The 32nd hero for Overwatch, Echo, has been revealed. To steal a line from Overwatch's 23rd hero, she's been here all along. Although Echo's already a familiar face to perceptive fans, she's also a key part of the series' future – including the lead up to Overwatch 2.
Overwatch fans may remember Echo as the robot with a holographic face that Jesse McCree rescued in the Reunion animated short, or as the agile flyer who uses gooey bombs to blow up Null Sector goons in the animated introduction of Overwatch 2. Echo's place in Overwatch – both in terms of game lore and the actual development process – goes much further back.
Echo, or a character like her, first appeared in Project Titan. The huge undertaking was meant to be the next big MMORPG from Blizzard after World of Warcraft, back when people genuinely believed that there could ever be another World of Warcraft. Its ambitious goals proved unattainable at the time and it was eventually shelved.
Waiting in Titan's conceptual scrapyard was the earliest iteration of Echo, then a generic guardian robot for a futuristic city. Later she would appear standing alongside the first roster of characters that the Overwatch team used to pitch Blizzard higher-ups on the idea of a "hero shooter." She stood alongside familiar characters like Genji and Mercy, as well as strangers who have yet to resurface in the final game. Then her bright blue light went dark for a while.
Echo's in-game fiction mirrors her development process. She is the creation of Dr. Mina Liao, an AI expert who was one of the founding members of Overwatch. Though Liao was killed in an attack on Overwatch headquarters, Echo remained.
"She's a nice transition character, because she literally dates back to the beginning," Jeff Kaplan tells me, Overwatch's director and vice president of Blizzard Entertainment. "If you watch how Echo had basically absorbed Dr. Liao, and that she was around Overwatch for all the early days, the golden years, the downfall, the non-existence, you know, she was literally mothballed. And then McCree arranges for the Deadlock Gang to rob that train to free Echo, and now she's gonna become a driving force in Overwatch 2.
"It's an exciting character. Short of Reinhardt, there's really nobody from the original crew that we've seen do the full journey at this point."
Echoing into the present
When I got to play Echo at the event, I was surprised to find that she was an agile flanker. The rumor mill – which had been put into overdrive ever since McCree helped her out of that stasis pod – had long since flagged Echo as a support character. To the speculators' credit, Echo did spend some time as a support; turns out Blizzard knew who she was and what she looked like, long before it settled on how she would play.
"She was just a blank slate, she can kind of be anything," principal designer Geoff Goodman tells me. "Which on one hand is kind of nice, because you can do anything you want. It's cool! But on the other hand it's weirdly harder in design. It's one thing if you're looking at a character like Roadhog, I have a few ideas on what to expect out of this guy. With her we could do anything."
One consistent element through much of Echo's mechanical design process was her ultimate ability, Duplicate. She can use it to temporarily take the form of any hero on the opposing team (though a Spy she ain't – it's quite clear whose team she's on). While Echo's assumed another form, she generates ultimate power much faster than normal, and if she dies she just goes back to her normal self. That means a ton of Pulse Bombs and Earthshatters coming from the places you'd least expect, because Echo can fly right up behind your team and dupe your Tracer or Reinhardt. Oh, right, she can fly – that was also a consistent part of her design, with the wings and the floating and all that.
"So there were a lot of different things we were trying," Goodman continues, "ultimately just iterating through and making her this very flexible, but very aggressive, almost assassin. She has really high burst damage, she can get behind enemies and try to do a bunch of damage really quick. That's what we settled on, it's been a bunch of fun."
You don't have to take our word for it - Echo should be playable on the Overwatch PTR very soon after this article goes live.
Reverberating into the future
As Kaplan said, Echo's a transitional character. Though the studio has yet to put a release date on Overwatch 2, she is the first new character to arrive in a world where the sequel is a known quantity. With her prominent place in Overwatch 2's introductory cinematic, we know she will have a large role to play in its story. It's gratifying to draw that line all the way from Project Titan through the success of Overwatch and straight into the future of Overwatch 2.
I ask Kaplan about other ways the Overwatch franchise could expand in the near future: perhaps a mobile counterpart, like Diablo: Eternal? Or – selfishly, since I love tabletop RPGs – maybe another dice-rolling game like World of Warcraft: The Roleplaying Game?
In response, he brings the conversation back to his history with Blizzard. Even though Titan yielded many promising ideas that Overwatch has been able to repurpose, it was still like trying to 'skip the Warcraft franchise' to go straight to WoW. It moved too fast. If Overwatch was Orcs vs. Humans, Overwatch 2 is Tides of Chaos – best to wait a while before we start talking about Overhearthstone.
"Our biggest hope on the Overwatch team is that our creative legacy in creating Overwatch 1 and now moving on to Overwatch 2, far outlasts us as developers and reaches into other mediums," says Kaplan. "I would love to see an animated series for Overwatch, that would be amazing. I'd love to see more fiction written. I'd love to see other game genres explored. I'd love to see other platforms explored. So that's kind of the dream. But then doing it in a controlled manner where it's true to the IP and feels high quality and like what our players would expect."
See what else is on the way with our guide to the upcoming games of 2020 and beyond.