Team Fortress 2
29th Mar 2007 | 12:30
For fans of the original game there's an eerie sense of déjà vu when playing the 2Fort map in Team Fortress 2.
Even if you'd already been told it was a remade version of the popular Team Fortress Classic map, or realised simply by looking at the map's name, its layout already exists as a semi-familiar strategy map in the back of your mind. There's that central bridge across the moat, treacherous to cross and half-concealing the alternate entrance to the enemy base. There are the snipers perched along the barricades, the supplies outside the spawn room - strategically it remains almost completely unchanged. Especially the part with the snipers, as I've come to learn over and over again.
It was in this state of half already knowing what to do that I found myself sitting with the co-creator of Team Fortress, Robin Walker, as he explained the basics of capturing the flag and pointed earnestly at the HUD furniture displaying the direction of the objective. Feeling more confident than was appropriate, given the fact that I was playing with a flock of Valve employees in the next room, I chose the role of Scout and was promptly mown down by a Gatling gun. Well, I was still figuring out the buttons, wasn't I?
ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
In fact, dying throws up the first of many beautiful touches in Team Fortress 2. The action freezes as the camera cuts to your killer, giving you his name as if to nudge you and say, "Oooh, don't you just hate this guy? He got you again." Conversely, a cheerful box in the corner of the screen pats you on the back, claiming: "On the bright side: You've caused more damage as a Scout in this round than ever before."
Of course, these achievements become less frequent the more you play, until the sight of one becomes cause for celebration, as Robin Walker points out. When somebody in the Valve office breaks their damage record, or kills more enemy players, or stays alive for longer than ever before, or indeed any number of stats the game keeps track of, everybody knows about it.
The Scout, meanwhile, was not the class for me. Walker assured me that in the right hands the Scout could nimbly avoid foes while making daring dashes to the enemy flag room. Personally, I found that his increased speed and ability to double-jump only helped me run into danger faster than with any of the other eight classes. A change of class to the Soldier, and a change of map to another old favourite, Dustbowl, and we were ready to go again.
While waiting for the gates between the opposing areas of the map to open, a congregation of Soldiers and Heavies had begun damaging themselves in a corner by firing rockets at their feet. A few patient Medics looked on. Noticing my puzzlement, Walker began to explain what was happening. Medics have the ability to heal team-mates to above their normal number of hit points, as well as regenerate their own health gradually. They heal using a beam that remains attached to the team-mate as long as they stay within range and sight of one another.
The Medic earns a charge by healing players, and when that charge reaches 100%, the Medic and his team-mate can become invulnerable for ten whole seconds.
What this means, besides the start of the round featuring the kind of self-harm usually reserved for the toilets at a My Chemical Romance concert, is that an experienced Medic can be the most effective player on the team if paired with an equally skilled Heavy. While the Heavy dishes out massive damage with his Gatling gun, the Medic stays close and provides temporary invincibility. For ten seconds, they're an unassailable target, and all anybody else can do is simply take cover and hopefully pick off the Medic when he becomes vulnerable.
This symbiotic relationship between the Medic and the receiver of his magical health beam allows for some great moments of strategic cleverness, and sometimes a nice bit of hilarity too. The ultimate achievement for a Spy, whose main ability is to go undercover and appear to be an ally to the enemy, is to persuade an enemy Medic to begin healing him. Not only does it make his disguise all the more convincing, but it provides excellent comic relief the moment the Spy's ruse is discovered and he's killed in front of the hapless and embarrassed Medic who was helping him.
Another returning hero from Team Fortress Classic, the Well map, has had a similar aesthetic overhaul, and now sports a train yard where previously there was none. On top of this, it's also become a control-point map, with a linear series of points that must be captured in order.
As an Engineer, I found myself placing teleporters to move my team-mates forwards more quickly. Turrets were built, upgraded and repaired using metal found in guns and ammo on the battlefield, and dispensers were constructed to shovel ammo and health into the needy hands of other players on my team.
Part of the challenge of being an Engineer is placing turrets in the right spots - too far behind the combat and they're no help, too far forward and they're impossible to repair or upgrade without taking one between the eyes. All the while, information on the objects you build appear on the HUD, telling you not only when they need repairing, but how much they're being used. And yes, seeing ten people use your teleporter really does make you feel loved.
READY TO BLOW
Hopping over to the Demoman class turned it into a different game again. Turrets and teleporters were now somebody else's problem, and it was my job to load control points with pipe bombs before heading to the frontline. The Source Engine's physics capabilities allow for some interesting ways to kill people with grenades, and when the train yard you're fighting in sees more than a few speeding trains thundering through it, the sight of somebody evading your explosives only to be hit by an oncoming train is as thrilling as it is frequent. And of course, the pipe bombs I'd left back at the control point could be detonated as soon as the HUD showed it was under attack.
Quite clearly, the classes in Team Fortress 2 are more than just different weapon loadouts - they're drastically different ways of playing the game.
VIEW TO A KILL
On the next map I found my class niche as a Sniper, quickly noticing that staying zoomed in increases the power of your shots. More than a few times I killed somebody in the same instant that they killed me, resulting in the camera cutting to the cluster of gibs who'd delivered my fate. There was the occasional ragdoll Scout being blasted across the screen by a lucky grenade, and a paranoia-fuelled Spy hunt in which several innocents were mistakenly targeted.
It's in these moments that the reasoning behind the vibrant Disney-esque visuals becomes apparent, and you realise exactly why Valve ditched the realism in older builds of Team Fortress 2. It's because it's a bloody funny game, and there's no point trying to fight that on any level of design, from the visuals right down to the broken bottle melee weapon.
On top of all this, Team Fortress 2 simply feels like a really solid online shooter. The running speeds, the jumping, the weapon balance - from what I've played, it's all absolutely spot-on. Valve are building on over a decade of experience, and as I'm
sure you've noticed, their back-catalogue of online shooters contains some of the most played games in existence. For them to get something fundamentally wrong with Team Fortress 2 would be damn near impossible (touch wood).
So while just a few pages from here you might learn that each weapon in Unreal Tournament III contains more polygons than entire levels in Unreal Tournament 2004, I'm more than willing to argue that, back here with the Source Engine, Team Fortress 2 has more style and graphical charm than anything else we've seen this year. And after playing it, I'd argue it'll be more fun too.
Team Fortress 2's chopping-and-changing wonder-maps
As a way of combating the repetitive nature of maps and adding a little bit of spice to the game, Team Fortress 2 will feature dynamic maps. That is, there will be large maps containing non-linear control points. At the beginning of each round, the game will choose two of these control points and players will duke it out on the part of the map between those two points and nowhere else.
Depending on who wins, the game will pick another two opposing control points, and so on until one team captures the other's base. A little bit confusing? Well yes - Valve had to draw it on a whiteboard for me to understand. Just think of it as different paths through a map opening and closing between rounds. In one round, a certain passage will be blocked, and in another, it'll be open. We played the Hydro map and it worked quite well. So there.