In mid-November 2018, popular Overwatch streamer and former pro player Brandon “Seagull” Larned posted a video to his YouTube channel titled The State of Overwatch. In it, Seagull breaks down a number of criticisms of Overwatch as a game at present. He takes issue with the state of the game’s ongoing GOATS Composition meta and the abundance of heroes that hard counter or outright instakill others. He describes a game he clearly loves but with which he has become increasingly frustrated and unhappy.
The video hit on a number of issues I’d been having with Overwatch myself. I love Overwatch. I’ve been playing it since the closed beta, and was still playing it with friends every other night as recently as November, but it was clear we weren’t really having fun anymore. The bottom line is: we couldn’t ever play the heroes we wanted because someone would immediately hard counter them. We would then have to change to hard counter those heroes, causing them to change to hard counter our hard counter, and on and on it went. The end result was no-one ever getting to play a hero they enjoyed or were terribly good at. The kills felt cheap. The defeats were especially bitter. The victories no longer felt like they were the result of good picks and solid strategy.
To not engage in the ridiculous hard counter dance was to make a swift and crushing defeat inevitable. One friend, a Reinhardt main, became so disillusioned with the state of his favourite hero — forgotten by Blizzard, his Earthshatter ultimate left bugged for almost a year, and directly, harshly countered by most of the game’s newer heroes — that he would only last a round or two before quitting. Ask other tank mains how they’re feeling and you’ll hear a similar refrain. Hard tanking is what my friend is good at. Its what he wants to do. He actually enjoys it. It’s also the one role no bastard ever seems to want to fill, making his desire to jump in and do it even more valuable. But he can’t, because the game in its current state punishes him in a hundred ways for the crime of trying to do his job. I’m a healer main, and even I don’t have it that bad.
Anyway, it felt like the magic was gone. The soft-edged rock-paper-scissors hero dynamics of the game’s first year had been replaced by the kind of hard counters and instakill bullshit that keeps esports audiences entertained and we were over it. That’s fun to watch, sure, but we didn’t want to watch, we wanted to play. So we needed a new game, one that not only encouraged planning, smart picks and skillful team play, but rewarded us for it (and preferably wasn’t a MOBA). And that’s when I remembered Rainbow Six: Siege.
It had been a few years since I’d reviewed Siege for our now defunct entertainment site The Iris. I consider it the little Ubisoft game that could — the one that has refused to die in a world full of team-based shooters because it brings something unique to the table. Its hard simulation of SWAT engagements — tactical insertions into hostile environments, all of which are jury-rigged to be as hazardous as possible — are a far cry from the colourful and heavily stylised Overwatch. Siege tells you what it’s about right there in the title — siege situations. Every level plays out one of two ways — siege breaking or being under siege. Each level features a building or construct that must be either taken or defended. Sometimes the goal is simply eliminating every member of the other team. Sometimes its about guarding a hostage as waves of enemies attempt to storm the room and take them. Sometimes you’re the one attempting to snatch the hostage and escort them to safety.
There’s a silence that hangs over the start of every round, followed by the buzzing and whirring of tiny camera robots as the hunt for intel begins. Knowledge is power. Knowing where your enemy is and what they’ve got is critical. Equally critical: making moves in accordance with that intel. Everything else will get you killed. Charging into a room blind will get you killed. Forgetting the enemy can shoot through walls will get you killed. Moving too quickly will give away your location and will get you killed. Failing to properly utilise the full range of abilities your Operator (Siege‘s version of Heroes or Classes) possesses will get you killed. You strain your ears for the sound of movement, the thud of boots on tiled floors, of traps being set or of windows breaking. Patience is key, but patience means managing your nerves.
It’s tense, tough and genuinely fun. The victories are sweet and you revel in a job well done. The losses are hard, but are always teachable — its always easy to see where you went wrong and what to try for next time. That Siege has a dedicated esports following doesn’t impact on the quality of its game loop — players and pro’s want the same thing, a good fight.
There are downsides, concessions to be made — for those who complain about instakill bullshit, as I have done earlier in this piece, death may be frustrating. But the fact that Siege aims for realism where it can makes it somewhat easier to accept because it makes sense in context. In Overwatch, instakill feels shitty because not every hero can do it and there’s little most heroes can do in response. Siege edges towards simulation, making instakill part of the buy-in. Real incoming fire will shred anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way, and the same applies in the game. It can be rationalised mechanically, something that Overwatch needs to work a great deal harder at.
There’s also the matter of Operators — most are locked behind a paywall and, if you aren’t willing to shell out for each new Season Pass, then you’ll be stuck grinding up the in-game currency required to unlock them. And the grind, at least for those of us on the Starter Edition, is real. After weeks of regular play I’ve only managed to unlock two or three new operators, and one of them came out of the game’s Christmas gift loot drop.
This, in concert with its fairly limited range of game modes, might be Siege‘s biggest stumbling block. We like to try new things, we like cooking up new strategies with new Operators and seeing how we go. But the grind required to unlock them means you’re stuck playing with the same Operators for a very long time indeed. This has the effect of making the game feel a bit repetitive — you pick from the same pool of about five people over and over. Once you master them, you have to hope that the team you’re matched up against can put up a fight. I don’t mind a bit of an unlock treadmill if its reasonably paced, but this one asks you to run a marathon for pretty minimal reward. If Ubi was looking for an aspect of the game to improve, I’m sure they’ve been told a thousand times that this is it.
Don’t get me wrong, this certainly hasn’t stopped us making the most of the game. As a multiplayer game, we’ve been playing Siege almost exclusively throughout December and into the New Year. It scratches an itch that Overwatch seems to have forgotten about in its rush to capture an esports audience excited about killstreaks and showy sniper plays. I didn’t participate in the Overwatch Winter Wonderland event this year at all. I haven’t opened the five Christmas loot boxes they gave me because I haven’t opened the app. And unless Blizzard commit to looking at the problems inherent to the current Overwatch experience, for everyone and not just the pro’s, I struggle to think of a reason I’d go back. It breaks my heart to feel that way about Overwatch, but if I’m not having fun then it’s better to move on. Until then — and I never thought I’d actually utter these words — add me on Uplay.