It's probably futile linking to a Fairtrade advent calendar now there's only 15 days until Christmas. (15 DAYS! Oh God, no.) But hey, it's only polite. So today, we're opening another door. Don't try and stop us.
Thanks, Fairtrade. The delicious choco-treat hidden there briefly distracted me from panicking about not having bought a single present yet. Better give something to the readers too though, eh?
Tada! It's Team Fortress 2!
I'll admit I've not played Team Fortress 2 much lately. Too many other distractions, of business and pleasure. I don’t feel bad about that, and I still love TF2 dearly. In fact, it’s my (as opposed to Hivebrain RPS ‘Our’) game of the year. I don’t need it right now, but I know it’s there, and I know I can go back to it whenever I need to. And I will.
That’s its greatest accomplishment. It’s the great leveller. For almost any other online FPS I’ve left behind in its earlier stages (as is my wont, either from boredom or the necessity to go play other games so I can afford to eat), going back in months or years down the line has generally meant high suffering - punishment at the hands of unsmiling elites, thoroughly practiced at the game and now in it purely to grind others beneath their polygonal heels. By contrast, while I’ll hardly be topping the scoreboard, hopping onto a TF2 server after a few months off, and now that the game’s players are thoroughly accustomed to it, won’t see me felled by twelve instantaneous headshots. It won’t matter too much if my aim’s a little rusty, or I haven’t yet picked up on all the intricate strategies that have developed since September. I’ll still be useful. I’ll still be a part of the team. That’s why my Heavy’s boots will never be hung up for good.
TF2’s a reset button for online shooters. It realises that fun is far more important than total mastery – and I rather imagine that’s why Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, released so hot on its heels, was so dwarfed by it. It wasn’t because it was a lesser game, or because there were too many team shooters released at once – it was because anyone could play TF2. ETQW was aimed strictly at those who already knew how to be good at it. It prides ability over entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. But I want to party, not to show off.
TF2’s approachable face has a large part to play in this, of course. It’s not just that we can solemnly admire the references to 1920s advertising artwork and guffaw at the deranged cast – also it doesn’t look like a boy’s game, a stereotypical militaristic shooter, in the way the muddy colours of ETQW or Call of Duty or Counter-Strike do, for all their respective delights. Yes, TF2 is funny, but more importantly it’s welcoming. This is a playground, not a warzone. Come play in it.
The other leveller is the strictness of the classes, (sadly perhaps the major turn-off for those who prefer a little more Classic in their Team Fortress). A TF2 class isn’t just a guy with a different type of gun to the next guy – it’s absolutely a role. You’re a character with specific abilities and a clear place in the team. If you’re not comfortable with that place, you find another one. Something will fit, will offer that nebulous sense of Right. For me, it was almost immediately the Heavy, and remains so. I’ll always start Scout, then I’ll always go Medic after the initial rush, but there’s no avoiding it. Before too long, I’m going Heavy, no matter how many promises I make to myself that I won’t. And it always feels good. Hahahahahaha. Cry some more. I know the Heavy’s detractors label him something of a newbie’s choice, but the sense of click, of appropriateness I find in playing him is something I’ve never felt in any other shooter. Yes. This is exactly how I want to play this game.
Like any other class, he’s incredibly limited, of course – on his own he’s not much of anything, and so he’s entirely dependent on other members of the team. It’s an incredibly obvious thing to say about any game with ‘Team’ in its title, but the total specialisation of each class means this one genuinely lives up to its titular promise. Whenever I drop into a public server, I quickly get to know the other guys on my side – he’s our Sniper, he’s our Medic, he’s going to rush the enemy fort with me, he’s going to guard our Intelligence. Silent (or not-so-silent) kinship brews – I need these guys, I appreciate these guys. Sometimes I even love them. Without them I’m nothing. I just don’t get that in Battlefield 2. The pay-off, the celebrations of victory and the mourning of loss, are all the more affective for it. Yeah. We won.
Team Fortress 2 is about the only game in the RPS Advent Game-o-Calendar of which I won’t inevitably launch into some “but I didn’t like this. And that bit annoyed me. But I’m never replaying it” whine once I’ve got my initial cheer out of the way. There’s something scarily close to perfect about it, both as a realisation of an idea and of firmly establishing that game art is inestimably more important than game technology. I’m not playing it now because if I did, I’d be playing it all the time – as World of Warcraft was for far too much of my life, it’s quite simply a place I enjoy being in. I’ve smiled, I’ve laughed, I’ve taunted, I’ve cursed more in Team Fortress 2 than in any game this year. Well done, Valve. An infinite pile of money's good for something after all.