Monday, September 24, 2007

Team Fortress 2, or how I just spent all day not reading about E. M. Forster

I guess I should start out this review by saying that I only played the original TF a bit; I didn’t have regular access to a computer back then. This means that I came to this game knowing only what everybody else said (the original was totally awesome!), and that I really liked the look of Valve’s character and gameplay design from what I could see in videos and previews. I trusted Valve when it came to Half Life 2 and Half Life 2: Episode one, and it looked like they were going to deliver again with this game. Every preview I’d seen showed a game that had so much style it really put all other games to shame. Something about the psychotic Heavy and the bizarrely jolly Austalian sniper (all wrapped up in a violent, Incredibles-inspired art style) just caught my imagination.

Team Fortress 2 (TF2 from hear on in) is a class based FPS multiplayer game, with 9 classes in all. They range from the brutally simple (the Heavy) to the subtle (the Spy). In between those two come the Scout, the Soldier, the Pyro, the Demoman, the Engineer, the Medic and the Sniper. Each class has a part to play in the 6 maps released so far, whether its sniping a helpless Heavy from long range or keeping back a horde of enemies with one upgraded sentry gun, a supply depot, and a carefully placed teleporter. The maps include capture point maps with a few variations. Some are large, single maps with 3-5 capture points, and others are segmented maps that require multiple victories over 5 different areas. Of course there is a capture the flag map to spice things up a bit, but each map is solidly designed and balanced. There isn’t that one awful map (think good old Dust from the original CS) that gives one team an almost instant win due to unfair bottlenecks and the like. There isn’t much downtime, as the longest wait for a respawn is about 15 seconds. As an added bonus, Valve added pseudo-achievements and character stats that are part of your new Steam community ID, so now I know how many Backstabs my Spy got, or how close I am to getting a certain amount of revenge kills (which are immensely satisfying, by the way).

The gameplay on display in this first beta is extremely fast: when 15 or so combatants from both sides converge on a chokepoint, the blood starts flying pretty quickly. Despite the chaotic nature of this combat, the game never feels rushed or sloppy. If you want, you can play it slow, building up defenses or offensive bases with an Engineer. On the other hand you can play as the blindingly fast scout, who can cross the largest map in a minute or two. This kind of flexibility is apparent throughout the game: all classes have a place, and all can be incredibly fun to play, once you get the hang of them. This is where the only tricky bit of TF2 comes in. If you don’t take the time to figure out how to play a Medic or a Spy, you will get nowhere. Every class works for a different situation, but each class can just as easily misused. But to be honest, the learning curve is an hour to three hours tops, so if you want to have fun with this game, it won’t be hard. This was actually my favorite part of TF2. The amount of pleasure delivered by actually doing really well at an FPS like this is surprising, and it is all due to the sometimes entirely unconventional character designs.

The visual design for TF2 cannot go unmentioned; each map is meticulously designed and rendered (all in a beautiful cel-shaded fashion) albeit in an industrial, dusty sort of way. Hopefully, there will be some maps coming out soon that don’t look like western junkyards. The characters really steal the show though. Each character moves, looks and fights differently, and each one has their own set of custom moves that can be triggered with the G key: a bow, a juggling act with rocket rounds, or a wild scream. It all fits in with the crazy, retro look and feel of the game. This attention to detail is everywhere, from the increasing size of a Heavy’s grin and maniacal laugh as he racks up more kills, to each class’s distinct accent and personality (my favorite is the Pyro’s muffled shouts, but the Sniper and the Demoman are equally amusing and alarming). There are a lot of single player “story driven” FPS’s that could use these little touches.

So, how great is this game? Pretty damn good. It runs smoothly, with hardly a hitch in the fps or connection speed. It’s infinitely more enjoyable than Counterstrike or Half Life 2 multiplayer and lacks those game’s racist, sexist, and generally stupid atmosphere and trash talking (although that won’t last for long, chances are). This game provides a ridiculous amount of fun, and it does so by creating diverse needs for every map. On every map, there is a character I can select who I know will allow me to do well and more importantly have fun. This is the only thing that matters, when all is said and done.

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