Better late than never, right?
Last year, due to my increasingly busy work schedule and my first holiday in 5 years, saw me review a meagre 42 games. Still in that bunch are all of the big hits of last year, some ones I had been looking forward to and, of course, one so-bad-it’s-bad title I played to remind me of how good we have it. Yet again I found myself struggling to crown a winner this year although this time around there were no less than 6 titles that could have easily taken it away. As always here’s the list of last year’s games in chronological order so you can refresh your memory if you so see fit.
First off I’ll award this year’s wooden spoon to The Technomancer from consistently B-grade developer Spiders. They’re a developer that has ambitions of being one of the top RPG developers like Bethesda or Bioware but unfortunately they just don’t have the resources to do so. Every one of their games is packed with all the features you’d expect of a larger RPG but, unfortunately, none of them work properly or integrate well. So what you end up with is a mish-mash of mechanics that are loosely coupled together, never quite reaching the level to which the game aspires to. Honestly all they need to do is narrow their focus and get a few core things right to make the next step up. However that never seems to happen and they continue to aspire to greatness they simply can’t yet achieve. Still The Technomancer was their best game yet, but that was a low bar to jump over.
This year I want to give honourable mentions to 3 titles that are fantastic games in their own right but didn’t make the top 3. Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of those rare sequels that manages to surpass its predecessor. It also managed to set up its sequels without ruining the plot of the current instalment, something which is almost never done well. Uncharted 4 was the conclusion that the franchise needed and was done so well that few could argue there was a better way to send off Nathan Drake. Whilst it might be sad to say goodbye to the franchise, at least in this form, it will long stand as one of the must-have titles for the PlayStation platform. Lastly Firewatch, whilst not sharing the same high score as the rest of the honorable mentions, was by far one of the most engrossing experiences to come out of 2016. If you haven’t yet taken the time to play it I very much recommend you do as its 3 hour play time just rushes by.
So without further ado my Game of the Year for 2016 is:
Blizzard’s Overwatch, rising from the ruins of the failed next-gen MMORPG Titan, is yet another testament to the venerable developer’s prowess when it comes to game development. I had been involved in the closed beta for some time before it launched and was still thoroughly excited to play it again on launch. The nearly 100 hours I’ve spent in game after then is a testament to just how well crafted Blizzard’s new team based shooter is. Combine that with the world building that Blizzard has continued to do long after its initial launch and you have a game that’s engrossing both from a mechanical and story telling perspective. Whilst my views on it may have soured since then (most likely due to the pressures that come from ranked play) there’s really no disputing that, at the time, it was head and shoulders above every other game I played last year.
Titanfall 2 comes in at a very close second as I’ve put in just as many hours into it as I did Overwatch. With the Call of Duty instalment lacking somewhat this year it was great to see Titanfall 2 step up into its place, providing the fast paced run and gun action that I enjoy. Considering how flat the original Titanfall fell after its first few weeks it was great to see the community stay stable for months after launch in the sequel. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, the low time to kill meaning that the skill gap isn’t as big as it is in other shooters, but for spammy rushers like myself it’s just the right blend of balls to the wall action and mech based combat.
Lastly Inside, the spiritual successor to Limbo, comes in at third. For Playdead it was a pivotal moment, one that would either cement them as the king of the genre they helped create or see them cede it to others. Suffice to say Inside managed to improve on the Limbo formula in almost all regards, modernising the idea in just the right ways. It’s short play time, speculative story and carefully crafted visuals all combine together into a seamless experience that few other developers would be able to replicate. If you played Limbo or any of its numerous clones then it’s well worth spending the afternoon playing through Inside.
We’re already in the thick of 2017’s releases and I’m already impressed at the calibre of AAA titles that have come out this year. I’m going to have to make a concerted effort to keep up the 1 game per week cadence, something which I’m already unfortunately behind on. However it’s looking like another solid year for us gamers, one that I’m very much looking forward to.
Onwards and upwards, dear readers!
I came so close to breaking one of my rules for Overwatch, I really did.
If you’re one of my esteemed long time readers you’ll know that I steer clear of betas and greenlight games. My reasons for this are twofold; firstly reviewing unfinished products feels like I’m doing a disservice to the game and to you, dear reader. Secondly I’ve ruined final releases of games for myself numerous times by playing betas but there is one exception to that rule: Blizzard games. I’ve been in numerous Blizzard betas and every time they’ve made me hungry for the full game. Overwatch was no exception to this and I very nearly did a full review based on the beta alone. It really is that good.
Overwatch takes place in the near future, some time after the resolution of the Omnic Crisis. This event took place after the Omnic artificial intelligence roused all robots around the world to rebel against humanity, causing war on a global scale. To combat this the Overwatch task force was formed, an elite group of soldiers who put an end to the uprising. For some time afterwards they stayed on as a peacekeeping force, ensuring that human and omnic alike could exist together in harmony. However rumours of corruption and foul play began to spread around Overwatch’s activities and they were eventually disbanded. However the time has come for them to band together again as the world needs them now more than ever.
Overwatch isn’t your typical low-poly aesthetic that Blizzard is known for, but you can definitely see and feel it’s influence on everything. The heavily stylised aesthetic is reminiscent of other team based shooters like Team Fortress 2 but retains Blizzard’s flair for colourful and vibrant environments. All of this comes to us via a new engine developed specifically for Overwatch, likely born out of the remnants of Blizzard’s cancelled next generation MMORPG: Titan. Indeed Overwatch carries with it the essence of what that game might have been with many of the levels and characters drawn directly from said game. It should be unsurprising then just how polished everything is; that Blizzard trademark of “only releasing when it’s done” aptly demonstrated here.
As I alluded to earlier Overwatch is a team based shooter, pitting you in a 6v6 fight against another team. Your team, if it’s well balanced, will be made up of 4 different kinds of characters (attack, defence, tank and support) chosen from 21 heroes that are available at launch. There’s only 2 types of game modes available currently: king of the hill, where you have to capture and hold a single point, and payload escort. You’ll gain profile levels as you play and each time you level up you’ll get a loot box filled with random cosmetics, voice lines and sprays that you can paint the level with. At its core Overwatch is astonishingly simple however the various combinations of heroes and maps means that game play stays fresh and challenging no matter how long you play for.
Combat is extremely slick, something which is likely unexpected given the fact that this is Blizzard’s first foray into the FPS genre. Each of the characters has a very unique personality with each of them handling very differently given their wide discrepancies in abilities. For the most though it sticks to the more traditional FPS tropes: main/alternate fire on weapons, non-regenerating health and a tendency towards more run and gun style play. This doesn’t mean it plays out the same way though as the various abilities each of the classes have make Overwatch feel anything but traditional.
There’s two key things to take into consideration whenever you start an Overwatch match: the map and the enemy team’s composition. Some maps play better to some characters than others: the big open ones favouring characters with better mobility whilst the tight, cramped ones favouring those who can surprise you with a lethal dose of damage. There’s also some maps that will favour heroes with, let’s call them “cheap”, ways of instantly killing you by knocking you off the edge or down a bottomless well. I honestly didn’t pay it much mind during the closed beta however playing with an organised group more in the final release has shown me just how impactful the map is on which heroes will work and which ones don’t.
Overwatch encourages you to swap heroes to meet the situation at hand and you should if things aren’t working out for you. Blizzard has been open about the fact that the heroes aren’t balanced with 1v1 encounters in mind and each hero has a rival that will completely counter them. So an Overwatch match is all about adaptability, meaning that if you want to win games you’ll have to be comfortable switching things up on a regular basis. For someone like me who enjoys playing all different kinds of heroes (although I do main support) this is a great thing and is what has kept me coming back time and time again. However I can see how that might irk some players who might be coming from other competitive FPS games as there’s no one class to rule them all. Still I think Blizzards approach is far more welcoming to all kinds of players, something that is reflected in the sheer volume of people that have flocked to play Overwatch.
My only gripe that I have with Overwatch is the relatively basic matchmaking system which could do with a few tweaks to make it a little better. Once you join match that’s going to be the team you’re stuck with until people leave. This is great if you’re with a bunch of great players who help you win, however if you’re on a losing team that’s not working together it’s not so enjoyable. This is where Blizzard could take a leaf out of other FPS’ books as shaking up the team composition every match would make for much fairer and streamlined game play. Of course you don’t have to stay with the same team but having to leave and rejoin after every match can be a little tiresome. Strangely Blizzard isn’t the only one to make this mistake with other big name titles like Star Wars Battlefront making similar errors in judgement. It’s a small gripe but one I hope to see fixed in the not too distant future.
When I first heard that Blizzard was making a team based shooter I wasn’t holding my breath for any sort of depth to the story however in true Blizzard fashion the backstory to Overwatch’s world is deep, engrossing and just begging to be explored. The character biographies, the incredibly well done short films and the comics all build up a world that’s so much bigger than what’s explored in game. It really does make me ache for what Titan could have been as the story, and the characters Blizzard has built out of it, are some of the most interesting and deep that I’ve ever come across in this kind of game. I’m hopeful that Blizzard will keep exploring this world as the game progresses and, should the Warcraft movie commercial success be anything to go by, we could hopefully see it bridge out into other media as well.
Overwatch is everything I’ve come to expect from a Blizzard game and so much more. Whilst I may pine for what may have been with Titan what was born out of its ashes is nothing short of incredible, demonstrating Blizzard’s dedication to quality games that are, above all, fun. The unique and varied classes, combined with the handful of maps, might not seem like much on the surface but in combination they provide near infinite amounts of replayability. The game is polished to the high standards Blizzard has set with all its previous titles, something which was clear even early on in the closed beta. However what clinches it all for me is the story that is woven in the background, something which I dearly hope Blizzard continues to explore. Overwatch has, for me, set the bar for what a competitive shooter should look like and I’m excited to see how it evolves.
Overwatch is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $99.95 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with approximately 10 hours played in the closed beta and 10 hours in the final release.
Last week I wrote about how Blizzard has been working to revamp itself over the past few years with new games that didn’t follow it’s traditional business model. Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are both wild successes that followed the free to play model and many were wondering when their other titles would follow suit. Indeed it was assumed by everyone that the upcoming team shooter title, Overwatch, was likely going to follow the F2P trend. However at BlizzCon over the weekend Blizzard made the stunning announcement that for the US$40 asking price you’d get access to all the heroes and maps. Plans for future heroes and other content were less clear however and this sent the vocal Internet minority into a tail spin.
There were numerous interviews floating around where Blizzard employees were pressed about the future of the game and what content they could expect. On the subject of heroes they typically stated that there weren’t any current plans and there would definitely not be any additional heroes at launch. This led everyone to speculate that there were plans to release more heroes in the future and that it’d likely be something that players would have to shell out for. This was concerning due to Overwatch’s emphasis on reactive play, switching up your hero class to counter the enemy’s tactics, which would break if some heroes were locked away behind a paywall. Whilst I’ll admit that the last point is accurate it makes an assumption which I don’t believe to be true.
That Blizzard knows exactly where Overwatch is headed.
As I’ve mentioned before, and which has been mostly confirmed by numerous other sources, Overwatch is the bits and pieces that Blizzard was able to salvage from the failed Project Titan MMORPG. The cancellation of that project occurred in September last year and Overwatched was announced only a few months later in November at Blizzcon 2014. Now here we are, 1 year later, and the game has a solid release date and a closed beta that just got started. Essentially Blizzard has gone from having almost nothing to a fully fledged title ready for release in a year so the project is still very much in the nascent stages, especially by Blizzard standards. To think that they’ve got the whole future of the game mapped out is a huge assumption as Blizzard has likely spent the last year getting the functional, let alone thinking about where they want to take it.
When you also consider the fact that this will be Blizzard’s first FPS title you can see why they’d be a little cagey on what their future plans are. They have a wealth of experience in the MMORPG and RTS genres but little beyond that. Whilst they’ve been successful in some of their recent endeavours there’s a trail of failed ideas behind them which never met the light of day. It’s entirely possible that they’ve been so heavily focused on getting the initial game right that the future runway has been left undefined for the time being. One thing Blizzard has shown a talent for (and I’m ignoring some of the larger issues with Hearthstone for this comment, I know) is reacting to how its community plays its games. My money is on the fact that they’re going to wait until after launch to gauge where everything is at and then, at that point, they’ll see how they want to grow Overwatch further.
Even at that point however I sincerely doubt that Blizzard would break the game in the many severe ways that fans are describing now. The auction house debacle of Diablo III taught them a valuable lesson in how breaking core game mechanics ruins the experience for many and I doubt they’ll look to repeat that with a fresh IP. The good news is that Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director, has gone on record stating that Overwatch won’t be adopting a Heroes of the Storm type model. Whilst this has done little to quell the vocal swell it does reaffirm my position and should give everyone hope that Blizzard is committed to the Overwatch business model as it stands today.
World of Warcraft stands out as an exception in the MMORPG world. Where nearly all other titles have either faltered or drastically altered their business models in order to survive World of Warcraft has remained steadfast to its subscription based system. This has made it the most successful MMORPG ever, making it a multi-billion dollar business all of its own. However its heydays are long behind it, with subscriber numbers slowly dwindling over the years. The more regular release of expansions have helped to keep the number up somewhat but the downward trend was still easily noticeable. Blizzard, obviously aware of this, has decided to stop reporting subscriber numbers altogether after their last quarterly report yesterday.
The last subscriber count pegs World of Warcraft’s player count at about 5.5 million, the lowest it’s been in 10 years. Whilst that number might sound like the first rattles of World of Warcraft’s death knell it’s likely anything but as many long time MMORPGs have survived on much smaller subscription numbers. For Blizzard it does present a challenge as dwindling numbers can often have a runaway effect; reaching a critical point where the majority of the playerbase abandons the title for greener pastures. That point is probably still some time away and indeed if the last subscriber peak (from the last expansion) is repeatable then I see no reason for World of Warcraft to go away any time soon. However the change in what (Activision) Blizzard communicates, as well as their recent purchase of King, is indicative of some of the other issues the company is facing in their attempt to stay relevant.
It was around this time that Blizzard was planning to announce their next MMORPG based on an entirely new IP. This was known internally as Project Titan, a name which got more than a few people fired when it was made public. Unfortunately the game simply didn’t work in the way it was originally envisioned and it was scrapped late last year. Whilst Overwatch may have arisen out of its remnants it meant that many who were looking towards Blizzard’s next MMORPG were left wanting and thus began to look elsewhere. Had project Titan been released around this time the demise of World of Warcraft might have been fully sealed but it would have been a greater win for the company overall.
This has led many to call for World of Warcraft to change their subscription model to be more inline with current trend of switching to free-to-play. To be sure the transition can be made as The Old Republic and other titles have shown however there’s little incentive for Blizzard to do so when their monthly revenue rate is still in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Until they’re really hurting for numbers, and I mean really hurting, such a transition would likely devastate their revenues to the point where World of Warcraft wasn’t sustainable. However I think Activision Blizzard recognises this as a potential possibility and that’s where the acquisition of King comes into play.
King, for those who don’t know, are the developers behind the incredibly successful Candy Crush saga. Activision Blizzard is paying a cool $5.9 billion for the company which isn’t a bad deal if their current profit rate of $127 million per quarter is anything to go by. They are undoubtedly one of the leaders in the free-to-play model and there’s every chance they’re buying them with a view to revamp the business models for some of their products. This isn’t limited to Blizzard titles of course, but the timing of the two announcements certainly makes it feel like they might be related.
This definitely feels like a pivot point for Activision Blizzard as they muse through their options for future growth. There’s definitely a trend for their newer IPs to be done differently to those of the past and how Overwatch is positioned will be strongly telling of how they see game development in the future. Right now it points to a free-to-play future, one that could very well make its way into already established IPs. If any company can make the transition work, and work well, it’s Activision Blizzard but no change of this magnitude is without risk.