I’ve spent most of the weekend playing Team Fortress 2. I haven’t done that in years.
I hadn’t intended to. Team Fortress 2 exploded into my life as a near-obsession back in 2007. Playing almost every evening, hour after hour into the night, even dreamed about it during the height of the passion. I used to wander around the maps on my own in private servers just to look at the artistry of the world, and watched countless hundreds of YouTube videos of how-to jump videos and devastating frag runs when not actually playing the damned thing. But then, as always with multiplayer shooters, I fell away from the servers, and as with all the other competitive games that came before it, I became a stranger.
Typically, I find multiplayer games have a shelf life of around six months at the most before everyone reaches a level that surpasses mine. I lack the skills and raw dedication it takes to really excel at any multiplayer game, forever hovering around the bottom end of the “sort-of competent” skill range. On top of that is just a pure boredom which inevitably sets in, no matter the gorgeousness of the design.
Which is a callous reason as any to stop playing a game, I know. Of course Team Fortress 2 was different in that its steady stream of content updates has forever been a dangling carrot, but I’ve never returned to the Badlands with anything like the fervour of those early months.
It’s safe to say that the Free-To-Play model is looking to be a resounding success for Valve. Simultaneous players recently topped 100,000, cheekily tipping Counter-Strike from its throne, though it remains to be seen if that will hold over the coming months. There’s no doubt however that we’ll be seeing a resurgence of TF2’s initial popularity as thousands of new players discover its delightful universe as we first did back in 2007, which is such a great pleasure to know.
What’s especially fulfilling about this influx of new players, and why I’ve spent more time playing TF2 this past week than I have done in the last couple of years, is how it’s bolstered my confidence, however selfish that might be. Am I above finding a cruel pleasure in popping Pyros with rockets, safe in the knowledge that they will never be reflected? Do I take pity on the Blu team, clustered around the cart, as my knife slices through them like so much Spam? No. No, and I’m cackling with glee with every domination.
I know this isn’t going to last. They will eventually learn how to spycheck and when to successfully use Ubers, I know this. To regain some sense of honour I try and help out, even though I’m contributing to my eventual defeat. “Right click to rotate blueprints,” I gently explain. “Airblast can put out burning teammates!” I remind, constantly. I happily go over the intricacies of crafting, and personally explained how to open a crate half a dozen times, patient all the while. I’ve even, crazy at it might seem, suggested to an enemy Spy that they may want to try a different disguise, as that suicidal Demoman isn’t getting any less suspicious. After all, I remember what it was like to first play this initially bewildering game, a repeated experience I underwent every time I’ve hopped back for a spare hour after each of the big updates and found myself lost in a new map all over again. I’m happy to share what little information I’ve picked up through a casual following of reading the comics and sporadic playtime, if it helps new players join in the fun.
So it’s a casual acquaintance I’ve kept going over the years. Sending that single Happy Birthday! Facebook message to an old friend when the system reminds me of their existence. But this last weekend of concentrated play was like a full-scale drunken reunion, meeting that old friend at the pub, catching up and inevitably reminiscing about good times past. It’s an odd feeling to be nostalgic for a game whose shortcut hasn’t left my desktop in four years, but those warm memories bubble forth almost constantly, stronger than any other time I’ve played - whether it’s that feeling of launching your rocket right where you want it, rounding that familiar corner in Dustbowl, or remembering just where that undefeatable Sentry position was.
The bountiful new weapons also have a strong grip of collectamania about them, which certainly helps my desire to play. Cheap as it may be, I’d love to see my virtual backpack bristling with all the new toys, which is frankly reason enough to carry on playing. The steady drip of New! Stuff! is as addictive a mechanic as it always is. It does however mar the proceedings slightly, as the variety of weapons and effects makes the game feel messier than I remember it, and after a while, choosing your class loadout is a hassle with all the different options available. Valve would be smart to implement a custom loadout configuration similar to Call of Duty’s handling of its similarly giant arsenal. Nevertheless, the Solider still shoots rockets, the Scout still has a shotgun, the Spy still backstabs. The core game still essentially remains familiar and plays the same, no matter how fat it’s become, and the added opportunity to advertise this huge variety of Character Customisation in the official marketing hasn’t been lost on Valve.
Of course, it’s not all a happy technicolour massacre. Old friends also mean old rivalries. While the new players, bless ‘em, are fun to play with, members of the old guard fill the servers as well. Naturally, it’s their right to; the players who’ve kept up the TF2 habit for all these years, growing ever increasingly deadly in their confidence and reaction times. My nemesis, each and every one of them, reminding me just how crap I really am with every pipe bomb I blunder into.
It’s the hats that give them away. The simple act of wearing a hat that isn’t one of those insipid free giveaways received when pre-ordering a game – a hat that was forged from the sacrifice of time and energy it takes to scrape together all that refined metal, or at least the devotion to the game that paying cold hard cash in the Mann Store signifies. Either way, these hats mean serious business. It’s with this Free to Play model that hats finally carry meaning, separating, for now at least, the veterans from the newly enlisted. Hats are proving themselves to be the status symbols of experience and dedication they were originally meant to be.
Coming across an accessorised enemy this past week immediately changes the mood. No matter that the fight may only last a matter of seconds, no matter that it can be just a small aside in the overall flow of the match. It’s the image of a hero and a villain striding towards each other across a bloody battlefield for their final confrontation, the hapless foot soldiers all around them a mere distraction.
Which is the final, brilliant step of how Free to Play has changed the game. It’s given long-time players the added challenge of fighting the old foes alongside the new, dividing up the enemy into ranked opponents. The confidence I’ve gained in my own abilities from simple experience over new players has dared me to look players so much better than myself in the eye and meet them in open battle. I’ve even made use of the Duelling minigame, which I was too cowardly to use before. No longer do I blindly panic in a gibbering mess when caught amongst a field of my betters. I will throw down a glove and dare them to take me on.
Because I am a warrior, from the very beginning, and I have returned.
Kill me and I will only gain the power of your strategy.
Become my nemesis and incur my wrath.
For when you least expect it...
I will slap you to death with a fish and spank myself over your corpse.
That is the way of the warrior.