Team Fortress 2
In Valve's Boardroom sit a collection of gigantic steel recreations of Team Fortress's most famed pieces of weaponry -flamethrowers, rocket launchers, miniguns. "Some guy from Norway made them," muses Valve man Doug Lombardi, before launching into a tale that involves an obsessive Scandinavian metalworker, some signed Valve paraphernalia, several thousand dollars of postage fees and a fair few problems with US customs in the paranoia-fuelled closing months of 2001.
It's the sort of scene that shows exactly how much of a cherished commodity lies within the boundaries of its much-loved CTF maps and, while I'm not sure that you'll have noticed this, it's been a bit backward in coming forward for the last couple of years. "Some people get the impression that we had this kind of blase reaction after showing TF2 in '99 -we feel terrible about that," laments Charlie Brown, engineer on a game that's been on the top of the vapourware charts (beneath the obvious, obviously) since time immemorial. "There are things I've waited for forever and then they don't come out. We can totally sympathise."
To this I give a reproachful look usually reserved for dogs when their owners return from week-long Balearic holidays; the 'I've been locked in a kennel for a week with other dogs and the food tasted funny. I thought you loved me' look of forlornness. To this tragic look, and my brief murmur of, "So what have you been doing since '99?", Brown opens his big box of secrets.
"Since we showed that initial launch, we've tried about three additional 'experiments' as we like to call them, but none of them felt like a product we were happy to call Team Fortress 2. However, there was a bunch of good stuff within each of them, so we skimmed off the good ideas and decided to do further experimentation on those."
So what did these works-in-progress look like? ''Well, a lot of the experimentation stayed in the realm you saw back then, more military - they were really more for testing gameplay ideas. If you're talking about more of their stylistic look, we tried three or four ranging from watercolour to a bunch of other stuff. Ultimately, a lot of the experiments we did were really cool, but they didn't feel like Team Fortress."
Blinded By It
And so, around this time last year, Valve saw light at the end of the tunnel, hit the nail on the head and reached a point where many other cliched sayings are applicable. They thought their gameplay fit - but how should it look? More than any other game, TF is about unrealistic weaponry, rocket-jumping and daft physics - a fun, funny team-game.
2fort then, once two odd buildings separated by a moat and governed by that marvellous croaky HL1 computeroverseer voice, has now become an odd blue smoke-belching industrial complex labelled 'General Industries Co', separated from a strange red farmyard affair. "These are what we call facades." continues Brown as he walks towards what is outwardly the red team's General Feed Co agricultural outpost. "You've got this low-tech, more farmy look then as you start moving closer towards the actual base, and through the facades we start to drop little hints within the environment that maybe not all is as it seems.
"Here we have some cows, but if you look pretty closely they're actually billboard cows. And then if you look around you start to see bits of technology that don't really look like they belong."
As Good As A Rest
One of the most important things for fans to realise as they wait with feverish anticipation is that nothing in TF is sacrosanct - changes and tweakage are afoot. The medic class, for example, has been thoroughly gutted and redesigned - and will no longer be able to spread disease as he once did. Similarly, the spy's ability to play dead is still up in the air - and now has a neat Predator-style way of merging colours with the walls behind him. The permanence of some of the grenades, for example the Engineer's EMP one, is even looking a mite shaky -although Valve are expecting to do something funky with the game's natty visuals and the disorientation grenade. Most important of all, however, is the fact that TF2 still has a fair chunk of development time to go - and when it does appear, don't expect it all to be in one go. TF2 will be initially released with Episode Two and Portal, but from then on there will be a definite drip-feed of maps and content via Steam.
So there you have it: one of gaining's biggest mysteries now wide out in the open, and in a form that no bugger expected either. It's got genuine charm and it reeks of cool - but will Valve be able to appease noobs and fanboys in one sweeping '60s embrace? Here's hoping.
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For Fans of the original game there's an eerie sense of deja vu when playing the 2Fort map in Team Fortress 2. Even if you'd already been told it was a remade version of the popular Team Fortress Classic map, or realised simply by looking at the map's name, its layout already exists as a semi-familiar strategy map in the back of your mind. There's that central bridge across the moat, treacherous to cross and half-concealing the alternate entrance to the enemy base. There are the snipers perched along the barricades, the supplies outside the spawn room - strategically it remains almost completely unchanged. Especially the part with the snipers, as I've come to learn over and over again.
it was in this state of half-already-knowing-what-to-do that I found myself sitting with the co-creator of Team Fortress, Robin Walker, as he explained the basics of capturing the flag and pointed earnestly at the HUD furniture displaying the direction of the objective. Feeling more confident than was appropriate, given the fact that I was playing with a flock of Valve employees in the next room, I chose the role of Scout and was promptly mown down by a Gatling gun. Well, I was still figuring out the buttons, wasn't I?
On The Bright Side
In fact, dying throws up the first of many beautiful touches in Team Fortress 2. The action freezes as the camera cuts to your killer, giving you his name as if to nudge you and say, "Oooh, don't you just hate this guy? He got you again." Conversely, a cheerful box in the corner of the screen pats you on the back, claiming: "On the bright side: You've caused more damage as a Scout in this round than ever before."
Of course, these achievements Income less frequent the more you play, until the sight of one becomes cause for celebration, as Robin Walker points out. When somebody in the Valve office breaks their damage record, or kills more enemy players, or stays alive for longer than ever before, or indeed any number of stats the game keeps track of, everybody knows about it. The Scout, meanwhile, was not the class for me. Walker assured me that in the right hands the Scout could nimbly avoid foes while making daring dashes to the enemy flag room. Personally, I found that his increased speed and ability to double-jump only helped me run into danger faster than with any of the other eight classes. A change of class to the Soldier, and a change of map to another old favourite, Dustbowl, and we were ready to go again.
While waiting for the gates between the opposing areas of the map to open, a congregation of Soldiers and Heavies had begun damaging themselves in a corner by firing rockets at their feet. A few patient Medics looked on. Noticing my puzzlement, Walker began to explain what was happening. Medics have the ability to heal team-mates to above their normal number of hit points, as well as regenerate their own health gradually. They heal using a beam that remains attached to the team-mate as long as they stay within range and sight of one another. The Medic earns a charge by healing players, and when that charge reaches 100%, the Medic and his team-mate can become invulnerable for ten whole seconds.
What this means, besides the start of the round featuring the kind of self-harm usually reserved for the toilets at a My Chemical Romance concert, is that an experienced Medic can be the most effective player on the team if paired with an equally skilled Heavy. While the Heavy dishes out massive damage with his Gatling gun, the Medic stays close and provides temporary invincibility. For ten seconds, they're an unassailable target, and all anybody else can do is simply take cover and hopefully pick off the Medic when he becomes vulnerable.
This symbiotic relationship between the Medic and the receiver of his magical health beam allows for some great moments of strategic cleverness, and sometimes a nice bit of hilarity too. The ultimate achievement for a Spy, whose main ability is to go undercover and appear to be an ally to the enemy, is to persuade an enemy Medic to begin healing him. Not only does it make his disguise all the more convincing, but it provides excellent comic relief the moment the Spy's ruse is discovered and he's killed in front of the hapless and embarrassed Medic who was helping him.
Another returning hero from Team Fortress Classic, the Well map, has had a similar aesthetic overhaul, and now sports a train yard where previously there was none. On top of this, it's also become a control-point map, with a linear series of points that must be captured in order. As an Engineer, I found myself placing teleporters to move my team-mates forwards more quickly. Turrets were built, upgraded and repaired using metal found in guns and ammo on the battlefield, and dispensers were constructed to shovel ammo and health into the needy hands of other players on my team.
Part of the challenge of being an Engineer is placing turrets in the right spots - too far behind the combat and they're no help, too far forward and they're impossible to repair or upgrade without taking one between the eyes. All the while, information on the objects you build appear on the HUD, telling you not only when they need repairing, but how much they're being used. And yes, seeing ten people use your teleporter really does make you feel loved.
Ready To Blow
Hopping over to the Demoman class turned it into a different game again. Turrets and teleporters were now somebody else's problem, and it was my job to load control points with pipe bombs before heading to the frontline. The Source Engine's physics capabilities allow for some interesting ways to kill people with grenades, and when the train yard you're fighting in sees more than a few speeding trains thundering through it, the sight of somebody evading your explosives only to be hit by an oncoming train is as thrilling as it is frequent. And of course, the pipe bombs I'd left back at the control point could be detonated as soon as the HUD showed it was under attack.
Quite clearly, the classes in Team Fortress 2 are more than just different weapon loadouts - they're drastically different ways of playing the game.
View To A Kill
On the next map I found my class niche as a Sniper, quickly noticing that staying zoomed in increases the power of your shots. More than a few times I killed somebody in the same instant that they killed me, resulting in the camera cutting to the cluster of gibs who'd delivered my fate. There was the occasional ragdoll Scout being blasted across the screen by a lucky grenade, and a paranoia-fuelled Spy hunt in which several innocents were mistakenly targeted.
It's in these moments that the reasoning behind the vibrant Disney-esque visuals becomes apparent, and you realise exactly why Valve ditched the realism in older builds of Team Fortress 2. It's because it's a bloody funny game, and there's no point trying to fight that on any level of design, from the visuals right down to the broken bottle melee weapon.
On top of all this, Team Fortress 2 simply feels like a really solid online shooter. The running speeds, the jumping, the weapon balance - from what I've played, it's all absolutely spot-on. Valve are building on over a decade of experience, and as I'm sure you've noticed, their back-catalogue of online shooters contains some of the most played games in existence. For them to get something fundamentally wrong with Team Fortress 2 would be damn near impossible (touch wood).
So while just a few pages from here you might learn that each weapon in Unreal Tournament III contains more polygons than entire levels in Unreal Tournament 2004, I'm more than willing to argue that, back here with the Source Engine, Team Fortress 2 has more style and graphical charm than anything else we've seen this year. And after playing it, I'd argue it'll be more fun too.
Okay, so now you believe us about Half-Life. It's a masterpiece. The creme de la creme of first-person shooters. Well, it's about to be bettered. Team Fortress 2 is the second game to come from the boys at Valve, and from what we're being told, it's going to be superior in every way.
Team Fortress 2 is set to be the next level of multiplayer gaming. We know, until now everyone always thought co-op games were for wimps. But what's being promised here sounds so damned good that even we hardened, cynical journalists have been getting a bit moist and twitchy with anticipation. The best way to describe it is to think of something like WarGasm using Half-Life-style gameplay. More first-person war game than first-person shooter.
For a start there are going to be nine different character classes to choose from - infantrymen, spies, snipers, medics, etc - all with different looks, skills and roles. "That's one of the beauties of this game," says Doug Lombardi, product manager for the game. "If you play the spy, for instance, you're really not going to have any weaponry or anything like that, so basically you're going out and uncovering the 'fog of war'. Your job is to go and observe stuff and report back like, 'Hey they've got a stronghold over here on the south, stay away."'
If you don't have a platoon of friends to fall back on though, rest easy. The whole game can be played as a giant botmatch if necessary. Then there are the weapons. 'There will be at least 12 new weapons," says Lombardi, "a lot of these are based on realistic late-20th century military weapons. So it'll be more like the automatic machine gun, the sniper rifles and the shotguns as opposed to the railguns and all that crazy stuff from Half-Life."
But what exactly do all these spies, snipers, infantrymen and so on get to do? Team Fortress 2's mission structure isn't story-based like Half-Life. Instead you have a choice of 20 maps set over four separate campaigns, from which you can dip into at will. "The first mission may be that you and your team have to escort the president or someone from point A to point B," explains Lombardi, "and he might be in a jeep or a truck and you have to flank around him and get him across an outdoor level. The next might be taken from Saving Private Ryan where your troops have to get onto a beach from water craft and then take over a position."
In order to come up with the missions, the three-man team spent an entire weekend watching every war movie they could get their hands on, so expect lots of vaguely familiar 'homages' to appear. There are plenty of other features such as the Commander role, where you get to watch from the sidelines issuing orders to your team. And there'll be plenty of vehicles including tanks, C-130 Hercules aircraft, APCs, jeeps and so on, all of which can be manipulated. And then there's the audio communication system that is supposed to take a sample of your voice and relay typed messages through your speakers.
We could go on, but we'll save the really detailed stuff for a larger preview in a few months' time. Suffice to say, we're excited, very excited.