It's another instalment of our Twenty Bucks series, where we unscientifically hunt around in free-to-play games and find out what it really costs. Hooray! This time Craig tries to spend money in Team Fortress 2, where paid-for things will often drop on your head, but hats will often not. Here is one Buck with Twenty Bucks.
Shopping in Team Fortress 2 is a bit like watching my mum and her friends pay for a meal. I got my wallet out, but Valve countered with: "What are you doing, put that away. I've got this." And then there was as a tussle as I repeatedly attempted to pay while Valve kept hiding things in my pockets. I started with $20, looked at my backpack's 356 items, and wilted. It's swollen with almost every weapon in the game three times over, as well as a few Strange variants, and almost all were dropped on me for free, crafted, or traded. It's the old problem of what do you buy the man that has everything, but in the unlikely environ of a free-to-play game. I've never had everything before!
It's a ridiculously generous game: the Item Drop system will just give you things. You'll soon have piles of weapons, so Crafting will allow you to smelt your weapons down into Scrap, or combine them into class or weapon tokens. With those you can build a gun you want from a pile of weapons you don't want. It's fairly time consuming, and you do need a massive pile of guns to make things, but if you just play you'll probably gain enough after a few weeks. Trading is different. You can swap anything in this system, even other games. The most immediate way is by joining a trade server in the server browser. Here you'll be dropped into a strange world of custom maps and a chat channel full of spam, but you might also be able to trade up to something you want.
But to buy things you need to pop into the Mann Co. Store. Each class has a starter bundle that's worth buying, which obviously depends on the character you feel the most affinity with. As a random example, let's look at the The Demoman Starter Pack. It's 99c/49p for an Eyelander, a Chargin' Targe, and a Name-Tag. With that you could re-roll the Demoman as a frontline head-lopper. But looking at my backpack, I have five Eyelanders and three Targes, all given to me by Team Fortress 2's drop system. You have the time to wait for the items to drop, and if they don't drop them you can always attempt to craft them from those that have. None of the weapons you buy in the store are useable in the crafting system, so they wouldn't even be worth Scrap (the base unit in TF2's crafting system). You can trade them, but looking at the TF2 trading market, this would be akin to a car-boot sale. You might have a friend that would swap for something, but you're unlikely to find a trader who would care enough.
So why are they worth buying? With your first purchase of anything from the Mann Co. Store your F2P account will convert to a premium account, and you'll get more drops and a bigger backpack. You also get a Name Tag, and I was going to suggest you buy one those anyway, so you might as well get something with it. Separately, they cost a dollar (59p in our Queen's head-based economy) and since TF2 is awash with items it's fun to make yourself stand out. I love the Name Tags in the Mann Co store, though I suffer from performance anxiety: I sit there and stare at the gaping word hole I've just opened up and panic. It's one thing to make a silly joke on RPS, but to permanently write myself into the fabric of one of my favourite games? Pun-swallowingly terrifying. The Name Tag can be combined with a Description Tag, for another single colonial dollar, so you can make your killcam's endlessly entertaining to the other player. Oh, I just thought of a name for my knife! "Grave Newell". There are paints available for some low-key item altering as well, but they only work on hats or pets, so I wouldn't recommend them unless you have a particular combo in mind.
The rule of thumb for most weapons in TF2: there's always a way of getting it for free. I'll tell you what you won't get for free, though: love. The Pocket Purrer is an engie-only misc item that costs $4.99/£3.50, so it's not particularly good value for money (if you could call any cosmetic in-game item that) if you don't like playing as a camping turret-bastard, but LOOK AT THOSE BIG WET EYES I AM MELTING AHHHHHH! I am buying it solely because my current landlord doesn't allow pets and I live vicariously through games. The best bit: when it's equipped and you kill another player, the Pocket Purrer is listed in the kill list. Death by kitten!
It says a lot that as a long-term player I've yet to gather a nice collection of hats or other flairy items. I am not a millinerionairre*. If you play the game for a while, you'll eventually want to spruce up a bit, so I had a look around other adornments. Everything starts at $4.99/£3.50, but there's not a lot of inspiring extras. That said, I did fancy Sir Hootsalot, an angry looking owl (brown and white variants) that sits grumpily on the sniper's shoulder. Why an owl? It was voted on by the community, so the real question is how many owl fetishists play Team Fortress 2? The answer: twoo many. Did I just spend $4.99/£3.50 to make a really bad pun? Yes I did. Does this mean I finally have a pun budget? The answer sitting on my sniper's shoulder, scOWLing at other players. What a hoot! I'm feathering Valve's nest.
That does mean I've spent half my budget on pets. I HAVE SO MUCH LOVE TO GIVE! It's for that reason that I didn't buy the K-9 Mane, despite how amazing it looks. It's also put the RoBro 3000 out of my reach: at a pun-budget gobbling $17.49/£11.99, this multi-class robo-pet floats along behind the player's head, hanging around like a bad thought. But rather than criticising the way you live your life in dad's voice, it merely whirrs and looks cool. If it was cheaper, I'd have grabbed it, but Valve have priced it out of my grasp.
So with the Purrer, Sir Hootsalot, the Name Tag, and the Description Tag, I have 8 dollars left. I really want the Ap-Sap, a replacement sapper that's a flattened Portal 2 companion core. It's Wheatley from Portal 2 and looks and sounds excellent, but it costs $9/£6.99. I've also priced myself out of the Shred Alert, a purchasable taunt that players can use to magic up an electric guitar. It's dad-level of cool, but as a rapidly ageing male I sort of want it. There's a cheaper alternative in the Boston Boom-Bringer, a Scout-only ghetto-blaster with four tunes for $4.99/£3.50. It looks kind of cool as well, and there aren't that many noise-makers in the Mann Co. Store. But I also kind of like the High-Five taunt, which can be used by every class. It's $7.49/4.99, it would top-out my budget rather neatly, and it would mean I could finish writing this piece and go to bed.
This is totes my total:
High-Five taunt - 7.49
Pocket Purrer - 4.99
Sir Hootsalot - 4.99
Name Tag - 0.99
Description Tag - 0.99
Though I still have 55 cents. Hmm.
Psst! You. Yeah, you: the guy with the dodgy moustache, fake glasses, and questionable aura. You look like someone willing to take a few risks. And by "risks" I mean nothing of the sort, but it would you have listened if it didn't sound mysterious? There is another way of buying Team Fortress 2 items. If you know exactly what you want, pop into Steam Community Market and search: players sell items for real-world money that's added to their Steam Wallets. Weapons cost as little as 8p there (I can't see the American equivalent in the UK).
In fact, running everything that I bought through it: High-Five, Pocket Purrer and Sir Hootsalot aren't available, the Name Tag is 51p, the Description Tag is 32p. Widening my net, the Shred Alert is only £2.71, and you can get Strange Parts (add-ons to weapons that will track kills, etc) and Strange Weapon variants for as little as 10p. Valve don't sell those. I just bought a revenge kill tracker that I intended to bolt onto my Strange Knife, before discovering that it won't fit. It only cost 17p, about half of what I have left.
It's not a perfect solution: the prices vary, with some bafflingly listed for more than the Mann Co. Store, and there are missing items that you won't get, but it's worth checking for things you can't buy directly from Valve, and if you have a few pennies sitting in your Steam Wallet that you just have to spend.
*High five taunt me, yo.