Overwatch 2 review: Overwatch died for this sequel. It was worth it.

As of 12 p.m. Monday, “Overwatch” is dead. Blizzard forced the game into permanent retirement to make way for “Overwatch 2” — a game that is more or less a continuation of “Overwatch” with some major hero overhauls and a new free-to-play model.

“Overwatch” died so “Overwatch 2” could live. Was it worth it? Even after spending hours stuck behind a 40,000 person queue only to get the dreaded “Unexpected Server Error” screen which reset my position and sent me to the back of the line, I feel I can say yes. “Overwatch 2” is absolutely the direction the series needed to go.

That said, I do have some concerns.

But first off, the good stuff. By far the biggest change in “Overwatch 2” has been a general design shift to emphasize mechanical and individual skill. Heroes have been reworked across to board: ultimate ability charges have been reduced, there are fewer shields and crowd control abilities have been removed or greatly toned down, bringing “Overwatch 2” closer to being a competitive shooter that rewards sound fundamentals such as aim and game sense over grossly overtuned abilities. The days of Mei freezing you in place by mindlessly holding down the attack button or Doomfist one-shotting you in a single rocket punch are long gone.

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The second tank role has been removed, reducing the team sizes from 6v6 to 5v5 and dramatically changing how the game is played. All players must adapt and become more vigilant since there isn’t a second tank to save them from their mistakes. Conversely, having a lone tank has made “Overwatch 2” easier to understand — even for longtime players — because they are the most crucial role in the game.

Tanks determine the playstyle of the entire team. A highly mobile tank such as Winston creates space for his team by diving into the enemy and scattering their formation. That means Winston’s ideal teammates are equally swift damage heroes such as Genji and Tracer. A defensive brawler like Reinhardt inches his team forward as a slow rolling ball of death from behind his huge energy shield. He’s best supported by damage heroes such as Hanzo who can pump out large, sustained chains of damage with a Lucio as support to provide the team with much-needed speed boosts.

Of course, there are always exceptions and substitutions to these compositions, but the general guideline of building an effective team is to choose damage and support heroes around the tank. With only one tank, building a team around that tank is more intuitive — though that tank is now under more pressure to perform well.

Each class also gets passive abilities to set them further apart. Damage heroes gain a short boost in reload and movement speed after bagging an elimination, support heroes passively heal themselves when out of combat and tanks give less ultimate ability charges to enemies when taking damage while also enjoying a sturdier resistance to knockback and crowd control effects.

All of this makes “Overwatch 2” a much more satisfying game than its predecessor. Fights end quicker and people die faster. Now, when I punish an enemy for getting caught out of position, they’re much more likely to pay for it with their lives. There’s no off-tank to swoop in and save them. This is going to be a tough adjustment for many players — but it’s a good one. Make no mistake: I’ve also been getting righteously stomped in my matches for sloppy play. It’s been a humbling learning experience.

On the flip side, a single, talented player now has a much better chance at solo carrying their team to victory. That’s a welcome course correction that ultimately benefits everyone, including novice and casual players. The tryhards can climb faster and get to the rank they belong in, which means that everyone is less likely to get pubstomped by more experienced players.

The gameplay loop has been vastly improved too, though it doesn’t feel quite right yet. The hit boxes for some characters such as Junker Queen, Kiriko and Mercy feel wonky and unpredictable. Despite the faster-paced gameplay, some fights seem to drag on for long stretches before any team gives ground. It’s too early to tell if these are simply the growing pains of navigating a new game or if it’s something that will require patching. But overall, “Overwatch 2” has been set on a promising path.

Now for the three year old elephant in the room: “Overwatch 2’s” long-awaited PVE mode — the entire reason it was being developed in the first place — is noticeably absent. When “Overwatch 2” was announced in 2019, the game was pitched as a co-op companion piece to the main PVP game. Blizzard showed off a robust series of story-driven campaign missions that featured “Overwatch’s” existing heroes adapted to a PVE environment with talent trees. It was an answer for the legions of fans who wanted more in-game content exploring the lore behind “Overwatch.”

Instead, the “Overwatch 2” we received was essentially a big PVP update. The promised PVE portion of the game has been pushed further away to 2023, to be rolled out in increments in the form of seasonal releases.

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Which leads us to “Overwatch 2’s” new battle pass system, which has sparked both criticism and praise from fans since its announcement. Battle passes are progression reward systems present in many games, but they’re mostly associated with free-to-play titles such as “Valorant” and “Fortnite.” New heroes, which were made freely available all at once to all players in “Overwatch,” will now have to be unlocked through “Overwatch 2’s” battle pass (Kiriko, the latest new hero, is unlocked at Level 55 of the battle pass’s free track). You can also purchase Kiriko outright, by paying $10 for the battle pass.

As a principle, I am against any system that locks characters behind a grind or paywall — and that goes double for games that claim to be competitive. I don’t like it in “League of Legends,” “MultiVersus,” “Apex Legends” and every other free-to-play title I’ve played. Just charge your customers a flat fee and give them unrestricted access to all future heroes.

Some battle passes are better than others, and unlocking an essential piece of content doesn’t always take too much time. But in “Overwatch 2’s” case, hero unlocks tied to the battle pass feel especially egregious. Even as someone who plays the game a lot, the road to Level 55 is far away. Overwatch is also a series that’s been designed around swapping heroes on the fly. Countering an enemy team by switching to the appropriate heroes is absolutely essential to victory. The smart decision-making required to know which heroes to pick to exploit an enemy weakness or take advantage of map layouts is a core skill in Overwatch. Having heroes missing from your roster is a big disadvantage, especially if you’re trying to climb the game’s competitive ladder.

The move also puts “Overwatch 2” in a weird position with respect to hero tuning. Kiriko, the latest hero to join the cast and the first to be gated behind a grind or paywall, is very strong. She has an incredibly versatile kit which includes wall climbing, a blink that teleports her to allies (it also works through walls), a homing heal ability, a burst heal that also cleanses negative effects and briefly makes allies invulnerable and highly effective ranged kunai for combat. I got to play as her right out the gate by preordering the “Overwatch 2: Watchpoint Pack” (I know, I know) which includes the paid battle pass. I immediately recognized the awkward spot that Blizzard now found itself in.

If a locked hero feels overpowered, Blizzard will be accused of intentionally designing them to be unbalanced to encourage purchases. But if the hero feels ineffective, then the company has to contend with players who don’t feel adequately compensated for their grind or payment. And if the hero gets nerfed early on, players — especially those who paid money to unlock the character — will feel cheated. Regardless of Blizzard’s motives, this could become a burgeoning point of contention as fans adjust to “Overwatch 2’s” changes.

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Team 4, the development pod within Blizzard tasked with developing the Overwatch series, can’t seem to catch a break. In April 2021, “Overwatch’s” former game director Jeff Kaplan abruptly left the company after 19 years. Around the same time, the studio was rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct and a pervasive “frat boy” culture.

As “Overwatch 2” approached release, its aims veered drastically from what was originally shown in 2019 and lapsed fans couldn’t make any sense of what Blizzard was actually delivering. They’re charging $40 for three new heroes and no PVE mode? Wait, it’s free-to-play now?

Team 4 pulled off something magical when it released the original “Overwatch” in 2016. Currently, the team-based shooter genre is dominated by tactical titles such as “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” and “Valorant.” Team 4 provided a new home for fans of arcade shooters such as “Team Fortress 2,” “Starsiege: Tribes” and “Unreal Tournament.” Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been playing “Counter-Strike” since Beta 2.0, back when it was still a mod of “Half-Life” and not yet an official game. I’ve enjoyed my time with the “Counter-Strike,” but also, God do I hate waiting to respawn until the next round. I felt like an FPS orphan for years — until “Overwatch” came out.

“Overwatch 2’s” launch issues are still awful. Like most of you, dear readers, I didn’t get an advance copy of the game or any special connection privileges. I was with all of you in the trenches, dealing with the constant error messages and inexhaustible queues. The game’s new battle pass system remains questionable and concerning.

But I am very pleased with the core gameplay changes and where the game is headed. Game development is a group effort, and although Kaplan is deeply missed, I see these changes as evidence that Team 4 is still capable of magic, and eager to prove it.

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