You might have forgotten Team Fortress 2 exists, but the same can’t be said of the 50-odd-thousand people that are playing it as I write this. Last week Valve rolled out the games 33rd(!) major update, ‘Gun Mettle’ bringing a new comic, new maps, balance changes and a 3 month long event. I spycrabbed my way back in to check it out.
The focus of the update is on the Gun Mettle Campaign, which costs $6 to buy into and provides contracts twice a week for the next 3 months (or longer if Valve feel like it). In Valve’s words, these are ‘skill-based contracts, with one-of-a-kind weapons and exclusive weapon cases as rewards’. These are mostly class specific affairs which are fulfilled by either earning points with that class or more quickly by completing advanced objectives, such as earning taking 1,000 damage as a Heavy or killing airborne enemies as the Soldier. Completing a contract nets you a gun with a unique paint job which you can examine in game with a button press, CS:GO style. In addition, points earned towards each contract also level up your ‘Campaign Coin’, which appears next to your name on the scoreboard and shows off what a great little mercenary you are.
It’s a simple idea, but a neat way of encouraging old and new players to experiment with all of the classes. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in TF2, but nearly all of them have been with the Spy. Being coaxed out of my comfort zone proved to be rewarding very quickly; I managed to complete my contract by airblasting a crit rocket back into a Soldier's’ face. Being the other side of 1v1 fights involving a Pyro and a Spy for a change was also immensely satisfying. Better still, equipping the Backburner allowed me to play as a pseudo Spy, sneaking around the map until pouncing and delivering critical hits from behind. Even if players were aware before that these sorts of things were possible, they might not have appreciated their effectiveness or the sheer fun that’s to be had in variety. Earning a snazzy shotgun as a backup weapon is a nice incentive to mix it up, though for the most part completing the contracts is a reward in and of itself.
The new maps introduced with the update vary in quality, as you might expect. Valve's own offering, Powerhouse, is a fairly standard symmetrical capture point map. It’s only got 3 points, making matches shorter and more tense, with one team always only one point away from victory. The other maps are all community designed. Snowplough is a capture point map disguised as a payload one: the blue team has to get the titular snowplough to the other side of the map via a railway track, sending it hurtling forward by capturing control points along the way. Rather than a normal timer, every 30 seconds that the train remains stationary a rock or car is bashed into it by a mechanism from above. If the snowplough takes ten hits, it’s game over. The setup lends more drama to a close capture, the visual flair and countdown that accompanies each hit underlining either victory or defeat.
Suijin is the weakest of the new additions, a king of the hill map which has players fighting in an oriental temple. The control point is inside an easily defendable pagoda, making it trivial for the team that captures it first to pop some sentries or a heavy in each corner and keep it until the timer runs down. It’s a shame, because it’s one of the most visually distinct environments in the official map list. My favourite new addition is Borneo, an alpine themed payload map which is full of stairs and corners that are perfect for leaping down or around as a Spy. It’s no Badwater Basin, but serves well enough as my new hunting ground for the time being.
Valve have also made some pretty big balance changes, the most major of which seem to target my dear old Spy. Forgive me a little eulogy to the Dead Ringer, which now cloaks you for half the time and reduces damage by 50% rather than 90%. To make matters worse, you can’t pick up ammo - which would normally extend your cloak duration - while using it anymore, cutting off many of the routes I’m used to running while staying invisible. It’s not all doom and gloom though; certain other weapons that previously went ignored by myself and other players have been revitalised with entirely new mechanics, such as the Big Earner which now provides a 3 second speed boost on a successful backstab. Outside the Spyo-sphere, Engineers now have an easier time building things quickly and can repair their mini sentries. There’s a whole host of other tweaks which I’m sure will have some players howling with frustration and others cackling with joy, which you can check out at the bottom over here.
Lastly, Valve have added a weapon pick up system that allows you to swap your gun with ones dropped by dead members of the same class. It’s intended for less experienced players to have a go with items they don’t yet own themselves, but using some new weapons effectively requires squatting in a corner for a while to read the description. In the past, it’s taken me minutes to comprehend some of the more convoluted gizmos from the comfort of the main menu: I don’t envy new players the task.
To some extent, the same can be said for returning players. There’s undeniably a lot going on in a game of TF2. Pyros bash sappers off of sentry guns with hammers, Demomen charge across the map wielding exploding bottles of liquor, Medics run around with symbols flashing above their heads. Parsing all of this nonsense is next to impossible, but crucially also unnecessary – at its heart TF2 remains a fairly simple shooter. Yes, some of the many, many weapons that have been added in the 8 years since the games launch can be perplexing, but it’s only in rare cases that knowing the complexities of an opponent’s weapon really matters. For the most part all you need to do is point and shoot. Despite the vast arsenal that’s built up, I haven’t encountered anything that feels overpowered. Even so, if you find yourself dying again and again to someone using a weapon you don’t have, nowadays every weapon can be bought for pennies on the steam market, so it’s easy to level the playing field.
Miraculously, I haven’t mentioned hats once so far in this article. The hat bloat is real. For me at least, they just don’t feel special anymore: now that there are so many ways of making your character look unique, uniqueness doesn’t hold the same value. That said, the expanding wardrobe is part of a frivolity that fades into the background but is nonetheless appreciated. As much as people complain about how generic gruff military men have come to dominate multiplayer shooters, it’s easy to forget how true that can be. By comparison, all of the characters in TF2 have character, and it's testament to Valves initial design that this shines through, past the giant lollipops and sentient bread. TF2 is as fun as it ever was, and while the Gun Mettle is no revolution, now is as good a time as any to jump back in.
If anyone needs me I’ll be in the corner, cradling my Dead Ringer.