When the gentlemen of RPS asked me Wot I Thought about Valve's now-free team-based FPS, Team Fortress 2, I was busy playing the game, and completely failed to notice their entreaties. They tried shouting and waving over my swearing at a pyro, but my 'enjoyment exhalations' - which sound a lot swearing practice and slamming a mouse on a desk - drowned them out. In the end, they had to go into the game and buy me a special ring, a novel item that sends a message through the game, and got my attention.
Finally, with my attention momentarily torn from the game, I agreed it was a fine idea: "Sure, now get out of my way: I can't see the cart... oh for FU-" *mouseslam* But right now I'm struggling to come up with the words to describe my experience: it's has been part of my life for years, and writing about it is getting in the way of playing it.
I'm not even joking: I'm writing this in the awareness that I'm only a few steps (on Steam) away from knifing someone. Some stats have emerged from that dull throb that follows me around: at the time of writing Team Fortress 2 has been out for 1,794 days, and Steam tells me I've played it for 857 hours. That's almost half-an-hour for every day it's been out, despite my busy social life and broad calendar of non-TF2-related writings. Three hundred and eighty of those hours has been as the Spy, while my second most played class, The Pyro, stands at 56 hours. I've played the firestarter more than I've played most other games, and I've played the Spy more than I've played some entire genres (strategy: it hates me as much as I can't play it).
Eight-hundred and fifty-seven hours.
I don't have any map stats, but I'd guess half of all those hours have been spent on Badwater.
It sounds vaguely sickening when it's termed in raw statistics, but a lot of what I do on my PC is done while admitting to myself that I could be playing juggling rockets with an airblast. Watching a movie with my girlfriend means, quite literally, that I'm not playing Team Fortress 2 (I have a second monitor for when I want to watch a movie and play the game on my own), and playing another game also means I'm not spying my way to satisfaction. I uninstalled the game over Christmas 2010 so I could have a holiday that didn't revolve around time spent or not spent playing it, and after realising all this, I'm going to uninstall it all over again. When I cap off the final paragraph, I'm playing it once more then taking it off my PC. Yes.
But... well. My experience of TF2, even after all these years, isn't complete: I've spent too much time on one map, and too much time as one class, to fully understand it. Valve have added so much to it that keeping up, even for someone who plays it every day, is a struggle. From those early beta moments, where I always wanted to be a Spy and found the class nearly everything I wanted it to be, the game has grown like a violent, silly, exploding coral reef around me.
The Spy I play is probably not the Spy you play, either. You couldn't say that on launch, where we all had the same loadouts. Now though, looking at the spread of updates, you can see how they've tried to appeal to a broader base: I play Cloak and Dagger (I charge my invisibility watch by saying still while cloaked), the stock knife (Strange variation), and the Ambassador (first shot is super accurate). There are people out there cringing right now: why not The Big Earner? Dead Ringer? Or The Enforcer? Why not the other myriad of Spy equipment that they use? Because through unlocks and tweaks they've built the Spy I wanted: I can teleport through enemy TPs, I can disguise myself effectively; my choices reflect a Spy that can be discrete and make a headshot. You might have wanted a character that drops corpses and can silently take someone's place, but the checks and balances in place mean that's not for me.
Then there's the location. Badwater is built for spying. It was Valve's second Payload map, after Goldrush. I spent hours on that first Dustbowl-esque bomb-delivery map, but then Badwater came along and I've been in level-love ever since. You can see the beginnings of Badwater in the opening stage of Goldrush: the open area where the cart squeezes through a crack in a natural wall of rising ground is an obvious placeholder for Badwater's opening tunnel, where the cart pushes under a rolling hill. There's so much room up top for Red to set up a defence, but you need to work on multiple levels to keep Blu pegged back: there's no way to keep it all covered, so you end up with a vague mix of panic and exhilaration, toppling from one incendiary crisis to the next. Spying in these circumstances is glorious: all that room means there's plenty of space to manoeuvre, and with rockets and 'nades (and flares, flaming arrows, jars of piss, and bottles of milk) coming in from everywhere, if Blu aren't sticking together they're exposed. By the first ping of the cart things will change.
That open area leads to a warren of flanking corridors, some of which are almost forgotten spaces that take a long route around the cart's path. There's probably a level design document somewhere that's weeping blood at the thought of the ridiculous second section that not only lets you set up camp above the second cart control point, but that has multiple routes around it as well. There's a backroom here that probably only ever has people running there to get to the ammo and health, but to me it's where I go to ponder the next push: the second control point is near enough to the Red spawn to mean it needs a real effort to push through, and with the high covering area over-looking it, it concentrates the fight. Red beats Blu; Blu beats Red, the cart ever inching towards the point. When it does, it flips the whole: Red's route is cut off, sending them on a tortuously long run around their home spawn; Blu fight to the next CP in order to bring their spawn closer.
It's a beautifully balanced level. Yes, ultimately every rush descends into both sides tossing bodies at the cart, but that final segment, with two side routes and sub routes peeling off those, and the main cart line dragging everyone onwards, is just wonderful to reach. The overlapping, interlocking paths taught me a lot about Spying and taking risks with the class: the railings that I can stand on to keep myself out of the way of sprinting enemies, the long corridor just after the second control point, that I can stand invisibly in as the two teams fire around me... And the range of movement afforded to a player that recognises where jumps can take him and what ledges can be stood on. This is what learning to play a game really means.
The thing I'm beginning to realise is that updates and additions have largely left me unaffected: I'll always have my Spy set-up and that map as the most basic form of TF2. That's never going to disappear.
But there's so much more to like. So much more to toy with and explore and master in the endless dynamic replays of games that cycle over and onward forever.
If it's not Badwater and Spying, it's Gold Rush and the Pyro, Dustbowl and the Demo, Soldier and Upward, Sniper and Doomsday. 303 updates, some good, some annoying, some huge, some tiny, means there's someone and somewhere and all the players. It's a feast of ideas and experiences: every time the game patches, it could be a minor bug-fix, or the beginnings of an ARG. If there's ever an example of a game that's truly turned out to be a service, it's not all those big MMO monoliths, it's the madly buzzing backwater of Team Fortress 2.
'Service' is such a strange concept in regards to games, and of course it's one that's yet to be properly defined, but to Valve it seems to mean that everything they do with it has to engage the player: the comics, the videos, even the item descriptions, are all there to get you hooked all over again. To make you think about it, because it's fun to do so. I reinstalled the game after that Xmas vacation (it lasted six months) because I caught glimpse of one of the comic covers and burst out laughing. I was back. And I love update weeks: Valve have admitted to seeding ideas into the updates to see what gets the biggest response, and then building the unlocks around them. I don't think I've ever seen a game developer so keenly understand their fans' fervour more than the Sniper vs Spy update, when it began as a Sniper update and the slowly uncloaked the Spy in the background. That and it included the Portable Baccarat Detector.
That silly, burgeoning lore, was so seriously dealt with to begin with now revels in murderous children and angry Australian CEOs - it's an amazing example of breathing life into a world that simply existed to have two teams fight.
Those first few maps and game-modes are now draped in shiny baubles, and decked in both ornamental and functional variety. They're repainted, refurnished, recontexctualised in a way that no other FPS has ever managed. Don't like something as fundamental as Capture The Flag? Well they've just reworked the concept in the latest Pyro update: CTF forms the basis for sd_doomsday, a map that tells the story of a Monkeynaut's failed flight into space. In addition to Special Delivery we have Payload, Arena, Payload Race, King of the Hill, Highlander, and Medieval Mode, and over fifty official maps. I can't actually work out how to count the true number of items, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were 300 or more hats and weapons to buy, with variations on colour, rarity and attributes. Classes have an element of Build-Your-Own, either through the store or the game's drops and trading, resulting in multi-disciplinary combatants.
They've significantly widened each character: The cyclopean Scot, the Demo Man, can either be a drunken bombardier, or a surprisingly effective front-line head-lopper. He can have fine-grain control over his sticky bombs, or just blow them all the hell up. You can even choose what type of sword you use. (I tend to keep with the bombs, so I can sticky jump: there's nothing more Scottish than flying through the air, trailing flames on my boots, to smash a bottle into a Sniper's face.) Then there's snipey Soldier, splash-damage Soldier, in-betweeny Soldier, and spammy soldier. He has gadgets to augment attacking and defending. Same with the Sniper, a near impossible task I thought until they gave him a bow: he can be defensive head-shotter, or a terrifying, stalking, archer. Even the Engi, with the addition of a tiny, quickly deployable sentry, now has scope for movement. And when things didn't change for the better, they changed for the sillier. The recent Pyro update shows just how silly the game can get.
There's a fish for the Scout, a robot hand for the Engineer, a pair of bear gloves for the Heavy:: Valve's rules on the game's design and tone have been defenestrated: The Steam Workshop delivering dangling magic lanterns and alien brain slugs.
What I am saying is that there's a lot of stuff in here, now.
If I cared to complain about this, it'd be easy. It somewhat distracts from the initial design, and the lunges of content are now based solely around the idea of getting things out there rather than looking at what classes need a little love. But it's now free. And even then the community is making money through the free-to-play game with an astonishingly generous basis: all the items can be traded or crafted. You needn't pay a penny. Valve have kept the players together, refusing to charge for maps. Look around: there are full-price shooters that block mods and charge you for maps; TF2 is free in many senses of the word, and there's few games that can really look you in the eye when they claim that.
I'd still pay for Badwater, though.
So what do I think of Team Fortress 2? Well, I think that describing something that lurches in as many directions as Team Fortress 2 is genuinely problematic. It's a well-made, class-driven shooter. But it's also now a game set up for fans to make money, and a tool for machinima, and an avant garde exercise in storytelling and game design. It's an experiment. A laboratory and a shop at the same time.
And pinning it all together is a shooter, one that's become part of my daily routine, and describing it is like describing breathing. It's just something I do.
My hand drifts to the listing on my Steam window time and time again, passing over the 77 other games I currently have installed on there. My mind is taking me to do what I have done for years and years and years.
Team Fortress 2 is the best game I've ever played. And with that said, it's clearly time for me to uninstall it.