The release of Overwatch is mere hours away, and to celebrate – and of course keep the hype flowing – Blizzard yesterday released Hero, the fourth in a series of animated shorts that have been running in the lead-up to launch. Following on from the recent Dragons, which served to illuminate the family feud between Hanzo and Genji, aka the Super Shimada Bros., Recall, which focused on Reaper’s attempt to steal intel from Winston, and Alive, in which Tracer faced off against the assassin Widowmaker, Hero gives us an insight into the character of Soldier 76, as he attempts to reconcile his current vigilante status with the paragon he used to be.
Yeah, there’s actually a story to Overwatch. You may well have entirely missed it if you dipped into the recent open beta just to shoot other people online, but there’s actually quite a depth of lore setting the scene for those battles. The story begins over thirty years ago, with the Omnic Crisis, as humanity’s robots rose up against them. To combat this global threat, the countries of the world banded together to create a specialised strikeforce, and Overwatch was born. All good things must come to an end however, and the organisation was acrimoniously disbanded some time later, with its members parting ways, some becoming mercenaries for hire, while others tried to continue fighting the good fight.
There’s this whole weight of history weaved in and around Overwatch, yet you could be forgiven for thinking there’s nothing at all of substance there. Look closely, and you’ll notice the odd easter egg hidden in the maps, or you might hear a line of dialogue that alludes to the relationships between the heroes, but it’s all too easy to miss in the heat of the moment during a game of Escort.
Of course, it’s difficult to tell a story in a multiplayer-only shooter game – Titanfall had a crack at it, and nobody talks about that game’s ‘campaign’ anymore – and what makes it a bit more difficult in Overwatch‘s case is the fact that your team can include anyone, which has the potential to confuse an overt storyline given the rivalries and enmity between some of those characters. Instead, Blizzard is focussing on fleshing out the Overwatch universe through those beautiful, action-packed CG shorts, digital comics, and in-depth character bios on the game’s official website. One wonders if the desire to be able to tell a story around a genre that affords little opportunity to do so is a holdover from the aborted Project Titan, the long-in-development MMO that was cancelled before much of the team began work on Overwatch. Many Blizzard developers regard Titan as the company’s biggest failure, so perhaps they’re trying in some way to feed a little of the grandiosity you’d expect from an MMO into Overwatch‘s multiplayer shooter framework?
With 21 heroes, there’s a lot of scope for separate stories in the Overwatch universe, and already fans are calling for spin-offs – a Metal Gear Rising-style game starring cyborg ninja Genji seems to be a popular idea at the moment, but what I really want is a mecha game with D.Va as our lead character. And the idea of spin-offs seems to be a genuine possibility; Blizzard built Overwatch‘s universe as their analogue to the big comic book multiverses, full of characters that can both come together and stand apart. Speaking to PC Gamer, creative director Chris Metzen alluded to the potential for more stories in the Overwatch world. “[T]his first game is really just the first shot in what we hope is a long, rich world journey that could be encompassed by many different products. Obviously many different fictional expressions. In many ways, we’re just getting started. So when we think about Overwatch as a big universe, as a big living idea, it’s not necessarily – as we look down the line of years – encapsulated only by this game expression.”
In the same interview, senior game designer Michael Chu explained some of the thinking behind the team’s character design process, giving some insight into why there’s so much, well, character to these heroes. “I would say when we’re developing characters, we like to think about if each one of these characters could kind of stand on their own. I like to imagine, “What if each one of these characters has their own game?” And I think what Chris was talking about was that kind of shared universe comic stories. It’s like we have all these individual characters, we have these great stories, challenges, powers and stuff, and they all have their own little ecology. But then when you mix them all together, they start to have relationships. They start to tackle larger worldview problems. And I think that’s kind of where that inspiration leads.”
Where that inspiration leads, we can only wait and see – for the foreseeable future, Blizzard’s focus will of course be on supporting the Overwatch that launches in just a few short days with new heroes and maps. But where the story goes and how the universe grows over the next few years? Well, it’ll be exciting to watch and see.
Seriously though Blizzard, please can I have that D.Va mecha game I mentioned?