I was extremely excited in the buildup to the release of Overwatch. Born from the bones of the cancelled Titan project, Blizzard declared that they were making a love letter to a lost era of online shooters. Lost, but in my case, not forgotten.
Like many others of my generation, I grew up playing Sinclair Spectrums, Commodore Amigas and Sega Megadrives. But it wasn’t until I had a PC connected to the Internet that I discovered a form of gaming that would change my life forever. Forged in the online crucibles of Half-Life, Quake 2 and Unreal, a bedroom pastime turned into a decision to surround myself with gaming for the rest of my life.
One of the highlights of this era was the online community surrounding Half-Life, more specifically the mod community - both the creators and the players. Mods such as Counter-Strike and Action Half-Life were unleashed into the hands of players with seemingly no fanfare at first, but the word of mouth between Half-Life and Team Fortress Classic players grew fast. TFC was Valve’s own take at modding their game and paved the way for bedroom coders to have a stab at it themselves.
So, back to Overwatch. I, like many Blizzard fans, gobbled up much of the game’s pre-release hype like a hungry crab. The comics, movies and teases revealing each character were a delight. One of my favourite pieces of marketing, however, came in the form of a video series by Gamespot, who were afforded unprecedented access to the notoriously secretive studio. Right there, in the first two minutes of the first video in the series, both Counter-Strike and Action Half-Life were mentioned as inspirations for their new game. Overwatch was a game made for people like me. People who played online shooters in the late 90s and were crazy enough to experiment with modding and running custom servers.
I write this three months after Overwatch’s release and I don’t think I stand alone in saying that it is a brilliant game. Over ten million players apparently agree, including many of my friends. The last time I saw my Friends List on any system populated with one game, may have been another Blizzard game: World of Warcraft. The game has a healthy mix of shooter-nostalgia and managing to be welcoming to players who aren’t familiar with the genre. The organic camaraderie and understanding between players, who even if silent, know their role and how to contribute, based on which character they are playing, is perfectly crafted. It’s a Game Of The Year contender.
Despite this, there have been moments of disappointment for me personally with the game. The launch of the Competitive mode was a botch. Sudden Death scenarios can be randomly unfair to one team and the ruleset on selecting duplicates of one character changed mid-season.
There’s more. The game features a low tick rate compared to other shooters, meaning pinpoint accuracy, speed and skill isn’t rewarded as highly as other shooters. Also, although you can be awarded a “Play Of The Game”, in reality, moments of individual skill very rarely actually contribute to your team’s victory. It’s tough for the cream to rise to the top. My disappointment in the game’s Competitive mode, coupled with the shooter “purist” in me, led me to take a break from the game for a few weeks. Until Lúcioball.
Ah yes, Lúcioball. It is, if you will excuse my slight over-excitement, what Team Fortress Classic was to Half-Life. An extension of the game by the original game’s creators - a mod, even. Lúcioball was introduced as part of a “Summer Games” themed event, where the game’s Loot Boxes will now also reward an Olympic-themed item for a limited time. It plays nothing like Overwatch and is a 3-on-3 “football-like” sports game, where only Lúcio is in play (unless you use a naughty exploit!).
As a lapsed Overwatch player, I hadn’t really been keeping up with events from the game. I’d stopped talking to friends about the game who had continued playing without me. But when Lúcioball was announced and I’d caught wind that it had already been released, it triggered a very specific memory. The day a girl in my TFC clan said to me: “Hey, have you played Counter-Strike yet? It’s free if you have Half-Life and it’s out right now”.
Almost immediately misunderstood as Overwatch’s answer to Rocket League by many, but for those that have given it a chance, this special event Brawl perhaps gives us a preview of what the game is actually capable of. The ability to surprise, to provide variety and in my case, to bring players back for more. It proves at a glance that Blizzard could continue to breathe new life into the game for many years to come, much in the way the Quake, Half-Life and Unreal games remained installed on gamers’ hard drives way beyond the expiry date of the core games.
So, not Rocket League, but actually more similar to mods such as Deathball. Football-like games have long been a staple in the FPS modding scene, the spirit of which remains alive in the standalone game Supraball. It helps that Lúcioball is perhaps the best-in-class of all of these efforts. We should have expected nothing less from Blizzard.
On the surface, Lúcioball could be mistaken for a quickly implemented kick-about using existing mechanics, with a ball and two goals shoved on each end. In reality, the design of every element to the mode is deliberately measured and precise. From the size of the ball and field, to the distance it can travel with your standard “hit” and your powerful, cooldown-limited secondary fire. Where you stand in relation to the ball and where on the ball your reticle was pointing, affects the trajectory it will travel. I’ve been playing with Bob and Stu from the site and we found that sticking to a “formation”, with a keeper, midfielder and striker, resulted in significantly better results than merely chasing the ball. It feels balanced, it feels like a sport, it rewards skill, teamwork and it is FUN. It is also expected to disappear along with the rest of the Summer Games event on August 22nd.
As quickly as Lúcioball entered my life, it also leaves me. It will most likely make a return in the future (I hope permanently, one day), but the constant cycle of Brawl events gives me hope that there is more to come, in different flavours. Until now, Brawls have been basic mutators, slightly changing the rules of the standard game, but now we are aware that more can be squeezed from the game’s engine.
Perhaps more importantly, Lúcioball made me retry the standard game and helped me fall back in love with it all over again. I still bounce off of the game’s Competitive play, but the Quick Play, especially with friends, is still some of the most fun you can have with an Internet connection in 2016. Come next month, I’ll see you on the battleground, but while we cross swords, let it be known that I long for the day that we can lay down our weapons in the trenches yet again and kick a ball around.