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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A Soap Opera Is Exactly What Overwatch 2 Needed

There’s a moment in the second of Overwatch 2’s three new PvE maps that really sticks out. It’s the kind of moment that hadn’t happened in the seven years since the first Overwatch came out, and it’s exactly what the game has needed this whole time. Minor spoilers if you haven’t played the mission yet.

Roughly halfway into the Liberation mission, you and your four allies, along with an omnic NPC you’re escorting, crowd into a subway car. As the car slowly pulls into a station, another omnic character starts slamming his hands against the window, begging you to open the door. You can’t.

It’s too slow and too late. You and your team have to sit and watch as a new enemy unit, the Subjugator, grabs him, latches onto his head, and then leaves him lifeless on the ground with strange new plugs sticking out of his metal skull. It’s horrifying to watch, and before you can reckon with it, you have to move on to the next battle.

It’s the type of mini in-game cutscene that’s pretty normal for most single-player games but hard to pull off in a fast-paced PvP game like Overwatch. That is disappointing, because one of the game’s strongest traits is its vibrant and engaging characters. It’s no wonder players were unhappy to learn that the game’s PvE plans were scaled back.

And yet, after playing through the three missions in Overwatch 2: Invasion, I feel like I can see a glimmer of a future in which Overwatch finally lives up to its potential. And the cuts Blizzard made might actually be for the best.

It’s the Story, Stupid

If you go back and watch early look demos of the planned Overwatch 2 PvE content from 2019, it’s easy to compare it to the version players got in 2023 and see what’s changed. The map, the characters, and the cutscenes are still largely intact. But the gameplay is drastically different.

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In the older demos, there are tons of mechanical changes to the game: powerups littered around the map; talents that players choose at the start of missions to alter their kit; special, much longer cooldown abilities. It’s a cornucopia of experimentation in game mechanics. In the current version, however, Overwatch characters work almost exactly the way they do in the existing PvP game modes.

The comparison underscores just how difficult it is to parse a seemingly simple idea like “Overwatch PvE.” If that phrase means a story campaign that lets you explore the Overwatch universe, that’s pretty much what we got. But if it means an entirely different type of game with unique mechanics, then sure, your hopes will be dashed. Eventually, Blizzard had to explain what was still coming and what wasn’t.

Speculating on what could’ve been is rarely productive. And it’s not uncommon for years of development to go into a project that gets canned in favor of something better. But to my outsider eyes, it reads like the part of Overwatch 2’s PvE elements that were canceled have a lot more to do with game mechanics than with storytelling.

And that’s maybe … fine? On the PvP side of Overwatch 2, balancing characters’ abilities is the Sisyphean boulder devs can never stop pushing uphill. Sometimes reworking a single character’s abilities can take months. Building and maintaining an entirely separate set of abilities for heroes is a large task that does little to deliver what many wanted from Overwatch PvE in the first place: a well-told story.

Something New

When Invasion first dropped, many fans and gaming outlets were quick to compare the new PvE missions to past Archives events. In Overwatch 1, these were special limited-time events that featured mini-story missions set on existing PvP maps. The familiar King’s Row, Rialto, and Havana maps became battlegrounds against Null Sector and Talon, rather than another team of humans.

Despite the comparison, Overwatch 2’s story missions are very different. For starters, the maps are almost entirely bespoke. “This is the first time we’ve really made custom maps for PvE,” Scott Lawlor, Overwatch’s audio and technical narrative design director, tells WIRED. “So it really allowed us to do some things we haven’t really been able to do before, which is build the environments for storytelling.”

Some locations are familiar, like the first half of the Resistance mission, which takes place on the Paraiso map. But the latter half takes place on a Null Sector ship setting that is never used in any PvP game mode. The original level design only gets more comprehensive in later missions, ending in the Ironclad mission that features gigantic turrets and mechs that would be completely out of place in PvP.

While each mission only takes around 10-15 minutes to complete, the amount of newly crafted content they require is deceptively large, and much of it is reusable in the future. “For the PvE experience, I think we have something like 13,000 lines that were in this patch,” says Lawlor.

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“A lot of that is the core storytelling, but a lot of it is also this foundational stuff, like the characters being able to respond to opening doors or downed teammates,” Lawlor continues. These were recorded not only for the heroes featured in current story missions, but for the entire cast of heroes. With these and new mechanical tools, like enemy units with destructible limbs, Overwatch’s devs have what they need to build future missions more quickly than these initial three.

Moving Forward

With the weight of building an entirely new set of hero mechanics, talent trees, and upgrades lifted—plus the kit of tools to build story missions now at their disposal—it seems like Blizzard is in a position to move Overwatch’s story forward in a way it hasn’t before. That’s a relief, because at times it can feel stuck in the past.

There’s a moment in the ending cinematic for the first PvE mission when Lucio arrives at Watchpoint: Gibraltar, the headquarters of the newly reformed Overwatch team. He marvels at his surroundings and company like he’s a young Peter Parker getting his first glimpse of the Avengers compound.

But Lucio has been in the Overwatch game since it launched in 2016. Watchpoint: Gibraltar was one of the maps that shipped with the first game. Hell, in the cinematic, Echo and Brigitte are already members of team Overwatch, even though they were both introduced years after the original game came out.

The next two missions feel more forward-looking, though. The second mission introduces Sojourn, a character that was released with the much more recent launch of Overwatch 2, and it teases Ramattra, another new-ish character and exactly the kind of Thanos-style archvillain that the Overwatch universe needs.

There’s also more texture to the missions than big plot points. As an example, in the Ironclad mission, the beefy tank Reinhardt meets Bastion, a peaceful unit of the omnics that fought against Reinhardt in the past. While both of these characters are also well-known to players, the interaction is new, and over the course of the mission, players get to experience Reinhardt coming to terms with fighting alongside a former enemy.

“The cinematic isn’t just a standalone,” cinematic director Jason Hill explains to WIRED. “It gets carried through into the gameplay. Reinhardt deals with Bastion there and starts to realize, ‘Oh, this guy’s not so bad.’” In the past, this kind of character-building was limited to small voice line interactions at the start of a PvP match. But in story missions, they can have a beginning, middle, and end that players participate in, rather than passively listening to.

The pieces are in place, but the natural question is when the story will take its next step. Blizzard hasn’t announced when the next story missions might arrive—in fact, the company has confirmed that there won’t be any new missions for the next two seasons, which puts their earliest arrival firmly in 2024.

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As Lawlor explains, the intermittent story releases can be a benefit. “We wanna retain flexibility to sometimes have [seasonal content releases] be really canon-based or sometimes be a weird side story.” So a new season could bring missions that move the story forward, or it could be a dating sim.

For players who were hyped up for years leading up to Overwatch 2’s release for PvE story campaigns, that answer might be a bit of a letdown. Personally, I’d be satisfied if each season brought even one new story mission—the latest episode in the ongoing Overwatch soap opera.

However, this new game mode still fills a gap that’s been ignored for too long. Since 2016, Overwatch’s story has felt like a Marvel-style cinematic universe, but with no movies and only the occasional episode of a streaming show. There were simply no tentpole events to build the story around.

Now Blizzard has the tools to tell those stories. As someone who’s played the game for years and wanted this kind of storytelling the whole time, it’s easy to feel hungry. But after looking at what Blizzard has kept and what it’s cut, I’m not disappointed. I’m encouraged.

Overwatch didn’t need talent trees. It didn’t need a whole different set of abilities and upgrades for every hero. It certainly didn’t need to build toward an MMO. All it needed was a way to tell a coherent story, to let players invest emotionally in the lives of its characters. And now that we’ve finally gotten a taste of what we could have had the whole time, all I want is more.

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