Perhaps nothing sums up the dumpster fire that was 2016 better than this: The game of the year was a recycled version of a canceled 2014 project.
“Overwatch,” the cartoonish shooter from mega-publisher Blizzard Entertainment, was originally a massively multiplayer online game called “Titan.” It had been in development for more than seven years before Blizzard canceled it in 2014, and the creators repurposed the characters and lore into the team-centric “Overwatch,” which dropped on May 24.
Unlike 2015, which forced me to choose between once-in-a-generation level games like “Fallout 4,” “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” and “Until Dawn,” this year’s choice was simple. “Overwatch” was the only game I gave a perfect rating to in 2016. It was a bad year for gamers – and probably the world – but “Overwatch” emerged as a strong multiplayer game with staying power and a ton of potential.
There were a few challengers. “FIFA 17” was probably the stiffest competition, but some brilliant holiday events pushed “Overwatch” to the top. “Watch Dogs 2” and “The Banner Saga 2” were fine sequels. “Darkest Dungeon,” which I did not review, was a delightfully macabre and unapologetic dungeon crawler.
“Overwatch” was pristine out of the box. The character and level design were excellent. It combined elements of hits “Team Fortress 2” and “League of Legends” to create something completely new.
But for a multiplayer game to have any longevity, it needs to consistently improve and add new content.
20 millionBlizzard announced in October that “Overwatch” had hit 20 million players in its first five months.
“Overwatch” took a step back in late June when it unveiled a deeply flawed competitive mode, but it rallied the following month. This ranked mode is quite serviceable now, though Blizzard still hasn’t figured out how to group players during their 10 placement matches (those that determine where your starting rank will be). Myself, everyone I know and a few thousand other vocal online complainers were grouped with players far below their skill levels. But I was able to climb back to respectability in a few days.
We, the faithful, were also rewarded with some pretty solid free content in the game’s first six months. Ana is a fun, interesting new character. Sombra is neat in theory, but she’s pretty useless in practice. The Eichenwalde map is amazing. The Halloween event was fantastic from top to bottom, with great new character skins and a decent temporary game mode. The holiday event has not been as strong, but it game me that amazing Nutcracker skin for Zenyatta.
Multiplayer games also require frequent balance changes. After millions of games, some characters emerge globally as being stronger or weaker than others. It’s important to constantly tweak their abilities to keep things fair. If you don’t, every game will just be the same six heroes battling against each other over and over. I can think of a few such adjustments in “Overwatch” that kept matches fresh, such as the changes to Mercy and Symettra’s abilities.
Another hurdle for modern multiplayer games is finding a way to create a professional gaming scene that can compete against giants like “League of Legends” and “Counter-Strike.” Blizzard did an admirable job in its first year by creating the Overwatch World Cup, a tournament that pitted the best players from 16 countries against each other. It added a sense of regional pride that is absent during most professional tournaments, as teams participating in those are often made up of good players from all over the world.
3.1 millionMore than 3.1 million fans voted on which players would be selected for the regional teams in the Overwatch World Cup.
My “Overwatch” addiction is not what it was in the spring and summer. I have lapsed back into playing “League of Legends.” She only hurts me, and I know that. There’s nothing good left of us. We fight constantly. But I can’t quit her.
Still, I play “Overwatch” at least once a week. It’s a great game to unwind to. You lie your baggage at its feet, and you’re rewarded with the anguish of others.
“What’s the matter? You don’t like the Roadhog (he’s my favorite character) hook?” I say maniacally to a 60-inch TV screen in an empty apartment. “It’s OK. You don’t have to tell me you like it, because I know you don’t like it. You love it.”
“Overwatch” didn’t move any mountains, but it was a great game out of the box that has been incrementally improved over time. It’s still relevant seven months later, and that’s an accomplishment – especially during a down year in gaming.