In its current state, Overwatch 2 does not feel like a sequel to Overwatch. So far, the player-versus-player beta feels like a very significant patch, filled with character reworks in line with the seasonal patches of dozens of other video games. It is also an extension of every single thing that frustrated me about the latter half of the original game’s lifespan.
Overwatch was announced as a 6v6 team-based hero shooter with a small but significant 12 hero roster, which increased to 21 by the time of its release. These 21 heroes fulfilled three general roles: tanks, who soak damage in place of their teammates, DPS (damage per second) who do the killing, and supports who provide healing and general utility, albeit with a lot of overlap and character specificity which allowed some characters to fulfill multiple positions on their teams. Team compositions shifted constantly over the course of the match, as players adjusted their teams to better counter their opponents, though players' love for playing DPS roles often meant that teams were stuck with inefficient compositions as players helped themselves to Overwatch's ample menu of DPS heroes. There were often as many as four or five DPS heroes on a given team, supported by a single put-upon tank, support, or tank-support duo. This was a real source of frustration in the game, but also closely tied to the things that made it fun.
In competitive play, however, it was generally accepted that there should almost always be two tanks, two DPS, and two supports. Tanks would draw enemy attention through AOE (area of effect) damage and crowd control abilities (stuns, slows, and knockback), while being bolstered by supports who they directly protected with their bulky bodies and defensive abilities. One DPS would focus on general damage, while the other would focus on flanking to kill supports. This was a popular and reliable team composition, and in September of 2019, it was formalized through the “role queue” system.
Role queue forced teams to adopt this composition by forcing players to matchmake via a selected role and not by open player slots within a game. While a solid idea in theory, particularly in the game’s competitive mode, role queue came with a host of frustrations. There were suddenly far more people who wanted to play the DPS role than there were open DPS slots, and so their queue times ballooned. Many DPS players switched into support and tank roles just for the sake of getting into games. On paper, this is a success. In practice, this led to an abundance of tanks and supports who didn’t know what they were doing, or were trying to force DPS tactics on heroes that couldn't execute them well.
Overwatch 2 not only kept the role queue, but has exacerbated the problem by reducing the number of tanks on any given team from two, to one. Overwatch 2’s 5v5 structure has led to massive tank queue times in the beta, as thousands of players attempt to fill half the available slots from the previous game. The removal of a second tank also contributes to the shift towards a faster time to kill, and accelerates the ongoing DPS-ification of Overwatch’s meta, which refers to the standard strategies and optimal playstyles of competitive play.
In the months following Overwatch’s release, Blizzard added Ana, a supportive sniper who could deal as much if not more damage than she healed. From that point forward, the support role was filled with these types of characters . Ana, Moira, Baptiste, and Brigette, were all post-release supports with ridiculous damage potential.
From a design perspective, this is an easy answer to a difficult question. “How do you make supports feel active?” Well, just make them shoot a lot and put numbers on the board in addition to their healing. The problem becomes that every character begins to fill an extremely homogeneous role on their team. It is everyone’s job to kill, all the time. Sometimes supports take a break from the murder to do some healing, or to buff their allies.
Damage heavy supports were accompanied by an ever decreasing “time to kill” (TTK) metric across the entire cast. “Time to kill” refers to the amount of time it takes to defeat an enemy in a perfect interaction. The higher a game’s time to kill is, the longer the average character survives in a gunfight. Overwatch’s time to kill began relatively high, with the majority of heroes being able to tank a few shots in any given fight barring a fully-charged Widowmaker headshot. This made healers essential for keeping your team alive during any given fight. The lower your TTK gets, the less opportunities healers have to heal. This further muddled their role.
The Overwatch 2 beta’s time to kill is significantly lower than the first game. The lack of another tank to soak damage, the increase in damage capabilities across the board, and the overwhelming dominance of hit-scan weapons, has made the game feel extremely scrappy. That scrappiness makes it a headshot fest, where strategy begins to collapse under the weight of all the people trying to kill you at any given moment.
This problem is further exacerbated by a series of character reworks, which somehow manage to feel both totally insignificant and absolutely game changing. Crowd control abilities have been taken away from DPS and support heroes, and offloaded almost exclusively onto tanks. Mei and Sojourn do have abilities which slow their enemies' movement speed, but as far as DPS crowd control goes that’s about it. Orisa, who sees some of the game’s most significant reworks, has become a powerful dive tank, who can almost solo entire teams if played correctly. Despite how powerful her abilities are, they are tremendously boring. She, like all reworked Overwatch 2 characters, has been made better at damage to the detriment of everything else. Oh, and Bastion is obscenely overpowered again.
Overwatch, and now by extension Overwatch 2, when confronted with the question of how to make their characters unique, chose to make their guns feel different from one another instead of encouraging a wide range of unique playstyles. When compared to other character driven, team composition heavy games like the MOBAs that inspired it, and the hero shooters which have followed in its wake, its failure of imagination is staggering. Overwatch 2 had an opportunity to stop its slide into generic team deathmatch, and it chose not to take it.
While the game is still in beta, and by definition has an opportunity to course correct, years of patches and the current state of this sequel don't allow for much confidence that Blizzard will even identify the problem, much less correct for it.
Overwatch felt like a revelation. With a cast of bright, unique characters, objective based gameplay, and the promise of a narrative that would grow alongside its players, it all but spawned a new genre, populated by other games which it voraciously devoured. Battleborn and Paladins didn’t have a chance against Overwatch, which cast a brilliant shadow over everything that came after it—apparently including its own sequel.
Despite the brightness of its characters, and the potential it once had, Overwatch 2 is not currently a shout. It is barely a whimper.