So I actually think that in a lot of ways Blizzard is doing itself a disservice by putting a “2″ next to this game’s name.

Shannon: When Jeff Kaplan left Blizzard last year, I did a lot of outreach and spoke to current and former Blizzard employees about why he left and what they thought happened. And a lot of people had different theories, but basically the gist of it was that Activision was asking Kaplan and his team to work on “Overwatch 2,” “Overwatch” and Overwatch League at the same time. They just couldn’t devote that many resources to all three, especially when their teams were kept to a certain size. And that is one of the reasons “Overwatch 2” feels like it’s tacked onto “Overwatch” — because there wasn’t much time to develop it. And also, as you look through all of our reports on Activision Blizzard, the company is going through so many lawsuits and investigations at the same time that there’s just been a lot of attrition.

Teddy: I think that “Overwatch” got to a point for the Overwatch League that Blizzard had to release a sequel. And I know that the Overwatch League is not that the biggest concern of the Activision Blizzard shareholders or the company, but the sequel was announced so early, and the game stopped updating for so long that there was no other way to do this. Talking to franchise owners across the League I hear the need for a fresh reset because there were too many problems. “Overwatch” wasn’t structured to handle seasons or updates or any of that. The game released like a year and a half before battle royale madness — maybe even less than that. And so sometimes I think the situation we’re in now is a byproduct of horrible timing.