The Overwatch open beta was this weekend and because I was not apart of any previous betas, I set aside a day or two to just play as much as I could. After going through each character in a practice session, I jumped into some a few matches and found myself really impressed with the game. It’s fair to expect good quality from Blizzard, but Overwatch really drew me in more than a lot of games have done recently. However, I could feel my cynicism creeping in on my good time and I began to recall all the claims of Overwatch being a Team Fortress 2 killer. Like some kind of prophecy out of a fantasy book, a class based team shooter will be released every few years or so that claims to be good enough to steal TF2’s dedicated community and overthrow TF2 as the king of class-based shooters . Most of these games failed to meet those expectations, but Overwatch is already showing promise. Could it actually be a TF2 Killer?
Looking back at some of those purported TF2 killers it’s no surprise that they failed. I am reminded primarily of Brink, a 2011 game developed by Splash Damage. I picked it up when it came out and within two play sessions put it right back down again. At it’s best it was a pretty boring experience and lacked a lot of the visual appeal one would expect a game that sets out to be TF2’s peer to have. One of the biggest strengths of Team Fortress 2 is it’s visual design and aesthetics. Each character has their own unique look and feel making them both charming and easy to distinguish on the battlefield. As Brink’s failure has shown, this is a very important aspect to have when competing against Valve’s 2007 title. The better received games like Monday Night Combat, Loadout, and indeed Overwatch share that strong attention to visual design.
I think what sets Overwatch above these other games is it’s game design, and the lessons it takes from TF2. Monday Night Combat and Loadout took the visual design lesson from Valve, but when it came to game design they really distanced themselves away from the class-based shooter genre. The former was more of a MOBA game at heart and the latter didn’t really incorporate a class based system to it’s gameplay. Out of the aforementioned games, Overwatch and Brink are really the only two that have stuck to the class-based shooter genre, and out of those two, Brink is the furtherest away from TF2. Brink had 4 classes all together, but considering each classes’ abilities weren’t unlocked until a certain level, they were all nearly indistinguishable from each other. Team Fortress 2 on the other hand has all 9 classes very distinctly different from each other and available from the get go. This is one of the bigger areas Blizzard borrows ideas from. Overwatch has utilized distinct classes and characters much in the same way as TF2, even going so far as to using nearly the same weapons for characters. One of the biggest differences though is the number of characters each game has. Overwatch has more than double of TF2’s roster with 21 playable classes. I’ve heard criticisms that this is too many classes for the game, but I don’t really agree with that. Overwatch’s bigger cast is an attempt to add more diversity to team combinations, something TF2 has accomplished with different weapon load outs for it’s smaller cast. So where the Engineer in TF2 has two different options for sentry guns, Overwatch simply has two different classes that build different kinds of sentries. Both approaches are pretty successful in adding variety to gameplay and making the experience more enjoyable in the longterm.
So if Overwatch is just a competently designed as TF2, why do I still find myself hesitating to call it a true TF2 killer? I think there are a lot of outside elements that need to be taken into play. After all, Monday Night Combat and Loadout failed because of issues with mismanaging the player community, mismanaging their own staff, and a lack of player-ran dedicated servers. That last part in particular is going to be a big problem for Overwatch. In every criticism for Overwatch I have seen, the lack of player ran servers has been a big focal point. Those servers are very important to the more competitive players, which is usually the life-blood for games like this. As far as I know, Overwatch will not be supporting those kind of servers. That paired with a few other things like Overwatch’s courting of more casual players, their equal focus on consoles and PC, and the full AAA price tag compared to TF2’s no price tag at all makes me uneasy to call Overwatch a TF2 killer at all. However, I think it’s too early to make that call. Like I said, the game is really good, and Blizzard still has a good amount of time to tweak both the game and any external issues if they really wanted to try and grab Valve’s audience.
Ultimately though, I really don’t think that Blizzard is even attempting to compete with Valve on this one. TF2’s fanbase is filled with very, shall we say, dedicated players. If you aren’t in the know with a lot of the details of the game, it might be harder to break into it and enjoy yourself. Overwatch on the other hand has design features that really ease you into the game. Tips are displayed when picking characters that help you build a better team and there seems to be a big focus in encouraging positive behavior with a Facebook-esque “like” system at the end of matches and highlight reels from good plays during the game. If Blizzard wanted TF2’s audience, I’m not sure they would have gone so far out of their way to welcome players who have probably never played a class-based shooter before. In the end, I don’t think Overwatch is going to be a TF2 killer so much as a TF2 rival; a less hardcore alternative for established and potential fans of class-based shooters.