Team Fortress 2 is one of the true successors to the grandpappies of online shooters. We’re talkin your Quake TFs and your Unreal Tournaments. The recent success of Overwatch can be largely attributed to Blizzard ripping off TF2 and putting their own highly-polished gambling-riddled spin on the concept. I’m pleased to report that, despite its age and even against its numerous imitators, Team Fortress 2 holds up very well.
I’ve been with the franchise since its days as a Quake mod. TF2 was a worthy successor to QTF, but TF2’s early days were a very different game from the state of things in 2017. The addition of unlockable items and loot crates (with KEYS no less, the cardinal sin) made me quit the game for years, shortly after the release of Mann vs. Machine. I felt the game was going in a direction that I didn’t like, sacrificing its distinctive character profiles for the sake of silly hats and particle effects that had the additional side effect of ruining the delicate balance of the game and adding a crazy learning curve for new players. And a horde PvE mode? Blasphemy!
TF2’s changes from those days reflect an eerily prescient move on Valve’s part, though, or maybe they just spawned their share of imitators. In any case, I spent some time poking around other shooters, including a long spate of playing Killing Floor 2, a game based entirely around a PvE horde mode. Even Splatoon has one of those now, with Salmon Run in the sequel. I’m more forgiving of the idea of a less-hardcore waves-based mode where you can relax from fighting against people and let your competitive reflexes maybe go a bit soft in the name of having fun with the underlying mechanics. And it really is a fun mode with its own set of challenges, though from what I’ve seen compared to other games with similar concepts, it’s a bit basic.
As for hats and other unlockable items, I’ve come around to them. Yes, some of the achievements required to unlock these items are arcane and incredibly obtuse and difficult. But your record of achievements, the items you can display, lets you express yourself and your personal history with the game in a way that is completely absent in modern shooters. When I quit TF2, most online PC games had server browsers. Most games allowed their players to make their own maps, with their own rules and game types. Now, everything is centralized, locked down, safe and corporate-controlled, with matchmaking algorithms and official rare skins and sprays only. The relative anarchy of TF2’s assortment of items, its server browser, its community, is a breath of fresh air in a world dominated by the shiny popcorn heroin of Blizzard games and Call of Duty. Does that mean TF2’s once-iconic aesthetic has been compromised? Yes. But I don’t value the monolith of a game’s intended aesthetic as highly as a younger me once did. Such transgressions, and the personal relationship with a game that they express, are welcome and refreshing. And hell, if you really like matchmaking, TF2 has that now too.
The learning curve required to figure out combinations and loadouts of rare unlockable items is steep, but it’s something you only need to go through once. The first time you run up against a heavy using boxing gloves, or an engineer with mini-sentries, or a scout that seems to be dodging all your shots, you may die or your strategy might get countered. You’ll wonder what’s happening, but then you know to look out for that sort of thing. It enriches the meta, lends it additional depth and gives the game longevity. I also don’t value “accessibility” as much as I used to, it turns out. And if all you want to do is use the default items, hey, go for it. Nobody is making you use this stuff, and you can still do well against those who are.
I don’t feel a pressing need to talk about the nitty gritty of the gameplay of TF2 and how it works. It’s been out long enough now that you know all about that already. What I’d like to say instead is, if you abandoned Team Fortress 2 over hats, or over Valve’s update schedule with “meet the X” packs, if you’re skeptical about the state of the game in 2017 and beyond, I want to urge you to give the game another shot. You may be pleasantly surprised, not only at how your own tastes and needs have changed, but at how deeply satisfying of an itch TF2 can scratch for you again. You may also experience the same shock and awe that I did, of remembering what good map design looks like.