You’d better sit down before I tell you this: in Overwatch 2, Bastion no longer stays still while turreted. Yes, the infamous party-wiping mounted chaingun of a character can now move around while in turret form. Bastion is completely transformed – and is not the only one.
I’m playing the Overwatch 2 closed alpha PvP test ahead of the closed beta on 26th April, which will invite members of the public in. It lets me try a small slice of PvP and play as new character Sojourn – who’s great and I’ll come back to in a moment – as well as test significant reworks for existing heroes Bastion, Doomfist, Orisa and Sombra. There are new maps and modes, a new ping feature, five-versus-five team sizes, a graphical facelift and a new user interface, and they all combine to make Overwatch 2 feel refreshing if not remarkably new.
First, Bastion. The robot has been redesigned with the philosophy of becoming more of a skirmisher that moves around and fights on the go, rather than one that finds sneaky places to mow teams down from – and it’s a philosophy you can feel running through a lot of the character reworks and Overwatch 2. The vibe seems to be to keep the pace up and keep things moving.
Bastion can still turret, but the turret moves, and you can only turret for a short time. It’s very like the old tank Ultimate that Bastion used to have, only with an infinite-ammo chaingun and not a cannon. And as you spend more time on your feet now, Bastion’s arm gun has been buffed (it’s more accurate) to reflect that, meaning you’re more feasible as a damage dealer in between. Aiding this is a throwable bouncy bomb in place of Bastion’s old repair/heal.
Bastion’s new Ultimate, meanwhile, locks you in place as a chunky stationary artillery cannon, which fires up to three shells in a circular area.
Orisa feels significantly different now too, and has gained a lot of offensive moves to make her much more viable in her own right rather than as a buffer and shielder. She doesn’t have a shield now at all, in fact, and her damage-buff Ultimate has gone.
Instead, she has a fancy new spear, which she uses in a number of ways. The first is thrown: she hurls it like a javelin to damage and knock-back enemies, and this works particularly well if you smash them into walls. The second is spinning the spear, which destroys incoming projectiles, pushes enemies back, and gives a little burst of speed. The third use is part of her new Ultimate: she holds the spear in the air and charges up a ground-targeted area attack that seems to ensnare and hold any enemies caught in it.
Orisa’s gun has changed too. It’s still broadly the same thing – capable of a constant stream of fire – but it works differently. It now has infinite ammo and is regulated by an overheating mechanic. Use it too much and it will jam and need to cool down, so frequent bursts are a better way to go. Orisa’s updated Fortify ability helps keep your gun running cooler, too.
This brings us to Doomfist who, on the surface, doesn’t appear that different at all. He still seems to have most of the same moves. But the big difference is he’s now a tank, not a glass cannon, so his health has gone up from 250 to 450. He also gains temporary health when dealing damage, and he has a new block ability where he sweeps his big, chunky mecha-arm across his body like a vampire wearing a cloak, and blocks frontal damage.
Gaining this block means losing an existing ability to make room for it, and the ability lost is the uppercut that enabled him to get easily into the air, so in a sense, he’s now been grounded. His charged punch and leaping ground-pound still give him some air time but nowhere near as much. He spends much more time in the fray, on the floor now.
Sombra is the last of the redesigns, and while her abilities still look the same, there’s quite a lot behind them that has changed. In general, she’s gained a lot of “finishing ability” as Blizzard calls it. Her hack now disables characters’ abilities for less time, but buffs the amount of damage Sombra can do to them while also revealing them to hidden characters.
Consider that when used with her Ultimate, which hacks all enemies in an area and reduces all of their health by 40 per cent (which is a lot for higher health characters, obviously), and she now packs a lot more bite. That Ultimate no longer removes all shields in an area, incidentally.
So to the new character Sojourn, who is, notably, the series’ first black female character. She’s got a similar kind of feel to Soldier 76, in that she’s a run-and-gun skirmisher with good manoeuvrability and damage output, but it’s achieved in a slightly different way. Key to it all is her weapon, which features a railgun.
The railgun has to be charged to use. The primary way of firing is an automatic machine gun (like Soldier 76’s but projectile-based, not hitscan – meaning the bullets have to travel before they reach a target). Whenever Sojourn shoots at a target – and this can be a shield – she gains charge. She can then unleash that charge to produce a beam-of-light, railgun attack. The rail hits enemies instantly, however far away they are, and when you’re in Ultimate mode, can pass through an enemy to potentially hit another. The Ultimate mode also automatically charges the railgun for a short time.
Sojourn’s movement speed is slightly buffed, and she packs a speedy ground-slide move that you can jump out of (cancel) to propel yourself high into the air. In practice, it means you can zip towards and then over barriers – or onto platforms – in one swift movement, and gives her lots of options while getting around.
Her other ability is a glowing blob she throws down that slows nearby enemies and drains their health.
Playing as Sojourn, then, involves patiently working up the rail charge to either take down annoying aerial targets, or to finish off softened – and potentially snared – ground targets in one thump. She has no heal but her manoeuvrability means she can get to health pick-ups quickly, and when Ultimate time comes around, she can help unclog choke points and clustered enemy-team blobs. I had a lot of fun with her. Her damage isn’t particularly flashy but it’s consistently high.
Those are the new or reworked characters. The new maps and mode I’ll get onto in a second but I wanted to first mention ping. This lets you target certain areas of the map in combination with a radial menu of commonly-used comments – things like “I’ll protect here” or “Need help here” or the like. Using it should aid the clarity and speed with which you can get across important messages and information to your team in the heat of battle.
The new gameplay mode is Push and in it, you can again feel this philosophy of keeping things moving. It’s a competitive escort mode, basically, where both teams fight to escort a big robot across a map. What really speeds it up is the robot’s ability to jog – not walk – back to the last position the previous team got to, meaning dominance can ping-pong quickly.
One of the Push maps was Colosseo, inspired by the Colosseum in Rome, though you can’t go into it – it’s gated off. You play just outside of it and there’s an incredible vista of the Overwatch version of Rome to look upon. The other map is New Queen Street in Toronto, which is all wintery ice-blue against maple tree red, with glistening glass architecture surrounding brick buildings, and beyond it, the towering cityscape of Overwatch Toronto. They’re both very handsome maps.
Overwatch 2 is handsome. It’s a subtle kind of handsome because it still looks undeniably like Overwatch, but it’s when you go back to the old game – or come directly from the old game – that you notice the difference. Characters have more detail on them, particularly on their faces, and the user interface has been tidied up. It feels more spacious and more sophisticated, if not entirely new.
Another major change, which I’ve left for last, is Overwatch 2 lowering the group size from six people to five. Clearly, this has fundamental implications for how competitive matches will feel in the game. The thinking behind it is to declutter the action slightly and make it more readable, which I suppose will allow people a chance to do something before they’re mown down. And it does feel spacier now, particularly on smaller, more claustrophobic maps. It also raises interesting questions about group compositions, too. No longer will two healers, two damage, two tanks be the norm – I wonder what will.
I wasn’t able to get much of a feel for how 5v5 changes PvP because the closed alpha abruptly ended before it was initially scheduled to, and in the day I spent playing, I couldn’t find one other human – let alone two groups of them – to play against. I had to resort to bots, which was fine for testing character reworks, but less so for gauging the ebb and flow of battle. Much more will become clear when the closed beta begins from 26th April.
Overall, it’s a thin showing. There are some exciting changes and an enjoyable new character and mode to play, but there’s no escaping this is still very much Overwatch as we know it. Perhaps we wouldn’t have it any other way, it just makes the value proposition of a sequel harder to gauge when it is. Perhaps the bit that will really make it feel like something new is the PvE part of the game, but talk of “decoupling” it from PvP, “so we can bring you PvP sooner”, raises questions about that, and we haven’t seen anything of PvE since I played around with it at BlizzCon 2019.
We’re hoping for some concrete answers this year, but there’s a bigger picture to consider around the hazy progress of Overwatch 2, and that’s what’s going on at Activision Blizzard in general. This is a company rocked by alarming allegations of a “frat boy” work culture and the alleged management cover-ups around it, and it’s a company locked in litigation because of it. There is also Microsoft hovering on the cusp of acquisition, all of which suggests there’s been considerable shake-up and turbulence internally around Overwatch 2 – not that it’s the most important thing in this equation by a long shot.
What it all means for the game’s release, we don’t yet know as it doesn’t have one. This year, next year? We’ll have to wait and see.