Team Fortress 2 Goldrush and Unlockable Weapon Hands-on Impressions

Earlier tonight, at a Valve pizza party, I saw the light again.

All throughout the demo of upcoming Team Fortress 2 content, a confident Robin Walker stood by the rows of glowing play stations, stooped above us like a ministerial Batman. I sat below, firmly entrenched in vicious battles over mine carts, wondering how he makes these wonderful toys.

Yes, the Church of Valve has delivered glory unto the PC gaming devout, as always. Goldrush is as fun to play as it sounds on paper. The medic weapons are solid additions, with a huge amount of potential. Consider me fully re-hooked on the Team Fortress 2 Kool-Aid.

In short, this update will be a much-needed breath of fresh air for those growing tired of TF2's standard offerings. And rather than a dying gasp, it feels more like the beginning of a deep, satisfying inhalation of content.

When it comes to revitalizing TF2, I must confess, I'm far more interested in new maps than extra gameplay mechanics. In that respect, Goldrush--the first map following the "Payload" game type--had fully captured my attention when it was announced. I am happy to report that it does not disappoint.

For those not in the know: Payload tasks an attacking team with moving a mine cart--filled with a Fat Man-styled bomb--from one end of the map to another, the explosive eventually detonating in the defending team's base. The cart follows a set path, with players moving the transport forward by staying within a small perimeter, increasing the acceleration through greater numbers.

Payload feels like a one-way capture point (CP) map in a sense, as the attacking team will be passing checkpoints throughout the map that add time to their clock. The defending team can only hope to halt the assault through a variation of devious ambushes. If they manage to keep the attackers from touching the cart for 30 seconds, the cart will then begin to slip backwards, to the defenders' certain frustration.

All of this is far easier to understand with a quick glance at the simple HUD, which represents the cart's progress with a simple icon that slowly moves forward on a bar. The number of players currently moving the cart is also displayed, in addition to major checkpoints.

Just as Valve bills it, the essence of Payload resembles a combination of Dustbowl and TFC's Hunted. Because of the dynamic element of the mine cart, the map requires smart teamwork and fast, reflexive thinking. There are plenty of areas where the defending team has an advantage, whether it be by way of higher ground or choke points. The attackers must quickly adapt to continuously changing battle scenarios in order to see the bomb home.

The mine cart itself presents some strategic questions. The round begins with the cart on the defensive side of the starting gates, so the attackers must fight through hell to even get the wheels rolling. On the plus side, the bulbous bomb works as a convenient source of cover. Smart players will put such an advantage to use, sniping from behind the moving object, continuously positioning it between them and the enemy.

As in Dustbowl, I found myself equally divided when it came to my preference for attack or defense. On the one hand, defending on Goldrush was a matter of airborne ambushes and downright sadistic sticky-bomb traps, a guerrilla war of entertaining proportions. On the other, guiding the mine cart is one of the most purely team-based activities to be found in TF2, and thus is bound to provide for some classic scenarios.

Not to mention that attacking can often be the easier of the two tasks. In fact, the attackers won most of the rounds during our match. This may have something to do with everyone playing medic, but it also seems that defending will require a solid knowledge of the twists and turns of Goldrush's varied arrangements. While a good team can blast through a CP map in seconds, even the most clueless of public rabble will be able to stand next to a cart and push. Defenders must offer stiff resistance to provide for a good match.

After a while our defending team caught on, and not a moment too soon--the attacking team's cart had been stopped literally inches from the final goal. This triggered an Alamo-style battle, with attackers pouring out of holes to make a charge for the cart. The final point in this configuration clearly resembled Dustbowl, with a catwalk shortcut from above, a long way around to the right, and a nearby spawn.

We put up a good fight, but were eventually overwhelmed, the red team pushing the cart one last inch and blowing a hole in our dreams.

But enough about Goldrush. Probably the more significant of the major additions, the unlockable weapons signal a huge change for Team Fortress 2. And while the other classes will receive their new guns "quickly," the medic weapons will serve as the initial installment.

_PAGE_BREAK_ By far my favorite of the new offerings is the Ubersaw. Looking more like a gun from Gears of War, the Ubersaw is stained from hilt to curved blade in blood, a twisted piece of bad-ass metal. It adds 25% to your ubercharge after scoring a hit, at the expense of a 20% slower firing speed compared to the standard Bonesaw. Meant for the more offensively minded medics--AlexXdude, maldoror, et al--the potential for ubercharge madness, as well as total embarrassment and disastrous medic time-wasting, is huge.

The Blutsauger--"The Vampire" in German--looks more like a blaster than a needle gun. It will suck away your enemy's health and add it to yours at the rate of three health per hit, a nasty self-healing weapon. But again, while it sounds superior to the Syringe Gun on paper, it lacks the ability to score critical hits, making it more of a defensive tool than anything else.

The Critzcrieg we knew about, but it was no less interesting to play around with. The gun itself emits a passive yellow glow, and upon ubercharge, casts a Palpatine-esque lightning around your teammate's weapon, imbuing him with non-stop critical hits for 10 seconds. Deadly to be sure, but much like a standard ubercharge, it only stays active for so long. The charge must be well-timed, and fully taken advantage of. Unlike the health variant, this crit-uber provides no defense for your attacker, relying totally on the skill of your teammate. If your soldier wastes his few critical rockets on the wall, you'll be forced to beat a hasty retreat, with little gain to show for it.

A loadout menu allows for between-spawn changing of each weapon. From the looks of things, Valve is planning to eventually add even more than the three extra weapons per class, as the loadout lists under each currently-equipped item: "(1 other in inventory)." Changing the primary Syringe Gun, for instance, brings you to an individual Primary Weapon loadout screen, with only one other option--The Blutsauger--currently available.

Like many of you, I was skeptical of the new weapons at first. I asked an imaginary Valve questions like: Why would you take the risk of potentially unbalancing such a balanced game? Why jump on the "unlockable" bandwagon when the game is already so solid? Why would you do this to my beloved pastime, Valve? Why?

The simple answer is, I think, that Valve might just succeed in digging the core of this game even deeper.

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The Ubersaw is my favorite example. In recent weeks, growing a little bored of my typical Heavy setup, I've been playing the medic as an offensive melee class. The game, at present, makes it very difficult to do such a thing, and thus the challenge. However, with the Ubersaw, Valve is rewarding me for the same experimentation that I naturally gravitated toward. It is those kinds of wild gameplay scenarios that, if carefully balanced on a weapon-by-weapon basis, could add a huge amount of replay value to the TF2 experience.

As far as the development process behind these new toys, TF2 team captain Robin Walker told me that the unlockables have been far easier to balance than the actual classes. He seemed less concerned with balancing in general than I expected, though he noted that if any of the changes are unpopular amongst the community, the team will certainly take note.

I know a lot of Team Fortress 2 players--past and present--are worried about the longevity of the game. I didn't play Goldrush for thirty hours, so I can't tell whether it's the second coming of gameplay addiction. I don't know if these unlockable weapons will please everybody, and who knows what it will do to the game in terms of balancing.

All I know is, if you're trying to get ahold of me in a couple of weeks, you might want to look on Steam.

The new TF2 content is scheduled to go live sometime in the next few weeks.

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