Team Fortress 2 Preview
It's been years and years, folks, since Valve Software announced Team Fortress 2. The first TF was a massively popular mod for the original Quake with a teamplay-based design with multiple character classes and unique weapons for each class. We take those kind of things for granted nowadays, but back then this was one of the first game mods to even try to do stuff like this. Now that literally dozens of games have borrowed from this legendary mod, we're getting a chance to play the beta for Valve's sequel to the original mod.
TF2 builds on the same basics of the original mod. There are nine classes: Scout, Pyro, Engineer, Medic, Soldier, Demoman, Spy, Heavy Weapons Guy, and Sniper. Each now has a fully-unique complement of weapons, including for melee, and some classes have gained abilities while losing others (mostly in that not every class has grenades anymore). Unlike, say, Counter-Strike Source, which was an attempt to directly mimic the exact gameplay mechanics of the original Counter-Strike but with new graphics and in a new engine, TF2 is a totally new game. Not only is the unique cartoony style excellent, but the redesigned maps and many new gameplay elements make this only loosely similar to the original TeamFortress or the many iterations of the game by developers and modmakers released since.
What that means is that people who are expecting something that plays identical to the original game are going to be disappointed, at least at first. But I think as players get more comfortable with the new abilities of some classes and the rebalanced favorites from the original game, they'll find it to be a very fun and competitive game.
But let's move on to talking about what TF2 is like and how it plays. Just like before, the red and blue teams face off against each other on a relatively small map, but this keeps the action fast and frantic. You'll often have just about one whole team facing off against the whole other team in tight spaces, with Soldiers firing rockets madly, Engineers trying to keep their sentry turrets running, Spies trying to get around behind to get a disguised stealth kill, and Heavy Weapons Guys and Medics sticking together to finish off any stragglers.
The selection of maps in Team Fortress 2 is relatively small - only six for now, and according to the developer commentary that is included with the beta, this was a conscious decision. The guys at Valve are going to focus on a smaller number of maps that will hopefully be more balanced and fun more than some larger number that the developers have less time to spend on. And considering the habits of Valve's online players in both Team Fortress Classic and Counter-Strike - where a relative few maps get a large majority of the playtime - this does seem like a better way to go. That's all assuming, of course, that the relatively few maps we get are all excellent quality, and only time will tell if these maps live up to classics like the original "2Fort". I've been playing shooters online and offline for a very long time, and while I'm sure someone with more credibility on these matters somewhere will disagree with me, my first impression is that Valve won't have to change much about this game before it's released.
It's hard to deny the quality of what we have after I've done only a few matches on each map. Dustbowl has both teams fighting over of a pair of control points in order to gain access to a third one. Gravelpit has the Red team having to capture Blue team's points and while it's one of those weird maps where the Blue team never goes on offense, at first glance it feels pretty balanced. The Granary and Well maps have both teams fighting for control of five points that are spread out. Hydro is a "Territorial Control" map that's split into six areas and each team starts with three of them each in their control. Only two of the territories can be fought over at any one time. Finally, the 2Fort remake is the only Capture the Flag map in this beta, but this remake is still as much as fun as the classics were.
One thing that really impressed me about the maps is that they are all designed so that there's usually one major "front" where a ton of the fighting happens. On a 32-player server, this is utter chaos with people (and their body parts) flying around in showers of blood and tons of ordnance is going back and forth constantly. It's up to a player to figure out the best way to use his class to the best advantage, and that often means taking alternate paths to a goal, and the maps usually offer them here and there - but they are often hard to break in through as well.
As far as the graphics go, TF2 has a unique, cartoony style that goes beyond mere "cel shading". Here, the animations and lighting on the characters, along with each of the nine classes' distinct looks. The developers seem to have placed a lot of importance on making sure that each of the classes looks very unique, and while I'm not sure it's that terribly important, it does make for a really distinct look overall that you won't see in any other game. The developers also have included a lot of nice touches, like Xbox-style achievements, tracking of your best killing streaks, and some great humor. For example, when you get killed, you'll get a snapshot of your enemy killing you, sometimes pointing out the various, um, pieces of your body left lying around. Even the team names, RED and BLU, actually stand for some goofy company names. These are the kinds of little things that really make a difference and in the case of a game that relies so much on an active online community, will almost certainly help keep it being played for a long time.
Beyond that, this beta does have a few disappointments. One is that there are no single player bots that can be run from the menu, although I have a suspicion that that will change by the release. The other is that the weakest class from TFC, the Pyro, is still the weakest class here. The problem mostly lies with the fact that the Pyro's problems are mostly the same: his flamethrower's huge gust of fire blinds him as much as his enemies and it still doesn't have much range. That'd be fine if he was fast, but he's still pretty average. Beyond that, there really are some interesting new dynamics to the classes here and it's hard to really figure out this early on whether some of the two-man combos - like the medic's invulnerability when put on a Heavy Weapons Guy - are too powerful. But that's why the beta is running, so we'll have to look at this again before the game's released.
Speaking of the release: while Valve will be selling Team Fortress 2 for $29.99 on its own over Steam in October, there's a better way to get it - especially if you enjoyed Half-Life 2. The Orange Box collection will be available at the same time, both on Steam and in stores, for around $50 and will include the two previous games HL2 and Episode One, while also throwing in HL2 Episode Two, a wacky first-person puzzle game called Portal, and last but not least, Team Fortress 2. You can also jump into the beta for this yourself if you preorder the Orange Box over Steam - if you're into online shooters and don't mind a strikingly different visual style, the gameplay of Team Fortress 2 looks like it'll be top-notch.