I finally managed to dodge the queues and get some mano-a-machino time in with Mann Vs Machine, the new game mode for Team Fortress 2. Valve have remixed their combative cartoon shooter so the warring Red and Blu teams are fighting together against a robotic horde. It’s hard. So very, very hard.
I’m sure some of the difficulty is because of the newness of the mode – three new maps, new spawns, upgrades, new enemies, and the fact that they’re robots, left me reeling – it’s the first time in a long time in TF2 I’ve felt like a newbie.
How it works: your team of up to six players starts each round near a shop in set-up mode. Here you can upgrade your powers, spending points the game doles out according to kills and wins. The boosts effect any weapon, so I tooled my Rocket Launcher to have faster firing and to leech out health towards me for every kill. I could have had speedier reloading or a bigger clip, or a few other boosts, but I ran out of money. Every upgrade is upgradeable as well, so you can keep piling them altogether. These are all passive. There are buffs available as well, but I haven’t managed to gain one yet. MvM is more for people that understand the game: the stats upgrades don’t mention base amounts, so you have to know in your blood how effective classes and weapons will be.
At the opposite end of the level is where the robots drop as they prepare to deliver a bomb into your base. While the team readied up, I took stock: the levels are symmetrical, probably to help the bots to manoeuvre around them. They’re not as complicated as something like Badwater, but there are multiple, flanking routes. These, I realised after being flanked, are for the robots.
Waves are per-determined, so you know exactly what you’re facing before the round begins, and it’s really important to get the selection correct: if you’re not toting a Pyro with an airblast when you face Giant Mecha Scout, you might as well pack up and leave.
From the opening bell the differences between standard and MvM are obvious: this is spam central. The robots are plentiful and drop easily enough. You don’t need to be clever with your shots, just persistent and capable of backtracking to health and ammo when needed. As expected, where the robots drop into is particularly spammy: they can be fooled somewhat by placing a player directly underneath where they drop, as the angle they fall they take means they’ll fall with their back to whoever is there. If you have a someone on front or a sentry gun, they’ll focus on that, enabling the sneaky bugger behind them to clean up.
The AI is as capable as the human players, but they don’t have those cheeky emergent skills real players bring. The robots aren’t bad, in fact they can be surprisingly cheeky, taunting after they take you down. Valve have taught AI soldiers to rocket jump and the AI Spies to disguise and back stab, but if you’re ever fooled by one you should probably take the Turing test.
Rounds are split up into waves, with the announcer shouting out who’s left. I barely noticed, to be honest: with my tuned up Rocket Launcher spitting out speedy missiles, I was having too much fun – robots burst in groups under my crosshairs and I made a small fortune in the first wave. Bots drop money for you to spend at the shop, so during the wait for the next level I added a bigger ammo clip to help me spam. More ammo is always welcome here, but after the first round things are already a magnitude of toughness above what you’ve just fought.
If you join an in-progress game, you’re given a boosted wallet according to the level: one game I joined in progress was at the final stage, where giant heavies and stretched out soldiers were escorting a tank to the bomb site. The giants are ugly and scary: the Heavy is able to shoot rockets out of the sky. I added everything I could afford and ended up with a RL so overpowered I felt bad for the bots. The countdown clicked over and I let rip alongside my team’s Demo and Pyro. The robots didn’t stand a chance. Except my spam was useless as the tank ground on and on and the heavy, boosted by an ubering medic, killed me in seconds. I’ve honestly no idea how to take down a tank without the sort of concentrated fire that we weren’t capable of, but the team make-up was probably been off. Sometimes it needs a Pyro; other levels a Sniper taking out the Medics will make everything easier. In time that knowledge will become second knowledge, but for now it’s a mess. A fun, silly mess. I can’t see it taking over the main game, as it requires a few logistical certainties to work. But it’s a hefty addon that you wouldn’t see on Battlefield 3, or CoD: Modern Warfare Whatever, for the price Valve are asking for it.
In conclusion: Fight!