Oct 9, 2007
Let's not dwell too much on the original mod for Quake and Half-Life - that was ten years ago, not everyone played it, and TF2 is very obviously aimed at new players as much as old. Worth mentioning, quickly, is that it's got the same nine classes but fewer weapons for each, grenades have been removed entirely (thank God) and, well... look at it. Look what they did to it.
The changes might sound like simplification, but like the art style it's more about exaggeration. The Spy used to have a double-barrelled shotgun, for goodness' sake. Taking stuff like that out hasn't made it a simpler game, it's made the choice to be a Spy a more meaningful one. Every class is so tightly focused on doing its thing that TF2 feels like nine different games fighting each other. That's bewildering at first, but it's a joy to watch characters this beautiful smash each other to pieces while you learn.
It sounds like a small thing, to be able to tell what class someone is as surely and as clearly as you can see them at all. To have an immediate sense of the heft and power of a Heavy, rather than an abstract notion of his hitpoints. But stuff like this has an intensifying effect on your moment-to-moment experience: you feel, see and comprehend the game world in Technicolor. It makes all the relationships instantly clear and the importance of your actions explicit. In short, it makes everything you do 300% cooler.
That's Team Fortress 2: multiplayer magnified. Cooperation means more, victory is sweeter, betrayal is more bitter, defeat more humiliating. But it's what lies at the heart of multiplayer gaming that matters most, and that is, in the parlance of our times, the LOLs.
The image of a Scout circle-strafing a Heavy quickly enough to smack him into a stupor with a tiny baseball bat is inherently funny. But it only really gets a belly-laugh when the Scout is a scampering stick-boy in knee-high socks, and his victim a meat-headed brickheap of a man. Character is a catalyst for comedy, and until now multiplayer games just haven't had it. They were already funny, but TF2 just brings it out beautifully, every round.
Valve know we like to mock the dead, dance on graves, hump corpses. So as well as making that mockery more crushing, they've also made a game of it: taunting now roots you to the spot, pulls you out into third-person view to watch yourself swagger, leaving you utterly helpless. You've actually got to make a strategic decision about whether you've got a few seconds to play air guitar on your victim's carcass or not. We've seen chain-reactions of death where a Sniper waves to his unfortunate victim, is shot dead mid-mock by another, who then performs the same taunt - with the same fatal result.
But the idea that your character is a character, with his own personality, is only as relevant as you make it. If you leave the taunt and chat commands alone, you'll only really hear yourself if you're a Heavy: the big guy can't resist cackling deliriously if you're getting a lot of kills, and an extraordinary spree will usually be punctuated with a bellowing "SO... MUCH... BLOOD!"
Most maps kick off with the two teams separated by a metal mesh that lifts after a minute, giving Engineers time to build their defences and everyone else a chance to taunt each other. The result is two rows of people jeering, singing, laughing, braying, dancing and whooping at each other in a cacophony of clashing voices. It's a long-needed outlet for our natural tendency to pre-game smack talk, and it makes the atmosphere of the calm before the storm electric.
TF2 comes with six maps; three are new, three are remakes. The roster doesn't feel slim once you play them. Hydro, a control-point map split into six zones, restructures itself between rounds to put teams into one of 16 different configurations. The others are mostly a linear series of control points - all except Gravelpit, which gives attackers a choice of two to assault, and 2Fort, which remains stubbornly Capture The Flag. Capture The Intelligence, sorry.
Mind you, a minimap would make the Spy's life harder. He was always Team Fortress's most inventive class, but his new incarnation is even more extraordinary. He can disguise himself impeccably as any class of enemy, and now he can also render himself temporarily invisible to slip into their base. There's no friendly fire in TF2, but shooting all your teammates to uncover Spies wastes too much time and ammo to be practical.
As a Spy in disguise you still take damage from enemies, but you're man enough not to show it - you don't bleed. That gives rise to a hilarious mindgame: a good Spy will take a near-lethal shotgun blast to the face from a supposed friend without flinching, confront his attacker toe-to-toe as if to say "What?," and continue his infiltration beyond suspicion.
The Spy's disguise-o-meter, built into his cigarette case, will give him the name of an enemy who really is the class he's pretending to be. That means that every now and then, you experience the alarming existential crisis of encountering someone with your own name. Realising they must be an enemy Spy, you declare to your team that "The Spy's a Soldier!" Whereupon, of course, everyone empties their magazines into you.
If you can stay away from your namesake and take the Spy hunter's check-shots unflinchingly, the challenge becomes to act like an enemy. We like to dress up as a Heavy, because his reassuringly enormous size makes it hard for anyone to believe he could be a slinky Spy in disguise. It also means you get healed by enemy Medics - a peculiar sensation - and that can lead to an utterly bizarre psychological dance.
The Spy, you see, needs to get behind his victim for a one-hit-kill backstab. The Medic, meanwhile, should always stay behind a Heavy for protection while he heals. So the two of you run in circles trying to get behind each other, until the Medic realises - with an almost visible pang of horror - who you really are. He draws his bonesaw, you draw your butterfly knife, and the duel commences. It's sublime. The knife-edge between the thrill of deception and the shame of discovery makes playing a Spy more tense and thrilling than any other multiplayer experience - even the original TF's Spy.
The other class highlights are more obvious: shredding a dozen enemies as a Medic-boosted Heavy, bolting past a superior force as a Scout with the briefcase in 2Fort, and detonating enough pipe bombs as a Demoman to fill the room with blood - and the screen with kill reports. In fact, the only class that doesn't excite is the Medic. His contribution is to heal the major players while they charge in, but he can't do anything else while he heals so his whole life is just holding down fire. When he's healed a thousand or so points, he can temporarily make himself and his mark invulnerable, at which point he has to... keep holding down fire. It's so cruel that he doesn't get to let rip after all that joyless service to his team.
We have to admit that this, and the minimap problem, bothered us less and less the more we played. Team Fortress 2's friendly look hides what's still a dauntingly intricate game, and when you're still learning the ropes, and the maps, its few flaws seem exasperating. But the measure of a multiplayer game is how much you want to go back to it. We can't leave Team Fortress 2 alone.