Version tested: PC
Thanks to failing eyesight (thanks, Suicide Girls) and this newfangled obsession with making everything look gritty, online FPS games are harder for me than ever. Half the time I can't pick people out from the environment until it's too late. Even in Counter-Strike, which is clearer than most, I often get popped in the head by a distant Colt and then have to cycle the chase-cameras to work out who killed me and from where.
So it's important to start this review by jumping up and down waving excitedly about Team Fortress 2's brilliant graphics: not only is everything extremely clear and intuitive, with character classes that you can easily distinguish at distance, but when you get killed the game crash-zooms to and freeze-frames your killer, so you can immediately identify who, why, how and where. Other FPS developers: copy this immediately.
Making a complicated team-based online FPS like Team Fortress into an accessible experience was obviously one of Valve's objectives. Each map comes with a short video that tells you about the game-type and goals; all the level architecture is distinct when you move between sections, with big sign-posts telling you which capture-point or area you're heading to; and all the weapons and abilities are really intuitive, like the Medic's healing gun, which fires health into your target and illustrates this by pumping little red crosses along the stream.
Thankfully that doesn't mean TF has been dumbed down. There are nine classes, and, while several are easy to pick up, getting the most out of each will take hours of experimentation and intuition. The Spy, for example, perfectly captures the sense of the name. Armed with a flick-knife and the ability to disguise himself as the enemy, the Spy can infiltrate enemy bases and even make himself invisible. But he's fragile, and you can uncloak him by shooting or brushing against him. And while his flick-knife kills with one hit, it only does so from behind, and using it gives up his position.
Along with the Medic, Heavy Weapons Guy, Scout, Pyro, Sniper, Demo Man, Engineer and rocket-jumping Soldier, that makes nine classes, which you can pick from before each respawn. Your team's objective, depending on the map, may be to run the enemy off control-points or defend them, to capture and hold them in a tug of war, or simply to race into the enemy base and nick a briefcase of intelligence (so, CTF).
Again though, TF is accessible without feeling slight, and the key to that isn't the six maps, or the game-types, but those nine classes. Individually each has a trio of weapons and various specific attributes, like an amount of health and movement characteristics that are relative to the character's stature, as well as the occasional special ability.
Some classes, like the Soldier and the minigun-toting Heavy Weapons Guy, are easy to pick up and easy to integrate into a team with which you're not familiar. Slightly more skilled players, or those with TF experience, will happily slot into less glamorous or obvious roles like the Engineer, Demo Man or Pyro. The latter's flamethrower is great over short distances, but won't finish enemies off quickly, so you mousewheel to the shotgun for a killing blow, while the Demo Man is a mixture of high-impact projectiles and remote-detonation mine-launching, giving it offensive and defensive flexibility.
The Engineer also has that flexibility. As a support unit, the ammo- and health-dispensing stations it produces are great for maintaining forward positions, while the teleports it can set up help reinforce them. But these things are also important in defence, along with the all-powerful sentry guns, which completely disrupt an attacking team's momentum until they're cleared.
Engineers are particularly susceptible to Spies, though, because they're often kneeling down and working on something. And Spies are drawn to their location, because Spies can also undo entrenched sentry guns, sabotaging them at the potential cost of exposure. That relationship is typical. Each class is a cunning set of contradictions. It's not so much rock, paper, scissors as rock, paper, scissors, flick-knife, fire, sentry-gun, mini-gun, sniper rifle, double-jump, bone-saw.
Figuring out how best to fight for your team in the role you've chosen is very intuitive, but so is figuring out how to support your team, and it's all important work - the Medic, for example, is one of the easiest classes to play as in the game, but also the most important in the right hands. His "medi-gun" is useful for healing team-mates in advanced positions, but the other element of it is the ability to build up "uber-charge". This involves lots of healing and staying alive, and allows the Medic to unleash ten seconds of invulnerability for him and his target comrade. Medic-and-Heavy combinations are great for holding down capture-points, or assaulting them in more claustrophobic settings, while other combinations yield other benefits.
In contrast with other, less accessible team-based FPS games, TF2's clever concoction of classes, artistic choices and relationship trackers help you establish effective attack and defence routines almost without the need for voice communication (although it, and finger-bending voice-command menus, are present). The good thing about that instinctive adaptation is that it allows you to slot onto public servers without feeling self-conscious, but the further you progress the more likely you are to experiment with tougher classes, and the more strategic depth you uncover. The victor, in every situation, is simply the team who adapted best first. Where we perhaps expected baffling complexity, instead we've got a game that rewards mental agility, but doesn't struggle to cultivate it.
In a team-based FPS - especially one that plays at such a fast pace, where death can be frequent - that's potent. The best difference between Counter-Strike and TF2, for instance, is that failure in TF2 is often immediately instructive, and a successful tactic or an unrivalled twitch-killer are never the panacea they are in on the fields of Dust or Militia. After all, what good is the best Sniper in the world if, in sudden-death overtime, he misses the fact that his comrade on the balcony is actually a cigarette-chomping super-Spy preparing to slit his throat?
The game also does a lovely job of framing your relationship with other players and nurturing them. If someone is dominating you, the game says so, and revenge is sweeter. The scoring system, of course, helps reflect this - if someone is dominating you, they get more points for continuing to do so. Valve also includes a range of Achievements (which we witnessed on both PC and 360), that - rather like celebrated Geometry Wars 360 achievement "Pacifism" - push you in the direction of new ideas as much as they celebrate or laugh along with your accomplishments.
It is a game where even a day's worth of play could fill a website's worth of anecdotes. Standing at the top of a tower trying to avoid Demo Man rounds while Heavies mount the stairs and Spies attempt to get behind you is a science-fiction Helm's Deep. And as with another of the Orange Box games, Portal, Valve's ability to teach players without over-encumbering them, or even without giving away that they are doing so, in no way diminishes the game's long-term appeal or its bounteous variety.
As an aside, there are certain things about any multiplayer FPS game that ultimately prove critical to its acceptance that no review scenario is ever likely to convey, and it would be churlish not to recognise these in the text: we had minimal exposure to the server-side control of the game, and our experiences were limited to LAN play. We believe that the developer's pre-release period of beta-testing, its capacity to make CS work long-term, and its history of offering free and feedback-based support should mitigate potential problems, but we thought we'd mention it.
Looking beyond release, TF2 will get more maps (for free), but even the initial six will struggle to wane thanks to sheer gameplay density. TF2's been in development since B*Witched were top of the pops, and the result is a game that should scale to the needs of everyone from the clumsiest neophyte to the staunchest supporter.
In an uncharacteristic burst of intelligent observation, the game's Wikipedia entry remarks that the old design of TF2 is "quite possibly the only game to have spawned a thriving sub-genre without ever being released itself". For the people who make up that sub-genre, as well as those addressing it afresh, we're confident the reaction will be "ten years well spent".
9 / 10