Blizzard Entertainment wants to tear down the boundaries it erected around Overwatch so many years ago. With Overwatch 2, the studio is trying to widen the appeal of its arena shooter. It is engineering an ecosystem that is more accommodating to all players; your friends who don't have the time to keep up with a competitive meta or the inclination to learn combative aspects of play – we've all got 'em.
Overwatch 2 is going to bring about some big changes to the nature and structure of the series' action, and it's a challenge Blizzard is eager to take on. "Overwatch 2 is probably the largest opportunity we've had since the inception of the franchise to expand what Overwatch means to our players," says game director Jeff Kaplan, speaking at BlizzCon Online. "Our goal is for Overwatch 2 to be a worthy successor to the first game. To be the next evolution and to be a true sequel."
The most significant addition to Overwatch 2 comes in the form of player versus environment scenarios. Hundreds of them, split between Story missions, designed to expand the Overwatch lore in-game rather than through cinematics, and Hero missions, a vehicle to level up your favoured heroes and chill with buddies. Where standard play pits six heroes against six, these missions are designed to offer a "co-op PvE experience," as associate game director Aaron Keller put it at BlizzCon 2021.
Four heroes band together to take on a variety of AI-controlled threats, through scenarios designed to expand the world of Overwatch and showcase Blizzard's impressive new technology. "Hero missions are the content that people are playing as they level up their heroes. For a system like this to really sing, you need a lot of missions. We don't want players to feel like they are in a grind to get to the top," Keller continues. "The goal is to make as many as possible."
Blizzard is trying to get hundreds of missions ready for launch, exploring ways to create variance in its maps, mission types, and enemy units. Overwatch 2 will support all 21 Overwatch maps, many of which are being opened up and extended with new areas and zones to accommodate co-op focused play. However, all attention should be on the beautiful new spaces: Rome, Toronto, New York City, Gothenburg, and Rio de Janeiro, which are among some of the most expansive and detailed the studio has ever created.
Blizzard is introducing a dynamic weather model to Overwatch 2's PvE scenarios, new technology that's designed to completely change the look, feel, and playability of the new maps. "You might start a mission off in clear day and, midway through the mission, suddenly this sandstorm or heavy weather will show up," teases associate art director Dion Rogers. "Before you start a mission, you'll look at a map; it's night time in Necropolis, or there's a sandstorm in Necropolis, and players can make some composition choices based on knowing this information. Heroes like Hanzo or Widowmaker start to be a little more valuable as they have abilities to see through the sand more clearly"
Overwatch was initially designed around competitive play. All of the playable heroes are perfectly weighted against the other, rather than AI threats that move in waves and utilise the environment in ways that the player is traditionally unable to. As a result, Blizzard is still tinkering away with combat and enemy design to make Overwatch 2 as fun as possible for groups looking to get it in some cooperative action. "When we look back at BlizzCon 2019, some of the criticism we had," Kaplan continues, "was that combat just wasn't engaging enough. The fact that our combat wasn't engaging enough to us, as players, meant that we had a problem with enemy units – they just weren't interesting enough."
That's where resources are primarily being invested. Work is being done to make enemy attacks varied, dynamic, and clearly readable. The studio is attempting to push the boundaries of what its updated engine can do, introducing a fidelity of gameplay experience that is far richer than before, and expanding the world with a cinematic flair. Hero missions are where Blizzard believes that you'll be spending the majority of your time – outside of PvP, of course – so it's keen to get it right, and work at achieving that goal for as long as it takes.
Overwatch 2 talent trees
The reason that you'll spend so much time coming back to these Hero missions, Blizzard believes, is that it's where you'll really be able to experiment with your favourite heroes and adapt them to better fit your playstyle. Exclusive to the PvE side of the game – and turned off for competitive PvP multiplayer – Overwatch 2 is introducing true hero customisation, and in a way that will fill any long-time fans of Blizzard games with happiness.
"As a huge RPG nerd myself, the first time I opened up the talent tree systems I was like 'oh my gosh, this is speaking my love language!' I just want to plan, and I want to see where I'm going to invest and how I'm going to play this character," says Julia Humphreys, production director of Overwatch 2. That's right, Overwatch 2 now comes equipped with a talent tree that any fans of World of Warcraft will be immediately familiar with.
The idea, Keller continues, is that "players will be able to jump in, night after night, play different hero missions, and then work through the progression system levelling up their heroes". As you push through the different mission types, enemy variants, and coming out on top versus the unique weather conditions, you'll eventually earn Talent Points. These can be invested across three trees that each hero has access to, such as Crusader, Juggernaut, and Guardian for Reinhardt, each of which emphasises different elements of his Tank class.
Eventually, with enough tinkering, Blizzard believes that you'll be able to "control the battlefield in new and novel ways". As lead hero designer Geoff Goodman put it at BlizzCon: "Designing these is super fun, because we get to break all of the rules that we established for ourselves. We get to take the gloves off and do crazy things," he says, giving only a tease as to how heros may change. "Junkrat could dual wield grenade launchers. Mercy could area effect res an entire team from a distance and through walls. It's been a ton of fun – we feel like mad scientists making all this stuff."
Eager to learn more about the competitive multiplayer side to Blizzard's arena shooter? The studio says that Overwatch 2 PvP will be "a pretty big departure" from what exists in Overwatch today
When Overwatch launched in 2016, it had little ambition to be anything more than a competitive team-based shooter. Its heroes were certainly expressive, given life beyond their renders thanks to some sterling voiceover work across the roster, but they were effectively vessels we could channel our competitive energy into. Five years later, the world of Overwatch has grown substantially – lore teased out through one-liners, animated shorts, and written tie-ins. With Overwatch 2, Blizzard wants to express the story through the game itself.
"In Zero Hour, we saw that some of the heroes got back together," teases Kaplan, pointing us back to the 2019 cinematic short that depicted a Null Sector invasion and Winston assembling a strike team to fend off a second huge Omnic uprising. "The world of Overwatch is this bright shiny future. So how do you take that bright shiny future and how dark can the world of Overwatch go?" says Jeff Chamberlain, Overwatch 2 creative director. "Because the scale of this game is so huge – it takes place across the whole world, basically – it just requires constant iteration and constant refinement to make the story the best that we can make it."
That's the framework for the Overwatch 2 Story Missions – just one of the components being introduced in the upcoming sequel. In this globetrotting story, you'll be able to link up with friends and push through the largest and most dynamic maps Blizzard has ever created for Overwatch. You'll encounter the type of character interaction that's been largely relegated to fan fiction, bolstered by cinematic action, dynamic scenario design, multiple hero choices per-mission, a branching dialogue system contextualised to hero composition, and more.
There are some questions out there as to whether Blizzard is offering enough of a reason to upgrade to Overwatch 2. While PvP players may well be content to stick with the 2016 release, everything we have seen of the PvE side to the game – the Story and Hero missions, as well as progression and talent trees – would demonstrate that Overwatch 2 is going to be a worthy sequel deserving of your time and attention.
Wondering when you'll be able to get your hands on Overwatch 2? Sadly, Activision says Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2 aren't releasing in 2021, so you'll have to wait a little while longer.