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Overwatch 2 Review -- Pre-Release Balance Patch

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2016 saw the release of Overwatch, a brand new Blizzard IP that showed the world what a competitive first-person hero shooter looked like when the well-established Blizzard polish is applied. The game was an immediate success that crushed the competition. It was widely praised for its competitive gameplay, mechanical diversity, colorful setting, and unique heroes.

But that was over six years ago, and the Blizzard of 2016 is not the Blizzard of today -- or rather, the public perception of Blizzard is not the same. Overwatch released at a time when Blizzard was one of the mostly highly regarded gaming studios, but Overwatch 2 has released, using that term as generously as possible, at a time when the company has been sinking into a festering molasses of its own making. Various missteps, miscues, scandals, lawsuits, and even federal investigations have knocked Blizzard from the perch the company previously enjoyed. And like the company’s reputation, Overwatch 2 has fallen far shorter than the bar it set in 2016.

Overwatch (herein referred to as Overwatch 1) was originally unveiled in 2014 with an animated short that saw the heroes Winston and Tracer clash against the nefarious Reaper and Widowmaker. It immediately captured the attention of fans who wanted to learn more about the characters, the world, the conflict, and the overall story. However, Overwatch 1 was primarily a competitive shooter and the narrative was largely pushed to the background, instead being told through infrequent comics, short stories, and animated shorts. While the game occasionally offered PvE content, they were, at best, inconsequential flashbacks which did not move the story forward and did little to appease the fervor of fans. And then even support for the competitive aspects of the game seemed to fall off. Players wondered why the pace of balance patches, heroes, and new maps waned. Near the end of 2019, Blizzard announced Overwatch 2 was in development and firmly placed the blame for Overwatch 1’s lack of support on the resources that had been devoted to developing the sequel. But Overwatch 2 was heralded as the solution that finally moved the narrative forward while also allowing Blizzard to better support the competitive side of the game. Well, it has taken nearly three years to arrive and the product Blizzard has delivered is vastly different from what they promised in 2019.

Overwatch 2 was initially announced as a stand-alone PvE sequel. Players who wanted to experience the game’s PvE content and narrative could pick up Overwatch 2, while those who only had an interest in PvP could keep playing Overwatch 1 and the competitive sides of the two games would seamlessly play together and interact. That changed earlier this year when the separate release was abandoned and it was announced that Overwatch 2 would completely replace Overwatch 1. That announcement was fairly inconsequential, but it coincided with a number of more significant changes. Instead of a paid release, Overwatch 2 would be adopting a more free-to-play monetization structure built around seasons and battle passes and would be releasing without the PvE content.

I am just going to rip off the band-aid -- as it exists today, it is disingenuous to consider Overwatch 2 a sequel and not a balance patch. When it was unveiled, Overwatch 2 was presented as a PvE sequel to Overwatch 1. Blizzard went so far as to initially structure the game so you did not need to purchase Overwatch 2 if you only cared about PvP. Yet here we are with Overwatch 2 released and being played, and none of the PvE content that was originally promised is included. And honestly, it feels like Blizzard knew they could not treat this as a true game release. If you are not someone who follows Overwatch, I imagine you might not have known Overwatch 2 was coming. I do not recall seeing a lot of advertisements or pre-release material, and if you remove the things I saw while watching the Overwatch League, I am not sure I saw any promotion.

All that is not to say that Blizzard slapped a "2" on Overwatch 1 and called it a day. For starters, they removed the Assault game-mode and introduce Push, the first new competitive game-mode since the game’s initial release (not including temporary game-modes like capture-the-flag). The release of Overwatch 2 also coincided with some of the largest changes to the structure of the PvP game since role queues and restrictions on team composition were introduced in 2019. The most noticeable is that each team can only have one tank and matches are now five-versus-five, down from six-versus-six. Ever since it was announced earlier this year, the justifications provided for this change have highlighted the developers desire for Overwatch 2 to be a more fast-paced game which leans into more aggressive play-styles and greater opportunities for big plays. Tanks often dictated fights in Overwatch 1, but eliminating a tank means fewer shields and shields have a smaller impact on engagements, reduces the protection offered by tanks which forces teams to clump up less, and requires players to have greater environmental awareness. It is still too early to tell how successful this change will be for achieving their goals, but in the short-term, it seems to be moving the game closer to that vision.

A number of heroes have also undergone significant reworks, some more drastic than others. There was a point during the development of Overwatch 2 where, every few months, Blizzard would unveil the new visuals of the heroes and go into detail regarding any changes. But then those reveals stopped, and while every hero has received a graphical redesign, it does not feel like every hero went under the lens and was updated to the same degree. It is certainly fair to argue that not every hero needed to be reworked significantly. However, removing an entire tank from team compositions has changed how tanks play, and when you have tanks like Reinhardt, Zarya, and Orisa who have been updated and changed, while other tank characters saw no major changes, it only adds more fuel to the narrative that Overwatch 2 was rushed out the door. Although, I am willing to concede that might be partially my bias as a D.Va player speaking.

Like many of you, when Overwatch 1 was still relatively fresh, I sunk an extensive amount of time into the game and enjoyed grinding my way up the competitive ladder. At the time, Overwatch 1 was still a highly polished game, Blizzard was supporting the game with new heroes, balance patches were more consistent, and the game received numerous accolades. Yes, as time went on, Blizzard dropped the ball and the cracks and blemishes started to form, but the foundational gameplay of Overwatch 1 would not have been so highly regarded if it was not a good game at its core. That aspect of Overwatch 1 is still present in Overwatch 2. The shooting, movement, and unique hero identities are still there and still feel phenomenal and have benefited from years of player feedback. Some of the biggest issues, excessive crowd control, stuns, and abilities that take players out of the game, have been removed, making Overwatch 2 more enjoyable and less aggravating. Seemingly drawing from their experience with classes in World of Warcraft, Blizzard has introduced passive buffs that help define and create distinct identities for the roles. As a tank player, I will admit that I had my reservations about the change to five-versus-five, and while it is not perfect, I did not anticipate how well it would work for the most part.

For those who did not play Overwatch 1, Overwatch 2 is a first-person hero shooter. While the game offers an arcade with a rotating set of game-modes, the primary game-modes are the five-versus-five Unranked, or Quickplay, and Competitive playlists. Players compete in different objective based game-modes -- things like escorting payloads and capturing objectives. The original impetus for Overwatch 1 was a massively multiplayer online game, akin to World of Warcraft, and heroes fall into one of three classic identities: tanks, supports, and damage. One of the strengths of Overwatch 2 is the diversity of heroes and how the different playstyles all fit within the same gameplay structure. There are close-range brawlers, long-range snipers, characters who soar through the air, characters who turn immobile, and so on, all competing in the same arena. Every hero has a handful of abilities, largely crafted around their role. Tanks can produce shields or mitigate damage, offensive heroes can increase their damage or set traps, and support heroes can heal or provide additional benefits. Overwatch 1 was developed to be a competitive game from the start, and its gameplay and balance are structured around that vision. And while no game like this will ever be perfectly balanced, Blizzard tries to situate the game around its heroes and their counters (more on this in a little).

As I mentioned earlier, Overwatch 2 has moved away from the previous monetization strategy, one built around the loot boxes that were more prevalent when Overwatch 1 released, and adopted the battle pass model that has become fairly ubiquitous in games lately. I am not going to debate the merits and flaws of loot boxes versus battle passes, nor do I think it is valuable to go into the legal obstacles against loot boxes. Instead, I wanted to highlight how this shift has also resulted in Overwatch 2 being far less generous with cosmetics than its predecessor. While Overwatch 1 players were never guaranteed specific cosmetics, the game was surprisingly generous with loot boxes and players could expect to earn them with some consistency. Yes, you might not get the only-available-for-a-limited-time legendary event skin for your main, but you could be fairly confident that you would acquire some cosmetics just by playing. Worst case scenario, you could acquire enough in-game currency to purchase cosmetics over time. That is no longer the case. On one hand, yes, they are only cosmetics and they do not really matter to the actual gameplay experience of Overwatch 2. But on the other, it still does not feel great that the only way for players to acquire cosmetics now is through the battle pass or from the store. And speaking of the store, a single legendary event skin costs $19, almost double the cost of the battle pass! In the past, Blizzard has even allowed players to unlock specific skins and cosmetics by playing the game, and the recent Halloween event feels like it would have been an ideal opportunity to offer such a reward to appease fans who were inevitably going to be unhappy with this new miserly approach.

Monetization approach aside, monetization in Overwatch 1 was purely cosmetic, but that is not the case anymore as new heroes are tied to the battle pass. More than any other change, this has the potential to undermine some of the core concepts that helped Overwatch 1 succeed as a competitive shooter. Overwatch 2 is a game about heroes, picks, and counter-picks. For instance, Zenyatta is a support character that can heal allies and afflict opponents with a debuff that increases the damage they take. Whenever I am playing support and see a Zenyatta on the opponents’ team, I switch to the newest hero, Kiriko, because she has an ability that can remove that effect. But I only have access to her because she was given to players who had purchased Overwatch 1, and a new player who picks up the game but does not buy the battle pass would not, which means I am at an advantage and Overwatch 2 is walking precariously close to the edge that plummets into pay-to-win territory.

To make matters worse, Overwatch 2’s battle pass has taken a number of cues from some of the worst aspects of different iterations. If you win a game in the Competitive playlist, you only get two-hundred-fifty experience, three-hundred-fifty if you play an in-demand role (read: support). Matches do not reward meaningful experience, and instead, leveling is largely done through challenges. Each level requires ten-thousand experience and completing one of the six daily challenges rewards three-thousand experience. However, players can only benefit from completing three challenges a day. To better frame this issue, a player who did not purchase the battle pass unlocks the new hero at level fifty-five, or after earning five-hundred-fifty-thousand experience. A player can earn nine-thousand experience a day from completing challenges and there are sixty-three days in a nine week season. That means, a player can earn a maximum of five-hundred-sixty-seven thousand experience if they complete all three challenges every day. See where I am going with this? If a player misses six challenges, they will not earn enough experience from challenges to unlock the hero. And this discussion has not even acknowledged the timing that a free-to-play player would unlock the new hero while they are only locked out of Competitive play for the first two weeks of a new season. Yes, my calculation ignores the random hero challenges, weekly challenges, seasonal challenges, bonus experience for grouping up and double experience weekends, but those are just poor attempts to conceal the glaring flaws with the system. Also, unlike most games where the battle pass is used to deliver mostly cosmetic rewards, there is no premium currency. Instead, players earn an inconsequential amount from completing weekly challenges.

Blizzard claims that this change is intended to position them to better support the game in the long run, but those type of statements from game developers do not often support that narrative. The lead-up towards Overwatch 2 and their lack of continuous support for Overwatch 1 have also not helped assuage the concerns of players. And it is more than just Blizzard’s track record, there have been numerous recent games that have promised the stars only to fall far shorter. While Blizzard has promised new maps and game-modes in future seasons, they also have not gone into much detail beyond Season 2. Given the history of Overwatch 1, I doubt vague promises carry much weight with players. That said, they have committed to producing a new hero every two seasons, or every eighteen weeks. No matter how you feel about the shift to the seasonal model, if Blizzard is actually able to support the game and stick to this schedule for new heroes, that is a good thing. But that “if” is enormous.

And all those concerns and issues I have raised have not even broached the currently unaddressed and still largely unseen PvE content. Overwatch 2 was announced with the promise that PvE content would be a separate cost, but players who had paid for Overwatch 1 and did not care about PvE would incur no additional costs to keep playing the game like they had been for years. That is no longer the case and players will need to buy a new battle pass every eighteen weeks, at a minimum, to have access to every hero and stay current for PvP. But that is just for the battle pass and Blizzard has not discussed how they will be monetizing the game’s PvE content. There is absolutely no part of me that believes the PvE content will be free, nor do I think it will be included in the battle pass. I can envision a world where Blizzard adopts an episodic format and do not think that would be the worst approach for this game. But I also do not think it will go over well if players are asked to pay whenever new PvE content is released in addition to being asked to purchase a new battle pass every nine weeks.

All my experiences with Overwatch 2 have come from the perspective of someone who previously played Overwatch 1. And I am thankful I played Overwatch 1 because the new player experience is horrendous. In Overwatch 1, players had to reach level twenty-five to unlock the Competitive playlist. That was enough time to try things out, learn about the game’s core mechanics, and figure out a few heroes you liked (this was also before role queue was introduced, so it was important to be able to play a diverse set of heroes). Overwatch 2 has removed the account level, so players need to win fifty Unranked matches to unlock the Competitive playlist. That is a completely reasonable change. What is not reasonable is that the game locks new players out of most heroes, and they have to play one-hundred matches to unlock them all. Beyond the obvious stupidity of this, there is going to be some subset of players that pickup Overwatch 2, win their fifty Quickplay matches, and then start playing Competitive without having access to the full hero roster. Blizzard claims this is so new players will not be overwhelmed by the initial size of the roster, but I am not convinced it is not driven by some combination of engagement metrics and psychology of exploiting that part of our brain that likes seeing unlocks. I convinced three friends to pickup Overwatch 2, and they just did not have an enjoyable experience. Of the three, only one is still playing and working to unlock every hero and gain access to the Competitive playlist. One of them tried the game for an evening, saw how many characters they still needed to unlock, and uninstalled that night. This is obviously anecdotal, but I am curious how many other players will have a similar experience and whether Blizzard sticks with this approach or changes their strategy.

When I was debating writing this review, I was torn because the Overwatch 2 that is currently playable is undeniably an unfinished product. Overwatch 2 exists to deliver PvE content, but none of that is in the game. In the end though, it was Blizzard’s choice to release the game when they did, so I do think it is fair to evaluate it based on its current state. Still, while the game does not have any of the narrative PvE content that was originally promised, near the end of the month, Blizzard rolled out their annual Halloween event which offers a glimpse of what fans might expect from the eventual release which left me feeling conflicted. I played through this year’s Halloween Terror three times, and I doubt I will touch it again for the rest of the event. Part of this is because, apart from a handful of event challenges, the rewards feel fairly inconsequential. The bigger issue, however, is while the gameplay is fun, filled with Easter eggs and secrets to discover, and is a definite improvement over the stale horde mode that was repeatedly featured during Overwatch 1’s Halloween Terror, the Overwatch gameplay framework did not really lend itself to especially engaging PvE content. For those who have experience with Destiny 2, this event felt like a Strike mission, but worse. It was fairly effortless, had basic objectives, and culminated in a simple boss encounter. Even before the success of Arcane, I firmly believed that Blizzard would have better satisfied the fans craving to learn more about the narrative and world of Overwatch by releasing an animated series, rather than a sequel. If this is a preview of what Overwatch 2’s PvE content will offer, a collection of “endlessly replayable” missions that are comparable to strikes in Destiny 2, I do not think players are going to be very happy with the final product.

If I had been playing Overwatch 1 when it released and had written a review at that time, I imagine I could have transposed my evaluations of the core gameplay between the two reviews. There was a period in my life when I committed the time to grinding Overwatch 1, to improving my skill at the game, and to climbing the ladder. But that was years ago, and I thought that time had passed. I may have been wrong. For the past few weeks, I have found myself drawn back in, playing Overwatch 2, and enjoying the experience of climbing the ranked ladder again.

And yet I struggle to recommend Overwatch 2. Blizzard’s inability to support Overwatch 1 over its lifetime, the extreme shift in monetization, the general abominableness of Blizzard and its parent company Activision, are just some of the reasons that contribute to the mountain of reasons to not play this game. Still, I would be lying if I did not admit that, at its core, as a competitive first-person hero shooter experience, Overwatch 2 is a well-polished and fun game. I do not know how long I will be playing Overwatch 2, I cannot speak to the quality of the future PvE content, and there is definitely uncertainty around the long-term support of this game, but right now, I am having fun playing Overwatch 2.

“You’re one of those heroes, aren’t you?”
“Not anymore.”

All images owned by Blizzard.