The daringly divisive differences in D.va: or, when is a tank not a tank?

I have to admit, I kind of went back and forth on actually uploading this. While we do everything in our power to avoid making things so obscure that no one else will understand what the hell we’re talking about, we also don’t really like to focus too much on singular events or changes in both games and the industry. This is more because we understand that not everyone is even interested in this specific stuff, and thus we try and maintain a sort of general level for the blog (barring the spoiler talks and the Final Fantasy Forumla, which are more specific). But in the end, I can’t deny said recent changes has piqued a few interesting questions into my head, mostly on the sometimes conflicting nature of D.Va’s role and ability.

I’ll just get this out of the way and clear from the start: this article isn’t seeking to determine whether the new version of D.Va is necessarily better or worse. We will go over what the new play style does better or worse from my extremely limited perspective, but I’m not going to preach to others whether you should be picking D.Va or not. That’s entirely down to you, and don’t let some phony ‘meta’ tell you any which way.

With all that out of the way, let’s do as an aggressive D.Va player will do, and dive in.

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First things first, let me paint the scene for those who aren’t aware. In Blizzard’s crazy popular Hero-Shooter (don’t look at me, that’s just what people are calling the genre) Overwatch, there’s a character by the name of D.Va. In the lore and setting, she’s a pretty fun character: she’s one of the foremost members of South Korea’s MEKA program, which is a division of pro gamers who pilot what are essentially walking tanks armed with gatling shotguns. In addition to that already incredible stretch of logic, she’s also a hugely popular movie star, owns her own brand of merchandise, and actually streams all of the conflicts she gets into to her adoring fans. In addition to that, one of her signature attacks is to active her MEKA’s self destruct, turning the highly advanced machine into what must be the world’s most expensive bomb. What I’m trying to get across here is that D.Va is definitely a character that you’re not really supposed to take too seriously; she’s basically the ultimate wish fulfilment character for both male and female gamers, and her back-story is just nuts enough to be absolutely perfect in comedic tone.

It’s important that you understand what kind of tone D.Va is working with, because the tone of a character is often quite indicative of their play style. This isn’t something that Overwatch invented, since even the earliest fighting games had elements of this, but the main point to remember is that Overwatch plays it completely to the hilt. The honourable knight’s play style is almost completely dedicated to just protecting his allies, the cold and unfeeling sniper is all about ruthlessly blowing your enemy’s heads off, the zen monk healer is all about calmly picking and choosing your targets from a distance, etc. To that end, it’s easy to imagine someone like D.Va’s play style; highly aggressive, pretty damn fast, and something with a lot of flash. You would be correct in assuming this, since D.Va was defined as a character that benefited from diving straight on top of an enemy, pummelling with her shotgun-like cannons, blocking attacks with her bullet negating shield and her big flashy ultimate…at least, at first.

This is where we come to the first crossroad in D.Va’s somewhat unstable position in the game. When the game first launched, D.Va was quite regularly seen as a fairly poor choice, since she underperformed in many areas: the shield that she relied on to actually tank damage was kind of unreliable, her damage was lacklustre, and the only thing that she had that the other tanks lacked was a pretty good mobility. On top of this, D.Va has the single largest ‘head’ in the game, since her MEKA’s entire front cock-pit is considered a critical-hit area, meaning she was actually pretty easy to take down. In order to help alleviate this, Blizzard adjusted her shield and made her ultimate slightly more reliable, mostly in the hopes that she would get out of the low-tier pit she was in. Unfortunately, these changes only slightly helped, and D.Va was still considered a highly poor choice next to simple but effective Reinhardt and the devastatingly strong Zarya.

Blizzard finally woke up and smelled the roses. If they were going to remove the stigma surrounding D.Va, they were going to have to buff her considerably. Thus, during the rather tumultuous time that was Sombra’s launch, D.Va saw quite a considerable increase for both her damage, her total health, and how long she could use her shield. Additionally, she could also move faster while using her primary attack, all of which meant she was now a much stronger pick…maybe a little too strong. She had always had a strong ‘dive’ potential, meaning she was strongest at just diving straight on top of the enemy, but now she was incredibly hard to stop. She could burn down most of the cast before they could do anything, the small health boost made a big difference in team-fights, and her shield could eat up entire ultimate attacks with energy to spare. D.Va had shot up straight from underpowered to horrendously unfun overpowered. I mean, it was great fun for people actually playing as D.Va, but you see my point.

Wisely not leaving this problem to grow too large, Blizzard reduced some of D.Va’s upgrades, mostly her damage and making her slightly less tough. This was where we saw the biggest change to D.Va’s actual play style: now lacking her ability to dive onto targets, D.Va suddenly became much more valued for her shield, which hadn’t been touched. Even if her deadliness had been reduced, that shield could still completely negate a huge number of the game’s most dangerous attacks, and proper use could do a lot to keep your team alive. This caused a split of opinions, from those who thought this made the most sense for a tank character (a class that is usually defined by the ability to stop damage rather than deal it), and those that just found this new style incredibly boring. D.Va’s bombastic and aggressive style had been replaced with a much more practical and understandable one, but it was still a hard pill to swallow when it felt so much less fulfilling than what had come before it. In addition, there were arguments that the shield was simply too powerful, since it was a basic ability that could completely halt several of the game’s powerful ultimate attacks. It was clear on pretty much every forum that the change was divisive.

This wasn’t going to be end of the changes to D.Va, however, since we now arrive at the present.  Overwatch’s development team has seen fit to reduce the shield’s total uptime, meaning it can no longer stop the entirety of most of the game’s ultimate attacks, though it can still take a huge edge off them. To compensate for this, however, D.Va has been given an entirely new ability where her MEKA fires off a barrage of micro-missiles. This ability doesn’t do a huge amount of damage, but it notably can be fired at anytime, has no limit to its range, and has a fairly low cool-down. Combine this with the fact that D.Va can now use her primary fire while using her dashing ability, this can only mean one thing: diving is back on the agenda. And holy hell, can D.Va dive like no one’s business. While people can make the argument that the missiles do work as D.Va’s only long-range attack, it’s often more beneficial to use them at the same time as her primary fire and to just burn down anyone unlucky enough to get in her way. While you do have to pick and choose your moments with the shield much more carefully, many celebrated the fact that D.Va’s more aggressive play style had made a return, and in such an explosive fashion. However, it was brought up that D.Va’s primary method to actually keep her team safe was now greatly reduced, making a character that was classified as a tank much closer to some kind of high-health DPS.

This is where we run into the meat of the matter. Note that D.Va’s primary way of tanking damage, her shield, struggles to co-exist with her ability to dive onto enemies. If she has both a strong shield and high damage, she becomes too strong, since she can fulfil both roles quite powerfully. However, simply reducing her damage makes her less fun to play, since her entire character (both in gameplay and setting) is based around her ability to dive onto enemies. And thus we run into a dilemma: is D.Va better off being able to fulfil her role as a tank as effectively as possible, or is it better to make sure the character is enjoyable for the majority?  D.Va saw a lot more use in the higher skill levels/pro scene when her shield got buffed, since the ability to just shut down enemy ultimate attacks (or to discourage the enemy from using it by simply being present for the fight) is a useful skill for someone who’s already at a level where they can easily predict if the enemy is ready to use said ultimate attacks. However, this skill is less useful in the lower levels, not only because it’s harder to predict whether your enemy’s ready to use their ultimate attacks, but it’s often easier just go full ham and try to kill the enemy; both teams are more disorganised, so just attacking is often enough. This ties into a much larger argument about how much the perspective of the skilled few should affect the less skilled many, but that’s a matter for a different article.

It’s worth noting that this problem isn’t wholly based on D.Va’s performance. Overwatch is a game where certain characters perform well against certain other characters, acting as kinds of counters to each other. This means that changes to other characters can, inadvertently, make other characters stronger or weaker (e.g. when several hit scan heroes were nerfed, Phara became much stronger because it became difficult to shoot her out of the air). D.Va was at her absolute strongest at Sombra’s launch not only because of her buffs, but because that season saw a massive swing towards diving strategies, something she excelled at.

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So that’s all the facts of the matter. What I’m trying to get across here is that this isn’t really a simple matter with a simple solution: both sides of the argument have a fair point, and trying to find the middle ground isn’t easy. While Blizzard can sometimes go a little over-board and be completely over-kill when they make balance changes (poor, poor Roadhog) I have to give them credit for the fact they’re clearly committed to at the very least keep trying.

The argument of whether or not D.Va’s reduced ability to tank damage is an outright negative thing (since it makes her something closer to a hard to kill DPS) is a fair criticism, since you would expect that a character in the tank category would be mainly about absorbing damage. But I think it’s closer to her particular style of being a tank has sifted. If she can effectively bully the enemy’s healers and get right up in the face of the DPS characters, she’s definitely going to be drawing attention away from her team. While I gave the example of her now being closer to Winston, she also has parallels with pre-nerf Roadhog (or maybe post-buff Roadhog, we’ll see) for being able to tank via sheer presence: it’s hard to ignore such a large and dangerous target, which takes your eye off the much smaller DPS characters. Again, I’m not going to say whether this is fundamentally better or worse, since that’s going to be based on your own skill and perception. What I will say is that this change definitely opens the door to new ways of handling D.Va’s kit, and it’ll be interesting to see what’s done with it.

Personally, I quite a big fan of D.Va’s more aggressive play style, both because it suits her in characterisation, but also because it’s pretty fun. While you have to definitely be more careful wit when you use her shield, it’s still fairly okay at taking the edge off some of the game’s ultimate attacks, which probably means playing against D.Va feels a little less punishing as well. I’ll freely admit that she’s not as good at keeping her teammates alive; disruption tanks tend to fill in a space as a secondary tank, though the exact makeup of a team is always going to be decided by the capabilities of the team first and foremost. I half suggest letting the changes settle for a few weeks just to see how her performance pans out, before any additional changes are made.

Interestingly enough, this constant back and forth is a relatively recent development in the gaming industry. Back in the days of the arcade, if a character was over or under powered, they were pretty much doomed to remain as such since you couldn’t just patch an arcade cabinet. If changes had to made, you would have to manually change EVERY single cabinet ([which has happened in the past]) to sort things out, which would be a god-damn financial sinkhole. With the increasing prevalence of online gaming and gaming being connected to the internet, it’s become more and more possible to patch a huge number of elements in a video game, with multiplayer games having the biggest examples. Whether this is a positive thing that allows a game to constantly be updated and to constantly strive towards being balanced, or something that only encourages haphazard and poorly thought-out designs decisions and balancing, is going to be pretty subjective. As with many topics we talk about, the only thing we can sure of is that the future of the industry is sure as heck going to be interesting to watch at least.

In any case, I’ve rambled enough. This change in D.Va is just the latest in a string of different balance choices, and I imagine this won’t be the last one. Whether this change is necessarily better or worse is, always, something each individual is going to have to evaluate themselves. If the majority begins to lean one way or another will be interesting to see unfold on this current competitive season (the sixth one, to be exact). So as always, try to have fun, and hope that Blizzard doesn’t take her catch-phrase of ‘nerf this!’ too seriously.

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Phew, bugger, an entire article for just one change to one character. At least it’s done, I guess. Now, let’s take a glance at the changes they made to Mercy.


…God damn.

(I’m joking, I’m joking! I swear we won’t do any more of these character things for the at least a couple of weeks.)

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