When the team clearly needs a medic and no-one else is doing so, I play a medic. When the team clearly needs to an Engineer – and, despite the current wave of wrench-monkeys filling servers, it does happen – I’ll play an Engineer. When the team clearly needs a Spy and no-one is, I play a Spy.
But when I get to pick, I pick The Soldier.
The Soldier is Team Fortress showing its cultural roots. Always remember that it was a Quake mod and, far more than anything else, the Soldier is the character who has still got one foot in that prehistory. It’s all in his primary weapon – the rocket-launcher. Doom’s most iconic weapon was the shotgun. Quake’s, due to the addition of the true vertical axis and the emergence of a certain skill we’ll be getting to in a minute, was the Rocket-launcher. The Rocket-Launcher, fundamentally, hasn’t changed much from Quake 1. Yes, it shoots slower. Yes, you have less ammo. But the abilities it feeds off are right there. You’re still playing to its strengths, and it’s still working.
To be bitchy, The Soldier is the Demoman for people who like a bit of skill in their Team Fortress games. More truthfully, it’s a different sort of skill entirely. Demoman is about conceptual play – knowing where the enemy is or will be, and playing the odds. It demands higher level conceptual planning to play well. The Soldier, while he dabbles in that a little, his s primary way of offing people is about a direct, applied rocket-talent. The skill is this: you shoot someone. They go flying through the air. You calculate the arc and work out where they’re going to land. You fire a rocket to hit there. Mr Alive is Mr Dead.
It’s a basic trick, but – like anything you can do with an coin to impress people in the pub – that doesn’t stop it being a pretty neat trick. It’s just a fraction more involved than anyone else’s way of killing (though playing the medic, I do wonder if someone’s going to be doing something clever with the trajectories of the rapid-firing syringes). The joy is, once enemies are in the air, they’re just a glorified skeet. They can’t do anything about it – except shoot you, obviously – and their destination is predetermined by the beautiful science of boom. Can you judge it right? Yes or no. It’s very clean, very beautiful and very bloody – I suspect that the Soldier gets the joy of seeing someone gib more often than anyone else (The Demoman gets to hear it more, but – really -that’s hardly the same thing. And Heavy’s laughing too much to really appreciate turning human flesh into Jackson Pollock). Obviously, often, you just shoot them directly in the face. But the real skill in the soldier is that very real people-bouncing skill.
It’s also funny to watch, which always helps.
Then there’s that other skill – rocket jumping. The world’s most famous emergent game-play device, evolving from something someone just noticed as a side-effect to Quake’s physics, to something that was actively used by deatmatchers, to something designers planned for in their levels to its current state as an artform. And, more than correct use of the rocket-launcher offensively, it’s an actual skill. Like Juggling, you can either do it or not. Right now, I’ve been too hungry to just play TF2 than spend the time on an empty level running around to get the hang of it (As I have my dignity to think of. There’s no way I’m going to rocket-jump in public when I’ll almost certainly screw up). But I will, and when I learn the knack, I’ll be a career Soldier instead of the under-prepared conscript I am now.
The rest of his guns? Well, compared to the artist’s paintbrush of devastation that is the Rocket Launcher, the rest of his armoury is relatively sleight. The Shotgun is brutal and simple, keeping a similar short-sharp-shock approach to combat as the main gun. The Spade… well, I now realise, I haven’t offed anyone with a Spade yet. I have a Rocket Launcher. I have no need to dig the spade.
The Soldier is as Old Skool as TF2 gets. It’s appropriate that in his short film he’s presented as a Gung-ho mentalist obsessed with his own loose interpretation of Sun Tzu’s ancient wisdom of ass-kicking. He’s got history, is part of a lineage. Hell, look at the name: The Soldier. No need for any interpretation. Everyone in TF2 is a Soldier, but the soldier is THE Soldier. In Team Fortress 2 terms, he’s The Oldest Profession (er… without the having sex with people for money thing). Before there were Demomen, Pyros, Heavies and the rest, the Soldier was there, throwing rocks at people and screaming about farms and generally having a bit too much fun at mass murder.
The Soldier is about making people pop. He’s been making people pop since the mid-nineties. He’s not going to stop now.
Or, at least, you’re not going to stop him.