Overwatch exists at an intersection between design and artistry, a crossroad at which pure tactile joy meets refined, intelligent design to create a rare spark of magic. The person with deadshot aim is no more valuable than the person with the decision-making ability to know when a well-timed ability will turn an engagement, or the person with the map-sense to find the optimal locations to place sentry turrets. While it didn't exactly drown me in options, maps, and modes, it’s blessed with a multitude of tactical layers, and none of them ever came between me and my enjoyment of its intense, swirling teamfights, and thrilling overtime comebacks. It speaks volumes that the one character that adheres to well-worn shooter tropes feels like the odd man out here. One of the surprising keys to surfacing these nuances is its refusal to offer up crutches to lean on. With very few arguable exceptions, no character is focused solely around one catch-all gun or skill to the extent that you can find success by using it alone. Genji’s shurikens are highly damaging and boast unerring accuracy, but their slow rate of fire and long travel time can make hitting a small moving target difficult. Almost every primary weapon fits this mold:
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they’re useful, and in the right situation quite powerful, but never versatile enough to be a security blanket to constantly cling to. Not only do these little details help differentiate characters, they pushed me to explore their other abilities in search of success. You have to look much deeper – and when you do, the true beauty of Overwatch’s gameplay shines through. And once I started looking more closely, I couldn’t stop discovering new things. Revisiting Junkrat’s toolset, he doesn’t have a single standard, reliable gun to just directly engage an enemy in front of him.
For example: On her own, Pharah can be a major headache by hurling herself high into the air and hovering there while raining rocket-propelled death down on opposing teams from angles that render both cover and positioning moot. But with Mercy the winged medic tending to her, Pharah becomes a whole different kind of problem. Mercy’s Guardian Angel ability allows her to swoop toward any ally in range, even ones up in the sky. Combined with her ability to slow her descent with her wings, she's the only character that can follow Pharah wherever she goes.
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So you end up with a dynamic duo flying all over the place – the one shoving rockets down people's throats while the other switches between healing her up and buffing her already substantial damage output as needed. The sum of all these minute details is that almost every action, even the ones you repeat again and again, feel just a little bit magical. Overwatch is rich with synergies like this: Reinhardt and Lucio, Zarya and Reaper, Torbjorn and Symmetra…there's no shortage of opportunities for keen, coordinated play, and when you reach a point where you feel comfortable switching your character on the fly in the middle of a match to capitalize on weak enemy team composition, you feel like a tactical genius. You’re always in the fight, never wondering where it is or how to get there.
Every map is directly tied to a specific objective type, so their construction is well-tailored to the action at hand. The upsides are subtle, but significant. Maps are focused without ever feeling constricted there’s never any question about where you’re headed or how to get there, because every flanking path and side door eventually puts you where you need to be. In this way, Overwatch’s map designs allow you to choose your vector of engagement without risking you getting lost where the action isn’t happening. The result is zero wasted time you’re always in the fight, never wondering where it is or how to get there.
Tying modes to maps in this one-to-one fashion has a small downside too though: Overwatch doesn’t have a ton of different modes to switch things up like most other games of its kind do. This isn’t Halo where most maps support various team sizes, objectives, and a slew of different modified rules. There’s only one way to play on Volskaya Industries: it will always be attack the first point, then attack the second.
Overwatch takes just about every possible opportunity to make its cast and locales seem like people and places rather than puppets and scenery. But like its characters, Overwatch’s maps are filled with nuances that will take time and repetition to learn, and not just from a mechanical standpoint.