Team Fortress 2
There's no sound quite like it. Well, there's the sound of the medic running around screaming "I am on fire!" That's pretty good too. Oh and then there's the grumpy school teacher protesting that the "enemy has been granted additional time."
Never mind it's all good. It's all brilliantly good. The weapon sounds, environmental effects, the music -- each perfect for the setting. In fact, the sound design of Team Fortress 2 is so good it would almost be reason enough to play it. But luckily, there are other reasons. Here they are.
It's almost free. I was going to be buying Half Life 2: Episode 2 no matter what. I would likely have paid $44.95 just for that. I have no burning interest in Portal, and I already own HL2 and Episode 1. But here's the thing, I'd also pay $44.95 to play Team Fortress 2. So by my twisted algebra, I'm either getting Episode 2 for free, or I'm getting TF2 for free.
It looks fabulous. It's not Space Giraffe trippy "oooh look at my HDR" fabulous, but fabulous in an entirely different way. By abandoning the pervasive trend towards photo realism in first person shooters, Valve's nailed it. The game looks wonderful in any resolution (seriously, it looks great in a 640 by 480 window), is completely unique, and highly immersive.
Even more important is the animation. I find myself increasingly taking "good" animation in games for granted. Developers have become very sophisticated in the art of motion capture and representation, from the big daddies of BioShock to the performance characteristics and deformability of the cars in Forza 2, the goal is realism. TF2 throws that out the window. Taking cues more from traditional animation than from game design, the animations are exaggerated, fluid, and because of that, just plain funny. The animation is perhaps the key to why TF2 simply feels so good.
It's designed to be fun. This may sound axiomatic since we're talking about games here, but there's a difference between "lets go to the circus and watch jugglers" fun, and "lets go ride our bicycles 100 miles in the rain" fun. Having done both, they are both entertaining, but very different.
TF2 is designed to be the circus-clown kind of fun. Some of this is obvious - the Demoman flashing the happy face on his crotch as his taunt, for instance. But the goof-factor is built into nearly every component of the game, from the design of the buildings and characters, to the pacing of the maps. On top of this, there are dozens of stupid little extras. My personal favorite pointless touch is the Nemesis system. When someone kills you often enough, the game puts little fists over them whenever you see them, so you can make sure to smack them hard. It's the difference between being annoyed and enjoying dying.
It's designed for people who suck (and you guys too) If you're 18 years old, have sharp reflexes, and 3 hours a day to play first person shooters, you will kick my ass. I might get a lucky head shot or chainsaw once in a while, but there's not much I can really do about this. TF2 is designed to reward multiple play styles. Most of the time when we see that on a box what it really means is "it's designed to reward one play style, but if you're a 'tard you can play this other way." In the case of TF2, there are substantial, necessary and skillful roles to fill that do not require quite the lightning reflexes of a heated Gears match.
That's not to say that being an Engineer, or a Medic or any other class is necessarily easy. Each of the 9 classes is accessible, but each is also best played by someone who knows what they're doing. I don't know what I'm really doing yet, but I do know how to maintain a defensive placement with a couple of other engineers, for example, and if I find myself out-pinged and out-caffeinated, I know i can at least do something useful and fun.
It's dynamic. Another marketing buzzword which usually means "things change all the time for no apparent reason." In TF2, the dynamism comes from map design, player styles, and strategic shifts. Playing against a team which is determined to turtle is very different than playing against a team that's all offense. And these differences mean you need to experiment with different classes and strategies. The mix of classes is constantly changing in response to the situation, and this just plain makes if un-boring. In a game of, say, Battlefield 2, while there are many choices about how I can play a given round, in general, they're going to devolve to what I happen to be decent enough at to play, and the variation is nowhere near that between a Scout and a Medic in Team Fortress 2.
By keeping the classes extremely limited they've ensured that each class is truly unique. None of the classes is unplayable, boring, or underpowered.
It's highly strategic. Because of its fundamental simplicity, TF2 resembles a game of chess more than a flat out fog-of-war, artillery-laden chaos-battle. More than any multi player game in recent memory, I want to play with a real, regular team against other regular teams. I'm not delusional enough to think I will, but I want to because I can see deep and evolving map strategies and counter-strategies emerging.
Just like the tournament scene for Magic: The Gathering, the orthogonal possibilities for a given map are exciting and enticing. Have you tried an all-scouts raiding attack in Gravel Pit? I have, and let me just say it's insanely great, nobody expects it, and you can get away with it. What about an all heavies march-of-doom on the control point maps. Strategies like that would never survive long term, but I can easily see dozens of viable, reproducible strategies that would at least be a hell of a lot of fun to try.
It's Short. Unfortunately, this isn't true of all the maps. The territorial control version (represented by Hydro in the beta) can go on for ever, in particularly frustrating fashion. But the core of Team Fortress has always been 2forts capture the flag, and the TF2 version of 2forts is essentially perfect. There's a sweet spot in multi player games for me. Dying has to matter enough that it's not a pure zerg-fest, but at the same time, I'm completely done with games that force me to run for 2 minutes just so I can get killed again. TF2 seems to strike the balance perfectly.
It's PC. I'll admit it, I have great love for the PC as a gaming platform. But until recently (when I kicked off the last round of gaming nirvana with Civ iV: Beyond the Sword, took a detour through BioShock, and landed on TF2), I'd spent far more time with my 360 than with my PC. At the moment, playing TF2 on the PC doesn't buy me anything in and of itself. But it does fill me with hope: TF2 with a good mod community would be a game I play for a long time, possibly years, just as the original was.
It's Steam Baby! The dirty little secret of the TF2 beta is the heavy, heavy win for Steam Community. Here are all the reasons Steam suddenly rocks even more than it did last month, but WAY more than it did when it launched.
- 180 people in the GWJ Steam community. My 99 person friends list on Xbox LIVE is simply a poor substitute.
- Fantabulous server finding, filtering, and managing.
- Dedicated servers are easy and free to set up.
- Multi and single person chat that just works.
- Spy on all your friends games, join them with a click.
- Stats. Where did this come from? TF2 stats beat the crap out of Xbox LIVE.
Two months ago, Xbox LIVE was hands down the single best game community and multi player management experience out there. I can't even imagine going back now. Sure, if nobody I knew was on Steam, it would suck. But with games like this, it's only going to get better.
Is it a perfect game? No. Is it everything I hoped TF2 would be? Yes, and then some. I guess it's impossible for a game to be an instant classic when it's actually the sequel to a classic. But regardless, it's going to be an icon on my desktop for a long, long time.
Thanks to the GWJ community for the screenshots