Saturday, May 23, 2009

Your Daddy's Team Fortress

Many were shocked when Valve unveiled Team Fortress 2’s new aesthetic a few years ago. Instead of a gritscrubbed war face, gamers would get a cartoon. More than a cartoon, a parody – the Heavy Weapons Guy is a beady-eyed, tottering mass of muscle; the soldier is a brick-jawed grunt with the intelligence of a Labrador; the scout is a wiry bike-messenger type with a Brooklyn accent. Not only was Valve flaunting their ambush, they were mocking you for expecting anything else.

Really, though – is Team Fortress 2 all that different from its predecessor? Should it be? No to both. TF2 is a reduced and refined version of what so many multiplayer games offer in overabundance. Instead of going bigger, Valve went smaller, and produced a pearl.

I’d wager many of TF2’s gamers are unaware of its long and troubled history. Team Fortress began as a class-based multiplayer mod for Quake. It was later resurrected for Half Life, where its career proper began. Team Fortress Classic defined Capture The Flag – for the mode at its purest, play CTF on 2Fort. Two teams jockey for the other’s flag, needing first to cross a deadly no-man’s land between the forts. It’s the game at its purest.

The stunning popularity of TFC prompted Valve to stoke the furnace for a sequel. The first screenshots revealed a game that eschewed the cartoony simplicity of TFC for a grim, self-serious NATO aesthetic. Ambitions were high, and expectations were higher. Eventually, dates slipped, expectations soured and the gaming public got used to the idea of TF2 as vaporware.

Turns out, Valve had more important things on their plate – the source engine and Half Life 2, to name a few. Anyway, the advent of Battlefield 1942 detonated Valve’s hopes of pioneering the hardcore, class-based military multiplayer shooter. While Counterstrike enjoyed a second wind under the source engine, TF2 remained shrouded in mist. It wasn’t what it was, or what it was going to be; it was what it could be. So Valve decided to go back to basics.

TF2 is TFC reduced to essence. Valve served up a mere handful of maps with a limited spread of game modes – granted, they could have gotten away with it merely by bundling it in The Orange Box. But surprisingly, TF2 could hold its own as a standalone product (and did, in the estimation of critics). Slim though the offerings were, they were quality through and through. Through a singular art style and a cunning series of viral videos, Valve was able to infuse a multiplayer shooter with c
haracter – imagine that!

TF2 resurrects the frantic gameplay of its predecessor. Forget waiting for a vehicle to spawn – you need to frag, and now. Each class has three weapons, each with their unique weaknesses. The chaingun takes a few seconds to spool up before spitting lead, and practically renders you stationary while firing; the flamethrower’s range is extremely limited; the scout’s speed is countered by a weak arsenal and low hit points; playing as spy, is an act of finesse and luck, as ever.

If all of this seems fairly rudimentary, it’s because it is; and yet, it’s surprising how few multiplayer shooters manage to effectively render, or even pronounce, class differences, or balance them effectively.

The product is a seamless experience. Team Fortress 2 delivers vintage multiplayer at a high sheen. If you’re looking for complex vehicular combat, look elsewhere. This game has all its original parts under the hood, cleaned and lubed and good as ever. What was fun then is fun now, and with Steam offering the game free this weekend, there’s no better time to try it.