Not so very long ago, videogames were no one’s idea of a social activity. They were made by the shy and played by the shy – a bedroom-bound pursuit for those who kept the world at controller’s length. But thanks to the glorious emancipating advance that was the internet, a change came. What started solitary became communal. These days, gamers in their millions play with or against each other, in the same virtual worlds, on the same physical servers. This isn’t to say, of course, that single player releases are no longer successes; obviously they are. But the proper megagames, the ones with the hugest daily playerbases (League of Legends, Dota 2, Rocket League, CS:GO, FIFA Ultimate Team) generally have one thing in common. And that’s player-versus-player, or ‘PVP’.
Now call me a deviant, but I dislike PVP gaming. And let it not be said I haven’t given it a fair chance. I’ve won at FIFA, I’ve lost at Call of Duty, I’ve been wantonly butchered by rogues on Tom Clancy’s The Division. But PVP just isn’t for me, and the reason is this. I play videogames for their calming properties, to seek refuge from life’s many trials. In single player, I can disengage the mind and relax. With PVP, I can’t. It’s too stressful. Competing against other real human players, even virtually, wears my nerves thin. I get performance anxiety. I get hypertension. I get passive-aggressively criticised by my ‘teammates.’ And before very long, my adrenals are gasping for a break. So in a bid to prevent complete nervous collapse, I resolved, some years back, to make my gaming PVP-free. I took a vow of virtual reserve and spun myself into an electronic cocoon. I played Skyrim, Civilization, The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. I didn’t play Battlefield, Call of Duty, Titanfall or Star Wars Battlefront. The result: I started to enjoy gaming again, and my blood pressure returned to recognisable human levels.
But a few weeks ago, I lapsed. I made, fatally, the mistake of trying out (during a free-to-play weekend) a game called Overwatch. For the uninitiated, Overwatch is a team-based multiplayer first-person shooter that’s been buzzed about and breathlessly praised since its release in May. Despite being PVP, it’s long been near the top of my curious-about-and-want-to-try list. So I thought, why ever not? I’d nothing to lose but my patience, and possibly my sanity. But actually, none of the familiar PVP frustrations happened. Indeed, the fun factor of Overwatch took me completely unprepared. I didn’t just enjoy it, I enjoyed it outrageously. And this from someone who’d assumed he’d built up PVP-hating antibodies to last a lifetime.
But then Overwatch takes pains to avoid the usual PVP tropes. There are no kill-death ratios or end-of-round leaderboards inviting everyone to sit in judgement on your pathetic showings. You can be terrible safe in the knowledge that you won’t be publicly shamed. Better still, no one need draw on deep wells of adolescent FPS experience to do well. You don’t even need to be able to aim – assuming you pick Mercy, Reinhardt, Winston or Symmetra. And while it’s certainly possible to take the game too seriously, Overwatch seems to say: please don’t. Not only is the art direction conspicuously cartoony, but the belligerents in each battle are jolly superheroes straight from the Pixar playbook. Matches in Overwatch are fought under the banner of good, clean, friendly fun. That, at least, appears to be what the developers were angling for.
A measure of Overwatch’s appeal is that, despite being shit awful at the game, I still want to keep on playing. And let’s be frank, I am shit awful. Omni-incompetent across every class – attack, defence, tank and support – I routinely notch up ten deaths a match (including several unwitting suicides), and my aim is inept to a rare degree, despite being in possession of a gaming-branded keyboard and mouse. If an enemy is near death and I’m at perfect health, I’ll still panic and louse up the one-on-one. Just as well, really, that Overwatch is a team shooter and there are five others to cover my failing arse.
But if I may defend myself, Overwatch is a difficult game to ‘get good’ at. While each hero is easy enough to pick up, knowing when to use their abilities and where best to position yourself is a knack that takes long hours of practice. Not only must you master your own brief; you also have to know the particular threats posed by enemy heroes and scenario-plan accordingly. Overwatch is less a shooting game than it is a troubleshooting game, where speed of mind is as important as speed of trigger finger. And at higher levels, cooperation is essential – if you have designs on winning a match, it’s necessary to work as a team, communicating threats and synergising ultimate abilities to lay glorious, devastating waste to the enemy. Overwatch has depths that most other FPSs can only wonder at.
There is plenty more to be said about this crackerjack of a game. About the colourful maps and well-calibrated game modes. About the loot boxes: containing cosmetic items, earned via gaining a level or opening your wallet. About the globetrotting ensemble of heroes that include Tracer (British blur with twin pistols and a mockney accent), Mercy (German medic with angel wings and a brusque bedside manner), Junkrat (Australian anarchist with a prosthetic leg and a lust for destruction) Zanyatta (robot monk with dangerous orbs and a oneness with the universe) and Sombra (Mexican hacker with a cloak of invisibility and everyone else’s bank details). I could go on to discuss the current level of content, and how it might strike some as a bit thin for a full-price release. But Overwatch is a game whose core mechanics are so great that only through first-hand experience can you appreciate their greatness. And brother, are they great. A revolution against dullness, a game of obvious amusement value and endless replayability, Overwatch is the game that even lifelong anti-PVP absolutists like me cannot bring themselves to begin to dislike. Or to stop playing.