Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Smells Like Team Spirit

Ohh Team Fortress 2, what happened? You used to be so tightly wound. So streamlined. So... simple. You weren't exactly the most fleshed-out game of all time but your simplistic approach and no-nonsense class basics made you an instant classic. Over time, though, it's almost like your parents have let you run amock and now you appear to be bloated and inconsistent, bulging at the seems with creativity and humour and choice, but at the loss of your fidelity - and dare I say... your soul.

Okay, well that's a bit harsh. If you haven't figured it out by now, I am a massive Valve fanboy. I try to measure their games objectively, but I find it very hard when I just love them so huggy-lovey much. I have played over 100 hours of Team Fortress 2 since its release - which I understand is 1000 hours less than the average Team Fortress 2 die-hard, but for the longest time it was the only game I cared about. When Valve started its (monthly?) updates, adding new weapons, maps, and game-modes, I could barely contain my excitement. I counted down to update release days, I did everything I could to unlock all the new content, and I contributed on fan forums every hour of every day.

I was naive though. For as smart as Valve was for generating (and ensuring) continued interest via scheduled additions, I should have seen it coming that it went against every fiber of what made Team Fortress 2 so appealing in the first place. Team Fortress 2 spent nine years in development, not because it was a huge or overtly difficult game to develop, but because it was Valve's intention to make the most well-balanced, user-friendly, and enjoyable team-based multiplayer game possible. The cartoony aesthetic wasn't used because it looked cool, it was used to make identifiable enemy silhouettes. The sparse amount of maps was implemented because multi-player communities tend to stick to and master a handful of maps ad infinitum. The limited load-out slot was to make sure threats and their intentions could be well-read from a distance.

Starting with the Pyro update, things started to dwindle in quality and balance slowly over time. It became harder than Valve anticipated to genuinely balance each new load-out addition. The tactics of each individual map started to heave with the implementation of new weapons and tools, until the integrity of some of the older maps started to crack. Fan favourites like 2fort and Dustbowl, once finely tuned masterpieces, started to suffer from unforeseen consequences. With every new update, it took a lot of on-the-field tests and tweaks before they were even remotely balanced. All through updating the classes, there was always something beneath the surface that prevented any particular weapon or map from being as good as their vanilla counterparts, and that being said, even if a weapon was balanced, more often that not it just made that weapon redundant or useless - a right shame in anyone's book.

But even if every map and weapon was 100% balanced, it wouldn't make a difference to the coup de bullshite that is hats. "Hat Fortress" is the colloquial term now for Team Fortress 2, and it's not hard to see why. Such a big fuss is made by players about the implantations of having the best or rarest in-game headgear. I was able to "sell" some of my Team Fortress 2 hats for whole games on Steam - and I know this is less of a problem with the hats themselves and more a problem with the way their perceived by the player-base, but goddamn. The once shining example of incredible game design philosophy, a bastion of excellent multi-player gaming, had degenerated into a "hat simulator," with a bunch of self-entitled dickheads jacking off to their own virtual "status symbols". Eventually it seeped into other games, starting with Poker Night at the Inventory and getting worse with pre-order deals and such in which players were "rewarded" with in-game items in Team Fortress 2. Top-heavy and inconsistent, Team Fortress 2 lost a lot of its initial interest, and crumbled under its own short-sighted brevity. The game... was ruined.

Or... was it?

...there's a reason I'm writing this article now. It's because for the longest time, I had this idea that Team Fortress 2 was, just that, "ruined". With the implementation of the Mann Co. store, an in-game moneysink and a... actually pretty good way of recouping the costs to map and weapon designers - I stopped playing. It wasn't like I gave up or anything, my interest just dwindled. With the power of hindsight, I realized that Team Fortress 2 was no longer the game I had fallen in love with. At least, I convinced myself of that.

Time makes fools of us all. Launching up Team Fortress 2 out of boredom recently, I expected it to be exactly as I left it - full of horseshit. What I found was... a game with a simplistic approach and no-nonsense class basics, with... tassles on the handlebars. Sure, there were a lot of hats and new weapons, but playing through rounds of 2fort and Dustbowl... they were basically exactly as I remembered them. Except now if I got bored, I could switch load-out and funny hats. Team Fortress 2 hasn't been ruined, I thought. I mean, it sure hasn't been exuberantly improved in any way, but it's still as enjoyable as I remember it... doesn't feel bloated. What is this?

I don't take back the previous paragraphs. Team Fortress 2 isn't the game I fell in love with. But whatever it is now - a fun, light-hearted, surprisingly deep team shooter... isn't far off the mark. Is it worse than it was? It's debatable, as while reading this you'll probably either have thought to yourself "yeah man, he's so right," or "what the hell drug is he on?" ...I can't put my finger on it, Team Fortress 2's current state feels... alien and yet familiar. It's not "bulging at the seams" like it felt like last year, but it's not thin like it felt at launch.

It's not perfect yet, and likely it never will be, but it hasn't been ruined beyond repair - or even "ruined" at all, exactly. There are haters and lovers on both sides, and I can't say for certain either are more "correct" than the other. But as a gamer who once loved, and then hated, this game with raging passion, I can happily report that whatever Valve has done with Team Fortress 2, it's... not at all a bad thing.

I expect Valve will continue to use Team Fortress 2 as a base point for experimental DLC offerings, as they have been doing. It's nice to see a company that cares enough to listen to all their players - certainly, whatever harsh feelings I have against, say, the Mann Co. store, are alleviated somewhat knowing most "extra" profit, so to speak, simply goes towards the community-developed map and weapon designers, or - recently - the Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief efforts. Team Fortress 2 as it stands is a solidly enjoyable experience, and I don't condemn it in the slightest. I meant even start playing it frequently again, see how long it can genuinely hold my attention with all its pretty colours and whatnot.

However, tell you what, Valve, I may not hate you for your Mann Co. store or seemingly useless weapon updates, but what is unforgivable is your lack of Meet the Medic video. Mein Gott, gibt es einen punkt eures lebens, dumkof.

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