Overwatch 2 is here! Somehow! The beta for the multiplayer portion of the game ended this week so people can try out the dramatic changes Blizzard has made to the competitive side of the hero shooter sequel.
But despite a 5v5 format change, a controversial new scoreboard, and dramatic hero overhauls, Overwatch 2 is still very much Overwatch, as both games share the same multiplayer. That real One could argue that Overwatch 2 comes with the game’s full PVE campaign, which includes story-driven co-op missions pitting our heroes against the omnic hordes.
This side of the game is still the biggest unknown. And unfortunately, Overwatch doesn’t have a great track record of telling strong, ongoing stories.
What it has is a large, memorable cast. After all, Overwatch is the primal hero shooter. It’s hardly the first game to stuff itself with a slew of quirky, original characters (which you can, TF2 and every single MOBA), but it definitely marks a turning point from what shooters were to what they’ve become. In a post-Overwatch landscape, even games like Battlefield and Call of Duty need to have unique characters with their own names, kits, and backstories.
It’s easy to see why. Back then, the Overwatch cast hit the fandom hard, with Pixar-quality shorts that introduced us to a diverse roster of heroes and villains. The presentation was impeccable, and a lot of care was taken to define the characters through personality, silhouettes, and themed playstyles.
The fandom surrounding these characters was starving. People clung tight to their favorites, and excited to see where Blizzard would take this squad of esports mech pilots, time-traveling sprinters, mad Irish scientists, and hyper-intelligent gorillas next.
The problem was that Blizzard didn’t really take them with them.
See, Overwatch has stories. But from character trailers to comics to in-game “archive” PVE missions, these are almost entirely backstories, developments that are sure to happen in the past where they can’t affect the current moment. The game’s first-ever reveal trailer of 2014 remained the most recent event in the game’s canon until then Announcing Overwatch 2 at Zero Hour 2019.
In 2016 it was fun and good. We got little dialogues between friends or rivals in warm-up rooms, and that bit of context was fuel for a ravenous audience of fan artists and fan fiction writers. But relationships never evolved or changed. The characters never grew, and the state of the world at large remained a static unknown (unsupported by the fact that Overwatch games don’t affect the setting at all).
As a result, Overwatch has only felt more stagnant over the years. New characters may be added from time to time, but the world remains the same as it was six years ago.
What Overwatch lacks is a narrative presence, and I often think of that in relation to games like Apex Legends. Released in 2019, Apex was a deliberately post-Overwatch take on Titanfall – an attempt to weave colorful characters into this series’ gray military sci-fi universe. It only worked halfway at launch – the original cast often felt too constrained by the Blomkamp-like world of previous games to become their own – but unlike Overwatch, Apex’s world isn’t static.
Each season advances the story in some way, be it a character defining moment or politicians warping cities in space. Personal stories advance, relationships are given room to develop, and newcomers can dramatically re-contextualize existing cast members – whether it’s Valk, who wrenches Bangalore and Loba’s budding relationship, or Ash brings out a toxic side to perky space mother Horizon.
Character-forming motives are often closed or steered into new paths. After two years of searching for its creators, Pathfinder found them last year, and Bangalore’s once-dead brother Jackson is coming to Newcastle next season as a new hero. The willingness to change the status quo and overcomplicate characters goes a long way in making them feel like complex people and not just video game archetypes.
I often joke that Apex is my favorite soap opera and let me follow my favorite characters in plots that grow from season to season. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of a particular Overwatch hero, what you see is pretty much what you get – with maybe a morsel of backstory to muddle things up every now and then.
Apex’s present tense also impliedly adds value to its representation. We’re not just told that characters like Loba or Valkyrie are queer — we see their queerness manifest in gameplay and cinematics, and their relationships with other cast members unfold in chaotic ways. Overwatch, meanwhile, tells us that Tracer and Soldier 76 are gay in easily overlooked comics, in relationships with characters who never get real screen time.
Thing is, Overwatch 2 is the perfect opportunity for Blizzard to turn things around. I’ve long argued that a 6v6 (now 5v5) team shooter was ill-suited to the world Blizzard was trying to build – but with co-op missions only likely to grow as the game progressed will increase in numbers, Overwatch 2 has so much potential to revitalize its lapsed fanbase.
Sure, mission builds will give us explicit stories about where the war on the omnics is. But I want Blizzard to use this framework to escalate tensions and relationships within the game’s roster. Explore what it really means for Cole Cassidy and Ashe to work together after all this time, or delve into the knight/squire dynamic between Reinhardt and Brigitte. And, more importantly, allow those dynamics to shift as the story unfolds – romances blossoming, rivalries forming, and old enemies turning into reluctant friends.
Overwatch has built a dense world over the past six years. But live service stories have come a long way in this time, and even Fortnite has managed to engage people in its ongoing funko-pop narrative. It’s time for Blizzard to finally do something with its sci-fi superhero universe – all it has to do is take some clues from the games that came in the wake of Overwatch.
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