Overwatch 2 is a curious thing. It's a numbered sequel to a beloved shooter that is fast approaching its six-year anniversary. Combine that with Blizzard being a company that doesn't traditionally churn out sequels, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect, if not seismic changes, a real overhaul with the release of Overwatch 2. But with Blizzard having already announced cross-play between the first game and the second, its hands are seemingly tied to the extent that it can implement truly substantial changes. The result, based on the technical alpha we played, is that Overwatch 2's PvP mode is quite familiar, making the overall game feel less like a full, numbered sequel. And yet, I nonetheless had a terrific time and am eager to play more.
We've yet to see very much of Overwatch 2's new PvE mode and other areas of the game that may present greater deviations from what Overwatch players are accustomed to, but the overall gameplay remains great. And even if it does feel familiar, Overwatch 2's PvP does do more than just add new heroes, game modes, and maps.
Say goodbye to one of your little friends
Overwatch 2's most significant change is the shift from 6v6 matches to 5v5. It sounds like a potentially massive change, but even as someone who has played a ton of Overwatch (albeit almost none over the last two-plus years), I was surprised by just how quickly I became accustomed to the new setup. No doubt that's due to the fact that you're ultimately still dealing with the same roster of characters doing battle over the same objectives: Seeing a team make a push behind Reinhardt's shield or scramble to deal with a Tracer zipping behind enemy lines is an experience that remains uniquely Overwatch. That's because, while we've gotten other hero shooters over the past several years, there remains a heavy emphasis on abilities and distinct character classes.
Although 5v5 may not make this feel like an entirely different game, it does bring positive changes to the way matches play out. The decrease from 6v6 to 5v5 specifically comes by losing a tank; teams are now composed of two Support players, two Damage players, and only one Tank. That means that there is not only one fewer body to absorb damage, but specifically one fewer character designed to do so. Team fights are less likely to devolve into stalemates where little progress is made, as some players die but are then able to return to the fight before one side or the other can make a real push. The end result are fights that feel like they have a more definitive conclusion than those in the past, and encounters feel all the fresher for it.
There are other implications to this change as well. Effectively flanking the enemy as a Damage player can be more devastating and effective than ever, as you're less likely to run into the same kind of brick wall that you would previously. But it also places more importance on team composition and role, as having one fewer player means each person's hero choice and decision-making on the battlefield is that much more critical. Because there's generally less chaos and fewer people working toward the same goal as you, there's also more of an opportunity to stand out and really shine--or to make a grievous error that costs your team.
The alpha test didn't present enough time to fully come to grips for what 5v5 will mean. Balance changes were still being introduced throughout, but more critically, many matches were populated with Overwatch League pros who steamrolled the non-esports crowd, like me. That made gauging the efficacy of balance changes rather difficult, while also being a lesson in humility--there's nothing quite like squaring off against a Tracer you can't hit, Widowmakers and Anas who don't miss, or a solo Lucio who can dance circles around you, making you feel like a small child getting stomped by your older, merciless sibling.
Meet Sojourn, a breath of fresh air
The alpha also featured the introduction of Sojourn, a new Damage character being introduced with Overwatch 2. She's a welcome addition to the roster, marking the first time a Black woman is playable in Overwatch, despite the roster approaching the three-dozen heroes mark. That it's taken this long remains disappointing, and while Blizzard doesn't deserve a round of applause for clearing the bar of having a single Black female hero, it's still good to have her here.
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In terms of how she plays, the level of competition in the alpha makes it difficult to evaluate just how effective she is, but she's undeniably fun. Her kit is relatively straightforward, yet it provides a level of explosive punch that made me have a great time when my ass wasn't being kicked. Sliding down inclines in Apex Legends has been a small mechanic that I've loved for years now and have eagerly awaited for other shooters to steal, and Sojourn features a short-range slide that feels somewhat comparable. Sojourn can even slide on flat terrain, and, just as importantly, her slide can be used in any direction, making it effective at engaging or chasing down opponents, backing up while continuing to fire, or launching yourself past a corner. It can also be canceled early by jumping, launching you high into the air. You're then subjected to gravity like pretty much anyone else--Pharah or Echo she is not--but the brief burst presents enjoyable opportunities to navigate the battlefield that few characters are capable of. And she joins the ranks of characters like Widowmaker, capable of high-ceiling mid-air skill shots that other characters can't pull off.
It's not just Sojourn's movement that makes her so much fun to use--her offensive capabilities contribute as well. Her primary attack is a pretty standard, Soldier 76-style machine gun. But dealing damage with that charges up her railgun's alternate fire, which consumes that energy and fires a harder-hitting beam. Her Ultimate, Overclock, adds auto-charging and allows the beams to penetrate enemies. The interplay between the primary and secondary fires lends a very satisfying rhythm to playing as Sojourn. You spray the machine gun-style fire at opponents and are then able to periodically punctuate those with the railgun energy beams--punchy, harder-to-hit shots that are downright delicious to nail someone with.
Refreshed heroes and a new mode, maps, and ping system
Sojourn was the only new hero in the alpha, but several other characters have received key changes to how they function. Bastion is the one I spent the most time with given how fundamentally it's been altered. No longer does it post up in a single spot when shifting into Sentry mode. Now, Sentry mode allows you to move around, but you can only do so for a limited time before reverting to the standard Recon mode, where it functions more like Bastion's Overwatch 1 Ultimate ability. As a result, timing is critical, as you'll want that high-damage form available to you when the right opportunity presents itself. A well-timed flank from Bastion can rip an enemy team to shreds--something I took great delight in when I was able to pull it off. Bastion also gets a new grenade ability to provide it with a complementary attack, while its Ultimate functions like mobile artillery, as you post up and then select three areas to fire heavy-damage shots on. All of this comes at the expense of Bastion's old self-heal, which, combined with a lack of mobility or escapability when Sentry mode is on cooldown, makes the character heavily reliant on backup from your team.
Orisa also sees big changes. Gone is her ability to deploy a barrier; instead, she's given a more aggressive move that allows her to charge forward more quickly while spinning a javelin, destroying projectiles and pushing enemies backward. I love the wide range of potential uses here: You can stave off a devastating attack from foes by destroying projectiles, or you can position yourself on the other side of an unwitting opponent and push them toward your team to be finished off by heavier damage dealers. Combined with her alt-fire, which shoots a javelin that both knocks back foes and stuns them (with greater effectiveness if they collide with a wall), you're able to manipulate the positioning of enemies in a very direct, satisfying way. I never looked forward to playing as Orisa in the past, but she quickly became one of my favorites during the alpha--so much so that I didn't get to try out Doomfist, who shifts from Damage to Tank in Overwatch 2.
Overwatch 2 also adds Push, a game mode in which both sides compete to push a robot further into the enemy team's territory. This happens only if a single team is standing near the robot, meaning you typically need to win a fight in order for the robot to begin pushing in your opponents' direction. Because the robot can be interrupted anywhere, it leads to fights breaking out all around the map, although there tended to be certain choke points where the action frequently took place. Once a robot has made sufficient progress, one team will unlock a forward spawn point, helping them to maintain their edge by not needing to run all the way across the map after respawning.
Setting aside the Overwatch League player-dominated matches, there was a fair amount of back and forth between teams in the rounds I played, though it often became clear early on who would win. Whereas Escort matches can often lead to frantic sequences where one team tries to stop the other from moving the payload that excruciating last few feet to their goal, Push matches rarely had that major exciting inflection point. Instead, you'd have bursts of action followed by stretches of running alongside the robot as it pushes forward (or helpless moments as you wait to respawn to assist your team in stopping the robot). I did enjoy the variety of having another mode in the rotation, but I didn't get to spend enough time in competitive matches to get a firm feel for whether it will be one I prefer to the other options on the table, or whether it's balanced to consistently allow for comeback victories.
The same is true for the new maps and ping system. The latter is an enhanced version of what was already in place, letting you quickly convey more information to your teammates with a single button/key--an ideal setup for those who would rather stay off-mic. But whether it will factor heavily into matches remains to be seen.
There's still a great deal of Overwatch 2 that we know very little about--namely, the PvE component, but also rumored additions like a battle pass--and it's those factors that will or will not justify the Overwatch 2 name on the cover. Blizzard recently announced plans to decouple PvE and PvP in order to deliver the latter sooner, which seems like a sensible choice when the sequel's development is blocking the introduction of new content to the existing game. Getting fresh characters, modes, and maps is a big part of what the Overwatch community has wanted to see for ages--it's now been two years since Echo was released--and it's been great getting back to a game I love.
At the same time, I'd be remiss not to mention the allegations that have come to light over the past year, which painted an ugly picture of the culture at Blizzard and parent company Activision Blizzard overall. Blizzard has made strides to right some of this--the renaming of Cole Cassidy and changes made to certain World of Warcraft content among them. But it will take more time, as it should, for the company to sufficiently demonstrate that it's changed its ways and that it's worthy of the adulation that Overwatch 2 may eventually attract. The game itself is on a positive track, but that alone is not enough.
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