The Orange Box: Team Fortress 2 (PC)
It's next to impossible to stand out as an online team-based shooter these days. The genre that started with Team Fortress and Tribes has come a long way, and everyone and his uncle has made one. It doesn't help that so many of them are good, from EA's successful Battlefield series to the recent Quake Wars to the PlayStation 3 sleeper Warhawk. Valve's approach is to come at the genre with style. While Team Fortress 2 was still in development, Valve released short films highlighting the different classes. They were funny and full of personality. And they probably had no more to do with Team Fortress 2 than those ads of an old man in a museum had to do with Halo 3. Or so a cynical fella might think.
He couldn't be more wrong. It's no small feat that this humor and personality oozes from the game, even when you're just frantically running and shooting and spawning and strafing and hollering for a medic and capturing control points and -- oh, look, you just got hit by a train. Team Fortress 2 is brought to life with a glorious combination of artwork, sound, musical riffs, writing and little touches like the way you're given a freeze-frame of the instant of your death, complete with an opportunity to save a screenshot. The fact that Valve knows you might want to save a screenshot at that moment speaks volumes. This is a game with style -- sly style, in spades -- and unlike anything else you've played.
The visuals, for instance, situate Team Fortress 2 in a cartoon world, with stylized characters who wouldn't look out of place in 'The Incredibles.' But whereas "cartoony" is often synonymous with chintzy, there's nothing chintzy about these graphics. They use the Source engine to its fullest extent and feature some of the most expressive animation you'll find this side of motion capturing. This game is a real looker, partly because it looks so good, but mostly because it looks unique.
Not that there isn't also gameplay here. There is. Smooth as ice cream gameplay. Jump in as one of the more accessible classes and you'll be having a blast with your team in no time. Each class has only a single main weapon, and there's no messy alternate fire or inventory. Any given class does one thing, and one thing only, and you're pretty much just pointing and shooting. There are only six maps, each of which plays as either capture-the-flag or across a series of control points. It all seems so simple. Team Fortress 2 is unapologetically approachable, a real looker who's also got the social skills to introduce herself to a stranger.
The maps are simple, because geography isn't the point here (see a game like Quake Wars for an example of the map being a prominent part of the gameplay). Instead, the point is the interplay of the classes, each doing their one thing. And this is where Team Fortress 2 has real legs. For instance, the scout is incredibly fast, but frail. The heavy is incredibly slow, but sturdy. A comparison of these guys reflects the game's design philosophy in a nutshell. Everyone has an extreme strength and an extreme weakness. The scout can be easily dispatched with a shot or two from any gun, but you have to catch him first. And you can come up behind a heavy and whale away on him before he can even turn around, but he'll be able to weather the damage.
Some classes are built for easy play: the pyro fights with a flamethrower, which essentially splashes fire indiscriminately (Team Fortress 2 is designed to be played without friendly fire) -- no aiming needed; the medic tags along behind teammates firing a healing tendril that automatically attaches to his companions. But even for these easy classes, there are deeper levels of gameplay. The pyro is important for revealing disguised spies posing as your teammates (they'll catch fire, unlike your actual teammates) and the medic has the ability to build up an über-charge that makes a teammate invulnerable for a brief period of time.
And then there are the more demanding classes, such as the spy who plays cat-and-mouse, the demo man who's all about ricochets and timing grenades, or the engineer who can change the entire flow of a map with a well-placed turret, dispenser, or teleporter. There's a place in the grand scheme of things for every class. If you think your class sucks, you're not playing it right.
As an online game, Team Fortress 2 takes great advantage of Steam's community features. It's easy to set up a friends list and keep track of where and how your friends are playing. It's all very clan-friendly. Even if you're not tapped into the social elements, the stat tracking is a great Steam trick for sucking you in. It's like a combination of the Gamerscore achievements on Xbox Live and trying to beat your own high scores on an arcade videogame. Your performance is constantly tracked and compared to your previous games, including stats for the most kills you ever got, the longest you stayed alive, and the most damage you've done. It'll even track who's killed you most often in a given match, with a special pat on the back if you turn around and kill him. Team Fortress 2 is paying attention to you, and it's not shy about letting you know it.
This is a fast game, which makes it perfect for being played in short spurts -- which manage to inadvertently stretch out into several hours at a time. Matches tend to be short, life spans even shorter. It plays best with at least 10 players on each team, but it lends itself to all sorts of mixing and matching. It's not uncommon to find a team doing an all-scouts bum-rush, for instance. That the game bears up under these shenanigans is a testament to Valve's fine tuning.
With Team Fortress 2, it's as if the genre has come full circle. The original Team Fortress was an ambitious Quake mod made over 10 years ago. And its developers, now working internally at Valve, have outdone themselves by taking something they did a decade ago and making it feel brand-new, exciting, accessible, and unabashedly contemporary. Here's to hoping history repeats itself like this more often.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.