The first surprise, playing Team Fortress 2, is how incredibly bloody it is. It’s fantastically good fun, too, but you can pretty much see that just from looking at it. The explosive gore, bony hunks of shredded men and severed heads are more of a shock among these beaming cartoon smiles, but you soon realize they’re entirely necessary.
In TF2, things do what they look like they should do. A direct hit from a smoke-belching rocket looks like it ought to rip someone apart, so it does. But equally, a cartoon-style soldier who jumps over an explosion ought to be sent flying rather than simply receiving third degree burns, collapsing and being rushed to the hospital.
Previous incarnations of the team-based shooter - including three TF2s that were never released - looked too serious. That clashed with the lunatic physics of rocket-jumping and a lot of the fun ideas Valve wanted to add. “We had it backwards,” says project lead Robin Walker. “We should be building stuff that’s fun, and the art should be making it more fun.”
Another developer, faced with this problem, might have thought, “Our weapons aren’t very realistic. Let’s make them more realistic.” Valve thought, “Our weapons aren’t very realistic. Let’s make a cartoon game.” The sheer force of that change is awesome to behold.
The stylized look has enabled them to exaggerate the physical features of the nine classes, so that you can tell who you’re facing from as far away as you can see them. But the bigger change is that they’ve exaggerated the classes themselves. They’re spectacularly better at what they’re obviously meant to do, and crap at everything else.