Inside Overwatch 2's new Antarctic Peninsula map, which has PENGUINS
Blizzard developers talk map design, lore, art direction, and more.
Overwatch 2's third season is less than a week away, with its arrival scheduled for February 7. As with previous seasons, Season 3 will feature a brand new Battle Pass for players to progress through, complete with cosmetic rewards and the new Amaterasu Kiriko Mythic skin. On top of that, though, Season 3 will also bring a new map to the game: Antarctic Peninsula, a Control map set on the frigid continent.
It's one of the most interesting locations that Blizzard Entertainment's Overwatch team has ever chosen to build a level in, and as many fans know, Antarctica ties into the origin story of Mei — a hero with ice-based weapons and abilities — directly. To talk about the map and the creative process behind it, I was invited to a press interview with three Overwatch 2 developers: Art Director Dion Rogers, Principal Narrative Designer Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie, and Level Designer Trey Spisak.
During the call, these developers gave valuable insight about how new maps are made, the type of gameplay experience fans can expect from Antarctic Peninsula, how Blizzard approached the unique challenge of elevating Antarctica with Overwatch's trademark charm, and more. Here's what I learned.
Building a map from the ground up
Everything has to start somewhere, and new maps are no exception. Rogers and Spisak told us that when the Overwatch 2 team starts designing a new map, the process begins on paper, with art and level design teams working together to solidify a theme and roughly plan a layout. Then, the level is built in-engine, with designers tweaking and improving it before returning the map to artists that flesh out and elevate its appearance.
"Basically, we have a list of places we'd love to visit in real life or see our heroes go to ... usually we start off with a bunch of reference, we take pictures, and we start to share that with our level designers," said Rogers. "We start to balance ideas, we start to get into a paper design."
"It's on the level designers to figure out what the areas we're going to hit in the map are ... we start with the 2D layout, usually on paper, and that helps us solve a lot of problems we would have to find in the 3D layout, which would take us a lot longer," said Spisak, chiming in. "We find a good layout, we put it in the editor, make it 3D, and we start playtesting it. We iterate on the design, and we try and find the fun ... eventually, we hand it back to Dion's team."
At the same time, writers begin drafting a "future history document," a tool used to imagine and organize the lore and story elements that ground the level in Overwatch's universe. As it's developed, this document is used by art teams to enrich the map with visual storytelling.
"In Antarctica, we have the story of Mei and what happened to her and her team, [and] other mysteries that we want to talk about. So, we sort of establish that out," said Jurgens-Fyhrie. "In other cases more recently, like in Malevento or the Portugal map, we'd look at what exists in the world and what's near that, and what we can connect to the larger story."
"We imagine not just what happened in the past, but what happened during the Omnic Crisis, and then what's happening in the present day, and thinking about the micro-stories we want to tell," Jurgens-Fyhrie continued. "Using that, we can influence what's going to be shown in the art, what's going to be shown in the signs, everything like that."
Building a Control map for the 5v5 era
In terms of how Antarctic Peninsula plays, Spisak says that the map will be less spacious and open than maps were in the original Overwatch. This is to compensate for the move to 5v5 and the loss of a tank, which was one of Overwatch 2's biggest changes.
"It's something we have to keep an eye on now, because the game plays differently with one less tank and generally less barrier health. Big spaces like Junkertown become a little brutal sometimes now, so when we're designing these new maps, we're really thinking about 5v5 and that new world with one tank," Spisak said. "You might find that the maps are a little bit tighter [and] have a little bit more cover than you're used to."
Like other Control maps, Antarctic Peninsula has three separate stages: Icebreaker, an arena set on and around an abandoned ship; Sublevel, an underground facility beneath icy surface; and Labs, the area where Mei and her colleagues used to conduct research. Players can expect certain characters to be more effective than others on the Icebreaker and Sublevel points, with the Labs stage seemingly featuring a more jack of all trades layout. Notably, there will also be a platform directly above the Labs control point, which is a first for a Control map.
"On the Icebreaker point, your classic boots on the ground team might do better since there's not quite as much verticality ... compared to something like our Sublevel control point, which is underground — there's a huge amount of verticality on that one," explained Spisak. "So, you might find that your Winston and your D.Va and your Pharah and Genjis are suddenly a lot more powerful ... that doesn't mean you can't play other heroes and succeed, but you should feel like you have an opportunity to switch [heroes] with each of these control points."
Of the three arenas in the map, the Icebreaker level set on a shipwrecked vessel sounds uniquely interesting. Rogers told us that a significant amount of research went into the creation of this stage, as the developers wanted to make its icebreaker feel authentic. The result, he says, is an arena that's easy to understand and navigate, especially if you have experience with ships.
"It's super rad to fight inside an abandoned ship as large as an icebreaker. We've got the cool tunnels, and the engine room, and you can get a lot of direction from it because you can see the bow of the ship or where the captain's chamber is," he said. "It gives a lot of [opportunities for] teamwork if you're working together, [because] you can call out a lot of key areas where people are and it's very clear to understand where that might be, especially if you understand the language of boats. We studied icebreakers pretty well to try and integrate this into the level."
A portion of the battlefield is made up of ice caves, which Rogers thinks players will be able to use effectively as flank routes with quick and stealthy Overwatch 2 heroes.
"I've personally found that flanking characters like Tracer or Reaper do really well in the ice caves part of the Icebreaker level," he elaborated. "You need to capture the point, [then] keep an eye on the caves for the guys coming around the flanks ... a lot of our close-combat heroes tend to excel there, but there's a nice balance for whichever hero you prefer to use."
The most organic Overwatch map yet
Most Overwatch maps are set in futuristic cities, making the frozen environments of Antarctic Peninsula stand out sharply from the rest of the map pool. Rogers discussed the challenges of creating a more organic map like this in the interview, noting that improvements to Blizzard's tools will allow it to begin exploring more concepts like this moving forward.
"Ice is actually a very difficult shader or graphical feature to create in gaming, but this time, we really wanted to nail it ... we talked with our engineers about the type of tools that we would need to create more organic shapes in a faster manner," Rogers said. "Normally, artists would need to sculpt most shapes, but we did update our tools, so now we're excited to explore more areas like a jungle, or even a cave that has intricate woven passages. Totally doable with some of the updates we've made to the engine — now we need the ideas to start digging into it."
One of the best things about Overwatch maps is that they're charming and fun to explore, with many of them featuring interesting lore connections, easter eggs, and unique hero voice lines that flesh out a character's relationship to the location. Jurgens-Fyhrie says that players can look forward to all of these elements and more in Antarctic Peninsula.
"One of the questions I've heard from the public I've always been excited to answer is, 'Mei and her friends were frozen for ages, why did no one come to rescue them?' The answer is, Overwatch tried," Jurgens-Fyhrie explained. "You can see the Overwatch Icebreaker ship that tried to come and rescue Mei and her team, but failed ... you can see hints of what Mei and her team were trying to find there, and maybe there's some secrets...maybe you can find something in the map that will tell you something even more exciting about the story to come."
The most exciting news of all, though, is that Antarctic Peninsula will have penguins in it. "We did add environmental bonuses to this map in the form of penguins," Jurgens-Fyhrie told us, smiling. "It was vital to the team's happiness that penguins be included."
If you're worried about the feathered friends getting hurt in the chaos of battle, don't be. "You can semi-interact with them ... you can shoot the penguins, but you cannot kill them. They're very agile, almost Matrix-like," laughed Rogers. The Art Director then went on to highlight two of the map's other humorous quirks.
"There's [also] fishing holes you can shoot and fish in; whenever you shoot, fish pop out, and you can be silly with the physics. I don't even know how this made it into the level, but it did," he continued. "We also increased the shader that we have when characters walk in the snow ... say you wanted to make a snow angel; you could actually walk your character around and create this. That's just three things; there's a bunch of easter eggs and fun things to discover."
Overwatch 2 Season 3 and the Antarctic Peninsula map is expected to arrive on February 7. Overwatch 2 is available now on Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, PS5, PS4, and Nintendo Switch. It's arguably one of the best Xbox shooters available, and since it's free-to-play, it doesn't cost anything to check it out. Alternatively, there's the Overwatch 2: Watchpoint Pack that provides access to a Premium Battle Pass, in-game currency, and more.
Overwatch 2: Watchpoint Pack
The $40 Overwatch 2: Watchpoint Pack offers fans a variety of benefits that will allow them to get guaranteed access to a Premium Battle Pass track, unlock some unique rewards, provides some in-game currency to use, and more.
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Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.