Overwatch widely recognised as best video game launch of 2016, with Fifa 2017 the obvious contender for runner-up

Cartoonish shooter was a great game out of the box, despite taking a momentary backward step into a deeply flawed competitive mode, and has been incrementally improved over time

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 January, 2017, 8:32am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 January, 2017, 5:47pm

Perhaps nothing sums up the disaster that was 2016 better than this: the game of the year was a recycled version of a cancelled 2014 project.

Overwatch, the cartoonish shooter from Blizzard Entertainment (creator of the Diablo series and World of Warcraft), was originally a massively multiplayer online game called Titan. It had been in development for more than seven years before Blizzard cancelled it in 2014, and the creators repurposed the characters and lore into the team-centric Overwatch, which was released last May.

Unlike 2015, which forced many to choose between once-in-a-generation level games such as Fallout 4, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Until Dawn, this year’s choice was simple. Overwatch was named the game of the year by top gaming portals including GameSpot and Eurogamer, and was named the No 1 title at the 2016 Game Awards. It was a bad year for gamers – and probably the world – but Overwatch emerged as a strong multiplayer game with staying power and plenty of potential.

There were a few challengers. Fifa 17 was probably the stiffest competition, but some brilliant holiday events pushed Overwatch to the top. Watch Dogs 2 and The Banner Saga 2 were fine sequels. Darkest Dungeon, which I did not review, was a delightfully macabre and unapologetic dungeon crawler.

Overwatch was pristine out of the box. The character and level design were excellent. It combined elements of class-based multiplayer hits Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends to create something completely new. But for a multiplayer game to have any longevity, it needs to consistently improve and add new content.

Overwatch took a step backwards in late June when it unveiled a deeply flawed competitive mode, but it rallied the following month. This ranked mode is quite serviceable now, though Blizzard still hasn’t figured out how to group players during their 10 placement matches (those that determine your starting rank).

The faithful were also rewarded with some pretty solid free content in the game’s first six months. Ana is a fun, interesting new character. Sombra is neat in theory, but she’s pretty useless in practice. The Eichenwalde map is amazing. The Halloween event was fantastic from top to bottom, with great new character skins and a decent temporary game mode. The Christmas event was not as strong, but it gave players that amazing Nutcracker skin for Zenyatta.

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Multiplayer games also require frequent balance changes. After millions of games, some characters emerge globally as being stronger or weaker than others. It’s important to constantly tweak their abilities to keep things fair. If you don’t, every game will just be the same six heroes battling against each other over and over.

Another hurdle for modern multiplayer games is finding a way to create a professional gaming scene that can compete against giants such as League of Legends and Counter-Strike. Blizzard did an admirable job in its first year, creating the Overwatch World Cup, a tournament that pitted the best players from 16 countries against each other. It added a sense of regional pride that is absent during most professional tournaments, as teams participating in those are often made up of good players from all over the world.

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Overwatch didn’t move any mountains, but it was a great game that has been incrementally improved over time. It’s still relevant seven months later, and that’s an accomplishment – especially during a down year in gaming.

Tribune News Service