We first hear about them years in advance. We watch the videos. We read the books. We pre-order and order by post. We do everything but buy the t-shirt--mostly because that's usually a pre-order bonus. And when it finally arrives, when it is finally spilled out onto store shelves, we toss it aside within days.
Video games are really like insects: we track their spawning in seasons, they often come late, and most of them die out quickly. It is that rare species of game that transcends its own release quarter, escapes the bugs and natural competitors, and becomes a true soul-sucking experience. The kind of game you play in between rounds of newer titles. The old standby, that never got old in the first place. We come back to them weekly, nightly, for hours at a time--and they always deliver. They are pure, timeless, and often taken for granted.
Team Fortress 2 is not a hamburger. It should not be taken for granted.
This is a game that has seen every facet of its structure fine-tuned by top-level craftsmen. Its designers have refined the original shape of Team Fortress, like carving masters whittling away at a piece of prime wood. Every wall and weapon and machine gun turret feels as solid as oak. Every map has been reduced to its most basic form, play-tested and polished with a glossy varnish. The finished product positively shines.
The essence of Team Fortress is very much intact. You'll still have the same nine classes of warriors to choose from, and it's still a multiplayer-only exercise in fast-paced scheming and careful action. Your personal pride will still need to be balanced with the team goal of helping to capture flags (no longer an actual flag, but "intelligence") and control points. You will still feel the urge to idly snipe from the wall in 2Fort, even as your team takes a nose-dive in the standings.
Flaked away from its earlier form have been the standard Team Fortress grenades, which every class once tossed around with all the careless abandon of a kid in a fireworks store. Sure, explosions are fun, but by reducing the similarity between each class, the nine characters feel all the more distinct. So distinct, in fact, that it's often difficult to settle on one choice from respawn to respawn. They all look so sadistically attractive.
Team Fortress 2 is a headshot of a game. Stylistically, we've never seen anything quite like it--one that taps into its own inner vibe so effortlessly. The artists clearly came to a crossroads at some point, pulled the trigger on a new look, and have been rewarded for their boldness with a splatter of charming models and endearing trailers. The Pixar quality of it seems to have sprung up from the seed of Team Fortress' already-established gameplay, the nature of which matches the comic style perfectly.
The resultant cartoon aesthetic is so logical that it's easy to forget how strange it is that a cartoony shooter can be simultaneously brutal and funny. When the aptly-named Heavy Weapons Guy flashes a toothy grin mid-execution, automatically issuing a joyous Venturian battle cry in the face of his victim, one can only be struck by how well it works.
This much is clear: Team Fortress 2 works on all levels.
You don't have to look any further than the Spy class. One of the more unique conventions ever to grace gaming, the Spy is a psychological mind-trip from both sides of the team color curtain. When anyone on your side can potentially be an enemy, a permanent cloud of paranoia hangs over every player. Fearing your friends is exciting, if only because it feels so fresh. And is there anything more satisfying than playing the part of the opposition as a Spy, like a first-person acting audition, until the eventual switchblade opportunity, the frantic cloaked getaway, and the spreading of confusion and terror amongst your enemies?
The maps compliment the frenetic action well. The best of them, such as the control-point map Gravel Pit, offer a choice to attacking and defending teams between two initial points, ensuring a surprising opening. You'll be faced with capturing the A and B points before the final home-base of C is open for the taking. This leads to a desperate last-stand scenario, with both teams scrambling as the timer ticks down.
Tactically, the battlegrounds may seem deceptively simple at first--that is, until a crafty Engineer's well-placed turret mows you down five straight times. Like the classes--where the Soldier's rocket jump and the Scout's Mario-esque leaps will set advanced players apart--each map has its own ins and outs, allowing for a future expansion of both individual and team-play philosophy. Complicating things is a dynamic placement of both starting and capture points on certain maps, requiring map-memorizing veterans to be on their game in order to quickly adjust.
So are there imperfections? Of course--no game is spared some criticism. There could be a few more maps. Of the included six, only a few truly capitalize on the subtle mechanics of the game, the rest often devolving into futile, tug-of-war stalemates or crushing defeats. The classic 2Fort map now feels somewhat stale, antiquated. Default respawn times seem a little high. The classes will never be perfectly balanced--such is the nature of class-based combat. And so on.
To sit and complain about such minor quibbles is tantamount to taking a magnifying glass to a great painting. It's like reviewing the piano and complaining that not every song played was Bach. People will write more piano music, and people will create more TF2 maps--both Valve and its sizable mod community.
We also can't complain when not every phrase is instantly stimulating. Is the Heavy/Medic combination--the Ghostbusters beam-swinging Medic with its invulnerability-granting shield, and the Heavy with its rapid fire and beefy health bar--tiresome in its dominance? A little, but there are always ways to counter a bad note in the middle of a round. Adaptability is key in Team Fortress, and this version is no different. You often find yourself frustrated not in your lack of ability, but in your own basic stubbornness to give up on your futilely-placed turrets, or your impossible, wrong-headed plan of Scout infiltration.
Perhaps the easiest thing to say about Team Fortress 2 is that it is simply addictive. It's a lot of fun, in the most fundamental sense. Whether you're lighting up a crowd with the Pyro, scoring ping-defying long-range kills with the Sniper, or just popping regular-old rockets off with the Soldier, it is undeniably a good time--and a bargain at that.
Team Fortress 2 is not a week-long diversion, and it should not be missed.