TEAM FORTRESS 2
This was the hardest choice by far, because generally I don’t like multiplayer much, and yet I knew that this horrible niche needed dealing with, sort of like firing somebody or putting down a beloved family pet. The interaction between man and world via broadband is as fascinating as it is demoralising. You can’t truly say you know humanity until you’ve heard a nine year-old brat shriek obscenities at you through your headset, or seen the word “faggot” come up so often you’ll think you’re stuck in a revolving door in a British butcher’s shop.
Multiplayer is also an odd duck, because you can’t really recommend a game if it doesn’t still have a viable community that plays it. Many online games flourish in their first few months, but as they become more repetitive, people drift away, and suddenly there’s nobody playing it anymore. And then it’s useless, you might as well use the disc as a frisbee, or delete it from your hard drive to make more space for Facebook pokes, or pornography, or videos of people getting injured in terrible camera phone quality, whatever you kids are into these days.
Speaking of, I did consider the quality of the community that plays each game before I made any firm decisions, so don’t get hopeful for anything in the Call Of Duty franchise or GTA V. They all fell before the first hurdle, and to that I can only say “Good riddance,” and that I hope they get trodden on while they’re down there. Perhaps there’s something about games that are joylessly obsessed with leaderboards or creepy weapon fantasies that causes absolute wankers to congregate on them. In all the games above, I had most of my attempts to play them ruined by people who seem to have no other ambition but to act their worst. At least, I hope they’re acting their worst, because I can’t think of any way to be more loathsome, except perhaps for wearing Osama Bin Laden’s face as a Halloween mask.
It really makes you despair for the human race, this behaviour. Of course, what you do then is look for something that makes you happy. Very happy. And thus, in comes Team Fortress 2, also known as TF2, also known as the best thing since somebody had the sense to take sliced bread and put an enormous piece of grilled meat inside it. Yes, TF2 is the steak sandwich of online gaming. There can be no higher praise.
I realise I’ve come full circle here, with the first game and last games I picked for this list both being part of the Orange Box collection, released by Valve in 2007, but that’s the weird thing about Valve. They’re always reliable creators of excellent games, but they hardly ever make any, just fiddle about with the already-excellent online Steam store interface. It’s rather like if people went to Van Gogh and said “Wow, you do really good paintings. I hope you keep doing them, they’re unmatched artistically.” And Vincent stroked his bearded chin, ignoring the pain in the side of his head, and said thoughtfully, “Well, I suppose so, but you know what’s interesting me at the moment? These picture frames I’ve been seeing. They’re excellent, I really like them as a medium for holding artwork. I think from now on I’m just going to ditch this painting rubbish and focus on making these frames, for ever and ever.”
Cue awkward silence.
Anyway, back to Team Fortress 2, the online first-person shooter. Immediately it scores two major points in my book, one for having one of the most memorable and enjoyable advertising campaigns I’ve ever seen, featuring the kind of trailers that would be made if a Pixar animator had a bad Vietnam flashback. And secondly, it’s free! Completely free! No payment, no subscriptions fees, no online service costs. It’s free now, and free forever.
Well, sort of.
It’s hard to explain this to somebody who isn’t aware of it. Originally it did cost money to buy TF2, until Valve decided to change that and make it free to download. Fair enough, it had been around for a while, they probably weren’t making that many sales this long after release. Except that now there’s a new element that wasn’t around when it started: Unlockable hats and weapons.
Whenever you die in TF2, you have a very small chance to get a random gun or a customisable piece of clothing to change how your characters look and fight. I admit, it takes the sting off death when a box pops up afterwards, telling you that for the incredible achievement of having been shot in the neck twelve times, you have been rewarded with a rather natty fez, or a gun that shoots urine.
Except that you can buy these bits of gear if you want to speed up the process, and it’s surprisingly hard to fight the urge to do so. More playstyles unlock with different weapons, so it just makes sense to want those, but the need to buy hats is harder to put your finger on. I think it’s that players want to have their own identity within the game. All the classes are identical until they’re altered with equipment, and those who are using stock characters are always recognised as newbies and inexperienced members of the community.
So putting a Roman Legionnaire’s helmet on your soldier and giving him a rocket launcher that shoots lasers or kittens – that’s just your way of announcing your individuality. It’s a lot like having a face piercing. In that and many other respects.
But how does the actual gameplay hold up? Pretty damn well, I should say. To start off, there are nine diverse classes, all nicely balanced, but with wildly different methods of play. The heavy has more health than god and a minigun not yet seen detached from the wing of a harrier jet. The spy can become invisible and disguise himself as members of the other team. The scout makes Usain Bolt look slow and unwieldy, and can jump a distance equivalent to the average marathon. Even the engineer can build turrets, teleporters and ammo dispensers, just to keep things interesting. There really is something for everybody, and then there’s even sub-categories of gaming style. Sure, the pyro is all about getting in close to burn people with the flamethrower. But shuffle around your loot a bit, and suddenly you have a build that’s all about melee damage, setting them alight with your primary weapon before quickly swapping out for the axe that does huge damage on burning targets.
Every class is like this, having more options open up as you collect more gear, but I also like that the game loves keeping up a fast pace, rather than having you plod from one side of the battlefield to the other. Remove chest high-walls from your mind, you’re going to have to keep moving if you want to survive here.
That said, even the flimsiest characters tend to have a fair bit of health, so it means that if you’re attacked you usually have time to react before you’re killed by the next burst of gunfire, and I like that. There’s no satisfaction in just being shot in the back and immediately going down, it feels cheap and boring, another problem I always had with the Call Of Duty series. But TF2 prides itself on manic battles and emphasises huge, chaotic fights, in which bullets fly like raindrops and explosions are the local currency. Valve knows that the only way to make this sort of thing last is to give everybody enough health to actually get involved, rather than getting blown to high-heaven before the fight has even begun. Not only that, but the maps tend to be small and compact, and respawn times are negligible, making this buoyant, violent lunacy as common as possible.
There’s also a co-operative mode which I like. You and half a dozen johnnies have to work together to fight off huge waves of robots that mimic the appearances of your characters to an uncomfortable degree. It escalates well and there’s a fair few maps, and unlike the normal multiplayer you can acquire upgrades for yourself mid-game as you kill more bots and find more money. It’s a good way of elevating the gameplay as you progress, though bear in mind that some of the later co-op missions can be quite unforgiving.
But I think the thing I like most about TF2 is that it just looks bloody brilliant. I didn’t use that earlier comparison to Pixar lightly, Valve put great work into the visual design of their characters, giving them exaggerated features and emotive faces, and there’s lots of clever things about them that aren’t immediately obvious.
For example, all the different classes have vastly distinctive figures and frames, meaning that the second you look at a person, you can tell what his job is. A slim silhouette with long limbs? It’s a spy. An shorter, angular body that’s leaning forward? It’s a scout. A straight-standing figure with a large backpack? Sir, you see a medic. It makes fighting less trail-and-error than other games, in which the only way you can tell if an enemy has heavy ordinance is to start shooting at him and hope he doesn’t fire a nuclear missile back.
But there’s more to the graphical style than just helping the player mechanically, the imagery is what gives it such charm. The cartoon visuals and heightened reality help the whole thing stay jovial, stop it from getting grim and depressing. Yes, you’ve been blown to pieces by a grenade launcher, too bad. But your killer was a man with a comically strange Scottish accent who ran past holding up his kilt and wooping, his green wig bobbing merrily in the breeze. That’s worthy of a smile, surely?
And TF2 does make me smile. It makes me grin from ear to ear. The chaos, the madness, the disarmingly surreal atmosphere. Not to mention the fact that Valve clearly has great love for both the game and the characters, as regular updates add more content and maps each time. There’s even a well-written webcomic that comes out for no cost on their site, and as a lover of graphic novels that suits me to a tee.
So strap on your pink crash helmet, join me in the dusty outback, and let’s while away the hours racking up a higher body count than Burger King and Hannibal Lecter combined. Team Fortress 2, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
If you have the stomach to deal with the rest of the world online, there are good games to do it through. Halo 3 is an old favourite of mine, an excellent shooter with a vast array of customisable maps and game settings. Elite: Dangerous is a recent space-fairing MMO, set in a vast recreation of the Milky Way that offers a rather pleasing amount of freedom. Or what about Payday 2 and Valve’s other recent creation, Left 4 Dead, both of which tend towards an emphasis on co-operation with other players?
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