Saturday, 19 May 2012

If God had intended you to blog, he would not have created me!

Hi, I'm Ralph Pocketwatch, and this is a blog post about Team Fortress 2. After more than 9 months in development, and lots of... read-testing (?), I hope it's been worth the wait.
(The above is paraphrasing what Gabe Newell said about TF2 itself, only for TF2 it was years rather than months. Valve don't like to be rushed) It's about time I got around to this, since it was a post I had in mind when I first started this blog, though admittedly I was anticipating not doing it for a little while.

Anyway, TF2 is possibly my biggest time-sink, one of the reasons I don't get around to blogging as much as I might like, certainly it's the video game I play the most, so I have a lot I can potentially say about it. I may well make a bit of a project of it (Because the whole project idea has  worked out so well for me so far...), going through things in more detail; but to start with, this is just a general overview of what is so good about it. I guess it'll also serve as a kind of primer for people just getting into the game?


So. The original Team Fortress was a mod for Quake, which was of course a classic of the FPS genre in its own right. Valve remade Team Fortress in the Source engine, then started work on Team Fortress 2. While certain details changed over the 9 year development period, and have changed further since, the core basis of the gameplay remains the same: Each match is between two teams, and each player on each team has a choice of nine different classes they can play as, with different abilities to fill different roles. Now while the idea of a class-based shooter is certainly not unique to Team Fortress, the original Team Fortress may have been at least one of the first examples of the idea, and in any case I'm unfamiliar with other instances of such games.
Now, making the game class-based is an excellent way of promoting team-play, which is rather important, as the title suggests. If all the characters were the same, inevitably they would all have to be able to do everything. Whereas with class-based gameplay, whichever class you choose there will be a situation where another class is better suited to dealing with it, and so you have to work with your team for maximum effectiveness.
Another general point about the gameplay is that it's almost all objective-oriented, rather than just being team deathmatch. This introduces a greater element of strategy, and allows more for there to be uses for abilities which don't equate just to pure destructive power.
And finally, moving away from the gameplay, obviously something like TF2 does not require a plot, or characters. The concept is simply, if strange - two teams of mercenaries, RED and BLU, fight over territory, starting from bases which are remarkably close to each other. Regardless, Valve gave us, perhaps not a plot, but characters at least, and a world in which the game is set. A wacky version of the sixties in an alternate reality wherein Shakespeare invented rocket jumping, Abraham Lincoln invented stairs, and Australia is the manliest and most technologically advanced nation on the planet due to a unique metal only found there. And of course, not all of this is evident in-game, but some of it is, and that humour is another big draw. It helps keep the game fun and light hearted.


Alright, now I've said some very vague generic things, I should get into details, so I guess I should quickly summarise the game. Well, relatively quickly. Not really quickly at all, there are nine classes and seven game modes to talk about. Plus additional game-changing gimmicks. Whatever, let's go.


Meet the Classes

Of course, that video is a fan-work (Based on a thing from a Strong Bad Email on www.homestarrunner.com, if you're not familiar with it), and written from the perspective of the Spy, so it's not necessarily a fully accurate representation of the classes, but it describes the basic nature of most of them pretty well.
If you already know TF2, you'll probably be aware of the Meet the Team videos. I considered including them here, but I don't want to overly fill this post with videos so I thought I'd save them for future posts on the individual classes.

Scout - The Scout is, indeed, a quick little bunny. His character description says that due to having numerous bigger, stronger brothers, the only way he'd get into a fight was if he got their before them, so he got really fast. Has an ego considerably bigger than himself.
Gameplay-wise, the Scout is one of the light classes, with only 125 max HP, but makes up for being relatively flimsy by also being very fast and hard to hit, and having weaponry which can be lethal up close - he's what you might call a 'glass cannon', fragile but devastating, and his speed and ability to double jump can allow a good Scout to dodge enemy fire getting in to destroy someone and then get out again safely.

Soldier - Once again, the Spy has it right. The Soldier is absolutely insane. Supposedly he wanted to fight in World War 2 but couldn't due to mental instability, so he paid for his own flights to Europe and went around killing germans until someone told him in 1948 that the war was over.
Gameplay-wise, the Soldier is the second toughest class in the game, with 200 max HP, but also the second slowest. His lack of running speed can however often be made up for by the ability to rocket jump - that is, to jump while firing a rocket at the ground or a nearby wall, allowing the blast to propel him forwards and/or upwards to a more advantageous position. Of course this entails taking some damage to himself, but the positional advantage or getting to the battle quicker is frequently worth it, especially with health packs and Medics around. This combination of being tough and dangerous but still manoeuvrable makes the Soldier possibly the most versatile class, good in any fight.

Pyro - Yes, the Pyro likes setting things on fire. That's all we really know. The Pyro is the one class without a 'Meet the...' video (Though it's promised to be coming this year), and his or her appearance is concealed and voice muffled by the gas mask and fireproofing.
Gameplay-wise, the Pyro's an odd one. Much more complicated than it at first appears. Primary weapon is limited in range, so you have to ambush people. But then when you have, being on fire tends to distract people, so you can cause chaos that way. On the other hand, fire is a good deterrent and the flamethrowers also have an airblast ability which deflects projectiles and knocks back enemy players, allowing Pyros to defend areas very well. These two roles don't really overlap.

Demoman - A drunk, one-eyed black Scottish demoman. This sounds like the setup of a joke. Despite his tendency to get very drunk and possibly smoke around his high explosives, he is one of the saner members of the team.
Gameplay, though the Demoman is listed as a defensive class, he also excels on offense, just at more of a distance. None of his non-melee weapons are that great up close, but if he has space to work, he can put out a massive amount of damage with them. Also the best at destroying (Or, indeed, demolishing) Engineer's buildings, and sticky bombs can easily be used to lay traps for unsuspecting players.

Heavy - Or Heavy Weapons Guy, in full. Big and simple. He likes to shoot his gun. Is all you need to know.
The gun in question has the highest damage output in the game up close - catch someone point blank and they will be dead twice in the space of a second. At longer distances, the damage drops off and the bullets spread out so you won't be hitting all your shots, but the rate of fire means it still works rather well for basically suppressive fire - you probably won't kill a lot of enemies, but they will be reluctant to walk into that line of fire. Besides his massive damage, the Heavy is also the toughest class in the game with 300 max HP, and the slowest. In a direct 1v1 confrontation, the Heavy will always win, so to deal with him you have to fight with a numbers advantage or indirectly - using cover and other terrain features to take advantage of his lack of manoeuvrability.

Engineer - Another light class. But while Scouts compensate for their weakness with speed, agility and bullety deaths from all angles, the Engineer does so by building things - a sentry gun (shoots people), dispenser (heals team-mates and restocks their ammo) and a teleporter (self-explanatory). The sentry is really the defining feature. When fully upgraded, it's the next highest dps after a point-blank Heavy. And unlike the Heavy, there is no bullet spread. A sentry never misses. So Engineers are really good at holding areas, shutting down avenues of approach - but the sentry should not be overestimated. Once the enemy team know where it is, they should be able to destroy it easily enough if you don't have team-mates around to deal with them.

Medic - Although the above video was created before Meet the Medic, the Spy's comments about the Medic were proven spectacularly right by Valve. The Medic is a bit of a mad scientist, as well as possibly being a sadistic ex-Nazi. Though, those aspects of him don't come across so much in-game as in supplemental stuff.
In-game, the Medic is slightly tougher than a light class, with 150 max HP, but not as tough as the 175 HP Pyro or Demo. Additionally, the Medic's health slowly regenerates over time. The Medics actual weapons are perhaps more useful than they may at first appear, but still not that useful. The big part of Medic play is, as you would expect, healing people. You use you medigun to heal people up to a maximum of 150% their usual max HP, and build up an ubercharge to grant temporary invulnerability. The Medic is, of course, the clearest instance of a class really designed for teamwork purposes - you can't deal with the enemies on your own (unless you're significantly better than them), but you can help your team do so much more efficiently.

Sniper - Another light class. Snipers are pretty much what you'd expect: you stay at a distance and shoot people's heads off. If they get up close to you, you're in serious trouble. Not much else to it for a basic description.

Spy - May not be sleeping with your mother, but he is apparently sleeping with the Scout's mother...
Anyway, the Spy is possibly the most interesting class in TF2, as it's something you don't really find in any other FPS. Equipped with a disguise kit, an invisibility watch and a knife which causes instant death on a backstab, the Spy is expected to get behind enemy lines and take out some crucial target or other.

And one more... sort of. One of the ways Valve has kept the game of TF2 fresh is by adding new unlockable items to the game - different weapons with different stats to introduce greater variety. Some people dislike the idea, preferring the days when TF2 was simpler and you knew what to expect from an opponent. I never got to play fully vanilla TF2, but personally I like the variety, though it can be very confusing when you're new to the game, or when a new item is released.
Now, mostly I want to save talking about these for posts about the specific classes, but there's one instance I have to bring up, because it changes things so much:

Demoknight - The majority of the Demoman's unlockable weapons are not for the traditional explosives expert of the original game, but rather for a berserker-type who charges at people and decapitates them with a sword. Shields which grant the charge ability in addition to some damage resistances are the crucial element in this.
Now, I don't exactly mind the existence of the Demoknight. It's a fun gimmick, which fits in nicely to the silliness of TF2. The gameplay mechanics of it can be interesting. The problem is that Demoknight really is  different class entirely to Demoman. One stays at mid ranges and puts out mass amounts of damage to anyone in range. The other picks off individual targets when they're distracted. Demoknight is actually closer to Spy in terms of class role, and this is the issue. If I join a server, I look at what classes there already are and see we already have a couple of Demos on the team. I think "OK, that's covered, I should do something else." Then I find out they're both Knights and I don't know what to do. Worse still, if there are class limits on the server, I may be unable to switch to Demo even though we may be in dire need of some sticky spam to hold back the enemy team.
And of course, competitive play (Which I'll be talking more about later). Now, some would say a Demoknight would be useless in comp anyway. Personally I think that like a lot of things, it could be useful, but only in certain situations. But if a situation comes up where you think "Actually, a Demoknight would be really useful in this situation," (Hey, it could happen, maybe) the only way you can get one is to give up your regular Demoman. And that is pretty much never worth it.


Game modes

I don't have an amusing vdeo for this heading, sorry.
TF2 originally started out with 3 game modes, but Valve has added more over the years.

5cp - There are 5 control points. Each team starts in control of two, the middle point starts out neutral. You have to capture them in order, so until you've captured the middle (3rd) point, you can't cap 4th, and until you have 4th you can't capture last. 5cp has become the biggest, most iconic TF2 game mode, with the most maps. It's  the favourite mode of competitive 6v6 play, and also my favourite - controlling areas (such as control points) is something for which TF2's gameplay is eminently suited, and the push and pull back and forth between points keeps things dynamic and interesting.

Attack/Defend - Has control points like 5cp, but in A/D, as the name suggests, one team attacks and the other defends, so the defending team can't retake points once the attacking team has captured them. After each round the teams swap. Of course, it's generally to be expected that both sides will successfully take all the points on offense, so in competitive play the Stopwatch mode is used, whereby the round is timed, and the team who attack second have to either capture more points than the team who attacked first (If they didn't take all the points) or take the same number of points faster. Whoever takes more points or is faster wins.

King of the Hill - Just one control point, in the middle of the map. Once a team has control of it, their timer starts counting down from 3 minutes, if the other team takes it that timer stops and their timer starts instead. Winner is the team who get the timer down to zero and fully control the point (If the point is partially capped it goes into overtime until one team has full control).

Payload - BLU pushes a cart (By standing next to it). RED try to stop them. If no-one pushes the cart for too long, it starts going backwards, there are some slopes which it will fall back down anyway if no-one is pushing, but there are also certain points on the track which it will never roll back past (These are the points counted for competitive Stopwatch Payload).

Payload Race - As Payload, but there are two carts, one for each team, and the winner is the team who get their cart to the objective fastest.

Capture the Flag - A traditional game mode. Different to other ctf in that the traditional flag is replaced by an intelligence briefcase, and once the intel-carrier is down, the intel stays where it was dropped for a certain amount of time before being automatically returned, rather than a team being able to return their own intel by touching it.

Arena - Basically short team deathmatch. No respawning, just whichever team kills the other first. There is also one control point in the middle of the map, which is locked for the first 90 seconds of each round and caps rather slowly. Basically it's there to force the issue, so a team who have clearly won don't have to run around for ages trying to find one or two remaining enemies who may well be hiding, or invisible. They can just cap the point, and either the remaining enemies lose, or they come out to stop the capture and fight.

Territorial Control - Despite being one of the original game modes in TF2, there is still only one TC map, probably because they're kind of complicated. How it works is, the whole map has 6 control points, each team starting with 3, but only 2 points are accessible at any given time, one belonging to each team. Depending on which points are currently being contested, different routes open and close between mini-rounds. There is one custom TC map I know of, which set it up as a CTF rather than CP style, but then that's it.

Additionally, there are some kind of gimmick modes, one of which is official and several which aren't:
Medieval mode - The official one. Everyone is restricted to melee and a few other things which are suitably medieval. Very silly, totally throws off the class balance.
Versus Saxton Hale - Like Arena, but one team consists only of Saxton Hale, the uber-manly CEO of Mann Co, who kills anything in a single punch, scares people and sentries by yelling at them, can super-jump, and has HP scaled according to the number of other players.
Randomizer - Every time you spawn, you are given a random class, with three randomly selected weapons for any class. So you can be a Spy with a rocket launcher, or a Scout with a medigun, or whatever.
MGE - A training mod which puts you in 1v1 battles in certain arenas of significance in competitive play, such as mid points of a lot of maps. Upon someone dying, they instantly respawn and both they and their opponent are returned to full health (Or possibly slightly above).
Jump maps - Special maps designed specifically for people to practice rocket/sticky jumping. Basically obstacle courses, and your health and ammo are constantly restocked so you can keep retrying jumps.
And more of which I'm not so aware.


I think I have amply made the point that there is a great deal of variety available in TF2, which is certainly one of the big points in its favour, along with the whimsical style and unique gameplay.
It does have some issues as well, though. Since I just went through the game modes, it seems obvious to mention that there are some definite issues with CTF and Payload Race. Not issues with the mechanics of the game modes in general, but in the design of the available maps. TF2 CTF maps tend to have too many confined spaces easily defensible by sentries, too few (or no) ways around said confined areas to reach the intelligence (Or worse still, the intelligence room is itself such a space), and I feel they're mostly too small in general. Payload Race... similar issues with confined spaces which easily become spamfests, overuse of the bits of track which the carts will immediately fall back down, and so on.
Part of the problem, I think, lies in that one of the ways TF2 is neatly balanced is that respawn times change accordding to situation - the offense always get faster spawns than the defense. But CTF and PLR are two-way - there is no offense and defense, so the timers have to remain the same for both teams. Except in practice there generally is an offense and a defense within the teams, and since both spawn at the same rate, the defenders have a much easier time of it because they spawn very close to what they're defending, while the attackers have to run halfway across the map to reach their front line. As a result, stalemates are common.
That's the most common way TF2 can become tedious, really - lengthy stalemates, often caused by Engineers, since sentry nests can sometimes require a bit more team co-ordination to take down than is generally found in your average pub server. It's unfortunate, but I wouldn't want to remove Engineers from the game, because the area control of a sentry fits in so well with the general gameplay (Though if I had to remove a class, Engineer would probably be the one I'd pick).

OK, so I've gone through the variety of gameplay with different game modes and classes, the solid mechanics and so on, and I've touched on the whimsical, light-hearted nature of the whole thing, with the rather insane characters in their ridiculous world. On top of which, of course, there's the fact that Valve continually releases updates (Handily done automatically via Steam) with new items and amusing comics and stuff, which has definitely played a crucial part in the longevity of the game.
Speaking of which, I guess I should talk about hats.
Now, obviously, with regular updates, it would be rather hard for Valve to keep releasing new weapons with different stats while keeping everything balanced and avoiding it seeming overly cluttered with wacky different mechanics (Some would argue that it already is cluttered, and I would definitely say myself that not everything is fully balanced, but it'd be a lot worse if they kept bringing out new weapons all the time). So instead, a lot of the time they just add cosmetic items - most notably, hats.
This has kind of become a joke about the game. Hat Fortress 2. I think somewhere on an official site it is described as the world's premier war-themed hat simulator. I personally still don't really understand how some people can spend such significant amounts of money on blinging out their video game character, but on the other hand, if one spends a significant amount of time playing the game, is it that different to spending money to look good in real life? In any case, they can be required without spending money, as well. And I do in fact  have an extensive list of hats and miscellaneous items I want, though that's kind of just a thing about me being sort of completionist. I want to collect the cool-looking things. Plus the whole hats thing made for an amusing addition to the lore of the ridiculous world of TF2.



And on the more serious side of things, let's talk about competitive TF2 (Though I should mention that seriousness in terms of being competitive does not preclude being ridiculous, messing about doing wacky things and wearing cool hats).
There are two main types of competitive TF2: 6v6 and Highlander. 6v6 is generally higher level and more competitive, while Highlander is closer to the kind of play you might see in a pub server. I can never decide which I really prefer. In addition to the established formats, class and weapon restrictions, competitive TF2 is always played without damage spread, bullet spread or crits. With those things, there is a random element in the precise amount of damage done by a given shot, bullets spread in a random pattern rather than a uniform one, and there is a small chance of any shot you fire being a critical hit, doing three times its base damage. A lot of people like those features in regular play, but obviously if something is to be competitive it's better to remove the random elements so everything is down to skill.

Highlander - There can be only one! (Of each class) That's the team composition of Highlander play - 9 players on a team, one of each class. I like it in that you guaranteeably have all 9 classes being used, but I potentially dislike it in that you're stuck with your class, even if it's more or less useless in a certain situation you find yourself in, though on the other hand that can be an interesting challenge. Of course, there's also the point that pairs of a class can be notably more interesting and effective than only one, which you're restricted to in Highlander.
As I said, Highlander is less competitive than Sixes. Partly I think because it's newer. Partly because of the nature of it - 9 players on a team means things get a lot more chaotic and hard to keep track of than Sixes, which can throw a wrench in your strategising. Highlander also tends to allow more unlockable weapons than 6v6, partly because they want to allow every class to show off their full range of abilities, partly because some unlocks are better balanced if you have 18 players rather than 12, but also partly because perhaps they are less careful about balancing. In general, however, I like to have the variety of unlocks available, so that's a definite point in favour of Highlander for me.

6v6 - Traditionally, a 6v6 team consists of 2 Scouts, 2 Soldiers, 1 Demoman, and 1 Medic. However they are allowed to change class, so long as they remain within the class limits - 1 Demo, 1 Heavy, 1 Engie, 1 Medic, 2 of anything else. Now, my initial feelings about 6v6 were hostile to the apparent elitism of the typical structure, with hardly any use of the other classes, but I've come around to it. Because the point is not that Scouts, Soldiers and Demoman are universally better classes than the others - rather that they are better in the context of having fairly small teams, and that they are consistently useful, while other classes are more useful in some situations, but less in others. I saw someone say somewhere this was actually intended - that the main 6v6 classes were intended to be generalists, while the others were intended as specialists. Whether it was intended or not, it's certainly true. And in the particular situations where the other classes can be useful, they are used.
I still sometimes feel the effectiveness of off-classing may be underestimated, but I like the flexibility of being allowed to switch up your class line-up to suit the situation.  Makes things more tactical, and of course tactics are easier with the smaller team sizes as I already mentioned. Finally, of course, the highest level of play is found in 6v6, and it is amazing to watch. I could write a whole blog post just on the current state of the ESEA Invite division.

Really, I would love to see a competitive format with larger teams - up to the full 12v12. I realise co-ordinating and keeping track of teams that size would be really difficult for the strategy of it, but if it could be done, I would love it, with the combination of what I like about Sixes and Highlander - flexibility and use of all classes.


So, yeah. That is my favourite video game. It's taken me quite a while to write this blog post, because whenever I came to look at it, I'd end up feeling like playing TF2 instead of writing about it. Further posts will come at later dates, breaking down the different classes, and really getting into what makes this game so appealing.
Just to round off, if anyone stumbling across this has an interest in TF2, it is free to play on Steam if you want to play, or if you want to see how it plays, there are some youtube channels I might direct you to:

For competitive play:
www.youtube.com/CommFT (Also the stream www.twitch.tv/extvesports)
www.youtube.com/Fatmop

For general play, ranging from competitive Highlander to messing about doing ridiculous stuff like this:
www.youtube.com/Niichts

Enjoy. Now I really feel the need to go blow up some people.

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