Why Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch Are Not As Alike As They Appear
Let me give some quick background: I used to be hard into Team Fortress 2. It was my most played game of all time, and probably still is, at around 2500 hours. I was a regular user of SPUF (the Steampowered User Forums) up until they shut down those forums earlier this year, and I even dabbled in playing the game competitively and recording some extremely low quality videos to put on Youtube. I loved the game, but over time became disillusioned with the path the current design team was taking it in and fell off the bandwagon. At the time of writing, I have not touched the game in over two years.
When Overwatch was announced, I was excited. So were a lot of people on SPUF. The general refrain was that Overwatch was in essence going to be the “Team Fortress 3” that we are never likely to actually get. In some ways, it is. In many others, however, that is a false mindset that persists to this day.
I’ve only been playing Overwatch for a few months now (a combination of a terrible computer and lack of funds prevented me from buying it when it first launched). I’m not exactly good at it. but still, it’s fun. Having played it now, however, I can see that this myth could not be further from the truth. Overwatch is not Team Fortress 3 by any stretch of the imagination.
There’s something timeless about TF2. LazyPurple recently put out a video on the subject that puts forward some ideas as to why. While I don’t think he’s wrong, per se, I do think that doesn’t encompass the whole picture. The movement and gunplay are a large part of what makes the gameplay solid, but only go part of the way to explaining why the game has endured for so long and likely will endure for years to come. For the same reasons, I doubt that Overwatch will be as talked about in 10 years as TF2 is today. Perhaps Overwatch 2 or 3 will be, but not Overwatch.
“Crafted” is a word that comes to mind when describing TF2. Everything is put together as carefully and lovingly as a handy father-to-be would construct a crib for his firstborn child. The artstyle and direction, the character models, the feel of the weapons, design of the maps, everything comes together into a core experience that is impossible to fully describe. Strip away all the hats, updates, and new maps and the core game is still a masterpiece that might still have a large playerbase to this day. Even the mistakes, the blemishes on the design are turned into strengths. One of the most popular classes (Spy) came about as a simple coding error during development. That, I feel, is one of the biggest differences between the Valve and Blizzard teams.
Overwatch is polished, to be sure. The maps are generally better designed. Larger. Prettier. More balanced. But Blizzard over-polishes, to my eyes. Any rough spots need to be sanded down, and any spots that can’t be sanded must be remade whole cloth. Blizzard has no (or little) room for “happy accidents”. If something does not work as intended, even if it adds to the fun or depth of the game, it must be “fixed”. Overwatch, then, gives off less a feeling of being crafted as being manufactured. A crib bought from IKEA and assembled by a father-to-be might still be a well made piece of furniture, it may even be technically better made, but it lacks that same feel to it, for lack of a better word.
The entire design philosophy between the two is different. Team Fortress 2 was always meant to be a game with nine classes, no more and no less. Everything in the game works seamlessly with everything else because it was all made to complement or contrast with another element of the design. An optimal strategy arises even on the most unbalanced, flawed maps like Dustbowl or Goldrush and they feel natural to play, effortlessly showing the player where they should go and what they should be doing at any given time.
Overwatch, it feels, was always made to be the opposite. The intent was always to add new classes and ability interactions and the maps were made to be generic and easily incorporated into the playstyle of any class, present or future. As a result the maps feel…empty. I can’t think of what my favorite Overwatch map is, or many distinguishing features between maps besides different game modes. I could tell you my favorites from TF2 easily. Badwater is the best example, being a payload map like most of Overwatch’s. It’s the perfect map for Spy, Plenty of ammo packs to surf from, alternate routes and various nooks and crannies to hide in or go around the enemy team on both offense and defense. The closest I come to that feeling with Overwatch is that it’s fun to drop people into the Ilios-Well pit as Lucio or Roadhog, but it’s such a niche type of fun compared to the whole map experience of Badwater.
Likewise Overwatch has very few tricks I consider playstyle changing for classes. Everything is very well defined for each character. They have a set of abilities and cannot do anything outside that set with very few exceptions (Lucio’s rollouts and Pharrah’s abiity to hover longer or change directions with her Concussive Blast). This comes back to the “happy accidents” dilemma. Almost every class in TF2 has or has had some similar ability to that at a given point in time, sometimes multiple. Spies can exploit hitboxes to perform trickstabs, Demomen and Soldiers can perform extremely fast rollouts by midair explosive jumping, Engineers can reach unexpected locales with the Wrangler, and so on. Even the removed ones like the ability for Pyros to groundstall (aim their Airblast from above the target to kill their momentum and stop them from moving for a moment) were left in long enough to determine their balance impact and how frustrating they were to the playerbase before removal.
In short, the two games couldn’t be more different despite the superficial similarities of being class based, objective based first person shooters. Don’t get me wrong. I like Overwatch quite a bit, I think it’s a very fun game and a very well designed one. But I don’t think it’s as well crafted or that its developers are nearly as willing to take chances as the team over at Valve, and that is going to be the thing that likely prevents its long term staying power in the public consciousness.