Thursday, 14 July 2011

Team Fortress 2

Post-Launch Review #1:
Team Fortress 2 (PC*)
Developer: Valve
Publisher: Valve
Released: October 10, 2007


Team Fortress 2 is an online multiplayer class-based first-person shooter set in an alternate 1960's, where two mercenary teams -- RED and BLU -- fight for control of resources and locations in a variety of game modes. TF2 is most recognizable for its retro cartoonish art style and dark humour, featuring nine classes with their own personalities.

At Launch

TF2 received widespread acclaim for its cartoonish-retro-spytech art style, balanced gameplay, unique character personalities and humour. The game launched with six maps, three game modes (control points, capture the flag, and territory control), and seventeen achievements. Each class had three weapons: primary, secondary, and melee, with a couple of extras for certain classes (like the Engineer's build tool or the Spy's cloak watch). There were a few bugs, mostly exploits that allowed enemies to get into your team's protected spawn area or build powerful sentry guns underneath the map such that they could shoot you but not vice versa.

Post Launch

TF2 is unquestionably the best-supported video game in existence. At the time of writing, TF2 has received 217 updates — all free, every single one. Updates range from bug fixes to weapon balancing to major content additions. The game universe has also been expanded with blog posts, videos, comics, art, ARGs, voice lines, and characters.
TF2 in its current state has:
  • Co-op mode (Mann vs. Machine)
  • 378 achievements
  • 50 official maps
  • 8 game modes
  • Over 130 weapons
  • 189 cosmetic items
  • 21 paint colours for cosmetic items
  • Promotional items
  • Training mode
  • Item crafting
  • Item trading
  • Item drop system
  • Cash store
  • Coaching system
  • Bots & offline practise
  • Replay editor

The Good

Art Style
TF2's art style follows a cartoony retro-spy theme: most maps take place in a desert or alpine setting with high-tech secret bases hosting missile launch sites and superweapons disguised as seemingly ordinary buildings — logging camps, factories, barns. The graphics are great: they're not the most cutting-edge high-definition stuff you'll ever see, but the cartoony style has ensured that TF2 has aged gracefully. The game is almost four years old at the time of writing, and it still looks as fresh as the day it was released.
Character design is amazing. A lot of thought went into it. In the commentary the developers discuss the importance of character silhouettes: making the outline of each character distinct so that even if you can't see details, you know which class you're looking at. Each character is visually distinct and has personality even in screenshots.

The Characters
When you're playing Soldier, you're not playing as “a soldier”, you're playing as “THE Soldier”. Each character is fleshed out with voice lines and animations so that they're very distinctive. The Soldier is a complete psychopath who paid his own way to Europe to fight in World War II until he found out it was over in 1949. The Sniper is a professional mercenary, mostly quiet and respectful even with his victims. The Demoman is, well, a drunken black Scottish cyclops. I could go on, but you get the idea. The Meet the Team videos especially are amazing. If you watch them in order of release, you can watch the quality of already-good videos skyrocket progressively.

TF2 is undoubtedly one of the best-balanced multiplayer games there is. Some games achieve balance by giving all players access to all the same weapons and abilities, if you're not taking advantage of the “best” weapon it's your own damn fault, and there are no balance concerns because everyone is exactly the same. But TF2 has nine classes, and they're all pretty well balanced with each other, except in specific cases where the intention was not balance. For example, a Sniper's headshot can easily take out the slow-moving Heavy before he can close to firing range. TF2's class balance is very rock-paper-scissors: each class is strong against one or two other classes, and weak against one or two classes. The weapons are also usually very well-balanced — pay no attention to the Steam forums.

Some multiplayer games don't have a lot of content and aren't updated very often, and while they're fun, they get stale after a while. Not Team Fortress 2. With eight game modes spread over fifty maps and hundreds of items to find and try, it could be hundreds of hours of play before you've truly seen everything the game has to offer. And even when you have seen everything, that's all right — Valve WILL be adding more. So even if you get bored of the game and start to find it repetitive (which is not a common problem), you can look forward to new toys within a few months at most.
Mann vs. Machine
TF2 now has a co-op mode where you and five other players defend your base from the robot horde (with a special zombie map added for Halloween). It has a full upgrade system where you earn cash for robot kills, which you can use to power up your weapon or your resistances. It's very cool and very different from normal play.

The Wiki
Most games have a wiki of some sort, often user-made and unsupported. But TF2's wiki is official: hosted on Valve's servers and watched over for quality and accuracy. Community members have invested hundreds of hours into the wiki, and you can literally find everything on there. If you have any questions at all about the game, check the wiki — the answer is there, and it's also nicely formatted and easy to understand.
You can find the wiki at

The Blog
The official TF2 blog is frequently updated with news on the game, but it's not just any old news — we often see posts “written by the Soldier” in his voice and mannerisms. We get funny anecdotes of Robin Walker's towering pillar of hats and M&M's stuck in Drew's nose. The blog isn't just a source of news — it's also entertainment.
The biggest draw of the blog is the update pages. With TF2, Valve has a tradition of posting news of an update a week in advance, and revealing some new content every day until the update goes live. It generates real buzz and excitement in the community, as everyone tries to think of new combinations and possibilities, work out mechanics, search for hidden links, and speculate on future days. It's a lot of fun.
The blog is at
The Community
Team Fortress 2, over the years, has had one of the friendliest, most mature, and generally best communities I have ever seen in an online multiplayer game. The VAC system means that cheaters are rare, and the second layer of protection comes from server administrators. Many servers issue bans for cheating or harassment, so in TF2 it's very rare to experience any real negativity or immaturity like your stereotypical “COD kids”.
With TF2 going free to play recently, some users are worried that free players will face no consequences for their actions because they can just create a new account free of charge, but personally I have not experienced an increase in bad behaviour.
Over my time playing, I have seen players helping out newbies by explaining weapon attributes, map layouts, or the item system. I've seen people just give away their extra weapons to new players who didn't have them yet. The TF2 community is amazing.

Mod Support
It's often said that PC multiplayer lives or dies by its mod community. If that's true, then TF2 has a long life ahead of it. Modding is not only accepted, not even supported, but encouraged and even paid by Valve. All kinds of community creations have been officially implemented into the game, from weapon designs to maps to game modes. When a modder's creation is added to the game, Valve also rewards the creator with a sparkling “Community” version of their weapon (if the submission was a weapon) and a percentage of proceeds from sales in the Mann Co. cash store. Just to give you an idea of how profitable this can be, the creators of the first round of community content received cheques for nearly fifty thousand dollars each after two months of their items being featured in the store. There's also a mechanism through which players can donate money to the creators of officialized community maps; for the map Coldfront, over 10,000 players have donated at least one dollar to the creator.
There are plenty of unofficial custom game modes and server configs as well, such as Prop Hunt (one team is disguised as map props while the other team tries to kill them all before time runs out), VS. Saxton Hale (a boss battle with one team against a player-controlled Saxton Hale), the Randomizer (each time you spawn you play as a random class with randomly selected primary, secondary, and melee weapons from the entire available pool), and more.

The Neutral

The Item System
Now, some people will disagree with me here, but keep reading. TF2 rewards you with a randomly-selected item every so often, in intervals of roughly half an hour to an hour and a half of play. After eleven hours of play in a week, you stop receiving item drops for that week. Usually it works out to about seven to twelve items per week if you play all eleven hours, and there is some rollover if you didn't play much last week. Weapons are common drops, paint and nametags and such are uncommon, while cosmetic items are quite rare. So all you have to do is play the game and you'll get items as you do so, allowing you some time to try out and get used to a new gun before the game hands you the next one.
There's a crafting system that allows you to turn your surplus items into scrap metal and other items. All weapons and some hats have a specific crafting recipe associated with them. You can earn some weapons through achievements. There's also a trading system with a rigorous economy, so it's very easy to unlock the specific weapons you want if you're willing to put in the effort.
Unfortunately there is a downside as well. The nature of the unlock system means that new players have access to the stock weapons and nothing else. So while experienced players have hundreds of weapons to choose between and adapt to various situations, a new player doesn't have that same advantage. That's both good and bad: it lets you get a handle on the game before it starts throwing dozens of variations of weapons at you, but it also means that new players start at a bit of a disadvantage. Most of the time the weapons are all very well balanced with each other, so you're not at a disadvantage of power; only of selection and flexibility. Actually, the stock weapons are often the best choice anyway, so you're definitely not missing out on the “best” weapons.

Hats (and cosmetics)
I felt that hats deserved their own entry apart from the item system due to the controversy they've created over the years. Many players feel that Valve has focused too much on hats, when we could have had new maps instead. But the main concern with hats is the degradation of the art style.
There are a lot of really great hats that fit the characters very well. For example, over time the Soldier has collected an assortment of hats from various warrior cultures through history: a Spartan helmet, a Native American feathered headdress, a medieval knight's helmet. But there are also hats that really stick out and don't seem to mesh well with the art direction and character design — for example, the Demoman's pimp hat and shutter glasses, or the Soldier's Dr. Seuss hat (I guess because the real Seuss was in the army for a while?). Some hats are not really bad in and of themselves but are kind of silly, like the umbrella hat for the Heavy. There are also “unusual” hats, which display a particle effect like sunbeams or a floating peace sign. They can sometimes look nice but really stick out — the biggest downside being that it means Snipers have an easier time finding your head when it's on fire.
Hats are the greatest controversy in TF2 history. Some people hate them with a vengeance, flaming on the forums at every opportunity. Some people have channelled their dislike into productive measures: there's a server plugin that prevents hats from being displayed at all. Some people love the hats, collecting and trading more than they play the game.
I used to think that the hats were fine and people were complaining over nothing, but as Valve has added more and more promotional items that have nothing to do with TF2, I'm starting to think it's too much and too far from the original art direction.

The Forums
The official Steam forum for TF2 is a great place for discussion and questions, as well as a resource for creative stuff like user-made weapon models, maps, and videos, but it's also a hotbed for negativity. The official forum has a reputation for being whiny, cynical, and feeling entitled. As an example, when TF2 went free to play, Valve rewarded existing accounts with a special veteran hat and made it very clear that free accounts are crippled compared to premium ones — but the community raged because they thought they deserved more than a hat, ignoring the fact that they played for four years and received over two hundred free updates for a game that cost them $20 (or less). So if you want to use the forums, it's probably a good idea to ignore all the negativity.

The Bad

TF2 was a pretty small game on release: a few gigs, due to the modest amount of content at launch. As a Source game, it could run and look nice on just about anything. But that figure has ballooned to over ten gigs, and constant updates and additions mean that Valve hasn't had much time or opportunity to optimize the game.
If your computer was purchased in the last year or two, odds are you'll be able to run TF2 just fine. Any older, and you might have serious problems. There also seem to be some weird hardware compatibility issues which no one has been able to nail down — some users report twenty to thirty frames per second on absolutely beastly rigs that can run Crysis at 200 FPS.
As an example, I have an old Dell laptop purchased the same year TF2 released: 2007. I was able to run at a resolution of 1280x800 at medium to high settings at a respectable framerate, considering the integrated graphics chip. Now, with that same laptop running the same game, I get fifteen to twenty-five FPS at the same resolution, and only after turning all settings to minimum and installing an FPS config, no-shadow models, and reduced particle density packs.
My current laptop handles it just fine, though.
The thing to stress here is that you might have trouble, but if your computer is recent, YOU SHOULD BE FINE. I'm currently playing on a two-year-old gaming laptop with pretty good specs at maximum settings and getting 40 to 60 FPS.

The Verdict

Recommendation: play it. It's free. You have no excuse. DO IT NOW.
I have a few neutral and negative points, but trust me, the good OVERWHELMINGLY outweighs the bad. On release TF2 earned a metascore of 92, but if it were released in its current state, the score would be a fair bit higher. In my opinion, TF2 is simply one of the best games ever made. When the cash store originally came out, there were people who spent hundreds of dollars there — not so much because they wanted items, but because they finally had a way to thank Valve with their wallets for such an incredible game. And if you do start playing now, I heartily recommend upgrading your free account to a premium one for the extra benefits.
And if you've been playing TF2 for a while, if you're one of the veterans, thanks for helping to make this game what it is.
* Whatever you do, DO NOT play TF2 on the XBox360 or Playstation3. Neither versions have received ANY of the updates Valve has shipped, so those versions of the game are still in their original states, 6 maps, bugs and all. The 360 version wasn't updated because of size restrictions and Microsoft's insistence to charge for updates, which Valve is against. I'm not exactly sure why the PS3 version never got updated — possibly for the same reasons, but since Portal 2 released with Steam on the PS3, I've kind of been expecting an update, but there has been no news and no indication that there will be. The only possible reason to play TF2 on the consoles is to get a glimpse at what the game was like before the major updates shipped.  

1 comment:

  1. Not sure if this is WHY the PS3 version never got updated, but I understand that EA ported the games to PS3, so Valve never officially supported the platform at the time, and left The Orange Box to be in the neglected hands of EA.