This re-review is of the PC and Mac version of Team Fortress 2, now available for free. The console versions, included in The Orange Box, have had comparatively few updates and remain closer to the version tested in our original Team Fortress 2 review from 2007.
There isn't one game called Team Fortress 2. There are hundreds. Its famously long development time used to see it compared to Duke Nukem Forever, but that doesn't hold water any more: Duke's finished. The development of TF2 goes on and on: new weapons, new levels, new gametypes, new accessories, new achievements, new features, new hats. All updates are free. And now, so is the game.
A Valve employee once wryly remarked that the company could put $20 in a box, sell it for $10, and people would still find something to criticise. The announcement of TF2's change to a free-to-play model bears that out: a vocal minority seem to think this is a great insult to TF2's previous purchasers, while an even smaller minority have set up servers dedicated to kicking out free players. Next to the size and beauty of Team Fortress 2, that is laughable behaviour.
Four years is a long time in videogames, but Team Fortress 2 is as fresh as its day of release. That time has seen other attempts to capture its class-based crown, the most recent example being Brink, but nothing has come close. What was an outstanding game at release has been bulked up and expanded so much that the sheer quantity of content is bewildering - how many other FPS games sell stamps that directly support their community creators?
Since release, there have been over 200 updates for the game, 29 new maps, and numerous new pieces of equipment across the nine classes. And that's just the stuff Valve has made. Covering it all would be a fool's errand, but there are focal points: the new weapons for each character, the accumulation of modes and levels, the trading system, and the 'Mannconomy' of in-game purchases.
The alternative weapons and kit for each class are the most substantive changes. Demoman, an alcoholic Scotsman, has always seemed the natural class for me - call it empathy. His standard set-up is a versatile mix of explosive grenades, tactical sticky bombs and a bottle of scrumpy in case anyone gets too close. His alternative setup lets you forego all of that cissy ranged nonsense and play as a full-on melee class - the Demo Knight.
Equipped with Ali Baba's Wee Booties, the Chargin' Targe shield and the Eyelander sword, we are doom. This set-up lets you charge into packs of enemies with a blood-curdling scream, dealing a crit to anyone in your path, and start swinging wildly; every time the Eyelander kills, it decapitates, and each head means more health and speed for you.
Hit a pack of enemies and it's mental. Do it with a medic in tow and things can just seem unfair. Lop off the head of your nemesis and an achievement will pop up: There Can Be Only One. Venture into the open, and kiss your wee booties goodbye. Giving with one hand, taking with another.
The Spy's got a new watch, the Dead Ringer - equip it and run at a group of enemies. When they shoot they'll see a fake corpse fall while you turn invisible and run behind their position with the Eternal Reward, a knife that transforms you into whomever you've just backstabbed. What happens next should be obvious, and lovely.
As well as kit that changes how a class is played, there's plenty to tweak the default load-outs: you can give your Engineer a faster-building mini sentry gun if you forgo the ability to upgrade it. As a Medic, you can choose a Medi-Gun that makes you and your target invulnerable during ubercharge, or one that gives your target invulnerability and critical hits.
Such a kaleidoscope of weapons, abilities and buffs is overwhelming, and there will always be the hipsters insisting that vanilla Team Fortress 2 is superior to its current form. If you agree, there are servers for that. But next to this much fun, such po-faced solemnity seems lunatic. Is it balanced? Who can say. Nothing feels unfair - and considering the bullets, baseballs, darts, arrows, rockets, bottles of piss and numerous other tools you'll face, that's saying an awful lot.
But no matter the class or load-out, Team Fortress 2's standout quality is the way it makes you use it. It's the one team-based game that feels team-based in every single match, because everyone has to play to their strengths. Even in the best of TF2's competitors, such as Battlefield, a medic can still have a submachine gun in his back pocket and get a killstreak. TF2's medics are too busy healing.
A lot of stuff we assume is ubiquitous in shooters - grenades, assault rifles, recharging health, straight-up deathmatch - just isn't here. Team Fortress 2 doesn't use the genre's crutches. It absorbs and transforms the best of its inspirations: the original Team Fortress was a Quake mod, and what are the Scout and the Soldier but aspects of Quake turned into entire classes?
Beyond its fundamentals, Team Fortress 2 is an aesthetic achievement that looks more towering with each passing year: it still looks better, and is clearer in-game, than every other shooter. At the time, Tom said: "Other FPS developers: copy this immediately." No-one has.
It combines this with irresistible characterisations that are funny in isolation - the 'Meet the Team' videos, the in-game manual belonging to the Engineer - but funnier in the thick of things, when the classes let rip with their brilliant, endless one liners. There are so many details to admire, practical and otherwise. The composition of your team being on-screen while choosing a respawn class. The zoomed-in snap of your killer. Taunts that can kill.
Best of all is the 'ding' sound effect. It can be turned on in the options: every time you hit an enemy, ding! It changes your game utterly. I never used to blanket-bomb chokepoints with the Demoman, but with dings turned on I realised it created symphonies. The Heavy's optimum range is clear as bells. And for the Pyro, it's a manic alarm bell while someone roasts.
The free-to-play model doesn't change much for Team Fortress 2. Being an existing owner, I set up a new Steam account to try out the service from the perspective of a scabby freeloader. It's hard not to do a double-take when everything works - TF2 for free! It's not even fair to call it a bargain. This is an incredible gift.
Playing free has no in-game handicaps: all of the classes and their vanilla load-outs are unlocked, and new items are randomly found at the rate of one every hour or so. But before we get the bunting out, there is one problem: if your account hasn't purchased anything through Steam, you're not allowed to have a friends list. There are items on the store for as little as 49p, but the minimum amount you can deposit to pay for that is £4. A friends list isn't optional if you're going to put any time into Team Fortress 2, and fencing it off for total newbies seems uncharacteristically mean.
One more thing that stands out, mainly because the remainder is so polished, is TF2's recent addition of matchmaking from the title screen. Basically, it very rarely works and more often than not freezes up. The main way of finding a game in TF2 has always been picking servers, and this works flawlessly, so it seems odd to have an ostensibly easier route that often doesn't work.
As for the in-game shop, yes, I have bought some weapons. And accessories. And maybe a fedora. But that's it. There are random item drops that gradually award most of the usable weapons, but in truth the amount of time you'd have to grind to bag a specific item seems excessive - and there are long stretches where you can't score a drop for love nor money. But is that a problem?
You could argue that drops should reflect the class you're playing, occur more frequently, or crafting should require fewer raw materials. To do so misses the point that these items, especially the crates that can't be opened without paying, are teases. You take your chances or you pay up, and if you pay up then the game's that little bit more fun. Since when was paying for fun a bad thing?
Finally, there couldn't be a re-review without a word for Team Fortress 2's players. Perhaps it's the way the game forces you to play as a team, or the comedy of its violence, but the atmosphere in almost every TF2 game is welcoming. In one match, a random player turned up, opened a bunch of crates for everyone through trading back and forth, and then left with a cheery salutation.
In another, a Medic healing my Heavy asked to reverse the roles, then showed me how to move, where was best to stand on this level, and we switched back. At the end of the game he gifted me a pair of boxing gloves. You can mock hats all you want: from here, TF2's community looks extraordinarily civilized.
Team Fortress 2 is the purest embodiment of Valve's philosophy: listening to their audience, always updating, and forever over-delivering. It's also the best argument for Steam as a platform ever made: with an average of one update a fortnight it has expanded and changed so much, yet like its celebrated silhouettes, still stands out, utterly familiar. It understands that persistence is as much about personality as power, and is one of the most consistently surprising and inventive games you'll ever play. And at the risk of sounding like the press office, you can play it forever for free. Once again, Valve has outdone itself.
10 / 10