Team Fortress 2 Preview

Team Fortress 2 really has been in development for going on ten years, or so I was told by Valve's Robin Walker and Charlie Brown during a recent trip to the company's Bellevue, Seattle offices. Production of the long awaited game, for years presumed by many to be vaporware, never completely stopped or restarted, despite the drastic changes it has seen to its gameplay and visual style.

"It's a testament to our internal perspective that we're just not going to ship something until it's ready," Walker said. "As a company, we hate being in a position where we're making guesses."

As is characteristic of Valve's development process, each element of Team Fortress 2 underwent iteration after iteration after iteration. It is a philosophy that always seems to work out for the best in terms of the final product, but can lead to agonizing delays for fans.

Longtime followers will remember Team Fortress 2: Brotherhood of Arms, the much more realistically-rendered Team Fortress followup revealed around the turn of the century. It featured a strategy-driven Commander class, numerous highly-hyped graphical technologies, weapons modeled after military hardware, tanks and helicopters, and grim-faced army guys.

"It's a testament to our internal perspective that we're just not going to ship something until it's ready. As a company, we hate being in a position where we're making guesses."
So what happened to that, anyway?

"It wasn't fun," admitted Walker, who was part of the original Team Fortress team hired by Valve to develop the sequel in 1998. He went on to clarify that there was never a point at which Valve simply ditched one design and went off full bore in the opposite direction. Rather, as always, it was constant iteration and testing that led to the eventual refinements or removal of various mechanics, until the team ended up with a game that, at its core, is much more reminiscent of the original Team Fortress and Team Fortress Classic. Remarkably, as Walker recalls, nearly every developer who worked on Team Fortress Classic remains on the Team Fortress 2 team--only three or so have moved on.

Class warfare

The crux of Valve's design goals for Team Fortress 2 has been to make the classes as unique and complete as possible. This has required some heavy modifications to the original game's balance, but is that enough to satiate those who claim that TF2 is simply a repackaged Team Fortress? Walker's response is that TFC had the right idea, but it didn't quite pull it off to the ideal level; TF2 should remedy that. "In TFC, the classes weren't sufficiently different," he said. "A focus in TF2 has been to push those classes farther and farther apart."

Essentially, players should feel that choosing a class is a significant decision, one with implications throughout gameplay. This has led to changes such as the hotly debated removal of grenades, which in turn led to the de facto nonexistence of the infamous concussion grenade jump trick ("conc jumping"). The developers aren't out to destroy extreme mobility or explosives, however--they're just trying to make them more associated with particular classes. The demoman is now the only class with an indirect fire projectile, and the Scout has a gloriously unrealistic double-jump ability. As if in a 3D platformer, the Scout can even change his direction of momentum on the second jump, making for some impressive mid-air juking abilities as well as the potential for quick vertical shortcuts.

By giving the classes extremely distinct identities, Valve is attempting to create numerous strengths and weaknesses between the classes depending on the combat situation. Walker and Brown frequently referred to the Scout when describing the ins and outs of class balance, as they feel that the Scout was one of the original classes most in need of an overhaul. For example, the Pyro's shotgun and massively powerful flamethrower are short-ranged weapons, but he moves faster than most classes, allowing him to get face to face with his enemies relatively easily. Unlike most classes, however, the Scout outpaces the Pyro, meaning in wide open areas he can dance around the Pyro, control the terms of the fight, and manage to evade the flames if controlled by a skilled player. In a confined space, on the other hand, he is unlikely to be able to avoid the Pyro's damage spread.

The Scout can fairly easily avoid indirect fire from the sticky bomb launcher or grenade launcher of a Demoman--who is better suited to defensive roles or precautionary explosive-laying--or more deliberately fired heavy weapons such as the Soldier's rocket launcher, but that isn't to say he is simply an all-purpose heavy class hunter. The Heavy himself, armed with a massive rapid-fire minigun, makes short work of Scouts as they approach; after all, it is easier to dodge a grenade than a spate of bullets. A similar situation holds for the Sniper, who can take careful aim at a Scout from long range without fear of the Scout being able to return fire.

Of course, if the Scout can come at the slow-moving Heavy from another angle, he might be able to dance around (or over) the oaf while repeatedly beating the big guy with his melee weapon, an aluminum baseball bat. And while that big, lumbering Heavy would make an easy target for a Sniper, the Sniper better make sure to take him out quickly, because, unlike the Scout, the Heavy is capable of responding with a hail of fire. Snipers are rewarded for holding a position and waiting for the ideal shot. When its scope is zoomed in, a sniper rifle continuously charges up in power until fired; when unzoomed, that charge will tick down until zoomed again. The Sniper is still mobile while zoomed, but moves more slowly and is restricted by low peripheral vision due to the visually restrictive scope sight.

The stealthy Spy draws on his original design and expands on it. He is capable of disguising himself in the enemy's liveries, or even activating a cloaking device that renders him invisible, at least until he fires a weapon or is fired upon. Laughing, Walker mentioned that, in testing, Valve has found that some of the most effective Spy players are those who are not necessarily the most experienced Team Fortress or Team Fortress 2 players--experienced non-Spy players will be on the lookout for disguised Spies trying to inconspicuously achieve certain goals, but those who are playing it more by ear frequently fail to even register with those who are looking for the patterns.

Then, there are the Engineer and the Medic--the support classes.

Continue reading for details on Team Fortress 2's support classes and pacing mechanics.


Stayin' alive

Playing a Medic is an experience unlike any other. Walker, Brown, and co. might take umbrage at such a statement--after all, the whole point of TF2 is that one should be able to say that about any of its classes. While that is true, it is just a little more true for the Medic. "We wanted to move the focus from ten guys working together to two guys working together," explained Walker--that is, there should still be an overall sense of teamplay, but players will also be putting much more of a focus on buddying up into smaller units. At the center of this is the Medic, equipped with a retro-futuristic health beam gun (and an amusing syringe launcher). A Medic is in his element when latched onto another class, keeping his health beam continuously firing and keeping his partner healthy. This is particularly effective with a Heavy, who is big and slow-moving enough that he needs the protection, and will not outpace the Medic.

While beaming health, the Medic is slowly building up progress on a secondary meter. Upon filling that meter, the Medic can unleash ten seconds of invulnerability for himself and his partner. It is easy to imagine how devastating--and wonderfully enjoyable--this is when applied to a Heavy during a base assault.

To get his charge up, the Medic wants to be constantly healing. This means that, while there is a definite skill involved in being a good Medic who can stick to his buddy, switch to healing others when necessary, and unleash his charge at the appropriate time, there is also a level of skill involved in being a good partner to a Medic. While effective at keeping others alive, the Medic is not particularly well-equipped to keep himself alive while under fire, so it is crucial for his partner to position himself in such a way that the Medic can remain behind cover or out of the enemy's line of sight, while still being in a position that allows the Medic to retain line of sight to his buddy with his heal gun.

The Engineer, with his array of defensive and support structures, contributes to the team's success in the most indirect way, but in a way that leaves a lot of room for tactical consideration and potential firepower. Armed with a shotgun, pistol, and heavy wrench, he can take care of himself in combat to a reasonable degree, but his strength is building sentry turrets, health and ammunition dispensers, and teleporters. The usefulness of these devices speaks for itself. The Engineer has a unique ability among the classes to gather not just ammunition but also scrap metal, which he can use to upgrade his turrets up to a potential third stage; when upgraded, they impossibly transform into larger and more imposing devices, robotically expanding themselves out of nowhere in the style of Command & Conquer buildings.

Amusingly, the building and upgrading of turrets is achieved by bashing them with the wrench. Additional Engineers can join in to speed the process along. On one occasion, while building a defensive sentry in a crucial choke point, I had two other Engineer teammates run over and begin lending their wrenches to the process. The sight of three Engineers hunched over a self-constructing turret, all bashing the hell out of it with wrenches, is a brilliant moment.

Keeping the pace

As a studio, Valve has always been highly concerned with pacing. This is evident going back to the original Half-Life, still one of the most intensely-paced shooters ever developed. Half-Life 2 brought a range of new interactions into the mix, and Half-Life 2: Episode One took Half-Life 2's breadth and compressed it into a tightly-wound, expertly-paced package. Multiplayer is a different story, however. How can you possibly design pacing into a game when many players are killing each other, respawning constantly, and running around in an arena that is necessarily much less structured than a single-player environment?

Valve has given that question a lot of thought, and Walker and Brown shared with me some of their answers. For example, like seemingly most of Valve's design decisions, that Medic invulnerability charge serves multiple purposes. Most fundamentally, it adds depth and value to the Medic class and allows otherwise vulnerable or easily-targeted classes the brief opportunity to overcome that weakness. In a more overarching sense, it allows a team the opportunity to turn the tides if the game has reached a stalemate, with one team dug in with a heavily-fortified defense. A few Medic-equipped pairs can build up their charge and break through the enemy line (frantically shouted phrases such as "Invuln coming!" can be heard around Valve's offices during play sessions). Similarly, if a conservatively-playing team suspects that its opponents are hanging back and charging their Medics, they might be encouraged to press forward and disrupt those plans.

Team Fortress 2 has a sudden-death mode, activated if there is no victor once the game's timer runs out, that supercedes the actual objective to be completed. In sudden death, the game becomes Counter-Strike-like, with players losing the ability to respawn. If a team can manage to achieve its objective or kill all members of the opposing team, it wins. This allows for a significant change in pace, and injects a shot of intensity into a game that, with neither team having made sufficient headway when the clock ticks down, may well have been in need of it. It also has the side benefit of giving less experienced players the opportunity to spectate longer than usual, while occurring rarely enough that the game does not lose the fast Team Fortress feel.

Maps are now inherently tied to gametypes, sure to be a controversial decision, particularly since the game will ship with only six maps. Walker explained that, in multiplayer games, online players tend to stick to only a few maps and play them almost exclusively, so Valve determined that Team Fortress 2 would be better served by spending the time and manpower it would spend on creating additional maps on refining and expanding a small, core set of maps instead. The idea is to predict which maps would become the chosen few, and ship with those, then follow up with more content later.

That idea manifests itself in different ways. The iconic Two Fortresses, lovingly abbreviated 2fort, returns as a Capture the Flag map largely unchanged save its extensive visual makeover--it has a high likelihood of going into heavy rotation, simply because its design has already held up so well over the years. "We felt we had to stay close with that one," said Walker. I had a rather surreal moment of sudden deja vu after a few minutes of playing TF2's 2fort, when I realized that this was indeed the same map I had played for countless hours, years earlier. On the other side of the coin, there is Well, which has diverged highly from its CTF-based predecessor and now houses a territory-based gametype.

A much more unconventional way of adding replayability and pacing variety can be seen in Hydro, which makes use of Valve's new dynamic map feature. A territorial map, Hydro consists of two bases situated outside diagonally opposed corners of a roughly square environment. Inside each corner of the square is one control point, and at the beginning of the game each team is randomly assigned two of those control points. In the first round, the game chooses a red team control point and a blue team control point, and locks off the unused points. Once one team--say, red--captures the opposing team's point, it gains control of it and the round ends. The next round begins, and the game randomly chooses one red control point and one blue control point (in this case, blue only has one remaining control point to choose), locks off the other two control points, and the map is now physically different. Different doorways are open and different paths are available in order to structure the map around the two newly chosen points. This process continues until one team has captured all four points; rounds generally take only a few minutes each. With a total of six different configurations, Hydro therefore manages to cram an unusually high degree of replayability into a single map.

Continue reading for stat tracking details and reflections on Team Fortress 2's visual style.


Revenge is a dish best served with rockets

To encourage players to continually improve their skills at playing the various classes, they are presented at the end of each round with a drilldown of their top scores in a variety of categories, with a note indicating with which class the achievement was reached. Obvious stats such as kills, deaths, assists, flag captures, successful defenses, headshots, and total damage points dealt are tracked, as are more TF2-specific ones such as total health points healed as Medic, number of "invulns" used, kills by sentry gun, number of times teammates used your Engineer-built teleporter, Spy backstabs, and so on.

In a welcome addition, the game also tracks revenge kills. An enemy player who kills you particularly often will be branded your nemesis, and you will receive extra points for returning the favor. Though by no means unique to Team Fortress 2, the mechanic suits the game and its total-destruction-meets-espionage aesthetic quite well.

One of the most potentially hilarious recurring events in Team Fortress 2 occurs when you are killed--at that moment, the camera does a snap zoom up to your killer and holds a freeze frame, capturing the enemy's position, weapon, and location at the moment the deed was done. Most of the time, this is nothing special, but what makes the feature such a great part of Team Fortress 2 is that, every so often, the enemy player character will have been caught in the middle of one of the game's gorgeous animations--most notably, the Heavy's gleefully psychopathic grin and belly laugh. Getting killed by a Heavy and seeing him frozen in time, face a picture of joy as illuminated by his massive gun's muzzle flash, sticks out in my mind as one of my most memorable experiences with the game. Thankfully, the game automatically offers the option to save the snapshot to your PC.

Back to the future

Team Fortress 2's slick, highly stylized, retro spy fiction look puts the game in the position of being one of the most visually distinctive and creative upcoming games across any platform or genre, a remarkable feat for a multiplayer-only shooter.

On one level, the team decided to stick with the style simply because it is so appealing and attractive. "We just kept coming back to this 60s thing," said Brown, discussing how the team had gone through a variety of concepts for the game.

Of course, Valve being Valve, there was more to it than that. Though there are myriad changes, Team Fortress 2 is clearly the straight successor to TF and TFC, which means it is a fairly insane and exaggerated experience--what better way to encapsulate that than with such boldly stylized graphics?

Beyond the aesthetic element, the game's art direction is intended as a functional gameplay tool. I was shown a series of slides illustrating various steps of character model progress, starting with a lineup of silhouettes of all nine classes from two different angles each; it demonstrated how immediately distinct each character is from the others, even with only the bare minimum of visual information, something that would be much less feasible with realistically-proportioned characters.

Next, Walker and Brown explained how the game's gradient-heavy style of shading is not just a successful part of its retro aesthetic but is also part of the system designed to deliver information to players as quickly as possible. Much as a painter would, Valve's artists textured the character models such that they become brighter in the top third, subtly drawing players' eyes to the region containing a weapon or tool.

If the over-the-top gameplay gave plenty of license to experiment with character styling, the admittedly absurd level layouts offered similar freedom to environment design. The idea of having two opposing bases within walking distance of one another, separated by neutral ground, makes so little sense that Valve felt it could essentially run with whatever ideas it had in that department--hence the bizarre farm versus farm showdown of 2fort, which pits a local family-owned farm against a gleaming industrial farming operation. That whole farm thing does not extend throughout the game; it was simply what was cooked up for 2fort.

Contrary to certain opinions espoused on the internets, Valve has never felt it drew from The Incredibles in its visual style. With the game's deep, blended shading--not cel-shading, as many gamers have erroneously noted--more influence was drawn from artists such as Mike Mignola and J.C. Linedecker, as well as of course pop art styles of the 1960s, with a particular emphasis on highlight and shadow. From an environmental perspective, Valve took cues from the work of Miyazaki, whose environments feature a very painterly aesthetic. Texture artists even went so far as to deliberately leave visible brushstrokes in final textures, creating a rich, painted effect. While mainly visible in environments, it can be seen in certain places on character models as well, such as the Pyro's axe.

Screenshots do not serve to fully demonstrate how well Team Fortress 2's visuals have been executed, an achievement which is all the more impressive given Valve's lack of past experience with such a stylized approach. Everything seems to fit, despite coming from such seemingly disparate places--the Engineer uses a modern PDA to order up his health dispenser, which is not modern but rather styled like an old-time gas pump, and this is all happening in some kind of farm. And it looks great. The fact that everything feels so coherent and complete speaks volumes.

Consolation round

Valve has made strides into the console world before, but this year marks the company's most straightforward move into multiplatform development yet. The company revealed to Shacknews last week that it will launch Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Team Fortress, and Portal on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 the same date the PC games launch.

Xbox 360 development is being handled by Valve, and PlayStation 3 development by EA UK. In Valve's offices, team members regularly play cross-platform multiplayer games, but the studio's Doug Lombardi noted emphatically that such functionality will not appear in the final versions. He explained that it introduces more problems than it is worth, and if Valve ever decides to go that route it would be in a game designed for it from the start.

Many gamers will surely face indecision as to which versions of the games to pick up, given their simultaneous availability. PC gamers predisposed to mouse and keyboard control but desirous of Xbox Live's simple online functionality should keep an eye out for The Steam Community, a Live-like online gaming and social network set to be integrated with Valve's existing Steam service later this year.

Valve plans to ship Team Fortress 2 alongside Half-Life 2: Episode Two and Portal on October 9, 2007 for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. Check out our previews of Half-Life 2: Episode Two and Portal.