Overwatch was released earlier this week to critical acclaim and it’s not hard to see why. Blizzard’s newest title is a slick online shooter that manages to be both incredibly deep on the strategic side, but widely accessible for newcomers who don’t have a lot of experience when playing shooters or MOBA-style games. Like most games from Blizzard, it’s also incredibly polished and runs well on both consoles and low-end PC systems.
I’ll admit, when I first heard of Overwatch, I didn’t pay much attention, probably because Blizzard games have never really caught my attention in the past (I’m not the biggest fan of RPGs or RTS games). I did, however, take the plunge and tried out the game’s open beta a few weeks ago and walked away pleasantly surprised. Oddly enough, though, it wasn’t the core mechanics or technical polish that caught my immediate attention. Rather, it was Blizzard’s attention to inclusivity that impressed me the most.
Leading up to the game’s release, both Blizzard and critics drew attention to the game’s diverse cast of characters and it’s easily one of the game’s most defining traits. As a minority myself (and one who is on the heavier side), it’s rare that I find a character in any form of media that I can relate to, from movies and TV to games as well. To be honest, even the ones that are included often encroach on traditional stereotypes; the doctor, the convenience store owner, or the timid Indian fellow complete with accent.
Imagine my surprise when I was looking through the cast of characters and stumbled upon Symmetra, a support character who has the ability to bend and reshape light into mechanical constructs. While there are a growing number of characters of Indian descent in video games (The Order: 1886 and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate feature a few), it’s very rare that they are featured as playable characters. I immediately took her for a spin, and after I decided to check out the complete roster of playable characters.
After a few minutes, it was clear that Blizzard’s biggest goal when creating Overwatch was to instill a sense of inclusivity, and this extends beyond the ethnicities of the playable characters. Aside from characters that originate from countries such as Brazil, China, Japan, India, the United Kingdom and more, Overwatch features a nice mix of both female and male characters. And while plenty of the female characters resemble the traditional female body types seen in games, characters such as Mei and Zarya buck the trend of tall, slender females. There’s also a couple of robot characters and a highly-intelligent gorilla, which just showcases Blizzard’s creative abilities even more.
This level of inclusion might not mean that much to gamers, but after showcasing the game to a few close friends, including female and minority gamers, we were all in agreeance that Blizzard’s design decisions made the game resonate with us more so than other games have, even if they aren’t an integral part of the experience. Still, as much as I am a fan of the diverse characters of Overwatch, the diversity within the game’s playable heroes is only one facet of the game’s dedication to inclusivity. While there are plenty of diverse characters, there are a few traditional, archetypal ones as well, though these are used to great effect.
Take Soldier 76, for example. On the surface, he is the most recognizable of the bunch. To be honest, he looks like he was plucked from any semi-futuristic shooter, but his inclusion and design is an important one. Overwatch is a game that awards team and skill-based play, and Soldier 76 serves the important role of acclimating less experienced players into the game. His moveset is simple, with an ultimate ability that essentially allows you to hold down a trigger and rack up kills without aiming, and he also has a healing item, which helps to minimize the importance of avoiding enemy fire. He also has the benefit of handling like a traditional first person shooter, which is bound to resonate with fans of the genre. There’s also Widowmaker, a fan favorite who wields a powerful sniper rifle. While her moveset and weapons require more skill to successfully use, her character design harkens to the femme fatale types that are instantly recognizable, which makes it easier for newcomers to discern what her purpose is within the game.
Overwatch’s tutorial system does an excellent job at introducing players to the basics, but the lessons don’t end there. Every menu and on-screen cue does an excellent job of doling out information to the players at a comfortable pace; character select screens detail and explain each character’s roles, whether that be support, offense, defense, or tank. Specific abilities and weapons for each character can be accessed in-game, and you’re able to switch characters on the fly if need be. The game also assigns a difficulty rating for each character, allowing newcomers to shy away from more complex heroes. Better yet, the game will often tell you when your team is unbalanced, letting you know what roles your team is lacking.
The support class is also carefully designed for players of all skill levels. While it doesn’t ring true in every situation, there are a few support characters that focus more on aiding the team rather than outright combat, allowing for less skilled players to contribute to the overall success of the team, while more skilled players can pick from certain support characters that demand more strategic use, like Zenyatta.
This focus on overall team success is part of the game’s DNA, and it shows both in-game and when you’re not actively in a match. There are plenty of leaderboards and statistics to let you know how you fare with each character, and the ability to try out each character in a ‘tutorial map’ is a very useful feature. In-game, there are plenty of ways to communicate with teammates. Aside from traditional methods like voice or type chat, pre-determined messages can be accessed on the fly, from simple greetings to more informational chatter.
The game also does its best to highlight the contributions of all players, regardless of playstyle. In-game kills, captures, ‘blocks’ and defends are handed out quite liberally, and your contribution to taking out an enemy (for example) is rewarded with points and an on-screen message, regardless of whether you landed 1 point of damage or 100. A single ‘play of the game’ is shown off at the end of a game, and these highlights often include players in support roles, who didn’t contribute offensively. An MVP system between matches also allows players to cast their vote for an MVP, rewarding a player based on conditions such as kills, captures and damage dealt, along with more defensive plays like ‘most healing’ or time spent freezing enemies. It’s an excellent addition that de-emphasizes the importance of pure offensive play, and it helps (in addition to the other aforementioned design choices) to cultivate a sense of team play, rather than a lone wolf approach to victory.
I imagine to many, Overwatch’s character designs and team-oriented style of play won’t mean much, and many of these design decisions won’t hold much interest, let alone garner much attention in the first place. Disheartening as that might sound, that may stand as Overwatch’s greatest triumph. For a game that has been developed from the ground up to be inclusive and diverse, these features and design decisions never detract from the minute to minute gameplay. In many ways, they become an afterthought, slowly sinking into the background; they play an important part of what makes Overwatch unique, without completely taking center stage and drawing focus away from the core mechanics and gameplay. That’s a level of game design that few aspire, and manage, to reach.