Remembering Team Fortress 2, a Magnificent Disaster

This article was originally published on the Disqus version of the Avocado in September 2017. The original version of the article, as well as its comments, can be found here.

On October 10, 2007, Valve Corporation released the Orange Box, an instant milestone in the history of video games. For one low price you got three games and two add-ons, and none of them sucked. All five were built on Source, Valve’s then-newish physics engine, which seemed to have the whole world ahead of it.

The fact that one game (Half-Life 2) and one of the add-ons (Episode One) were already out didn’t matter. Players got the exciting Episode 2, which left the series on such a cliffhanger that I’m writing this a month early to get out ahead of all the Half-Life 2 thinkpieces. Players got Portal, a casually mind-blowing horror/action/puzzle game that stole the show. And those players with infinite patience got Team Fortress 2.

Valve’s production cycles are like nothing else in this or any industry. In addition to the famous hanging promise of something at the end of the Half-Life story line, Valve released Left 4 Dead 2 so soon after Left 4 Dead that players of the original game complained. Team Fortress 2, as announced in 1999, was a rather straightforward upgrade to Quake-mod-turned-stand-alone Team Fortress Classic. It promised better graphics, a Commander class to marshal forces, and voice chat. In 2000, Valve announced a delay while the project switched to the new Source engine, and then went dark for six years.

There was a time in the mid-2000s when Team Fortress 2 was a worthy runner-up to Duke Nukem Forever for all-time vaporware. God only knows what was happening inside Valve at the time, but when it resurfaced in 2006, Team Fortress 2 looked nothing like the concept art from 1999. Or anything else on the market. Something I’ve had a hard time pinning down about TF2, even for the thousand-plus hours I’ve played it, is exactly what type of game it is. “Class-based shooter” is accurate but unhelpfully so; it’s like calling a hamburger a sandwich. But TF2 isn’t quite a multiplayer online battle arena either. It’s something a little less frantic and a lot more weird.

The nine classes setup from Team Fortress return, although each class is now played by a new character. The combat system of primary, secondary and melee weapons also survived, although grenades were out. All the other plans from 1999 were gone, replaced with something audaciously cartoonish. The Commander class became a cackling NPC called the Administrator. The framework of modern-day warfare was replaced with a deliberately meaningless mercenary fight between two companies (RED and BLU, with matching colors) for control of gravel pits in New Mexico. The classes were reshaped into distinctive social misfits who liked killing and were too dumb to be afraid of death. It was glorious.

The idea of building any kind of narrative around characters who die dozens of times over the course of one match was inherently ridiculous. Only by acknowledging this did Valve make stories strong enough to stand on their own, in short videos and tie-in comics. There was a time when TF2 just seemed like a shoot-’em-up sitcom to me, and when I played it for the first time, I was delighted to find out that impression was right. Maybe that’s the true type of game this is.

I got into TF2 late in its production life, and after two of the biggest changes to it: The introduction of micro-transactions for in-game items, which in this case usually meant hats, and the subsequent move to a free-to-play model. This, combined with voice chat, means that any given TF2 match today has at least one small child who wants to tell the team what to do. Nominally, TF2 is rated M for Mature, but when you’re running around a gravel pit with a bunch of guys who look like they dressed themselves out of a dumpster behind a community playhouse, the distinction is understandably blurred.

The last piece of the puzzle separating Team Fortress 2, a game, from TF2, a subculture, was Source Filmmaker. This was a movie-making suite built in the Source engine and capable of using its resources. This toolkit lends itself to a level of absurdism so abstract it almost seems like an extension of silent film.

All of this is not to say that Team Fortress 2 is itself a great game. Although grenades were eliminated in the interest of making combat more accessible to new players, you can still drop dead out of nowhere from a shot to the head from a Sniper or a stab in the back from a Spy. Spy combat is the most excruciating thing in TF2, rising head and shoulders above such things as necessary ammo pickups, random crits, and the aforementioned small children who want to be in charge. The characters in TF2 have different learning curves, and the one for the Spy – who is weak, fast, capable of disguise, and most effective from behind – is vertical. Many players – perhaps most – will never get good at the frantic keyboard combinations required to stay alive and effective. A small fraction, however, become Neo in the Matrix. You can see their handiwork on YouTube by looking up “TF2 trickstab” and watching them exploit the hell out of the game’s janky hitboxes.

Valve constantly updated TF2 for most of a decade, but their patches and updates rarely addressed deficiencies in balance and gameplay. (I don’t know how much it gets used, but my favorite example of “good enough” is the game’s mode for colorblind people, which simply makes everything black and white.) However, when Overwatch launched, Valve drastically revamped the game. Overwatch was a studied attempt to make a fun TF2-esque shooter that sidestepped TF2’s various problems. It was a resounding success. Valve’s attempt to shore up TF2’s market share wasn’t half as careful. It did away with drop-in public servers and replaced them with “casual” combat, which took longer to match and featured nonsensical leveling. Casual mode is distinct from competitive mode, which I haven’t played because I think the idea of playing TF2 competitively is stupid.

TF2 was a place I went to unwind. For 18 months – early 2015 until two months after the update in 2016, when I realized things weren’t going to get better – I played the game almost every day. I got reasonably good at most of the classes and could play in something like a trance, letting my mind cool down as I killed and died again and again and again. Voice chat was a minefield of trolls and people blasting music, but I made a couple of friends out of it.

I still play occasionally, but it seems fair to say that TF2 is winding down. The comics have only one more installment coming, and the writer behind them has left Valve. Overwatch offers superior solo gameplay, and its pay-to-play nature keeps out at least the most casual trolls. The friends I used to multi with have switched to PUBG. Valve’s interest has turned to Dota 2 and the mighty piles of cash that come out of the Steam distribution platform. The only people who still seem to play TF2 are the people who don’t like paying for games and the people who are really, really good at Spy. They’re not much fun to play with.

Team Fortress 2, as weird as it was, as brilliant as it was, never fully reached its potential. It was always one step away from true greatness, from becoming a game anyone could learn and have fun playing. Overwatch took the crown instead.