Blizzcon – Everything We Learned About Overwatch 2!

Overwatch is my favourite multiplayer game of all time at this stage. I’ve logged close to (or above, it’s hard to count) 1500 hours in Blizzard’s take on the competitive FPS, and I even reviewed it at a mammoth 95/100. So, as I’m sure you can understand, I got rather excited by the Overwatch 2 announcement at Blizzcon 2019. Then came a very long silence, where I started to doubt as to whether Overwatch 2 was definitely coming or not. Well, fear no more because on the opening evening of Blizzcon on 20/02/21, despite oddly being ignored for the opening ceremony, we got a positively massive information dump about the development process of Overwatch 2, the scale of the sequel, and just how much work is being put in.

So today I decided to talk about everything we learned and everything we currently know about Overwatch 2! Important to note now that we don’t have a release date, or even a release window for Overwatch 2. We do have confirmation from Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch game director, that we won’t have to wait as long for more updates moving forward. So let’s get into it!

Fair warning, it would be very difficult for me to cover literally everything, as the reels they showed throughout the Overwatch panel were extremely fast moving, and full of info. I’ve cycled through and cherry picked my absolute favourites! All images in this article are credited to Blizzard and Overwatch, and were taken directly from the Blizzcon stream.

1) Visual and Audio Overhaul

The first thing I want to mention is the sheer level of attention that’s going into making sure that Overwatch 2 is at current standards, instead of 2015 standards. The team for Overwatch 2 were incredibly excited to talk about all of the work they’re putting into audio/ visual feedback and effects in the sequel, so I just had to mention it here.

Noted as “combat upgrades” in the presentation, Keller kicked this section off with this:

“Shortly after Blizzcon (2019), we spun up this group, our ‘combat feel’ group to really just work on what happens when a player holds the trigger”

and Scott Lawler, audio director for Overwatch 2, followed up with:

“We’re putting a ton of effort into looking at all of our characters and trying to give them even a more visceral weapon feel”

Apparently, according to Keller, the team are working on everything from VFX, design, sound, and even animation of the necessary components.

“All new sounds for a lot of the weapons in the game, a whole new sound system that’s driving it, and we didn’t just level up a unit, we levelled up the rest of the game”

The team went onto further comment on how they’re revisiting “pretty much everything” in Overwatch 2, like new audio passes and visual effects for quick melees, and something called “Weapon 2.0”.

Everything from the way the weapon feels and sounds, like being able to sense when the weapon is running low from feedback alone, and also incorporating a new system called “convolution reverb”.

The way they describe it is as a “way of capturing the acoustics of an environment, and transport it onto the sounds that we’re using.”

The team went as far as testing guns in different environments to capture their sound signature for Overwatch 2.

Blizzcon 2021 Panel - Gun Testing 1

“So we went and captured tails of guns in different environments through our weapon shoots, and then we’ve cut them and applied it so that we can support a lot more environments”

What this means is that guns will now sound vastly different depending on the environment they’re used in. Among the examples given are “exterior”, “urban exterior” and “interior warehouse”, all areas on Overwatch’s Route 66 map.

“It gives a lot more presence to the weapons and the way that they react in the world”

Timothy Ford, associate technical director, jumps in here with this:

“The shooter genre has evolved a lot since Overwatch came out, and on top of that I think we really want to push the visceral nature of how we do combat. So we focused a lot, not just on the wonderful sound effects, but also with how the gun moves as you shoot. So you can really feel every single shot leaving the chamber”

“There’s a lot of subtle little tweaks we have to do on the gameplay engineering side to make that feel really visceral. Everything from making sure that the camera shakes are crisp, making sure that if you get shot you know exactly these tight indicators show up on the outside of your reticule”

Ford actually went further with an example, in this case Soldier 76; perhaps the most archetypal ‘first person shooter’ character in the whole game:

“Take 76, for example. What we wanted to do in Overwatch 2 with his weapon was make it really feel incredibly powerful and that happens with a bunch of different elements that mix together. But it really feels like the gun is almost just outside of your control. A lot of that comes down to this camera-shake technology, where every time you fire the weapon you want to feel like it’s running through your entire body.”

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - Gun Testing 2

With Overwatch 2 I expected the game to sound and look the same as the 2015 release of Overwatch. That sounds like low expectations, and probably is to be fair, but I don’t look at the presentation of Overwatch and see areas that need immediate improvement.

Thankfully I’m not a game designer, because the team for Overwatch 2 seem to be making wholesale changes to way the game sounds, the way it react to your inputs, and the level of immersion that it can craft for the player. It’s hard to describe with quotes, but the sheer difference in detailing for Soldier 76’s weapon with the new reverberation software that Overwatch 2 is employing is night and day to current Overwatch. It’s quite impressive.

More than anything, I’m just grateful that Overwatch 2 is panning out to be much more than a glorified expansion, instead seeing genuine improvements even to the most granular of details.

2) New Maps!

Part of the charm of Overwatch is the map design, that’s undeniable. Most shooters, especially ones designed for a competitive scene, scale their aesthetics and detailing back; freeing up as much visual clutter as possible. Blizzard ignored that well trodden rule with Overwatch and breathed a care and love into each and every map you’ll play. For this reason, a new map (especially in competitive) is something people always get excited by. Although, of course, people like the extra variety as well.

Overwatch launched in 2015 with a total of 12 maps in the core game modes. As of right now there are 21 maps in these modes, plus more for the Deathmatch Arcade modes, the Lucioball event, and Capture The Flag mode; making 32 in total. So Blizzard haven’t been shy about injecting new maps into the mix. However they haven’t always been recieved well upon arrival with two Assault maps, Horizon Lunar Colony and Paris, being so poorly received that they have long been out of the competitive rotation.No pressure then.

At the Overwatch 2 panel this year, the Overwatch team showcased two new maps coming to Overwatch 2, the first of which is Rome.

Blizzcon Overwatch 2 News - Rome Render 1

Rome

Many of Overwatch’s maps are based around futuristic interpretations of famous locations. London, Paris, Ilios, Hollywood, and more besides. The one’s that aren’t are often inspired by real places, like Hanamura for instance. Rome continues this theme, being a map based on it’s namesake in real life.

“We always want Overwatch to feel like this globetrotting adventure for our players, so we’re having a lot of fun coming up with the ‘Overwatch version’ of Rome” claims Dion Rogers, the associate art director for Overwatch 2.

Bill Petras, art director, echoes this and says that they wanted “a very romantic, sort of this powerful feeling of old world architecture”

He continues on and explains that “one of the most exciting things for me is the early building of these maps, where we get to sit down together with key people from the environment team, level designers, effects groups. We’ll spend some time talking about moments in the game that we really wanna see, like the colosseum, or a grand views of Rome in the backdrop.”

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - Rome Concept 1
Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - Rome Concept 2

Aaron Keller, associate game director for Overwatch 2, even explained that one of the team’s environment artists had just come back from a leisure trip to Rome and had taken thousands of photos of the architecture there, and was extremely excited to work on an Italian map.

“There’s a lot of ancient architecture in Rome that represents the empire that it used to be, so we brought some of that back, some of the things that are destroyed in real life we kinda rebuilt in an Overwatch style.” said Dion Rogers.

Aaron Keller also went on to say that “it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of environment art that I think we’ve made for the entire game and it just absolutely took my breath away.”

Following up the information regarding Rome, they announced a second new map for Overwatch 2.

New York City

Aaron Keller stated that “we’re really striving to make it as authentic as possible, while still putting this Overwatch spin on it”

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - New York Concept 1

Dion Rogers explained a little further and said that:

“There’s a lot of amazing buildings and architecture pieces that just, especially for artists, stands out a lot. And they usually use this kind of art deco style from the 1920s and 1950s”

and Keller expanded on this by explaining that:

“in an area that’s a little bit like a village, there’s some smaller shops there, there’s a fire station, little pizza places and things that people who are familiar with New York City with either recognise, or see the reference that we’re trying to make with some of our different locations. It feels like something you haven’t seen in other games before because it’s uniquely… Overwatch”

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - New York Concept 2

This was the end of the focus on new maps, although you can be 100% certain that other new maps exist as well. We already know about a couple of maps exclusive to Push, the new mode launching with the game, that are the previously mentioned Rome, and a currently now showcased map simply named Toronto. There’s also Gothenburg, Rio, and Monte Carlo that are all known but currently unseen.

What I like about the announcements of Rome and New York City is the visual we got of how these maps are designed. The inspirations and process behind the visuals of each map. Quality not-withstanding, Overwatch’s current maps are all wholly unique from one another, with no obvious re-using of large assets like models and textures. Being able to get a glance at how real world architecture and events can inspire and meld with the visions of the designers for Overwatch and Overwatch 2 was a treat.

3) Hero Missions and Skill Trees!

“With competitive and PvE, I see Overwatch 2 as the Overwatch as a game for ALL my friends”

One of the opening quotes to this “Behind The Scenes of Overwatch 2” Blizzcon panel gave away immediate signals that Jeff and the rest of the featured team would focus on why PvE is something to be interested in.

When Overwatch 2 was announced, the addition of PvE left many concerned. Overwatch has tried story content across many of its events to mixed success. This time around, it seems that it’s the primary focus of the game, something that makes sense given how great the PvP fundamentals are.

This section is perhaps of most interest to those who like the gameplay of Overwatch, but aren’t interested in the hardcore competitive side that puts many off. Jeff Kaplan opens the section on Hero Missions with this:

“Hero Missions are probably one of the things that’s the hardest to wrap your head around if you’ve never played one of them”

Which honestly sums up most people’s reactions upon their announcement at the last Blizzcon. Most people were wondering what sort of scale they’d be, how in depth in terms of story content, would there be cinematics, etc, etc.

Keller sells it as this:

“The goal around hero missions is for these to be this co-op, PvE experience. Hero Missions are the content that people are playing as they are levelling up their heroes, and so for a system to really sing you need a lot of missions. We don’t want players to feel like they’re just in this grind to get to the top.”

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - Hero Missions

This is something we’ll come back to, but noting that Hero Missions are the primary way that you’ll level up your characters would indicate that there’s more of these than there will be proper story missions (because, yes, they are separate entities). This might mean that the opportunities to use your levelled up characters in the story are few and far between, if at all, which might be a shame.

If you didn’t know, it was announced at Blizzcon 2019 that characters in Overwatch 2’s PvE content, exclusively, would have abilities that can be levelled up and enhanced – similar to RPGs. We’ll come back to those skills and abilities shortly but remember, currently there are no plans for these modified abilities to make their way into PvP.

Scott Lawler jumps in to add this nugget of info regarding Hero Missions:

“There’s a lot of really really good backend technology that we’re exploring so that the heroes are constantly bringing their personality and some light story to these hero missions as well.”

Keller reiterates on the quantity aspect that he mentioned before:

“The goal is to make as many as possible, hundreds of hero missions. We’ve explored a lot of different ways of getting to that much content. So have like different sets of enemy units that people will be fighting against, and there’s different hero mission types. At the same time, Hero Missions can take place on all of the multiplayer maps that we’ve done, and we’re also adding new spaces onto some of these maps”

One example that Jeff Kaplan uses is that a gate on Kings Row, the popular PvP map based in London, that’s usually just for visual purposes can actually open in some of these hero missions; guiding you to an area of the map that previously just didn’t exist.

Dynamic Weather

Part of a PvE experience, especially one with story moments, is creating an environment that’s immersive and believable. Many single player games use weather systems to do this, to make the world feel real. Of course in a high skill competitive shooter this isn’t particularly feasible, more annoying if anything; the less visual distractions, the better.

However since they’re adding so much PvE content into Overwatch 2 they now have the excuse the implement it.

“Lan, our lead tech artist on the environment side, very early on her own free time, made a prototype of a sandstorm on the Temple of Anubis map. At the time, we didn’t know what we wanted to do with that but it looked awesome”

“We looked at it, and we went “oh my god, we absolutely have to do this”, so we put some new technology in place that allows us to do this dynamically”

“You start the mission off, clear day. Mid-way through the mission, suddenly this sandstorm or heavy weather would show up. It made the world just feel so much more alive.”

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel -  Dynamic Weather 1

Dynamic weather is no joke, not in terms of how complex it can be to implement, nor how gratifying it can be in terms of immersion. The team even went further and changed how this new weather and time of day system changes depending on the area of the world you’re in:

“There’s a sunset, daytime, night-time, but depending on where you are in the world these look different. California or Hollywood would have what we call a ‘California sun’, in Numbani there’s a great african sun that happens there. You start to get a sense of space and mood, and it’s what really brings these levels to life.”

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - Dynamic Weather 2
Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - Dynamic Weather 3

Seemingly the weather and time of day can be viewed before entering the mission, with the Overwatch 2 team hoping this might influence different character changes; the most obvious one being that a Hanzo might be more valuable in a sandstorm due to his Sonic arrow that can reveal enemies.

“Before you start a mission, you’ll look at a map. It’s night-time in Necropolis, or there’s a sandstorm, and players can make some composition choices based on knowing this information”

Of course, whether or not players choose to take it this seriously is unknown right now. There’s no word on whether there will be leader boards for completion times or scores, or any other rewards aside from hero progression through the skill trees. it’s just nice that the team are considering multiple ways of engaging the player.

Progression and Talents

Speaking of skill trees, this was the next section of the PvE stuff they talked about at the Overwatch 2 panel. From the brief showing we got at Blizzcon 2019, it seemed like every hero would get half a dozen different ‘talents’ to alter their standard abilities from the norm you see in PvP; one example had Mei turning into a rolling ice ball. According the Jeff Kaplan they’ve now “blown that system out” to new heights.

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - 2019 Skill Tree
The version of the skill tree shown in 2019.
Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - 2021 Skill Tree
The version of the skill tree system shown at Blizzcon 2021.

The new and improved skill tree they showed for a variety of the heroes looks like something out of Borderlands, not out of a first person shooter. Now, instead of only focusing on fundamental changes to the ability itself, they’ve also implanted stat alterations to these abilities like the damage reduction bonuses you can see for Reinhardt above.

Not only that, but every single hero (of which there are currently a whopping 32), has their own skill tree. I’m sure there will be crossover in terms of the different bonuses and stuff, but each will uniquely work with that character differently; sometimes changing a hero entirely.

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - 2021 Skill Tree 2

One such example was that of Soldier 76. His biotic field, a healing ability, is normally stationary once placed. In the clip shown he had been upgraded so that the biotic field moved around with him for the duration it was active. Not only that but it was able to be upgraded with a build that allowed him to repulse enemies at the same time; something the hero is normally never capable of.

Other examples were Junkrat duel-wielding his grenade launchers, Mercy turning her healing staff into a proper weapon, all the way to adding or altering the elements of certain attacks. Like a Freezestrike instead of a Firestrike, for example.

The whole thing seems like the Overwatch team acknowledged that the PvP side of things is a finely tuned experienced, balanced like no other, so instead chose to make the PvE experience as potentially unbalanced as possible. I absolutely love it. The team even added brand new enemy AI animations to reflect these changes, like arcs of electricity jumping between them, or new freeze and shatter animations.

4) Overwatch 2 PvP, Tanks, and More!!

PvP, the player versus player modes of Overwatch, are where the game currently shines. Blizzard are going a distance to assure that the PvE in Overwatch 2 lives up to that, but they still need to make sure that the PvP is up to snuff.

I was worried they wouldn’t touch on it too heavily, given the understandable need to promote the story stuff a bit better, but as it turns out I had nothing to worry about! Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch game director, opened up with this:

“You know, one thing that I think is really interesting about PvP in Overwatch 2 is some of the philosophical changes we’re making to the approach”

Another member of the team followed up with:

“PvP feels… different and new. We’re upgrading our combat feel, the roles are playing differently, all new maps, it’s a pretty big departure from where we are on live right now, so I can’t wait to see where we end up with it by the time we launch this thing”

Worth it to note that, as far as the panel explained it, most of what I’ll be mentioning here is still up for change. The Overwatch team aren’t afraid of making massive updates and changes to the live game, so you can bet your bottom dollar that PvP in Overwatch 2 will go through hundreds of iterations before the general public get their hands on it. That being said, I’m fairly confident that what they discussed at the panel must be fairly far down the road, otherwise what would be the need to explain it?

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - Image 1

With that little caveat out of the way Geoff Goodman, lead hero designer for Overwatch 2 (awesome job title by the way) explained that:

“We’re also experimenting with an idea that we call ‘role passives’, which are passive abilities that a hero can have based on what role they are. For example, currently in our internal build the tank heroes all have knockback reduction and generate less ultimate charge for enemies that are shooting at them”

“Damage dealing heroes have a movement speed bonus, which is great for flanking around the map”

“Support heroes have automatic healing that kicks in after they haven’t taken damage for a while, very similar to Mercy’s passive”

I like this a lot, specifically the last one about support heroes. Mercy, the game’s cover art support hero, is notoriously hard to finish off in skilled hands due to her passive self-healing, and other support heroes are annoyingly squishy when caught out. Giving a similar passive to the class in general might make the role less torturous, and hopefully more friendly.

In regards to the other changes, the idea that less ultimate charge is generated upon shooting tanks is excellent. One of my favourite tanks is Roadhog, but he’s a downright bullet sponge in a team fight, generating ultimates for the enemy team almost single handedly. Having that balanced out a little will slow down the speed at which a game devolves into a “who has the most ultimates” contest, and instead into a more measured experience. Hopefully.

Jeff Kaplan jumped in here and said that:

“One of the more… shocking changes that we’ve been exploring in Overwatch 2 PvP is a change to the tank role entirely. We want to try to make them more toe-to-toe brawlers, and less characters that just stand back and protect other people”

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel -  Image 2

This is where Geoff Goodman jumps back in with an example regarding Reinhardt, the game’s primary ‘main tank’:

“For Reinhardt, we’ve given him two firestrikes so he can throw firestrikes a lot more aggressively and more often. Also, his charge, he’s able to cancel it now and you can steer it aggressively so you can more accurately pin targets. Because you can cancel it, it allows you to use it much more aggressively and really go after those key targets without feeling like you’re gonna sacrifice all your positioning”

Jeff Kaplan was keen to point out that this is a work in progress of course:

“The changes to Reinhardt that we’re trying, and they might not ship. That’s just the reality, but the changes that we’re trying right now are to try to embrace more of that instinct that players have when they want to play a big, burly character that looks aggressive, and feels like it should be aggressive.”

Obviously development of a PvP centric experience can be extremely hard to balance, so it might be these Reinhardt changes don’t make it to the final version of Overwatch 2, but what I think is important is how the team is approaching Overwatch 2. They’re not treating it like Overwatch is a hard and fast rule-set that they have to follow, a template to stick to. If anything, it seems like they’re treating the new number in the name as reasoning to go over some of the finer details of the formula and retune as necessary. It’s refreshing.

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel -  Image 3

5) New Hero – Sojourn!

Since the initial tease of Sojourn at the last Blizzcon, Sojourn has gone unseen by the larger community. But at this Blizzcon, at the Overwatch 2 panel, we got quite a hefty look at how she plays. Shocker – she’s a DPS.

While I’m sure some people will be upset by this, given how recent the player base received the DPS hero Echo, I’m quite happy as I generally play hitscan heroes (hitscan being the act of a projectile going where you’re pointing, instead of having to lead your target).

Sojourn is an Overwatch captain of Canadian descent and her weapon of choice is… a rail gun. Oh yeah, you read that correctly. A rail gun.

Geoff Goodman, lead hero designer, had this to say about the development of Soujourn:

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel -  Sojourn 1

“When we look back at Overwatch when it was originally created, there was a lot of heroes that were made from a gameplay standpoint surrounding a weapon type. For example Pharah was based on a rocket launcher hero, Widowmaker is clearly the sniper.

We thought there was a weapon that was missing that would be a lot of fun to play with, and that’s a railgun.”

“It’s so much fun in the playtest to have this really fun shot that can rip through enemies if you really are accurate with it, and she’s all about that aim skill, so if you’ve got that aim skill you’ll love her”

Interestingly, in some concept art in an unrelated section, Sojourn is depicted as having boosters built into her robotic legs. It wasn’t shown in any gameplay but it could be that this is some kind of movement ability, not unlike Hanzo’s dash or Tracer’s blink. The left most icon in the bottom left of the image above certainly looks like some kind of slide ability huh?

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel -  Sojourn 2

So, What Do I Think?

Overwatch, despite it’s dwindling player base over the years, is still a massively successful shooter. It still harbours millions of players five years after its launch and, as of writing this, is sitting on 16k viewers on Twitch; level with Rainbow Six Siege, Rocket League and Dead By Daylight, and with more viewers than Among Us, Black Ops Cold War, Rust, and Sea of Thieves.

(of course, I’m writing this at 1:30pm on a Monday, so those numbers aren’t entirely reliable, just to be clear)

The point still stands that people enjoy playing and watching Overwatch as a competitive shooter. The move into PvE is something that many of the hardcore player base might not even be interested in, but personally I think this is the team’s attempt at rallying the player base, restoring the game to its heights and, most importantly, providing a new dimension to the Overwatch franchise.

More’s the point, communication upon initial announcement of Overwatch 2 was muddied. News that maps and modes would carry between Overwatch and the sequel made said sequel a hard sell for many. Questions asking why this couldn’t just be an update or a patch were flung almost immediately, with many worried that Blizzard were just treating this as a cash grab.

Fortunately this Overwatch 2 panel at Blizzcon should’ve dissuaded those fears.

There’s clearly a mindset going into Overwatch 2 that is far beyond what I expected or feared. Needless cash grab this is not. I didn’t even find the page space today to talk about Jeff Kaplan’s comments on perhaps changing or removing the dreaded Assault mode (commonly called 2CP by the community, short for ‘two capture points’); a mode regularly criticised for it’s lopsided balancing.

I chose not to discuss the clear amount of work going into enemy AI variety, the new damage model going into these enemy units (removal of robotic limbs, etc), and more besides. There was a huge focus on the Hero Missions in Overwatch 2, but there wasn’t much in the way of specifics in terms of the proper story content.

Overwatch 2 Blizzcon 2021 Panel - Image 4

What WAS there in terms of story will be covered in a future article so as to give me time to breakdown what was provided, so that’s why I didn’t bring it up today. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot of effort going in.

Overall, from what we’ve seen, Overwatch 2 is much much more than I expected. There’s so much new, so much up for change, so much stuff just refined down to the most granular of details that, despite my initial doubts regarding the need for a sequel, Overwatch 2 now looks like a necessity instead of a commodity.

That’s about the highest compliment I can give to be honest.

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