The class-based, first person online shooter is a genre that was pretty much founded by the original Team Fortress mod for Quake back in 1996. More recently it's been successfully exploited by EA's Battlefield franchise, with Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory providing another widely-played example of the style. While both these games are terrific in their own right, it's heartening to see the people who started it all reclaim the crown and haul the genre away from the hard-as-nails military dead end it was heading down. If the Battlefield 2 vibe is one of spending time in a dark room with sullen grunts silently sharpening their bayonets, Team Fortress 2 is like being swarmed by an over-excited litter of Labrador puppies, with explosives. Your choice.
People will buy Team Fortress 2 for a number of reasons. Maybe because it is, after all, Team Fortress 2 and it's been a long time coming. Some people might stump up the cash because it's got the Valve logo attached and make the fair assumption that Valve have not yet put a foot wrong. A lot of people will have been lured in by the fantastic character trailers that have been shuffling out onto the 'net over the past few months. Possibly the fact that TF2 is ridiculously cheap, either as part of The Orange Box or by itself, has no doubt swayed part of the otherwise disinterested gaming population. Whatever route someone takes to Team Fortress 2, the end result is the same - giddy, unadulterated, cackling joy at the berserk box of tricks that they've just unleashed into their lives.
Before we explode into a fragrant, purple cloud of hyperbole, let's take a deep breath and get some perspective. It's just a game, isn't it? Another one of those online first-person shooty things that's passably fun for a while until the camouflage brigade move in, get all uppity about things and compress the game's community down to a granite-hard lump? Isn't it little more than a slight buffing up of a classic mod that somehow took years to arrive?
Fine, we'll admit that it is just a game and that it's not going to generate world peace any time soon. Still, as far as anything that's just a game goes, this is the most gamey game we've played in a very long time. And no, we're not sure exactly what that means, but it is absolutely true. If the primary thing a game should be is fun, then TF2 is 100% successful. If several barrels of monkeys weren't involved in the development process, we'll be very surprised.
It's actually quite difficult to nail down exactly what makes TF2 so much fun, and therefore such an unreserved recommendation. It's not perfect. It's not hugely innovative. It's vulnerable to the tantrums of the maladjusted, though it's well armoured against being overwhelmed by rampant bad behaviour. It's easy enough to find things about the game that could be improved or tweaked, but it's nigh on impossible to find any problems that really matter. It's difficult for moments of frustration to stick when there's such a constant flood of fun coming at you.
The look of TF2 is the most immediately striking aspect of the game. Equal parts Looney Tunes, The Incredibles and Austin Powers, it's a bold, colourful playground that begs you to jump in and have at it. Brilliantly, none of this graphical splendour is simply there to show off. Every visual aspect of TF2 has been meticulously designed to complement the underlying game. The different zones on the maps are subtly colour coded, so you know, almost subliminally, if you're in friendly or enemy territory. The characters are so well defined and distinct that it takes only a split second to know who you're up against, or to pick them out at a distance. In any given moment the game is able to cram a wealth of vital gameplay information into your brain and you won't feel a thing.
If you take the time to sit back and maybe spectate a game or two, the artistry of it all becomes apparent - animation, colour and architecture all combine seamlessly. Take a screenshot, stick in a frame, hang it on a wall and nobody will argue with you calling it art. Well almost nobody, but the 'arty-ness' of TF2 is both undeniable and largely irrelevant once the game kicks in. It's a testament to the strength of the gameplay that such beautifully created visuals soon become second nature.
Describing Team Fortess 2's gameplay in words does it an immediate disservice. Boiled down to its nuts and bolts, it's basically a simple game in which two teams battle each other while trying to achieve specific objectives. It might involve capturing a briefcase from the enemy and spiriting it back to home base, or see a freewheeling series of battles fought around control points. Nine different character classes are available, each of which can be roughly classified as offensive, defensive or support. Each class has its own unique weapons, strengths and weaknesses, and you can change classes as often as you want.
That, in the smallest possible nutshell, is the game. The characters can be described in similarly dry detail. The Heavy, for example, has a rapid firing but inaccurate minigun strapped to him that is excellent for suppressing open areas and blocking doorways. He moves slowly - painfully slowly when firing - but can absorb a lot of damage. He also has a shotgun and bare fists to use when the minigun has run out of ammo. He sounds pretty much like any other heavy weapon toting character from any number of other titles, right?
In the game, though, it's more like this: a blue team Heavy spawns in and begins the long walk to the battlefront. He finds a transporter that an Engineer has laid down, so few seconds later the Heavy emerges right into the centre of a battle that is whirling around a control point. He spins up the minigun and starts spraying bullets everywhere - no need to worry about friendly fire - picking off an enemy scout who's sailing through the air. A red Pyro comes skidding around the corner, flamethrower already burning a pathway directly to the Heavy. A nearby blue Medic sees what's happening and turns his healing beam onto the Heavy, re-filling the Heavy's health bar and inching him towards a temporarily invulnerable 'Uber' state. The Pyro goes down, just as two red Soldiers scream into view and fire their shoulder-mounted rocket launchers. In the moments before impact, the Heavy sprays the soldiers and, because he's been doing so well, the game gifts the Heavy with critical hits on the Soldiers. One of the Soldiers, it turns out, has been responsible for the blue player's death five times before and is marked as a Nemesis. A split-second before the rockets turn the Heavy into a shower of gibbs, both Soldiers collapse under the Heavy's hailstorm. The Heavy's revenge on his Nemesis is marked with a dramatic musical sting and then it's back into limbo, waiting for another respawn. Maybe now is the perfect time to indulge in some ruthless backstabbery as a Spy...
And all that in about two minutes. Considering it will take an absolute minimum of, ooh, say twenty hours to just get familiar with all the maps and classes, let alone becoming anywhere near expert, and it's clear that there's a dizzying amount of gleeful gameplay to be had. We've ploughed countless hours into the beta version of the game in the past month or so and are still finding new nooks and crannies on maps, or discovering fiendishly new things to do with the various classes. Or, more accurately, having new and fiendish things done to us and wondering why we didn't think of it in the first place.
After all this, there are two things that ultimately stamp Team Fortess 2 with must-buy status. First up is the fact that TF2 is a game for everyone, no matter how fundamentally awful you are at these kind of things. There's an entire game to be had just playing the Engineer, with his sentry guns, ammo dispensers and transporters. Careful and considerate placement of a gun turret is a hugely satisfying pursuit and you don't need to be the least bit twitchy or over-caffeinated to rack up some major points. A Spy requires several levels of machiavellian deceit to play properly, so that the enemy don't immediately rumble you. No matter what kind of gamer you are, Team Fortress 2 has room for you. Here's the toybox, and here are your toys. Now go and enjoy yourself.
Secondly, at the time of writing, TF2 has been blessed with that rarest of online commodities - a community that is having buckets of fun and is astonishingly light on barking idiots. Not completely free, it must be said, but there just seems to be something about TF2 that prevents anyone taking it all too seriously. The cartoony look, the brilliant and hilarious sound design, the constant little rewards the game gives you, the lack of friendly fire - whatever it is, it's working. Fingers crossed that it stays this way.
And still we haven't even touched on the comprehensive stats tracking, the ease with which you can find and join friends in a game, the achievements or the commentary tracks. Still, half the fun of TF2 is the process of discovery and constant surprises it chucks at you. Team Fortress 2 really is an endless goody bag, and it's best that you simply get it now. Did we mention it's cheap, too? Madness, absolute madness.
Team Fortress 2 is, at heart, a gloriously simple game that's been created with style, panache and an undeniable love of gaming. It's the kind of game that you want to show to people who don't play games so that they understand and then either get involved or go away.
There is life before Team Fortress 2, and there is life after. After is better.