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Junker Queen recalls her knife using a magnetic glove as she faces Zenyatta and Echo in Junkertown in a screenshot from Overwatch 2 Image: Blizzard Entertainment

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Overwatch is dead; long live Overwatch 2

Blizzard wanted to redefine the sequel. In a way, it did

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

When Blizzard Entertainment revealed Overwatch 2 to the world nearly three years ago, then-game director Jeff Kaplan, the man who shepherded the original Overwatch from failed MMO to dominant hero shooter, said the team hoped to “redefine what a sequel means.” Kaplan, beloved by the Overwatch community, was believably optimistic.

Blizzard has certainly redefined what a sequel means with Overwatch 2, but not in the way that Kaplan had seemingly envisioned. Because Overwatch 2 is not a sequel in the conventional sense. Instead, it’s a thorough overhaul and replacement of the 2016 game, now with free-to-play economic underpinnings to support its continued development.

Overwatch 2 may not earn its “2” — branding it Overwatch 2.0 might have felt more apt — but it does earn its “early access” launch designation. Overwatch 2 arrives without the biggest selling points touted at its reveal: “a complete story experience” and “highly replayable” cooperative hero missions. Blizzard has promised those features will come later. But new heroes, new maps, a new gameplay mode, and other changes both superficial and consequential at least make Overwatch 2 feel… different.

Overwatch 2 carries over the entire roster from the first game, and introduces three new heroes. One is Sojourn, the series’ first playable Black woman character, who brings a railgun and high mobility to the damage group. Junker Queen, a towering tank who, like all Australian Overwatch characters, summons Mad Max comparisons, also brings team buffs and aggression to the roster. New support character Kiriko combines the fast-paced action of Overwatch’s Genji with the ability to heal and teleport through walls. All three are exciting new additions to the world of Overwatch, but Kiriko represents a new wrinkle for players: Only those who pay for the game’s premium battle pass will get instant access to her. Others will have to play dozens of matches to eventually unlock her, watching from the sidelines as a subset of the audience gets to play the support character.

Kiriko sends out her spirit fox as part of her Kitsune Rush ability in Overwatch 2
New hero Kiriko can summon a spirit fox that buffs her teammates as they charge forward to an objective.
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Much of the original roster has been altered in some way. Heroes who could stun opponents (Brigitte, Cassidy, Mei, et al.) no longer have their crowd-control abilities. All support characters now self-heal passively, making them far more survivable. Other heroes have been massively reworked for Overwatch 2’s launch; Orisa no longer has a shield or a gravitational vortex ball, and Doomfist is now a tank-class hero with a powerful block and reworked movement. Many of those changes and new hero additions serve to flatten the roster with newly overlapping abilities, and make strategic hero counter-picking — an important facet of the original launch version of Overwatch — feel less important.

Substantial reworks to heroes like Bastion, Sombra, and Orisa, however, breathe new life into these characters. Both bots are much more aggressive, and I’m much more likely to pick them in play than I was in the original game. Sombra, now much more of a damage dealer, is a menace to backline heroes, who may find themselves hacked and quickly disposed of.

The removal of stun moves like Cassidy’s flashbang and Mei’s ability to freeze enemies with her Endothermic Blaster has also reduced frustration. It’s never been pleasurable to be on the receiving end of such attacks, but those tweaks have decimated the thrill of single-handedly eliminating a rival opponent as one of those characters. It’s a trade-off I’m still wrestling with, especially with how often I delighted in launching a brain-skewering icicle into a paralyzed enemy as Mei in the original Overwatch. I’ll miss knowing that the last thing my exasperated, frozen opponents saw was Mei’s smirking face. And for as much as I loathed being harassed by a Cassidy player sneaking into my team’s backline, flashbanging me, and fan-the-hammering me to death, I’ll miss those moments too — in a masochistic way. A bit of each altered hero’s identity has been shaved off in the pursuit of game balance.

Zenyatta, Sombra, Sigma and Sojourn guide a robot in a screenshot from Overwatch 2
Push mode is a variant on Escort-style gameplay, where teams must guide a robot to move a barrier through symmetrical maps.
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

These hero adjustments coincide with another major change to Overwatch 2’s design: Teams are now composed of five heroes, as opposed to six, an attempt on Blizzard’s part to reduce the “noise” of Overwatch matches. This has the benefit of halving the number of shields in any given match — and in my experience with Overwatch 2, spending less time shooting at glowing barriers and instead directly engaging with my opponents, it has made battles more exciting and energetic.

Over the past week, I’ve experienced thrilling new competitive moments, some powered by Kiriko’s ultimate that buffs her team’s speed, turning them into a well-oiled, enemy-shredding machine. With a group of five, team pushes felt tighter, with my allies rallying behind a Nano-Boosted Bastion to break through Reinhardt’s shield and overwhelm a point with superior firepower. Taking down an enemy tank, like a Roadhog or a Zarya, feels even more consequential, almost like a boss fight, thanks to their buffs.

Overwatch 2’s new game mode, Push, adds a trio of new maps and an interesting twist on payload-style gameplay. Push being part of the gameplay rotation — alongside Control, Escort, and Hybrid maps — comes with a bittersweet caveat: Assault maps are now relegated to custom games only, meaning many players will rarely, if ever, battle on maps like Hanamura, Volskaya Industries, and Temple of Anubis in Overwatch 2. While Assault (aka 2CP) maps were often imbalanced, leading to never-ending games, draws, or total blowouts, they were deeply connected to Overwatch’s lore and its personality. Who will destroy the arcade games of Hanamura like a pack of feral dogs after we’ve all moved on?

Playing Overwatch 2 over the past week has also introduced a new calculus I wasn’t required to consider during roughly 900 hours with the original game: leveling up my battle pass progress (and doing it in the most efficient way possible) to chase cosmetic unlocks like skins and emotes. Overwatch 2 is free and follows the ubiquitous battle pass system employed in similar games, like Apex Legends, Valorant, and Halo Infinite. As a player who was somewhat obsessed with acquiring all of the unlockable and event-themed skins in Overwatch by grinding for randomized loot boxes (and occasionally paying for some), the looming obligation of daily check-ins and weekly in-game goals already feels stressful. Blizzard’s aggressive season schedule — rolling out new content every nine weeks and populating an in-game shop with rotating digital goodies — only compounds that.

The battle pass tier menu with Kiriko, the newest Overwatch 2 hero, and a collection of other cosmetic items
New hero Kiriko is the first Overwatch 2 hero to be part of a battle pass. Players who don’t purchase a premium pass will unlock her at level 55.
Image: Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

Ultimately, the math may work out in my favor, and that of many other players. Do I really need to chase a skin for Widowmaker, a character I’ll never play? Will purchasing a battle pass every few months, either with real-world money or the currency I’ve earned in-game, net out to match what I spent on loot boxes? That’s difficult to say after spending a week with Overwatch 2, which I exclusively played in Quick Play matches or in custom games.

It’s the notion that players have to consider these factors at all that vexes me. Overwatch’s loot box-based monetization tactic had problems of its own — spending 10 bucks on a virtual slot machine pull and occasionally coming away with meager rewards was a drag — but the imposing pressure to grind and accomplish a list of tasks each day, week, and season makes me more cynical than I want to be about the sequel to my go-to, yes-I’m-still-playing-this game.

Such are the economics of modern service games, perhaps. Fear of missing out will not be exclusive to Overwatch 2. But Blizzard has a reputation of one-upping its competition, whether by looking at the massively multiplayer online role-playing game market in the early 2000s and answering with World of Warcraft, or building expertly on the ideas of Dune 2 to create Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, and Team Fortress 2 to make Overwatch. The studio’s approach to retrofitting Overwatch with a battle pass system that so closely apes similar models from Apex Legends and Valorant does not feel creative or progressive enough to erase my initial cynicism.

In the end, should those economic concerns matter? A new player coming to Overwatch 2, after a bit of playing to unlock everything, should still have endless fun with its eclectic mix of characters, game modes, and maps, just as long as they don’t care about doing it in style with the latest skins, weapon charms, and emotes. Many players will likely have a fantastic time playing Overwatch 2 for what it is at heart: one of the most polished and playable hero shooters on the market.

Junker Queen throws her glowing knife, Gracie, at an offscreen opponent on the map Junkertown in a screenshot from Overwatch 2
Junker Queen embodies Overwatch 2’s hero design philosophy: aggressive, well-rounded, and with abilities that overlap with other heroes.
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

I still have hope for Overwatch 2, after having seen some of Blizzard’s plans for new content coming in the next few seasons. The next two heroes arriving in the coming months, a new tank and a new support, will bring fresh ideas and strategies to the game. The studio has also committed to new seasonal events, including a sequel of sorts to the Halloween-themed Junkenstein’s Revenge co-op mode, and other substantial new gameplay modes that are unlike anything Overwatch currently has. The Overwatch content famine is about to become a feast for Overwatch 2.

Then there is the promised, but still mostly unrevealed, noncompetitive content: the story and hero missions that will finally deliver more Overwatch lore. How those will be doled out to players — or how much it will cost them — is unclear, and requires faith on players’ part that Blizzard will deliver on time and with the quality they expect.

Enjoying Overwatch 2 is an exercise in cautious optimism — not just in the future direction of its ever-changing lore and world, but in the idea that years of new content will ultimately deliver on the promise of a full sequel.

Overwatch 2 was released on Oct 4. on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using test server access provided by Blizzard Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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