I’ve been waiting a long time to review this game. In fact, it’s nearly been 10 years since I first heard tale of Team Fortress 2. It was in September of 1999, less than six months after its predecessor, Team Fortress Classic, debuted as a Half-Life mod.
TFC was a team- and class-based mulitplayer FPS based on QuakeWorld‘s Team Fortress mod. Valve, Half-Life‘s developers, had hired the TF mod team, who brought the game with them to Half-Life‘s engine. There were two teams competing against each other for either a flag or similar objective, and you could play nine different classes (Scout, Sniper, Spy, Medic, Heavy Weapons Specialist, Demolition Man, Engineer or Pyrotechnics Guy). The game was great because it managed to balance all nine classes reasonably well, lent the teams a bit of direction with the different flags, had some really great maps and, unlike Counter-Strike, which came later, didn’t take itself too seriously. It was unpretentious and well put together.
TFC will forever hold a special place in my heart. While Ultima Online and Diablo got me into online gaming, TFC made me a fanatic. I bought Half-Life (and never played it; why would I?) for TFC. I upgraded to a high-speed connection for TFC. I bought a computer with a dedicated 3-D card to sharpen its textures. I loved everything about it.
I managed to get in on TFC‘s ground floor more by luck than anything else. It was July of ’99. A buddy of mine had just downloaded it and wanted to show me how cool it was to play the Sniper class. Four hours later, I was inside Best Buy, looking for my very own copy of Half-Life, so I, too, could kill Scouts from 300 yards away. It wasn’t but a few months later that I started hearing people on team chat mention a sequel. Valve was hard at work on a standalone game, which was supposedly due out any time.
Of course, “any time” in gaming means anything but soon. Diablo 2 was three years in the making. I’m still waiting for StarCraft 2, the sequel to another game that sunk its teeth into me, and it’s only now in production. But TF2 is in an entirely different class. TF2, first dreamed up in 1999, has been delayed more times than I want to count, to the point you could mention it with Duke Nukem Forever in the same breath. I’ve been waiting eight goddamn years to play this game.
What’s amazing is, even after remembering TFC in my rose-colored way, I love TF2. And I hate sequels. Seriously. Couldn’t stand Diablo II. My favorite Star Wars movie was A New Hope. In my world, The Godfather Part 2 is overrated, and The Matrix should’ve ended with Neo flying into the sunset after blowing up Agent Smith. (I don’t think I’m in the minority on that last one.)
But the difference between TF2 and so many other continuations in a series is the game manages to take all the good parts from TFC – the classes, the humor, the goofy style, the balance -and then simplifies them without cheapening the experience. When I hopped into my first match, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Everything on the surface was the same, but as I got deeper, everything felt new, but in a familiar way. It’s like gaming deja vu; I’d been here before, and I knew the motions, but it was all foreign enough to be interesting.
Take, for instance, the trusty Sniper class. Its role in TF2 is the same as it was in TFC. You have a big gun, you point it at things, and those things die. I was good at this; if there were a Last Starfighter Sniper, I’d at least have made bootcamp. But now, a lot of the tools I’d come to rely upon are gone. First off, I don’t have any grenades (no one does) to protect myself from the faster guys who can get close to me and zig-zag around, avoiding my powerful shot. My backup weapon, which used to be the sniper rifle on full-auto, is instead a crappy SMG. And the worst shock was even my sniper rifle had changed. I used to be able to kill all but the strongest classes with a good chest shot, and now I typically can’t bring down another sniper unless it’s a direct headshot. I quickly realized, if I wanted to be a good Sniper now, I’d need to – gasp – rely on my team to keep me safe.
And that’s a new feeling for me, a TFC veteran. Back then, teams were a loose confederation of people wearing similar clothing who agreed not to shoot at one another, and when a naive server admin would turn friendly fire on, guys like me would name themselves “GoodTeammate” and ignore that agreement as it suited them. Everyone had his own objective – some people liked chasing down flags, others like racking up kill totals – and if they happened to overlap, it could occasionally look like they were working together.
TF2 really alters and improves that chemistry. Most obvious is the team score, which is displayed prominently in the lower center of your screen; a friendly reminder that everyone should at least pretend to want to capture the flag or control some specific territory. Funnily enough, it works. The people who care only about their score typically don’t stick around long in close games, because their teammates are too busy yelling at them to participate with everyone else. And the game actually rewards teamwork, regardless. Scores now, which used to be enemy kill tallies, are a lot more representative of someone’s contribution. For example, you get points for helping someone kill an enemy, for knocking out an opposing sentry turret, or for defending an objective the enemy is trying to capture. The game makes you want to be a part of a functioning team, rather than just being the best player wearing red.
Most of the differences between the two games are to nudge you in that teamwork direction. Take the Medic class. In TFC, they could heal friendly players and infect enemies with a contagious plague that gradually killed the other team. In TF2, they instead heal other players, which builds up an “ubercharge” meter gradually. When the ubercharge meter is full, the Medic can activate it and render a teammate and himself invincible for a little while. It’s a great strategy for breaking up turtled enemies, and it’s also an excuse for at least two people on the same team to coordinate. The aforementioned removal of grenades works the same way. You can’t just go solo into the enemy base and hope to blast your way through. Now, you need to organize an actual assault to get past the enemy’s defenses.
And the game is much, much better for it. People actually use team chat to accomplish things, rather than just yell racial epithets at one another. Compare this to Halo 2, with its rather unruly clientele on Xbox Live, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s just a lack of direction that turns 12-year-olds into idiots.
The personality is still there, too. The special taunts each class gets are hilarious, as are the short videos you’re able to watch before entering a map for the first time. When someone kills you, the game freeze-frames a view of the guy as he’s firing the killing shot (if you’re nearby, it points out your corpse, just in case you needed a reminder); a perverse homage to Guy Richie. It’s like playing Spy vs. Spy, only you have rocket launchers, and there’s a guy with a mini-gun whose grin gets bigger the longer he fires it. It’s enough of a cartoon to remind you you’re not in a war zone, but it’s competitive enough that you hate losing, and the canned boos you hear when the teams tie are even worse. The game is just a blast. It’s the best multiplayer I’ve played in years.
But it’s not all perfect. I’m playing the beta version since I pre-ordered the Orange Box, so take these specifics with a grain of salt, but a few of the classes are unbalanced and stray from TF2‘s teamwork vision because of it. The most glaring at the time of this writing is the Scout, which is so fast it can outrun most people’s mouse-tracking abilities and also does devastating close damage with a shotgun and baseball bat. And while it’s funny to get brained to the sound of a soft metal tink the first few times, you too will be singing the “nerf the Scout” refrain sooner rather than later. Seriously. Nerf the scout.
The Sniper also needs a bit of tweaking. The rifle isn’t quite powerful enough, like I mentioned before. The class itself has relatively low hit points, and since it’s vulnerable to all sorts of attacks (the tunnel vision when you’re zoomed in is killer), it could use a firepower boost. However, I’ve not been playing long and have already experienced a few patches, each one changing one thing or another. For instance, the Pyro was a joke a week and a half ago – its short range and low damage made it a sitting duck. But as of the last patch, they’re the scariest thing on the map if you’re within 10 feet of one. So chances are, Valve is still using the beta to actually test things in addition to market the game.
I now look back on TFC and see a primitive ancestor rather than unspoiled original, which is very rare for me. So often sequels miss the point, accentuate the wrong things, but TF2 doesn’t pervert anything. When I choose to play a Sniper, I’m still a Sniper. I’m just a Sniper on a much better team with a more defined role. The game itself is available in Valve’s Orange Box, which costs $44.95 on Steam, and will be available as a standalone purchase for $29.95 sometime later. Consider it highly recommended, either as part of the bundle or on its own. For a game you may find yourself playing for the next eight years, it’s definitely worth the green.