Custom Hell: An In-depth Analysis of Team Fortress 2 User-created Maps

Follow us on a tour of the very best, and mostly the very worst, of custom TF2 maps.

Why have there been so few Team Fortress 2 maps released by Valve? And where are all the great custom levels to fill in the gaps?

After setting out on a quest through public server hell, I answered the first question by way of the second.

The following is knowledge gained through immense sacrifice, the result of a three-day binge on bad maps and toxic voice chat. I played with teammates who didn't understand how to jump. I walked through maps that didn't even have textures. I braved servers branded with bone-chilling warning signs: "Beware all ye who enter here with racist names."

Did I find custom map nirvana, or was I doomed to walk the land as designed by a 14-year-old who skipped the Hammer tutorial? Read the following mini-reviews to find out, all organized--in Old Man Murray fashion--by how long I could play the map before I physically felt pain.

Map: Mario_Kart
Author: Xenon
Time to pain: 2 seconds

Like a post-Nietzsche version of Little Nemo's Dreamland, Mario_Kart lures you in with its simple promise of Nintendo nostalgia, then promptly splits your skull wide open with a deluge of multi-colored landscapes and seizure-inducing special effects.

There are no capture points here, nor is there any evidence of intelligence. Instead, towering posters surround you on all sides, draping the level from floor to sky in hentai, anime, and other 4chan materials.

Players stumble around the 2D circuit in a stimulus-induced haze, saturated with input and stupified by the pure repugnance of it all. Nobody seems sure whether to shoot the other guy, or end their own miserable, confused existence.

How does this guy have 10,000 hitpoints? Is that an Akira motorcycle flying through the air? Why have you forsaken us, Lord?

Map: CTF_Bball
Author: spike
Time to pain: 15 seconds

Bball is a fairly self-explanatory map, created with an innocent premise in mind. The teams begin each round at opposing ends of the arena, the obvious object being to grab the intelligence from center court and slam-dunk it via rocket jumping or demo blasting.

It's a novel concept, and one that works well with six players. But then splitting the atom seemed a novel, innocent idea too.

The dilemma with Bball is that nobody plays a game called Team Fortress on servers of six. As such, on a typical server with Bball in rotation, the court usually overflows faster than you can make an NBA Jam reference. Full teams of 12 frustrated gladiators are thrown into the tiny fenced arena, armed to the teeth with turrets and sniper rifles.

Like a Pistons-Pacers game, it soon devolves into an all-out arms race, with walls of chaingun-wielding heavies spawn-camping the other squad's bench. The coach is screaming his head off in voice chat, the "ball" goes totally ignored, and nobody is alive long enough to call foul.

I love this game, but not this map.

Map: Surf_Legendary_Lite
Author: Satan
Time to pain: 23 seconds

I used to be ignorant of "surf" maps. You know what I've learned? Ignorance is bliss.

The brilliant idea here--as much of an idea as cup stacking, or riding wild cattle--involves gliding across long custom-made half-pipe surfaces using the strafe key. The effect is akin to "surfing" in Starsiege: Tribes, only in a game that doesn't have jetpacks.

This particular surf map began at the top of a large tower, with the surfaces angled steeply toward the unseen ground below. After a long, uneventful glide to the bottom, you find yourself stuck in a pit, surrounded by other players who seem just as confused as you are, scorpions tossed into a jar and feeling twitchy. It's a bit like Bball, only with the cute premise replaced by old world, Poe-inspired fatalism.

If you're thinking the only way this map could sound any more fun is if there were Tiki idols that randomly popped up and shot you with darts, you're in luck.

Map: CP_Rats
Authors: ts2do
Time to pain: 32 seconds

Ever had the urge to play Team Fortress 2 from the perspective of a rat?

Yeah, me neither.

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Map: CP_Japan
Authors: Aliens?
Time to pain: 42 seconds

Undoubtedly inspired by a trip on a Japanese subway, CP_Japan may as well be titled CP_Clusterfuck. When your map is so largely complicated that it needs shopping mall-style "You Are Here" signs to point the way, something is wrong.

CP_Japan must be the product of someone living out his TF2 existence on a higher plane, an individual too advanced for your average, straightforward layout. With five capture points spread out in a D-pad formation, all connected to a center point, things can get confusing for those of us with mortal minds.

Players are often faced with a choice of three doorways, forced to sniff their way from point to point like lost wizards. Tip to map designers: if your audience needs to pause more than a split second to navigate your map, they're going to die, and they won't be happy about it. This is an FPS, not a road trip through Nebraska.

Map: CP_Tron
Author: Daniel "Sick Spider" Wexler
Time to pain: 42.4 seconds

It seems most map designers underestimate the time and patience it takes to create something as addictive as your Dustbowls and Gravelpits. One could look at Valve's CP_Well and distill it down to a simple point-to-point progression, but the reality is that every twist and turn is a carefully balanced nuance. Hundreds of hours of sweaty, Mountain Dew-fueled play-testing went into that corner you just turned, mister.

This fact is no more evident when playing a map like CP_Tron, a masterpiece that was probably cranked out during a commercial break in the middle of a Stargate episode.

Featuring two opposing spawn-centric CPs with a single mid-point, the key to winning Tron is a matter of basic guts. Do you have what it takes to run through a narrow choke-point 300 times in a row? Are you really cut out for that kind of brief, gnat-like existence? Is it worth suffering through this just to play on a kitschy Tron-based map?

Probably not.

Map: CP_Lazytown
Authors: zeta
Time to pain: 55 seconds

When I first saw the title "Lazytown," I assumed that cake baking would be involved. I braced myself for that terrible, incessant song, and dove head-first into the server.

To my delight, I could find no traces of pink-haired, pre-pubescent girls or eerie puppets. To my disappointment, I realized that the map was actually self-descriptive. Whoever designed this thing was just plain lazy.

What's with all the concrete? If I wanted to play a game in my garage, I'd get out my roller-blades. Making matters even more bizarre is the sight of green trees and colorful landscapes just beyond the boundaries of the map itself.

Maybe zeta is making some sort of postmodern comment on our prison system. If so, it worked. I wanted very much to escape.

Map: CP_Castle
Author: Vilepickle
Time to pain: 2 minutes

Finally a map I can get behind. In theory.

Castle attempts to recreate the perfect attack/defense scenario, a Rampart-style fort war complete with a giant castle and a couple points of entry. And when I say giant castle, I'm not talking Disneyland Cinderella stuff. This thing is a monster.

And that's really the biggest problem I have with a map like Castle. It feels lazily designed, slapped together with bulbous Duplo blocks, rather than the slick Legos that Valve is working with. Not to mention that the use of so many wide open plains throws the class balancing right off the castle wall.

This concept can work, but it needs some serious refinement.

Map: CP_Warpath
Authors: kusa, sacrifist, hiya!
Time to pain: 7 minutes

And I thought CP_Japan was confusing.

While Warpath wasn't designed to be as intuitive as possible, it at least keeps with the basic five-capture point formula. The mid-point comes in the center of a large bridge, and players rush forward through sandy tunnels to fight for dominance.

Because the bridge area is so large, teams can stall out even after capturing the mid-point, blocked by stalwart defenses on the far end of the area. To remedy this, the surrounding environment features not only a high sniper's path, but also an underground tunnel leading to the middle, blockaded by two breakable walls.

You'll still be turning in circles the first dozen times you play, but after a while, it becomes a manageable annoyance, with a few interesting twists and turns.

Map: CTF_Turbine
Author: flobster
Time to pain: 10 minutes

Turbine suffers from a few too many wide-open rooms and hallways, but all in all, it's not a terrible map.

Players have the option of three paths in assaulting the enemy's intelligence room, one of which is a long air duct. And I have to admit, I'm a sucker for air ducts. There's nothing like popping out of a good air duct and shooting someone in the face.

This all goes back to my appreciation of Die Hard and GoldenEye 007's Facility, and also explains my undying love of the terrible stalemate standard CS_Assault.

Map: CTF_Mach
Author: Vilepickle
Time to pain: 15 minutes

Smaller than 2Fort, Mach presents the same basic set of assault options: take the long pipe underground, or assault the two small entrances at the front of each base. Due to the smaller size, the action is instantaneous, and the fighting fierce.

Unfortunately, as in 2Fort, matches often devolve into drawn-out stalemates thanks to an intelligence point placed directly underneath the enemy spawn room.

Still, it's a clean, functional map, and one of the few worth considering.

Map: CP_Redstone
Authors: Arttu "skdr" Maki, Pekka Jauri
Time to pain: N/A

Of all the custom maps I discovered on my perilous journey through the seventh circle of public server hell, it is fitting that a Shacker-created arena became my ultimate salvation.

CP_Redstone, assembled by Shacknews community member -sk-, is perhaps the prettiest and most promising custom TF2 map I've run across. A standard five-point progression, it sports a wide-open Well-like center point, along with plenty of tight corners to spin around in the outlying buildings.

And it just looks cool, man. This is a map that someone spent time on, that wasn't slapped together in 20 minutes, or reverse-engineered from Counter-Strike 1.6. -sk- understands that wide spaces must be carefully balanced with well-placed obstructions, and that not every room need be square-shaped and devoid of detail.

Redstone is still in beta, but I very much look forward to the final version.

Looking to download any of these from something other than a slow game server? FPSBanana is your best bet.

Did I miss your favorite and/or least favorite map? Share your experience with TF2 custom maps in the comments.

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