When I was young, I had dreams of becoming a doctor, fostered as dreams tend to be by the games I played. Had I taken that long and expensive road through med school, I would have invariably been asked what prompted my pursuit of medicine. It's simple, I'd reply: Team Fortress taught me that healing folks is not only useful, it's also damn fun. Unlike that game, though, I'd imagine that the most efficient way of mending your war buddies isn't hacking them into little bits with an axe emblazoned with a red cross, but hey -- it's not the first time my world view has been warped by the compartmentalized reality of a video game, and it's not likely to be the last.
But that's just part of the experience -- or a ninth of it, depending on your reckoning. Team Fortress, one of the most influential mods ever created, took team-based play to a new level. Unlike most CTF modes of the era, TF demanded strategic play beyond map intimacy and simple squad tactics thanks to its nine classes and the specific roles that each played. In the eleven years (!) it's taken for its sequel to emerge, online FPS gaming has changed quite drastically -- has TF changed along with it? In so doing, has it lost the magic that made the original the barrel of crack that it had been for its fans?
Reverend Anthony and I took to the beta to find out. Hit the jump for our impressions, and be on the lookout for our review of Team Fortress 2 early next month.
As someone without an online-enabled console whose only forays into the world of multiplayer PC gaming consist of Day of Defeat, The Ship, Zombie Master, and other Half-Life mods, it may not mean much when I say that, from what I've seen thus far, Team Fortress 2 is the best multiplayer game I've ever played.
Still, I'm saying it anyway.
Upon first loading up Team Fortress 2, it seemed to me that the changes between the original and this sequel were, for the most part, purely aesthetic. Indeed, the visuals will immediately jump out at you – the cartoony character designs look gorgeous – but they conceal a huge amount of much-improved gameplay. At its core, Team Fortress 2 isn't really that different from the first game: there's a new gameplay mode which involves capturing multiple Control Points, but the capture-the-flag mode still exists and much of the game's fun boils down from using the 9 wildly different character classes to achieve your goals. In other words, anyone who has played the first Team Fortress can pick up part deux and will immediately find themselves at home with the whole package: spies can still dress up like opponents, engineers still build turrets, heavy weapons guys still carry miniguns, and so forth.
That said, the gameplay changes that have been implemented have improved the game in numerous, wonderfully subtle ways. Gone are the unnecessary grenades each class possessed in the first game; grenadespam is a thing of the past, and players are forced to use their own class's strengths much more intelligently. The maps, in what may be one of the most simple-yet-brilliant gameplay innovations I've seen in a long time, internally change from round to round. If you're playing on a map like, say, tc_hydro, one round might have the blue team defending points A and B from enemy invasion.
After that round is over, any number of things can change: the blue team can go from defending to attacking, or the location of the control points will change, or certain passageways will become blocked off while previously closed areas will open to the players – hell, more often than not, all three of these things will happen throughout the course of a map. As the geography of each individual map changes from round to round, the map never feels boring or predictable – essentially, each Control Point map is really four or five different maps in one. I cannot possibly overstate how beneficial this is to the replay value.
The game's controls are fantastically simple, as most all of the character actions can be accessed by using the mouse buttons and, in the case of the Spy or the Engineer, their respective "disguise" and "build" commands are easily accessed from the weapons menu. And that's just from a functional point of view; I haven't even talked about the character classes, which have been tweaked and improved upon so as to make them incredibly accessible, yet insanely deep. The Sniper, for instance, must use the zoom on his rifle, and then wait for the shot to charge in order to do a significant amount of damage, thus preventing his main weapon from becoming as powerful at close range as it was in the original TF. The Spy can now cloak himself in order to make base infiltration easier, and can now disable Engineer turrets without blowing his cover. The Scout is finally armed with a gun powerful enough to kill someone, and can double-jump to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. The Medic has, to my mind, undergone the biggest and most positive overhaul: not only has his nigh-useless health pack been replaced with a much more convenient Medi-Gun, but healing wounded teammates slowly charges a special invulnerability move, which makes him and one ally invincible for ten full seconds.
These changes may not sound like much on paper, but they make the game an absolute blast. For once, everything feels almost perfectly balanced. The Engineer's turrets are strong, but not too strong; the Spy can kill with a backstab, but requires a good two or three seconds to turn off his cloaking device. No class feels truly superior to any other class, and that's a statement that most class-based multiplayer games could only wish to make. My personal favorite character is and will always be the Spy, but unlike the original Team Fortress, I can play as literally any of the classes and still have a damn fun time.
That said, however, it does seem like the partnership between a Medic (who has infinite ammo for his Medi-Gun) and a HW Guy can occasionally be too powerful, especially on Control Point maps with many corridors and corners for Medics to hide behind while their nigh-invulnerable grunt does the killing for them. If a HW Guy gets a decent Medic to continually heal him whilst hiding himself from the enemy, he essentially becomes a Dalek: it's possible to kill him, but three or four people have to simultaneously concentrate their fire. His medic can potentially be killed by a clever spy, but on maps where the HW Guy can lay down endless supressing fire while his buddies capture control points, it does tend to lean a bit toward the imbalanced.
Other than that, only one real problem jumps out at me: the vocal command system. One of the most important vocal commands ("MEDIC!") is bound to the E key, making it easy to quickly inform the nearest Medic that you need some health. Unfortunately, the Medic voice command is the only voice command to get the single-key treatment: to report a cloaked spy or the location of an enemy, the player still has to hit either Z, X, or C to open up a voice command menu, then find the desired command, then hit the corresponding number. This voice system has been in pretty much every multiplayer PC game I've ever played, but, when considering how efficient the Medic key is, how many other buttons on the keyboard go unused, and how difficult it is to quickly voice the fact that there is a cloaked spy in your presence, I can't help but wish for an easy way to bind other commands to individual keystrokes. Apart from that minor quibble, and the possible balance issue regarding the Medic + HW Guy combo, I really can't find much to bitch about – and that's really saying something.
Here's what I love about Team Fortress: it's frantic, it's shameless, and it's rapid-fire. The respawn rate is quick enough to allow for daring assaults and big risks, but paced well to keep things from becoming a Serious Sam slay-a-thon. The classes encourage players to take specific roles in the battle, and focus upon those roles while working towards the common objective. Out of this emerges a natural, organic team play dynamic that functioned beautifully when played with the right people; wins are collective, victory owed to the group. Team Fortress 2 has quite an excellent foundation to build upon, and it improves enough upon the original while still preserving what made the game fun to begin with.
Anthony tackled a good deal of the specifics, all of which I agree with. But what fascinates me most about TF2 is how complete a game it is, how well it establishes its merit as a sequel. The original game's structure has been implemented and tweaked, but not so much that the formula has been monkeyed beyond recognition; once you dig into the game, you'll likely agree that the changes implemented (chief among them the alterations to the Spy and Medic classes) are at worst only a little helpful and at best absolutely necessary.
Team Fortress 2, contrary to its roots as a Quake modification, feels like a "complete" game, because it simply is. The game's cartoony, stylized art direction give it the sort of character that most other competitive online shooters simply lack -- the game is funny, colorful, and entertaining as hell to behold. Each class is given a unique voice and are equipped with the appropriate swaggers to their build and posture; it's like the bastard child of old Warner Bros. cartoons and, well, Team Fortress. The UI has been tailored with respect to this artistic direction and serves well to provide players with an ease of use not available in the original game.
Many conventions of the genre now commonly available are at use in Team Fortress 2. When killed, the camera will swoop towards the offending enemy, give you his name and class and, if it's not the first time you've fallen at his or her hands, identify the killer as your new "nemesis". You're always provided with tidbits of information when you die -- whether or not you exceeded or came close to previous records such as your lifespan in minutes (or seconds, if you're me), total damage inflicted, kills, captures, total healing and the like.
Moreover, the game keeps track of your total time played and a gross of your points earned as each class and other numerical achievements which are displayed on the loading screen before the start of every game. Comes in handy as you keep track of your development as a player, as well as helping you to keep tabs on player classes you may have neglected.
As Anthony already mentioned, the classes have been tweaked and improved from their original counterparts into something that is even more balanced than the previous game, which is an impressive feat considering how good a job was done the first go-round. The fact that every class is fun is one that can't be stated enough -- nobody's stuck riding bitch just because a winning strategy demands a particular class. It's never a drag to be a scout, a medic, or any of the nine player types.
In short, Team Fortress 2 is an absolute riot. An absolute blast to play, even if you're playing with absolute morons who shoot the heavy instead of the medic. The beta is available now if you pre-purchase the Orange Box, which by any account is a pretty sweet deal -- get your TF2 fix now, and rock Portal and Episode Two on October 10. Believe me, it's worth the price of admission.