I may have bought Valve’s Orange Box for entirely different reasons, but I got the most mileage out of the inclusion of Valve’s standalone sequel to what was originally a Quake mod; Team Fortress 2. Honestly, the phrase “Most Mileage” is a bit of an understatement. With my current Steam playtime for TF2 reading 905 hours it sits proudly at the top of the heap of most total time I’ve ever spent playing a game… by some way. I consider a game above 20 hours playtime to be a big investment of single player effort and even games that have seen a good wedge of multiplayer rarely break in to triple figures. For a game that’s such a significant slice in my gaming past, it’s kind of strange that I haven’t mentioned it a whole lot before.
Of course that 905 hours was accumulated over years, but those years overlapped some of the trickier ones that I’ve had to face personally and, whilst I’m not going to go into all of those details, my own development and the game’s ongoing development come together to tell a story of my relationship with the eternal conflict between Red an Blu (and of course the Announcer who, like a puppet master, controlled us all).
My interest in FPS games at that point had been more of a sideline compared to the largely third-person single player titles that I enjoyed on the, then ageing, PS2 console. It was a time when FPS games had begun to descend in to the era of the modern military shooter and “realism” was becoming the favoured aesthetic rather than the blistering pace and far-fetched action of the early ID and Build games. In contrast TF2 immediately struck me as something different; its stark, clean, 50’s comicbook inspired visuals jumped out of the monitor as fresh and vibrant in a genre that was gradually turning to subdued shades of grey and brown. In those early days of vanilla TF2 (and I understand how the hat-crazed-masses who play now would find it difficult to believe) the experience was beautifully streamlined. Each of the nine distinctive classes was content to wear their own silhouette without the need for fiddly cosmetic items and had only one loadout featuring a primary, secondary, and melee weapon to wield in battle. This bestowed each class with a unique and well defined role to play within the team: Heavy, Pyro, and Solider providing the main combat strength; Sniper and Spy tactically breaking defence; Medic and Engineer supporting; Demoman to defend and break strong defences; and Scout to rapidly push forward stage objectives at an opportune moment. It worked superbly and I was hooked almost immediately with the balance of the experience providing much of the draw. The maps themselves were also delicately streamlined with an initial lineup of only six, all of which being set in that desert industrial wasteland.
If all this sounds rather unsubstantial, you’d be right; TF2 as only ever supposed to be a neat bonus with the Orange Box, but the rate at which the playerbase grew cemented it as a Valve triumph. In that first twelve months I tried my hand at all the classes, but settled, very firmly, on Pyro. At the time I thought I was pretty good but looking back I may have been the original W+M1 player charging in and spraying fire everywhere. Regardless I found myself frequently sitting in the MVP’s and topping the team leaderboards with those playtime hours giving me a pretty sound insight in to the strengths and limits of the class. I delighted in using the map layout to slip past enemy lines only to run in behind them and eliminate the front line with the fiery equivalent of a backstab. Using corners, strategic uber-charges, and dispatching burning enemies with the shotgun as they flee was how the class was played at that time.
Somewhere around four months after release Valve delivered the first content addition to the game…
… and a side note here. Ongoing support and content for games was rare for games at this time. Now it’s almost expected that big multiplayer titles will receive new game modes, limited time events, batches of cosmetic items, crate drops, maps galore, and balance tweaks, but many (if not all) of these now common elements are as a result of TF2… for better or worse…
… the new content was a map… one solitary control-point map; Badlands… and the community went nuts! Badlands in a public server rotation could instantly populate an empty game and likewise a mapvote that didn’t result in Badlands victory would empty the server just as quickly. As a map it stuck with the same visuals, but relied much more on vertical movement with the central control point being on a bridge above a valley and the second/fourth points being perched precariously on sandstone pinnacles. Badlands forced me to break from Pyro exclusivity pushing me toward Scout. The large open spaces, minimal use of corridors, and exposed elevated positions hit the Pyro hard making it an easy target unable to defend itself at range.
It was around this time that I started to become a regular on the Hampshire Heavies public servers. I’ve never been in a gamerclan, but I did get to the point of adding a HH “Reg” tag to my handle and looking back I have only fond memories of the people who also populated those servers. Being a regular on their public servers gave me a permanent group of online friends to play with; whatever the time there was usually a few friendly voices on the server and with an active forum along with tracked match stats I found purpose in the time I spent serverside… I like to think I was at least occasionally a valuable member of a team.
In many ways that first year was the golden year of TF2 and although I didn’t realise it at the time the medic update that dropped marked the start of the gradual decline of my TF2 career.
The Medic update changed everything. It added the first version of a class-loadout to the game and (after meeting some tough achievement criteria) gifted the Medic three new weapons. It also introduced the first payload map; fan favourite ‘GoldMine’. The initial couple of weeks after the update were a nightmare of entire teams of Medics trying desperately to unlock the new weapons, barely paying any attention to the new payload objective, just running rampant with their bone saw eager for melee kills. It spawned the start of achievement grinding servers; pointless maps just designed to rack up stats for the unlock. I was pretty caught up in giving medic a shot despite it being a class I almost never played (unless the team needed one) but deep down I knew that the update had taken a chunk out of that sleek and balanced game design I’d originally fallen for.
Luckily the madness didn’t last too long and the servers returned to normal, but this was disrupted again a few months later by the Pyro update; something I had much more interest in given its status as my go-to class. The update gifted our mumbling friend a new feature for his/her flamethrower; the air blast. An ability to reflect projectiles and push away opponents, and to me it was a distortion of everything the Pyro was. Players would now stand out in large open spaces as Pyro boldly reflected rockets and grenades. Fortunately for me the unlockable ‘back-burner’ catered to my own brand of Pyro-play removing the air-blast and adding enhanced damage for engulfing enemies in flames whilst their back was turned. It was some consolation, but I found myself scorned on teams for not using the air blast version to defend and support players understanding less and less my own sneaky-ambush style of play.
It was around this time that I disappeared from gaming and from the UK for about 6 months, but when I returned home I discovered two things: firstly my TF2 had received yet more updates and secondly I was unemployed.
At first the combination seemed like a good thing, the unemployment allowed a certain amount of extended gaming hours. I still enjoyed the company of the players on the public HH servers and the new weapons had mixed up the game; but soon after the Sniper vs. Spy update dropped and blended random drop hats in to the mix, the visual cleanliness of the game began to deteriorate. The updates continued to roll out but matches descended in to a cacophony of hats, weird nonsensical weapons, and taunts. With each one the original game looked more and more distant. Soon it became a bizarre sea of DemoKnights, Archer-Snipers, and Battle Medics
My play style had changed too. I had stints playing through the different classes but settled on Scout as my main, seemingly unable to resettle as a Pyro in this new game world. I wasn’t just a Scout, I was a selfish Scout. My goal stopped being for a team victory, instead I wanted to top the leader-board and maintain a high KPD. I’d take cheap kills wherever I could and whilst I would complete map objectives I’d too often go off script to chase down a wounded soldier or solitary DemoKnight. Ultimately I found myself spending more and more time on Fast Respawn 2Fort servers…
… for anyone who doesn’t play TF2: the map 2Fort is a capture the flag map where the intel (flag) is deep in the enemy base. In general teams rely on the delay in respawning players to punch enough of a hole in defences to get in and grab the intel…
Without a respawn delay it becomes a purgatory of perpetual battle without teams getting anywhere. Player scores would routinely be in the hundreds whilst team score remained tied at nil. Bands of snipers would stand on the balconies of each team’s fort trying to pick off their counterparts; it was these snipers who bore the brunt of my frustration with the game I’d once loved gone. I’d spend the hours spawning then running and jumping across the connecting bridge as swiftly and obnoxiously as my Scout legs would carry me before trying to take out all of the opposing Snipers… then just waiting there on the opposition balcony to do it again… and again… and again until the Snipers either started to change class or leave the server entirely. Forget Sniper vs. Spy; Scout vs. Sniper is the true rivalry.
I guess my TF2 story could have ended there, but luckily I met my girlfriend, who later became my wife… who was at least initially also my Pyro buddy and sometimes support Medic. She taught me the joy of playing Dustbowl again, the fun I could have being a Pyro by dropping in behind enemy lines, and that I could (with practice) master that fiddly air blast. At some point we stopped playing TF2, but we still regularly play other games together and don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.