Here’s a fun little exercise: type “game of the year 2016” into Google, and see what you get. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that Overwatch is at the top of your list, and for any link you click it’s either in the top 5 or at least honourably mentioned.
Sweet! Now you owe me donuts. Please mail said donuts to P.O. Box 1230, Station- hm? Oh.
My editor has informed me I am not allowed to gamble with our readership for donuts. Spoilsport.
Anyway, play for five minutes and it’s not hard to see why Overwatch is the game of 2016. It’s fast, it’s frenetic, it’s fun. Its got bright, vibrant colours, a beautiful and memorable musical score, and charm oozing out of every pixel. Each character has a unique voice and a set of powerful abilities, and all of it comes together in a package so neat and tidy it goes way beyond the sum of its parts.
I’m not saying that Overwatch is perfect - far from it! When a game gets this huge its faults stick out like a sore thumb, making it easy to point out and criticize. Lucky for us, Overwatch is made by one of the biggest names in the biz. Blizzard Entertainment has made it their mission to make Overwatch the best multiplayer experience around, and so far it's working.
Here’s what we love and what we hate about 2016’s game of the year.
15 BEST: Hardware Optimization
Creating a game that works on any old piece of hardware is just good business sense, since it maximizes your potential customer base. That’s been Blizzard’s modus operandi from the very beginning. Games like StarCraft and World of Warcraft may look a little plain when compared to other games of the era, but anybody can play them.
Blizzard has found a hidden benefit with optimizing their games for the lower end specs; it actually makes the games perform better on higher end systems.
Speaking at the Game Developer’s Conference held earlier this year, Blizzard senior software engineer Ryan Greene said, "We found that optimizing for the minspec yielded really good gains on the high end and on console."
Overwatch will still be eminently playable on a laptop with integrated graphics, but it’ll also look amazing with a dedicated and modern GPU.
14 WORST: Roadhog’s Hook
Overwatch has struggled with Roadhog’s hook since the very beginning. Getting hooked often meant a one-shot kill, something that very few heroes received outside of ultimate abilities. Nobody likes getting one-shotted (just ask Widowmaker and Hanzo mains how popular they are at parties). What really pissed players off, though, was that kill replays would often make it seem like Roadhog was outright cheating, by being able to hook players through objects or walls that would normally be impassable.
Blizzard’s argument was that the hit detection was done on the Roadhog player’s side, and sometimes latency would cause things to look wonky on the victim’s side during a replay. That wasn’t good enough to silence the complaints, though. Adding more line of sight checks was one solution, however certain speedy characters like Tracer or Genji could be hooked while zipping around a corner, breaking the hook and returning the character to where they were originally. This caused Roadhog-players to complain, which lead Blizzard to add a slow effect to the hook so that hooked players couldn’t just break line of sight to avoid a face full of scrap.
Right now there seems to be an uneasy peace, but we’re just a patch away from an all out, pork-fueled flame war.
13 BEST: The Future Ain’t So Bad
I can’t tell you how many games - and especially first person shooters - paint the future as horribly dangerous, or depressing, or both. Overwatch doesn’t do that. Instead, it shows the future as what you might expect; it has its fair share of hardships, but generally things are better than they were. In other words, there’s a ray of hope.
You only need to look at the cast to get a sense that world is in a better place in Overwatch. There are equal numbers of men and women, showing gender equality has been reached (there’s even gender equality among robots - one male, one female, and one Bastion). The characters hail from all over the world and it really seems that race and the colour of your skin are complete non-issues. There’s even a talking monkey! How much more diverse can you get?!
Sorry Winston- gorilla, I meant to say gorilla.
12 WORST: Loot Box Fatigue
One of the many awesome things in Overwatch is loot boxes. Loot boxes are how you unlock customizations for your characters, like skins, emotes, or sprays. Whenever you gain enough experience to level up, or during special events, you get a loot box. It’s like Christmas all the time!
The problem is it’s all random, with certain items being rarer than others, and simply obtaining one item doesn’t remove it from the pool of possible rewards. Starting off, everything is new and exciting as every loot box brings shiny new toys to play with. After level 100 or so you’ll start to notice you’re getting more duplicates than not. By level 200, anything new is cause for celebration.
Getting duplicates does give you gold which can then be exchanged for new items, but it’s a paltry amount, making unlocking new content feel like a grind. The issue of duplicates is not unknown to Blizzard, who have seen the amount of people paying real money for loot boxes also drop off. Time will tell what they do to fix the problem, but for now it’s still there, and it still sucks.
11 BEST: Overwatch World Cup
Right along with the spirit of diversity featured in-game is the Overwatch World Cup. In the same vein as the Olympics, the top teams from nations across the globe duke it out for global supremacy.
Okay, that’s a little more violent than the Olympics typically are, but there’s going to be a podium and medals, so I’m going to let the comparison stand.
The qualifying period is currently happening now, where the top 100 players from each country have their skill ratings averaged, and the 32 countries with the highest average score will be selected to compete in the regional finals. From there, each finalist country will then need to select a team of players to compete based on votes from the fans. Once those players are selected, the regional finals begin, and the top finishers will move on to the World Cup and a chance for glory.
As a Canadian myself, hopefully Canada does a little better this year than last.
10 WORST: The Salt
As is so often the case in competitive games, it can sometimes be hard to check your emotions at the door. If you play Overwatch competitively for any length of time you’ll eventually come across one player (or at least, hopefully only one player) who ignores the objective, curses the Mercy player for not healing, and just generally is a total douchebag.
You’ll lose, and it’ll be all his or her fault, and that feeling that comes up in your throat - to shout this guy down for being a complete poser - is called salt. You must never give in to the salt. You must rise above it, much like Zenyatta has, as an enlightened being above such petty squabbles.
But I swear to god, if that Genji runs off the point one more time I’m gunna kill him.
9 BEST: Play of the Game
When it comes to competitive gaming, there has always been this problem where you’d often make an amazing play, but nobody other than yourself ever gets to see how truly awesome it was. With Overwatch, that’s all changed with the introduction of the Play of the Game.
When you make an amazing play, the game will actually keep track and record it, then play it back when the game ends. It’s just like a highlight reel in competitive sports, only it’s shown to everyone in the game you just played with. And I have to say, there’s no better feeling in the world. You can be complete garbage at Overwatch, but making that one killer play to get Play of the Game… I swear it’s better than sex.
On top of that, the formula the computer uses to recognize the Play of the Game isn’t perfect, and when it screws up it can be pretty hilarious. Like Torbjorn’s POTG here.
That is some real skill.
8 WORST: No Single Player Mode
Overwatch is an online, multiplayer game. These games can be a lot of fun, but as we have seen with our previous entry to the list, sometimes people can be jerks and I’d rather play by myself. Overwatch does have a versus AI mode where you can team up to beat on a bunch of bots, but they can be kind of trivial and unsatisfying to play against.
There’s been a lot of speculation that Blizzard may one day implement a single player campaign to kind of tie together all these disparate story elements into one cohesive narrative, but those rumors have been going on for nearly as long as the game’s existence. I wouldn’t hold your breath.
7 BEST: Character Balancing
Another of Overwatch’s high points is how they’ve managed to make a diverse cast of characters, each with unique and powerful abilities, and still have everything feel like a level playing field. While there’s always going to be certain heroes that perform better against certain opponents, there’s a real sense that you’re never helpless and any character can perform well in the right hands.
On the back end, the game’s developers also closely monitor hero performance at all levels of play, and if they see one particular hero start to produce higher numbers than anyone else, they’ll be sure to address than in an upcoming patch. There have been numerous patches over the months since Overwatch’s release, and each one has either buffed a character to feel as powerful as everyone else, or has nerfed a hero to bring it back in line to the rest of the cast.
Except for a few times, but we’ll get to that later.
6 WORST: Bastion Meta
There’s a saying among Overwatch competitive players - to get out of the lower tiers, you gotta learn how to kill Bastion. When in turret-form Bastion can lay out a withering hail of fire that can destroy any hero, tank or otherwise. But as a turret, Bastion is also vulnerable since he’s stationary, and most heroes have an option for killing a stationary target.
In the early days of Overwatch, Bastion was never seen in high level competitive games since most skilled players had already learned how to defeat Bastion. Blizzard then decided to buff Bastion to the point where he was a viable choice, but took things a little too far. A dark period known as the Bastion Meta was born, where every payload would have a Bastion riding shotgun, mowing down helpless players with impunity.
They have since nerfed him back down, causing some to believe the scourge might be over, but Bastion's beep-boop still strikes terror into the hearts of every Overwatch player.
5 BEST: The Developer Updates
Blizzard does a lot of things well. One of those things is how they communicate with their player base. Developer updates are frequent and informative, always addressing the community as a whole and alerting them as to what changes might be coming. Sometimes, those changes are balance tweaks when the developers notice that a particular hero is getting more wins than the average. Sometimes those changes are new maps or characters, making the update sort of double as a way of creating hype and excitement. But Blizzard always makes sure that pro players and casual players alike are kept in the loop.
Plus, Jeff Kaplan has now done enough developer updates that enterprising YouTubers can do some pretty interesting things with them.
4 WORST: Plot Holes
Overwatch is a really cool game with tons of interesting heroes that all have compelling backstories. The problem is when you start reading into the lore of Overwatch all these backstories don’t always mesh, leaving some pretty glaring plotholes.
Let’s start with the Omnic crisis. If you don’t already know, in Overwatch there’s a historical event called the Omnic Crisis where all the omnics (basically robots like Bastion and Zenyatta) rose up and attacked humanity Terminator style. Overwatch plays a pivotal role in subduing the omnics and eventually peace is restored, but how did it then get to the point where humans and omnics are living together in peace and harmony (barring a few holdout countries)?
Or how about Lucio and Symmetra? We know that Lucio kicked Vishkar (the company Symmetra works for) out of Brazil, and that the two exchange heated words when on the same team, but we don’t really know if the two fought or have even ever actually met before.
This lack of a coherent plot makes it easy to insert new characters and tell lots of little tales, but telling one overarching story becomes a lot messier. Kinda like real life.
3 BEST: Matchmaking
I know for many people this will be a bit of a contentious issue, but by and large the matchmaking in Overwatch is pretty good. By no means is it so good you’ll never have a game that’s a complete blowout for one side or the other, but Blizzard does a good job of ensuring the games being played are between players of similar skill levels. If you get a blowout, it’s usually because of some poor choices in team composition rather than any single player dragging the whole team down into defeat.
This is especially true for competitive mode, where players will actually be able to see the average skill ratings of the players on each team and see for themselves how well balanced the game will be. At the super high levels of play (like Master and Grandmaster) the matchmaking can break down a bit simple. There are just not that many players at that skill level. Still, the vast majority of players can expect well balanced teams, which can lead to some invigoratingly tight matches.
2 WORST: Lucio Ubiquity
Alright guys. Let me first say that I love Lucio. He was the first character I played back in the beta, and to this day I think he’s incredibly strong and almost always a good pick for a healer. And that’s the whole problem.
Lucio has been in nearly every high level competitive game since the beginning of time. He has received nerf after nerf since the game started, but nothing Blizzard does has ever unseated this DJ dynamo from his competitive throne. Killing Lucio is something that every high level team needs to know how to do, and high level Lucio players are in super high demand.
Blizzard has recognized Lucio’s dominance of the competitive scene for some time, but was baffled as each new nerf did nothing to reduce his play. It’s gotten to the point where they’ve decided to re-work the character entirely, substantially changing the way his signature music auras work. This is still being tested on the Overwatch test server with no release date announced, but know that Lucio’s downfall is coming sooner rather than later.
1 BEST: The Memes
When a game gets to be as popular as Overwatch it sort of enters into the cultural zeitgeist, and when that happens some pretty interesting things start popping up. I’m talkin’ dank memes, baby! And Overwatch has some of the dankest.
I mean, c’mon! Just look at that header image and tell me you’re not already amused?
The dankest of the dank will find their way to the main Overwatch subreddit, but there are several subreddits devoted entirely to the memes of Overwatch. Then there’s a Facebook group, a tumblr, a Pinterest page, an Instagram, and more Twitter feeds than you can throw a Junkrat tire at. Pick one and prepare to get your meme fix for the next twelve centuries.