Following Blizzard’s announcement of Overwatch 2 at BlizzCon last November, fans were left with lingering questions. When will the sequel arrive? What will it mean for the original Overwatch ecosystem? And, of course, will there be any new heroes coming to the original Overwatch before Overwatch 2?
We now have the answer to at least one of those questions. The next playable hero to join the Overwatch lineup — and “very likely” the last one until Overwatch 2, according to game director Jeff Kaplan — is Echo, an ever-evolving AI who quickly adapts to the world around her. And she’s coming to test servers on the Windows PC version of Overwatch on Thursday, March 19.
In a presentation at Blizzard headquarters last week, Kaplan called Echo “a very special character.” The advanced robot was the creation of Singaporean scientist Dr. Mina Liao, an expert in artificial intelligence, an employee of the Omnica Corporation, and the mysterious sixth founder of Overwatch. After leaving Omnica, Dr. Liao went on to assist the Overwatch program with the creation of “The Echo Project,” despite concerns over the use of AI during the Omnic Crisis. She believed that she could improve on the original Omnic design and use artificial life to save humanity. When Dr. Liao was killed in an attack on the Overwatch facility, her legacy became Echo, who adapted to her creator’s personality and behaviors.
The Overwatch dev team has had plenty of time to develop Echo’s backstory; she’s been a part of the series’ lore since her first appearance in a late 2018 animated short. Her slightly larger role in the BlizzCon 2019 Overwatch 2 teaser has kept fans guessing about when she’d make her way into the game.
But Echo’s origins go back further than that 2018 video, or even Overwatch itself. She was originally conceived as part of the lineup in Titan, an MMO that Blizzard canceled in 2013 after seven years of fraught development. Many of Titan’s unused assets made their way into the original Overwatch concept, and Echo was one of them. Her early designs were more robotic and service-oriented, with fewer humanoid characteristics, but by the fourth iteration of her design, Echo had facial features and fingers in addition to a sleek, high-tech body and smooth, gliding wings.
Those wings were on full display in the Overwatch 2 BlizzCon trailer, which had some fans guessing that the flying Echo would be joining Mercy and friends on the support team.
Not so. Echo is a damage character, and a powerful one at that.
The newest addition to the Overwatch roster uses energy-based attacks. Her primary ability, Tri-shot, lets her shoot a triangular burst from her hand. Echo can also fire a few sticky bombs that explode after a moment, and she has a Focusing Beam to deal a lot of damage in the few seconds it’s available.
But what really makes Echo special is her ultimate ability, which Kaplan called “the most game-changing ultimate we’ve ever added to Overwatch.” Remember when I said that Echo was designed to adapt to the world around her? That’s true in combat as well. Using Duplicate, Echo takes the role of an enemy team hero and is able to use their abilities for a short time.
The possibilities created by this unprecedented ability are nearly endless. With three tanks on a side, Echo’s team could quickly steamroll the opposing squad. Or, Echo can take a healer role when times are tough and help get her teammates back on their feet. Of course, she can duplicate damage characters, too; the only person Echo can’t become is the opposing team’s Echo. It’s not a stealthy move; opposing players will be able to recognize when Duplicate is in use by the character’s blue glow.
Echo’s Duplicate has led to some memorable moments during internal playtests, Kaplan said. In one instance, he was using Echo to fly beyond the opposing team’s bunker and attack Bastion from behind, “but I realized my ultimate ability was up. So instead, I transformed into Bastion. And I then became Bastion, I transformed into turret mode, and I’m behind their bunker, and I just mowed them all down.”
There’s one more special aspect to Duplicate: While Echo is transformed, the character that she’s mimicking will generate its own ultimate ability much more quickly than normal. A really talented player could, for example, deploy Roadhog’s ultimate attack, Whole Hog, twice in a single run using Duplicate, which Kaplan says he also witnessed while playing with other Blizzard employees.
Last but not least is Echo’s passive ability, Glide. As revealed in that Overwatch 2 trailer, Echo is a flier, similar to Mercy. She can also hover in the air and glide around on her way back down. It took a few tries during my hands-on session to get the hang of flying with Echo, but with some practice it felt incredibly smooth. Flight makes Echo a great foil for other airborne attackers like Pharah.
This combination of abilities makes Echo a powerhouse, but it’s balanced out by her lack of defensive abilities, which separates her from other damage characters like Genji and Doomfist.
“I think the balance challenges revolve around making sure she’s not too dominant in any one situation, and that she has some vulnerabilities,” Kaplan told us. That said, Echo is still a work in progress, with player reactions in the PTR client likely to determine how she’s ultimately balanced.
“Sometimes the community teaches us how to play the hero,” hero producer Gary Fonville said. “I think Overwatch League will see some really great moments and strategies that we may have not encountered internally, and how best to use her.”
Speaking of Overwatch League, Kaplan predicts Echo will be popular among esports players — and that she’ll test the pros’ skills in new ways.
“I mean, her damage and her flanking ability are second to none,” Kaplan said. “So I think a lot of teams will be attracted to her and then, more than the average players, I think the pro players in Overwatch League and contenders will really exploit that ultimate ability more than any anybody that we see.”
As Kaplan put it, there are “two versions of popular in the esports scene”: what’s popular with players, and what’s popular with the audience. “Players are going to love seeing this because you’re going to have some of your favorite damage pros like Sinatraa and Surefour who you’re gonna see transforming into characters you never normally get to see them play ... what happens when Surefour transforms into Reinhardt?”
Despite Echo’s undeniably cool abilities, she’s still pretty approachable for more casual Overwatch players, which I can attest to firsthand. Even though my skills were rusty, playing Echo felt intuitive in a way that other characters haven’t. Every move and attack is so smooth and streamlined, and she doesn’t require masterful aim and timing to get the job done. However, it’s going to be the best players that really master Echo’s ult, because they’ll need to be able to adapt to every other character in the game.
“I think she’s really approachable for new players just mainly through her abilities,” associate game designer Joshua Noh said. “She has a lot of power weighed into her abilities. There’s not so much really hardcore aiming or prediction required. [...] But for the high-end people, she scales really well with player knowledge. So if you’re able to clone another hero, being able to play that hero is really important. And so since the other team could be playing any of those 32 heroes, you have to be able to play them all.”
Nearly four years into Overwatch’s life span, the base roster of 21 characters has been expanded to 31, with Echo making it 32. The process of introducing a new hero gets more difficult every time, according to Noh.
“It definitely gets a little trickier to try to find a niche for each hero,” Noh told Polygon. “We have to look towards their abilities and make sure they’re useful in situations” where other heroes don’t necessarily have the skills to shine.
Echo’s abilities, particularly Duplicate, make her the most interesting addition to the Overwatch lineup in a long time. However, for those disappointed by the release of yet another damage hero, your time will come. “We have a number of new heroes in development,” said Kaplan. “We have multiple tanks, and we have multiple supports in development. But after Echo, the team is going to be heavily focused on Overwatch 2 development.”
As for Overwatch 2, Kaplan reported that “development is going great. The team’s having tons of fun making the game, I feel like we’re starting to understand it even more.” However, don’t expect a release announcement anytime soon; Blizzard doesn’t plan on communicating much about it this year.
Overwatch 2 may be a long way out, but Echo is just about ready to go — PC players on the PTR can try out Hero 32 starting Thursday. There’s no set date for the main server and console release, but a Blizzard rep told me that April was likely. Echo couldn’t be coming at a better time; with much of the world in self-isolation thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting with friends over a few rounds of Overwatch is a great excuse to get in some much-needed socialization.