Reviewed by Katie Tarrant & Doug Waters
Edited by Sam Highes
Developer & Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Composers: Derek Duke & Neal Acree
Sound Designers: Paul Lackey, Scott Lawlor, Kris Giampa,
Chris De La Pena, Justin Decloedt & Brian David Parr.
Reviewed on: Xbox One & PS4
Katie: With any MMO, the challenge for the developers lies in crafting a collection of characters that are all unique and engaging whilst still complimenting one another in the context of the game itself. Blizzard have excelled in that regard, much like they did with other members of their extensive catalogue of franchises, such as World of Warcraft, StarCraft and Hearthstone. At present, Overwatch consists of 21 characters and surprisingly I found each character as dynamic, quirky and enjoyable to play as the last.
Doug: Branching into competitive first person shooters might initially seem like an odd move for Blizzard; afterall this is the company many of us have come to love for their RTS and MMORPG titles, StarCraft and World of Warcraft. It is through these titles that Blizzard has lovingly guided us on adventures and experiences that have forever impacted our lives as gamers. It’s undeniable, the sense of excitement that I, and I’m sure many of you, felt when Blizzard announced their first new title in over 17 years! With an incredible marketing campaign (let’s not forget the massive action figures that were unveiled around the world in May!) and all the hype surrounding the game, it’s not surprising that it was met with such rave reviews. Overwatch offers a fresh taste to what may have become a stale pallet in the FPS scene in recent years; but by taking a look at what made classic FPS games great in the past, Blizzard has given us something new. But underneath its sleek art style, its plethora of heroes and highly addictive gameplay, Overwatch is a game that also sounds great!
Katie: Having played MMO’s well before my days of reviewing game audio, it was an eye-opening process to sit down with Overwatch and analyse how Blizzard approach the creation and implementation of their audio. For Overwatch, the crux of the appeal is how well the individual characteristics of the heroes are portrayed through their audio.
The animations for each character are riddled with spectacular subtleties, from the rickety clinking of Junkrat’s gun to the satisfying yank of Roadhog’s chain. Each character has been crafted enough to be identifiable in their sound alone. My favourites are definitely the sharp launch of Zenyatta’s orbs and the satisfying slice of Genji’s throwing stars.
I am consistently amazed at how Blizzard’s audio team have tackled the perfect balance of such complex auditory environments. Whether you are acting as a lone soldier away from battle or in the midst of a team-on-team onslaught, there remains a perfect clarity in amongst everything you can hear so that you can always easily identify who is around you and where they are just from the soundscape alone. Finally, the way that all of the audio has been treated to adapt to the environment is another fantastic touch; how your voice travels if you fall off of the map, how your hits respond to any surface and even how each voice line has its own individual reverb alterations depending on where your character is situated.
Doug: From just sitting down and playing one match it’s easy to tell that a lot of love has been poured into this game by the audio team. As well as sounds of the character animations mention by Katie, that you hear when playing as that hero, a lot of work has also gone into making each character sound different when heard by other teammates or those on the opposing team.
Sound plays such a vital role in Overwatch especially when there’s no mini map to watch. Orienting a player, keeping them engaged at all times, informing them of potential threats; these are just a few of the ways the sound design of Overwatch makes you a better player. At GDC 2016 earlier this year speakers Scott Lawlor and Tomas Neumann gave a great talk entitled ‘Overwatch – The Elusive Goal: Play by Sound’ in which they talk about some of the ways sound design in the game has been pushed to the next level. One feature they presented is how the sounds of characters are heard differently depending on whether they’re a team-mate or an opponent, this is especially noticeable with a character’s footsteps. So unique have each character’s sounds been made that it’s possible to tell exactly what character might be coming around a corner by just listening to their footsteps; for example it’s easy to recognise the peg-legged steps of Junkrat or to tell that Roadhog is nearby when hearing heavy footsteps layered with rattling chains. In this way you might hear the footsteps of a character you can easily dispatch, or the sounds of one whom would easily kill you, giving subconscious information with which to inform any confrontations and poses the question, do I stay and fight or run?! So many aspects of the sound design have been crafted in such a way that they make you a better player!
But Overwatch doesn’t just make you a better player by allowing you to differentiate between enemy characters through sound, but through the sounds tied to the actions of your own hero. The best examples I can find of this are with Mercy, Lucio and Zenyatta; the healers. Whilst healing a friendly character, as you fill their health bar back up to full, a sound gradually increasing in pitch and tone can be heard, notifying you on just how much health you’re giving them, even if you can’t always see their health bar due to dividing walls. At times when playing these characters, I often found myself not having to look at my teammates health bars, but could rely on just the sounds of my healing abilities; through doing this I found I was able to more effectively heal my team by determining when I was best to change my healing focus from one to another.
Some of my favourite sounds so far have come from Zarya’s particle cannon, Lucio’s sonic amplifier and Genji’s deflection ability! There aren’t many sounds that I’ve been presented with so far that I’ve found annoying, the most prominent of these being Winston’s footsteps. The ‘padding’ sound of Overwatch’s resident gorilla just get all too repetitive as you run around and stick out like a sore thumb; I could understand this if these were being heard from an enemy Winston as they would inform of his presence, but when they’re from the Winston you’re controlling they just break the sense of engagement with the character, an engagement that can so easily be felt with every other hero in the game. But, this is only one tiny, tiny bug on the windshield of what is otherwise a flawless display of video game sound design, and has in no way diminished my overall love for this game. It’s quickly become my game of 2016 (so far!) and that’s in no small part due to the work of the sound design team at Blizzard! (P.S.) Make sure you play this game with headphones on, the experience is so much better, i’d even go as far as saying it’s essential!
Katie: The game offers a countless number of voice lines for each character, all of which can be purchased with in-game currency or potentially unlocked in the loot boxes you gain with each new level reached. Their inclusion provides a necessary variation in the dialogue of the characters which you hear in-game either from your own character or the voices of your team mates when they are around. The voice lines themselves are well-recorded and nicely scripted, again very unique to each character. My only qualm for the game’s dialogue was the questionable realism of some of the accents and native phrases used. Tracer’s British accent, for example, was quite grating on my ears and very over-exaggerated, which may well have been intentional. Additionally, the accuracy of Hanzo’s Japanese was called in to question by my Singaporean house mate, all of which whilst entertaining do impact the ultimate sense of realism.
Doug: I completely agree with Katie when she says that each of the 21 heroes are well recorded and scripted. Now I may be painting a target on myself by saying this, but contrary to what Katie and many others have said, I actually really like Cara Theobold’s voice for Tracer! Overwatch is a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously in characterising its heroes through its choice of voice-over style. For me, this game is something of a comic book superheroes team-up come meets competitive FPS, and that the voice of Tracer, among many others in the game, very well reflects the quirkiness and sense of playfulness that is often present in comic books such as those from characters like Spiderman or Deadpool. The sometimes cheesy one-liners that are uttered by heroes using their ultimate abilities also lend to the influence of superhero comic books; we need look no further than Pharah’s “Justice rains from above!” or McCree’s “It’s high noon!”. (As part of their marketing and for the telling of characters back-stories, Blizzard have even released short comic books of the characters, including stories from Reinhardt, Pharah and Symmetra!)
However, accents aside, the real strength of the dialogue is in being informative to the player. Just as I’ve mentioned above with the sound design, the voice lines that are heard can tell you so much subconscious information, like the difference between the saving rockets from a friendly Pharah or the incoming barrage of an enemy Pharah. Although these dialogue lines might be considered repetitive, this is incredibly important for understanding and learning their meaning and their impending actions during matches. The sense of fear that you can see in your teammates as they scatter in different directions after hearing the utterance of “Fire in the hole” (Junkrat’s ‘RIP-Tire’) or “ryū ga waga teki wo kurau” (Hanzo’s ‘Dragonstrike’)! All in all, thought has gone into the voice of each character as well as a great deal of vocal talent!
Katie: Musically the game only contains snippets as opposed to on-going soundtracks, but again these snippets are well-designed in their purpose of identifying locations and events taking place. Each of the twelve maps have their own signifying themes, and other thematic stingers guide players’ understandings of when the game is nearing its end, when their team has won or lost and various other scenarios. Additionally, the game boasts an iconic opening theme, akin to the style of Henry Jackman’s work for Captain America. This theme accompanies the player at the menu screen and plays periodically whilst waiting for games, surprisingly never feeling repetitive.
Doug: Overwatch’s soundtrack takes much more of a background role than I expected, it may not be reactive to a player’s actions, but this doesn’t detract from the experience at all. The style of music is very reminiscent of recent superhero films with its soaring brass and strings, epic drums and cutting electric guitar layers. The main theme that plays during the ‘play of the game’ sequences is incredibly catchy, empowering players and making them feel mighty in their skills and the skills of their fellow gamers! Often I’ve found myself humming the theme song, only to feel powerfully compelled to play a match or two, if only to have the chance to feel the same sense of power the last time I heard that theme!
Overwatch is a highly enjoyable and addictive game, despite lacking anything other than online multiplayer. The gameplay is very fast paced and is an intense thrill ride, but it’s true appeal is in it’s roster of highly likeable characters and once you find your favourite you won’t be able to put the controller down for hours!
Blizzard’s attention to detail with sound makes this game a great experience for gamers and game audio fanatics alike (there are some characters we play as just because we like their sound design)! So if you’re after a game with quirky voice-overs, catchy music and killer sound design, make Overwatch the top of purchase list!
Are there any sounds in Overwatch that you’ve particularly enjoyed? Any ways in which the audio design has made you a better player? And what do you think about the over-the-top accents?
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The Sound Architect