One thing the first-person shooter genre has been tending towards in the last few years is an emphasis on gritty, realistic (or at least semi-realistic) gunplay. This is not a universally-loved proposition. Take a look at two screenshots from two different shooters, and chances are that if you aren\’t already an avid fan of the genre, you will not be able to tell them apart. The status quo is rather displeasing – but who better to shake it up than Valve Software, who have already revitalized the genre twice with the 1998 hit Half-Life and its 2004 sequel? Their effort to this end is Team Fortress 2, and what a terrific game it is.
In spite of its title, Team Fortress 2 is in fact the third iteration in the Team Fortress series, which is known for being the first class-based multiplayer first-person shooter. When it was announced way back in 1999, Team Fortress 2 was supposed to have a highly realistic art direction, but along the way that decision was dropped in favour of a highly stylized art direction. The result is that TF2 looks like no other first person shooter on the market today. Valve has used some clever shading techniques to make both the characters and environments look like cartoon characters, with exaggerated anatomy, bright colours and incredible facial animation.
The audio is similarly inspired. While weapon and impact noises are as good as you would expect them to be, what really shines is the speech and music. The game has a consistent musical theme, and jingles that wouldn\’t sound out of place in a \’60s spy thriller play at the start and end of each round. The characters themselves emote with gusto. Each character has three different unique taunts, and several context-sensitive voice clips that can be triggered at the push of a key. While they fulfil the obvious need for a way of communicating with your teammates, they also help to create what is perhaps the first multiplayer shooter in a long time with actual personality. Whether it\’s the Demoman\’s angry Scottish rants, the Medic\’s odd battle cry of \”OKTOBERFEST!\” or the Pyro\’s incoherent muffled yelling, the characters\’ oddball personalities really grow on you.
Aesthetics aren\’t everything, so it\’s a good thing that Valve is on the ball when it comes to gameplay as well. As noted earlier in this review, Team Fortress 2 is primarily a multiplayer game, much like Unreal Tournament and its ilk. Unlike those games, though, the focus here is on teams of players competing against each other to complete specific objectives on a variety of maps. These objectives can include stealing intelligence from the enemy team\’s base (this game\’s version of Capture The Flag) or capturing all the control points on a given map. There are several variations on the latter game type, each of which has its own subtleties. The most interesting game type is territorial control, which plays out as a series of smaller battles in a larger battle to control all the areas on a map. There\’s a lot of variety to be had here; the only possible complaint is that the game ships with only six multiplayer maps from the get-go (with two more available as free downloadable content), but this being a first-person shooter on the PC, there are already numerous high-quality user-made maps making the rounds, thanks to the free Source SDK and Hammer map editor released by Valve.
TF2 wouldn\’t be much of a Team Fortress game without its classes, and while each of the classes from TFC has made a return, they\’ve all been changed quite drastically. Where TFC had more homogeneity with its classes (particularly with regard to weapon and grenade use) TF2 goes in the opposite direction, offering nine distinct classes with decidedly unique abilities. For instance, the Scout has low hit points, but is the fastest of all the classes, making him the ideal intelligence carrier or point capturer. On the other hand, the Heavy is slow, but can take significant punishment and deal out massive damage with his minigun, and is thus suited for major offensive pushes. The Medic is primarily a support class with poor offensive abilities, but he can also impart a ten-second invulnerability charge at intervals that can really serve to turn the tide of the match in his team\’s favour. And then there\’s the calculating, cerebral experience that is the Spy class. No two classes can really be played alike, assuring that even if you manage to master one class, the others are waiting to offer you a completely different gameplay experience every time you log on.
TF2 also implements some interesting features that may be a first for a first-person shooter. In an attempt to get people to keep playing, the game keeps track of your statistics for each round. If a certain player kills you several times, that player is marked out as your nemesis, and you get bonus points for getting revenge on him. Similarly you can dominate players on the other team by killing them repeatedly. In addition, the game uses these stats to reinforce the sense that you\’re getting better as you play, pointing out little achievements from the previous round, like new records for maximum kills in a single spawn, time spent alive and so on. It\’s a nice trick to keep players interested in their own progress and keep them playing. However, the most curious of the new features is the critical hit system – critical hits are randomly awarded to players on each team, and the chance of getting a critical hit depends on various factors, such as how well you\’re playing or what weapon you\’re using. It\’s an interesting twist, one not usually seen in FPSes, and it\’s rare enough not to be gamebreaking.
As far as the multiplayer experience goes, TF2 is the first game to benefit from the enhancements to Valve\’s Steam content delivery service. This means the inclusion of things like achievements, a unified friends list that lets you join your friends\’ games with a single click, stat tracking and a robust server browser. The multiplayer experience is of a very high standard, and the game is eminently playable even when your ping starts to scrape the low 200s. Full in-game voice chat support is also included, and is crucial if you want to work effectively with your team to win games. The robustness of the online service ensures that more often than not, your TF2 experience will be unhindered by network hiccups.
All in all, Team Fortress 2 is a great multiplayer first-person shooter that will be fondly remembered by many for years to come. It\’s rare that a game with such a long development cycle turns out to be such a well-polished and high quality affair, so players would do well to savour what this game has to offer. Personality, gameplay, balance – TF2 has it all, and is a must-play for any fan of the genre (and maybe even for those who aren\’t).
Note: I\’ve reviewed the PC version here. As a personal note, I strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in this title pick up the PC version, either through Steam, by purchasing the Orange Box, or the new standalone retail version that was released recently. The console versions simply do not match up, in that they don\’t have most of the new content that has arrived on the PC version, and lack the ability to take advantage of the excellent community-generated content.