Overwatch 2’s story missions are exactly what the shooter needs

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Overwatch 2: Invasion finally brings three PvE story missions to the competitive shooter, but it was an arduous process to get here.

When Blizzard Entertainment first announced Overwatch 2 in 2019, the game’s main hook was new cooperative story missions that would finally give players the Overwatch narrative content they yearned for alongside more replayable Hero Missions and a Talent skill tree system. When Overwatch 2 eventually launched into early access in October 2022 after several leadership changes, it was free-to-play and lacked any narrative content. To make matters worse, a May 2022 announcement from Blizzard that it canceled work on the Hero Missions system put the future of PvE story content into question for many Overwatch players.

But now with Invasion, Blizzard proves that PvE content for Overwatch 2 is still alive. I had the chance to play Invasion’s three-story missions, which kick off Overwatch 2’s narrative. Shockingly, this content lived up to my expectations, even if it wasn’t exactly what Blizzard promised with the game’s reveal in 2019. And after speaking to some of the developers behind Overwatch 2, I understand what the mood is like within the development team as it finally ships some PvE story content and prepares for what’s next.

Finally moving forward

“Up until this point, we have always been telling backstories,” director of audio and technical narrative designer Scott Lawlor told Digital Trends in a roundtable Q&A about Invasion’s story missions. “We’ve been setting up our heroes’ backgrounds are telling about the fall of Overwatch or the birth of the Omnics. And this is the first time we’re actually putting something permanent in the game that will move the story forward.”

Lucio and other heroes attack enemies in Overwatch 2 story missions.
Blizzard Entertainment

Ever since its reveal in 2014, part of what helped Overwatch stand out was its lively world and the characters that inhabit it. Unfortunately, it never felt like Blizzard prioritized that part of the experience. That’s what made the announcement of PvE story missions in Overwatch 2 so exciting. It was also why it was all the more crushing when Blizzard’s May 2023 seemed to deprioritize the importance of PvE and story content.

Because of that, I went into Overwatch 2’s story missions hesitantly, not sure if the quality I wanted from it would be there. Thankfully, these missions lived up to my expectations, even if it still feels like we’ve only gotten a part of a greater whole. With Invasion, players gain access to three different story missions set in Rio De Janeiro, Toronto, and Gothenburg. The layout of Overwatch 2’s story missions aligns with that of other big-budget co-op shooters. That said, players can only choose certain heroes during each mission.

“The plan is to keep it to that select roster for narrative purposes,” producer Monika Lee explained to Digital Trends in the group Q&A. “It’s actually a decent amount of work on the hero design side to balance for PvE. There are a few heroes that have specific abilities unique to PvE to kind of make it feel good against Null Sector. And I don’t know if it would make sense for Reaper and Moira to be wandering around once Overwatch unites, so we want to make sure that Overwatch has their time to shine as they return and unite together.”

Invasion’s most significant difference from what was promised in 2019 is that it doesn’t feature replayable features like Hero Missions and Talents. While it’s a bit disappointing to think about that deep system and what it could’ve been, story missions now have an unexpected strength that’d only really work under the parameters they ultimately released in: They let you try characters you’d never think of playing as during a typical Overwatch 2 multiplayer match.

Players fight a boss in Overwatch 2's Rio story mission.
Blizzard Entertainment

While I typically use Support characters whenever I play, I had fun learning the ins and outs of playing characters like Tracer and Pharah in these story missions, characters I’ve rarely ever played much of before. As such, I don’t think canceling that Hero Mastery content was as devastating a blow to Overwatch 2’s PvE experience as it initially seemed. Yes, it removes some replay value, but you can still revisit the mission as one of the different select characters to squeeze more out of them.

Missions accepted

The first Invasion story mission follows the core Overwatch group from the Zero Hour cinematic as they stop a Null Sector attack in Rio De Janeiro, meeting and recruiting Lucio along the way. Ultimately, this amounts to fighting hordes of Null Sector robots throughout the streets before eventually storming a Null Sector ship. Overwatch 2’s gunplay feels just as satisfying to us against AI as it does against humans, and the visual spectacle and narrative backbone of the mission keep it engaging throughout.

Overwatch 2’s story missions, give off the same vibe as solid superhero cartoons like Justice League Unlimited or My Adventures with Superman. That tone perfectly fits Overwatch as an IP, giving me exactly what I’ve wanted out of this franchise and its iconic characters for years. It all capped off with a solid shooter boss fight, too, as I had to trick a powerful boss into charging into the power core in the center of the arena multiple times.

Next up is the Toronto mission, which turns to a slightly darker tone as the colorful streets of Rio De Janeiro are traded in for the snowy, abandoned streets, subways, and factories of that Canadian city. It’s here where players meet Sojourn, one of the new heroes introduced at Overwatch 2’s launch who initially refused the call to reform Overwatch and help her save the Omnics in Toronto that Null Sector is rounding up and essentially lobotomizing for some reason.

Sojourn fights Null Sector in her Overwatch 2 story mission.
Blizzard Entertainment

The mission design changes up a bit here, with the level starting with a segment where players have to defend a boat under constant attack by Null Sector and ending with the escort mission to bring two still-alive Omnics to safety. Finally, there’s the Gothenburg mission, which sees players escort a convoy as Torbjorn, Brigette, Reinhardt, or Bastion before making a final stand and setting up turrets tower-defense style at the level’s climax.

These story missions feel delicately handcrafted, so you can tell they were a long time coming. Senior mission designer Jorge Murillo highlighted during the group Q&A that everything players see in story missions is “handcrafted” and “bespoke” in a way Overwatch’s old archive missions were just never able to achieve.

Always adapting

The most disappointing aspect of Overwatch 2’s story missions is that the story itself isn’t complete at release. It’s supposedly coming in the future as part of the game’s live service, although story missions currently seem a bit out of step with the rest of the content as Invasion’s new hero Illari is nowhere to be seen in any of this season’s PvE content.

“Players really love these heroes, they love to interact with the world, and they want more of that.”

While the tease at the end of these three missions got me excited for what’s next, Invasion’s story content is only the first act of a larger story. Blizzard isn’t keeping that a secret. “This is our first step of building the story of Overwatch into the future, and we have so many more plans for what we want to do,” Lawlor says. We’ll take our time to reveal them as they come, but there’s a lot more that we have waiting in the wings someday.”

Still, I don’t love that wait-and-see approach in a modern live service climate. As one of the few fans of Marvel’s Avengers, I know what it’s like for an engrossing superhero video game narrative experience to be left incomplete. It’s disappointing that Blizzard isn’t ready to go into details about what PvE content is coming in the future, saying it wants to react and adapt to whatever the fans think of the story missions.

A giant turret in set up in Gothenburg in Overwatch 2's story missions.
Blizzard Entertainment

That begs the question: How has the negative reception to the cancelation of Hero Missions impacted development as Blizzard brought Invasion’s story content over the finish line and prepared for what’s next? Executive producer Jared Neuss gave Digital Trends some insight into that.

“The things we canceled were really about constraints and our inability to bring that stuff to players in a timely way, so what we learned from that was something that we expected: Players really love these heroes, they love to interact with the world, and they want more of that,” Neuss told Digital Trends in a group Q&A. “And that’s not a surprise to us; that’s something we as developers love and want to do more of as well. For us, making that decision was challenging, but it gave us a very clear signal of what we should be looking at doing to evolve the game going forward. Releasing story missions is one part of that; it’s giving more of the world, giving more of the lore, and giving more of the heroes to players in a way that they can enjoy an experience differently than what they can do in PvP.”

Blizzard argues that by canceling some PvE content, it learned that the community cares for and wants more of it. And, if Neuss is true to his word, this will have a palpable impact on Overwatch 2’s live service over the next year. “It also informs things on our roadmap later this year and into 2024,” Neuss says. “There are things we’re looking at that I think can start to scratch that itch of being able to experience heroes and story in a different way.”

Not repeating past mistakes

As an Overwatch 2 player, the stakes of the developers delivering on that are only higher now that Blizzard has released some story missions and proved they can live up to expectations. The tale of Overwatch 2’s PvE live service support is far from over, and we don’t have a clear look at what’s on the horizon when it comes to new narrative content. It’s an awkward position that Blizzard is still in, even after a small win for Overwatch 2. But it’s a position Blizzard is voluntarily putting itself in because it doesn’t want to repeat mistakes made in 2019, according to Neuss.

“We know the players want these things, so it informs our roadmap in terms of what we’re planning for seasonal events and bigger moments for the game, but a lot of that is done in a way that we can’t talk about yet,” Neuss tells Digital Trends. “Some of those things are further out, and really we want to talk about things that we have high confidence that we can deliver in the near term, instead of sort of repeating some of the issues we’ve had in the past of talking about a thing that we were excited and starting to work on it, but not at a point where we could bring it across the finish line.”

The 2023 roadmap for Overwatch 2.
This is the 2023 roadmap for Overwatch 2. Season 7 does not appear to contain much in the way of narrative content outside of new cinematics. Blizzard Entertainment

At this point, I’ve been burnt by enough live service games that I’m cautious about giving Blizzard the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the future of narrative content in Overwatch 2. Still, Invasion’s story missions finally deliver on a nearly four-year-old promise from the developers, if only partially, and give the Overwatch franchise’s narrative the forward momentum it desperately needs.

If, like me, you’ve always wanted more from Overwatch’s narrative, these story missions are worth the price of admission and worth playing. The idea that Overwatch 2’s PvE experience is dead isn’t accurate, and this is a somewhat positive end to a long, dark era for Overwatch 2. Still, it remains to be seen where Blizzard does now that it finally has a bit of momentum on the PvE front.

Overwatch 2 is available for free on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch. The story missions can be permanently accessed after buying the $15 Invasion bundle, which launches alongside the new season today.

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