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Overwatch is the best it’s been in years

Thanks to a new character and a big change in the way people join matches, I’ve having more fun playing Overwatch than I have had in over a year.

Blizzard Entertainment‘s team-based first-person shooter released on May 2016 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. I fell in love with its world and characters, the closest I had ever seen to Pixar-like visuals running in real time, along with the hero-driven gameplay that added a bit more of that MOBA flavor to the gameplay that the Team Fortress series first introduced back in 1996.

Overwatch is now over three years old. Blizzard has been updating it with new heroes, maps, and events. There’s usually something new to check out every month. But the shooter has had its low-points during its life. I remember when they first tried to rework Mercy, the game’s iconic healer, in an effort to weaken her a bit. Blizzard accidentally made her far more powerful. Those were rough times, with Mercy becoming a mandatory pick for every time and making fights drag on far too long with her insane healing output.

For the last several months, Overwatch was in another downer period. Players realized that tanks, characters with large health pools and defensive abilities, are so powerful that you can afford to have more of them in your group in place of damage-based characters. A popular team configuration called GOATS emerged, especially at its highest competitive level in the Overwatch League, where teams would consist of three tanks and three healers.

This configuration is effective, but it’s boring to play and watch. Fights became battles of attrition, with each team stacking closely together as they shot at each other until one side started using all of their ultimate attacks and won.

That’s why Blizzard introduced Role Queue in an update that went out on August 13. Now, if you want to play Ranked Mode, you have to choose which of the three roles you want to play as. You can still select all three of them if you want, but the you’ll be assigned one once you enter a game. With this new system, teams have to have two tanks, two damage characters, and two healers. GOATS is no more.

Role Queue does come with a price. Players lose some flexibility. Once you start a match as a tank, you must stick to that role. You can switch to other tank characters, but you can’t become a damage or healer hero. But this system’s worth it. Forcing teams to include at least two damage characters is making for more fast-paced and exciting fights.

The system is also helping keep things civil. You may not have heard, but people who play online shooters can sometimes get a bit angry. In Overwatch, emotions would often run high at the very start of a match. You’d sometimes be in a group where no one would want to heal, and everyone would start yelling at each other as they try to figure out who has to handle support duties for the match. Now, you’ll always join a game with two people who are ready (and have to) heal.

Thank the tank

Overwatch’s recent improvements extend beyond the introduction of Role Queue. That same patch introduced a new tank character, Sigma. He’s already become one of my favorite heroes. Sigma has a shield like Reinhardt or Orisa, but he also has great damage output. He can throw giant boulders at enemies and shoot out bouncing orbs that explode after they travel a set distance.

His shield isn’t quite as beefy as Reinhardt’s or Orisa’s, but his increased damage output makes up for the difference. He also has one of the most fun ultimate abilities. He hovers above the ground and then you can select a large area below. Any enemies in this area are lifted in the air, making them vulnerable to attack, before smashing back down to the ground.

I have been critical of a lot of Overwatch’s recent hero additions lately. Right before Sigma, we got Baptiste. I thought that his kit was too scattered and lacked thematic cohesion. He’s a guy who can jump high, shoot healing grenades, fire a burst rifle, and more. With Sigma, the theme is consistent. He’s a mad genius with reality-altering abilities.

That big patch also brought another change, less flashy than the others, but still a big reason I’ve been having so much fun. Every hero in Overwatch now earns their ultimate ability at a 12% slower rate. Ultimates can be fun, especially when it first launched and I was still overcome by their spectacle, but they are too powerful. These moves can kill multiple players at once or protect your entire team from all damage. Matches in Overwatch are often decided by who gets their ultimate first and uses it best.

This change makes it so that ultimates maintain their flash and power, but they happen less often. They don’t feel as oppressive as they once did.

In general, Overwatch’s last update has been one of the best that Blizzard’s shooter has ever seen. Sigma is a joy to play, matches are more exciting, and ultimates don’t decide every single fight. It’s not an easy job to maintain a game like this so long after its launch, but Blizzard looks to be setting Overwatch on a path that keep it healthy for at least a couple more years.

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