Thursday, June 2, 2016
Overwatch vs Battleborn
I don’t play FPS games or multiplayer games very often. I don’t really know what a MOBA is other than it has something to do with eSports and lots of RTS games my friends played in college that I was not interested in at all. I do know that my natural inclination is to hate anything new and popular and that makes me suspicious and fearful of this MOBA thing. (What does "MOBA" even stand for, anyway?) However I do know one thing: one of these FPS multiplayer games is the best thing I’ve played all year, and the other hates me.
"Overwatch" has been on my radar for over a year now, ever since I played it at PAX East 2015. Normally a multiplayer shooter of any kind would be the very last thing ol’ BH would play. I’m a lone wolf, I got anime RPGs to finish. Also the FPS games I have played have reminded me again and again with horrifying KD ratios that I am utterly and completely terrible at those types of games down to a fundamental atomic level. But "Overwatch" was bright and appealing and there was a hint of what I did know at the time would eventually blossom into a full on romantic love with the character Tracer. I played a round, and sucked hard at McCree and did not suck as hard at Tracer, and that was that. Or so I figured. "Decent game, going to be cool for the folks that are down for it, but I’ll be busy with 'Bravely Second' or something when 'Overwatch' comes out in 2016." Instead "Bravely Second" has been ignored for over a week and I fucking love "Overwatch".
Now there’s "Battleborn"… the Pepsi to "Overwatch"’s Coke. Or more accurately, the decades-old can of Crystal Pepsi bought on EBay to "Overwatch"’s Mexican real sugarcane Coke. This is a game that stinks of “also ran” syndrome. "Battleborn" just looked bad. I did not have the heart to tell Randy Pitchford this when I interviewed him at PAX (hash tag shameless self-promotion) but I did have to bring up "Overwatch", because it was the game we both knew was going to kill "Battleborn". The only reason I’ve played "Battleborn" at all is that I was able to score a review copy. I have all the respect in the world for Pitchford, since he really seems to love his game or at least bullshits with a level of sincerity that I can only envy, but man… it’s just not good. And being “just not good” when you’re competing against what might be the best game of 2016, that’s going to hurt any game.
As I mentioned before, "Overwatch" is the kind of game I never would have thought I would ever love. On the base level, it is a very skimpy release for sixty dollars ($40 on PC). No single-player campaign, no story, no local co-op, very few game modes. Essentially every match comes down to capturing or defending a single point. But man, it’s so good. This is such a fun time. There is a really compelling and interesting story behind "Overwatch" which is not in the game at all, and normally I would be furious that I cannot actually take part in it. But when I’m enjoying myself this much… The old math doesn’t apply.
In comparison, "Battleborn" seemingly has a lot going for it. The multiplayer modes are more complex and varied, requiring a great deal of strategy to succeed. There’s a full story campaign. There’s loot and RPG elements. The game is trying for a ton of things, a lot of which sound attractive to me (other than this MOBA business). But somehow it fails at nearly all of them. The story campaign is built with co-op in mind, they’re basically MMO raids. Trying to play them solo is just annoying and takes twice as long. And they are far more difficult than they’re worth. Gearbox threw in a lives system, but also if you fail to protect a key objective you can lose the entire campaign mission after an hour of work. They’re also simply un-fun grinds full of bullet sponge enemies, I didn't play "Borderlands" but I hope they were better than this. The RPG elements just feel like unnecessary junk. All this gear management and shard collecting is this annoying chore that gets in the way of the action. That is, when you even can have proper PvP action because the damn minions and monsters are covering the map.
I don’t know how it happened but like two months ago I woke up and realized, “holy shit, I need 'Overwatch' in my life like right now”. It seemed the entire world felt that same thing because hype has been through the roof lately, it is insane. I’m so into this game that I can hardly sleep at night. My last match last night saw me rack up 23 kills as Tracer and I was feverishly rolling around in bed unable to let go of the FPS Pixar-esque action. This has become a dangerous addiction. A really dangerous one.
Then there’s "Battleborn" - this unpleasant thing that’s right next to my "Overwatch" icon on my PS4. I’m aware of the talk that the games are not really similar. TotalBiscuit likened the differences to “a car and bicycle”. But the games look so much alike that it’s hard to ignore the issue. They’re both aiming for the same audience. They’re both cartoony FPS multiplayer games with diverse casts. In a sea of gunmetal miserable shooters they are both a breath of fresh air. I could not even stand to look at "Rainbow Six: Siege", it was fucking depressing. But these are quirky and fun and inviting. Only one is clearly less appealing to look at, has uglier characters, and is like an obnoxious "Family Guy" episode with its desperate attempts to constantly be funny. "Battleborn" is the worse version of "Overwatch" just from a basic art design stand point.
While I believe there is probably a very deep metagame behind "Battleborn"’s combat, the game feels so turgid and slow compared to "Overwatch". It’s like WWI trench warfare versus a Napoleonic cavalry charge. "Overwatch" is this incredibly charming, light, extremely fast game that can be played as casually or as hardcore as you wish. "Battleborn" a gritty slog that requires a twenty minute investment for every match. "Overwatch" gives you plenty of options to switch out heroes if your current team is failing. "Battleborn" forces you into a single character the entire match – you can’t even change while in the loading screen. Press X once and mistakenly pick the robot sniper when you wanted the swordsman voiced by Christopher Sabat, you’re getting the robot sniper. You’re fucked. "Overwatch" keeps things even the entire match, "Battleborn" gives boons and levels to stronger players. If one team starts to run away with a "Battleborn" match, it is almost impossible to turn it around, especially if you’re just trying to figure out what Thorn is good for and you’re already five levels behind.
Simply put: one game really wants to invite new players in. It’s a huge colorful party for everybody. "Battleborn" is a rigid, weirdly uncompromising experience for a game that’s trying so hard to be irreverent. It’s a selfish game. “You to play a multiplayer match with two Oscar Mikes? NO, WRONG. You get ONE Oscar Mike per team, and that’s it. You think this is a GAME??? THIS IS MOTHERFUCKING SERIOUS BUSINESS. Now here’s my story mode where a kooky robot thinks it’s a spider and keeps breaking the fourth wall.” "Overwatch" has the entire game basically open from the start, so you can experiment with the entire cast and find something you love. "Battleborn" locks two-thirds of its cast out from the beginning and requires, nay demands, an investment of like a 1,000 hours of gameplay to complete the herculean tasks required to unlock the penguin driving a mech.
Now I’m not saying that there’s anything particularly wrong with "Battleborn"’s strategy if that’s what you’re looking for. But this strategy did not work at all when it had to go up against "Overwatch". All of "Overwatch"’s design is built to make FPS games as open and transparent as possible for new players. Every sound design choice, every character design choice, even the shape of the maps, they all funnel you clearly forward. It’s all so that you can look at Pharah and instantly realize within ten seconds that this character flies and bombards enemies with rockets and you should duck down because she's going to rain shit on your ass.
Meanwhile I’ve played entire matches in "Battleborn" as Shayne, this girl with a giant monster growing out of her head, and I'm still not clear exactly what she does. I know she’s a melee character, but how you use her is a mystery to me. Mostly I just pressed buttons. There is no tactical difference to playing her vs. playing the guy who sounds like Vegeta. Melee characters suck in this game, there's almost no feedback as to what you're doing and it was never clear to me exactly how they functioned. Mostly they got eaten by the mobs of spongy enemies and that was it. Of course, most characters in the game seemed to be melee-focused for God knows what reason. Now if you’re hardcore you can put in the time to decipher the character and the meta-strategy of "Battleborn", and then you can master everybody and just have fun with your equally hardcore friends. Enjoy yourself.
Like, how come "Battleborn" doesn’t even have a training mode? The most basic of options to let you run around and try a character out before you have to embarrass yourself on the field and ruin some "Battleborn" master’s day? I don’t want to ruin anybody’s fun: I’m just trying to figure out what Rath does. I didn’t mean to die thirteen times to a player who has the robot penguin unlocked and must have already invested 500 million hours into this thing, I’m sorry. "Overwatch", of course, has several training modes, including custom matches to make with AI opponents. And even if you do suck with Reaper - like I do - you can also switch back to the comforting embrace of Tracer's bright yellow sexy pants.
Now let’s see "Overwatch", which does have a diverse cast, including melee characters. But every moment using them is completely clear. Even when I’m Reinhardt, this huge knight with a battle hammer the size of a hatchback, I can clearly feel when I’ve made contact and when I’ve been hit. Battles are spaced out intuitively with the tactical situation usually being readily apparent. If you cannot figure out that charging down a lane that’s being defended by a pair of enemy turrets is a mistake, that’s your own stupidity that’s killed you. If you want to race after a Tracer and ignore your objective, then you’re not playing well. Everything just makes sense, when "Battleborn" is not obvious.
It just feels like the contact, the hits, and the blows are all based on actual human skill in "Overwatch". Where in "Battleborn" it feels more like I’m dying to some arcane programming mathematics. I was breathed on by some variable that brought my health variable to 0. "Battleborn" is like half a simulation of combat and half actual combat, it makes no sense other than the select few who know how to manipulate the maths.
Plus "Overwatch" has a cast that’s varied and interesting enough that really any player can find a character they like. This is really a thing of beauty, it’s the finely engine that keeps "Overwatch" from being just another multiplayer shooter (albeit one with a trendy art style). If you’re a veteran of FPS games past with reflexes so fast you seem to have a magical power to see three seconds into the future, you can play the sniper characters like Widowmaker or Hanzo. If you’re just a loud angry guy that wants to rush down the front lines, take a tank character like D.va or Winston. If you’re not even good at FPS games and just want to support the team, take a healer or the dwarf that builds turrets or the Australian terrorist that fires grenades.
Or maybe you’re me and prefer hitting the enemy from behind with lightning fast guerilla harassment, so you’re a Tracer. Now I’m going to continue my search for a Tracer body pillow to bring with me to family functions as my wife. Because she is the perfect woman and if being able to rack up three gold medals and a silver medal as her is not obvious proof of true love, I don't know what is.
Also on that point: "Overwatch" is a super nice and respectful game that will always try to find a way to compliment you on your contribution to the match, no matter how much you sucked. Maybe you weren't killing a lot but if you were blocking damage and holding the point, you at least contributed and the game thanks you for it. "Battleborn" is quick to remind you that you fucking suck and are a horrible human being and should just jump off a bridge. "Overwatch" even counts assists as full kills and keeps most stats private so that twelve-year-old assholes cannot complain if my Hanzo is not quite murdering enough.
Ultimately, I cannot call "Battleborn" a bad game. I’d say Gearbox read the market well, but misunderstood exactly how to execute what they were looking for. The game is colorful and vibrant in ways that shooters have not been for a very long time, just like "Overwatch". Again: if you have to choose a shooter, be glad it isn’t a dreary and depressing Michael Bay wanna-be like the crap Ubisoft releases with Tom Clancy’s name on the box. But the game is very unfriendly in its design, which I don’t think was at all the plan. I feel bad hating it, but it hates me. I just want to play as the penguin one time but the requirements are just impossible. I refuse to play the shitty campaign mode ever again, I want to learn the multiplayer but the game is lacking in obvious pedagogy. So I give up. Fuck it, I tried.
I have no love for Blizzard, but I have to hand it to them when I see just perfect game design and fast combat that has kept my attention for well over a week. And if a game can keep me playing until 5 AM on a work night, I have to appreciate it. "Overwatch" is the tits, that’s my conclusion. Play it. It rocks your cock out of wedlock harder than Brock Lesnar riding a dinosaur from "Turok" I don't even know what that means, but it somehow fits. "Overwatch" is just that good. Now if you'll excuse me, I just unlocked a new Tracer victory pose and will continue playing until the break of dawn, job or no job, until I finally get Play of the Game and show it off.