Assaulting the Team Fortress

Team Fortress 2

Valve’s Team Fortress 2 is already over six months old, so now might seem like an odd time to write a post on the games merits, but with the recent release of the Medic Achievement pack, and the rather surprising (though not unwelcome) news that Valve intends to integrate some of its popular features and improvements into the ageing Day of Defeat: Source, I decided I’d jot down a few of my impressions.

The release of Team Fortress 2 came as something of a surprise, after so little news about its development, with virtually nothing concrete after the initial revelations in 1999. The finished version bears absolutely no relation to those initial screenshots, instead maintaining much stronger links to the original modification Team Fortress Classic, with a strong glossy coat of The Incredibles style graphics and an uncut, Columbian-strength injection of humour.

The game relies strongly on teamplay, and one of the greatest assets in Team Fortress’ arsenal is the balancing act Valve have worked between the classes. Many games with far fewer variables don’t manage to create as level a playing field as this. With nine different classes to play that was no easy feat, with each having different weapons, movement speeds, skills and strengths. That’s not to say it’s perfect—some classes enjoy obvious advantages with very few setbacks—but each one has its uses, and with some practice can be used to great effect. Some require a lot more fiddling and practice to master than the others, for example spying can be a deadly and irritating activity in the hands of those with an innate love of hide and seek. For those with an addiction to pressing ‘W’, however, it turns into more of a kamikaze class than anything of any particular use to the team. By contrast the role of sniper is much more intuitive, which as Yahtzee so brilliantly put it is reduced to the classic point-and-click adventure game style of “use gun on man.”

Spy Dance
Credit: Sam Kindler

And teamplay is well featured in Team Fortress 2. Whilst other games in Valve’s arsenal purport to rely on the teamplay element, there are annoying aspects of these that their latest game has thankfully worked to eliminate. The classic public server ‘tactic’ of many a Counter-Strike: Source player, that of hanging behind a doorway as your teammates are shot to ribbons, before charging in guns blazing to finish off the softened up enemies who are now busy reloading to claim all the glory simply doesn’t find a place in Team Fortress 2. This partly results from the fact that players can ‘assist’ in killing enemies (and score points for doing so). Similarly the Medic class is poorly armed and weak when alone, but when backing up other classes automatically scores points for kill assists, and extra points for healing injured players, extra incentive for Medics to heal all of their teammates rather than follow the top scoring player around like a dog on a leash. The Engineer meanwhile finds a supporting role and scores points through building well placed sentry guns and teleporters, whilst to some extent relying on other teammates in dealing with spies attempting to destroy his buildings.

Another attribute of the teamplay incentive lies in the nature of defeat. The defeated team finds itself unable to shoot, reduced to a crawl, and opens up all of their safe zones (i.e. respawn points) to the enemy, leaving their enemies free to ritually hunt them down and massacre them. In comparison public server gamers in Counter-Strike: Source are free to ignore teamplay objectives and look after their own skins, and are even able to go ‘frag hunting’ for some seconds after their team has lost the round. Day of Defeat: Source takes a middle ground between the two, with losing players unable to fire, but still able to move as normal and make use of the safety of their spawns, and it would be nice if those aspects could be made more like those in Team Fortress 2 as an encouragement to teamplay and a focus on objectives.

Heavy
Credit: roBurky

One of the refreshing features of Team Fortress 2 is the great injection of humour. Released alongside the ravishingly humourous Portal, it is clear that Valve’s intentions with The Orange Box were to create a selection of games intended to make us laugh and enjoy gaming, rather than take it too seriously. The cartoonesque graphics provide a beautiful setting to the gaming mayhem, and whilst slightly limited in scope, the richness of the characters more than makes up for this. Each of the nine classes has a particular persona representing one or other stereotype. The Demoman is played by a black, Scottish cyclops, the Heavy by a simple Russian obsessed with his gun, and the Soldier a madcap American with more than a passing resemblance to George C. Scott’s Patton. Each has a large number of one liners that pop up during the game, such as the Sniper, after shooting someone in the head saying “Thanks for standin’ still, wanker!” or the Heavy on hearing a dispenser being built exclaiming “I hear someone building diaper changing station!” Valve have created cute introductory videos for some of the classes, and of course the community have made many more. (Especially worth checking out is the gorgeous Ignis Solus from Lit Fuse Films.)

cobalt is looking good!
Credit: Bryan Sutter

A contentious issue that many criticise and which drives some players to distraction is the inclusion of ‘criticals’. These essentially give weapons a random chance to do triple the amount of damage normally dealt. This is often enough to kill a player outright, and can lead to many a frustrating situation where an evenly staged fight is determined by the random number generator. It’s almost akin to a gunfight in the wild west in which you suddenly find your gun was replaced with a water pistol. Whilst this can make many a pitched battle appear to be decided on a dice roll, in my opinion that element of luck means the game is ultimately more playable for players of different skill levels. A decent player in a competent team (and with a decent medic to back him up) could probably play many a map without dying, particularly if he outclassed his opponents. The random criticals to a large extent negate such domination, and enable poorly skilled players to have a chance to enjoy the game to a greater extent. However, the system is not without its problems. Given the variety between the classes, the critical hits manifest themselves in different ways: Spies and Snipers benefit from non-random critical hits from backstabs and headshots respectively, Medics can do ‘critical healing’, Engineers’ buildings are resistant to critical shots (consolation for the fact that their sentries never fire criticals) etc. However, whilst Soldiers and Demomen can fire off critical shots and stand a fair chance of the explosion killing someone or causing major damage without hitting anyone in particular, classes like the Pyro in particular have little chance of doing mass damage with their critical flame except on more compact maps. The biggest gripe I have with that system, however, is the manner in which the random nature of critical shots can be affected by a player’s performance. In particular, as this forum post seems to demonstrate, players are rewarded with a higher percentage of critical shots for a limited time, the more damage they do. Of course since the better players tend to deal the most damage, this leads to a runaway effect, as they fire more criticals, dealing more damage, leading to yet more criticals. In defence of my previous statement I would consider a far better employment of that critical ramping to work in favour of those dealing the least damage, or being killed more times consecutively, or dominated by more players etc.

candlejack is looking good!
Credit: Bryan Sutter

One of the aspects of Team Fortress 2 that prompted this post was the recent release of the Medic Achievements pack. The game originally came with a number of fun achievements for players to unlock whilst playing, such as killing a certain number of people without dying, healing a certain number of health points, setting a certain number of people on fire and so on. With the latest addition, Valve clearly intended to cater to the more long-term gamers for whom the initial Medic achievement of 25000 healing points wasn’t challenge enough. By comparison, the new achievements included one for a million healing points, together with a much greater variety of odd rituals to perform. Unfortunately some do tend to detract from the gameplay and initially led to whole servers of medics running around attempting to gain one achievement or another, hopefully an ailment that will be avoided should future achievement packs be released simultaneously. The achievements have been given some purpose through the introduction of unlockable weapons, which slightly alter those the Medic is already equipped with. The changes are small enough that the unlocked weapons do little to alter the game’s balance, though add a further bit of variety and some small advantages. Given the length of time the Medic Achievement pack took to be released it is questionable whether Valve will ever finish what they’ve started, and indeed how they can introduce new weapons to the other classes without balancing issues, though that remains to be seen. In the recently announced update to Day of Defeat: Source, a similar set of achievements have been touted, though hopefully the unlockable weapons will be left to the Team Fortress 2 crowd.

Another feature that made the crossover to the new Day of Defeat: Source Beta is the so-called freezecam which leaves the player a freeze frame shot of the player who killed them. In Team Fortress 2, this is often humorously supplemented by little signs pointing to various giblets littered around the frame with indications such as “Here’s a little bit of you!” and “Another piece.” Whilst this feature adds to the ethos of Team Fortress 2, it could certainly prove to alter the game dynamics in Day of Defeat: Source, which already has the camera aim towards the killer on dying, but would not reveal a hidden sniper to the same extent that the zoomed in freeze cam does. However, it would be nice if that feature could be expanded, in a similar vein to the “Killcam” found in Call of Duty games—a five second replay of the killer’s last movements—a very nice way of seeing how you died, and indeed a great aid to identifying cheaters.

Interesting though is the reaction of many regular Day of Defeat: Source players to the update news. Many have complained about the changes, claiming that it will only ruin the game dynamics, or that the game is becoming too much like Team Fortress 2. It appears to be a rather typical reaction to gamers who become accustomed to their particular niche and fear any changes that would upset their familiar skulking grounds. However as far as I can see, the changes bring welcome freshness to a game that was otherwise on the gradual decline, and indicates that Valve are committed to bringing fresh content and updated engine performance to games in their portfolio even a number of years after their release. Certainly welcome news, given that the touted changes are probably unlikely to improve sales figures in any significant way, beyond the reassurance that gamers may feel from knowing that the developer hasn’t given up on the game.

Overall Valve really pulled off something brilliant with Team Fortress 2. The game is well balanced, despite the massive variety afforded through the class system, beautiful to look at, comical in more than just aesthetics, and most of all—fun! The news that Valve intend to overhaul their older multiplayer games with the tricks tried and tested in Team Fortress is welcome, and shows that they have given a commitment to these older titles that gives the gamer confidence. Who knows, may we even yet see the reintroduction of the British to Day of Defeat: Source? You almost feel like forgiving them for the constant delays to Half-Life 2: Episode 2! But let’s not get carried away…

Random Quote

Only mediocrity can be trusted to be always at its best.

— Max Beerbohm