By Atlas 2 Comments
Part Three - On Fortresses, Teamwork, and Playing Against A.I.
I have held a very firm anti-multiplayer stance for a good long time. Growing up I was never accustomed to playing with or against others, focusing instead on single player experiences. When I arrived at the modern generation, where multiplayer seems to be more relevant than ever before, this trend continued, with me wanting mostly to simply disregard multiplayer and stick rigidly to single player. The zenith of this mindset was my enjoyment of games ostensibly designed for multiplayer or co-op - notable examples being Borderlands, Left 4 Dead and Splinter Cell: Conviction - completely on my own. Not only on my own, but happily so. I don't really care for other people complicating things, and the only example of human obnxiousness I can tolerate is my own. I have tested the waters of multiplayer in recent years, including a failed attempt to immerse myself in the competitive atmosphere of Street Fighter IV, as well as a short amount of admittedly enjoyable time with XBLA's Monday Night Combat. But as copies of franchises such as Call of Duty, Halo and StarCraft practically walked off shelves on the strength of their riveting multiplayer, I sat back, fingers in ears, trying to forget that such games even exist.
That said, through all of my anti-MP history, there was always a handful of games that I had identified as the games I would play should I ever attempt to become a more regular multiplayer person.
Fighting games was my first port of call, as along with the aforementioned SFIV I also played a handful of matches of Soulcalibur IV, Virtua Fighter 5 and Tekken 6, all games I hold in higher regard than the more popular Street Fighter, but again could not actually dedicate myself enough to reach a competent skill level. I played a ton of Soulcalibur IV, but I found that playing against others involved everything I knew about the game being broken down and rebuilt to accomodate the so called human factor; everything I thought I knew was wrong, and this infuriated me.
Another genre I was receptive to the idea of engaging in competitively was strategy games. I may have poo pooed SCII earlier in this post, but the truth is that is a game I defintely hold a good deal of respect for. Watching Brad and Norm playing that game on TNT was a hypnotic experience, one that seemed completely incomprehensable but simultaenously fascinating. Other possibilities included experiences such as Supreme Commander II and Warhammer 40K Dawn of War II, games I knew little about, but recognised their pedigree.
And now I come to without doubt the most popular and synonymous multiplayer genre - first person shooters. We all know the history. Doom was the trailblazer, Quake took it into overdrive, Unreal Tournament and Counter Strike cut their own paths, Halo brought it to consoles and Call of Duty brought it to the masses on an unprecedented scale. Multiplayer FPS games attract exactly the sort of person I like to put as much distance between them and myself as possible. It is a generalisation, yes, but one cannot think of an average CoD or Halo player without thinking of a racist immature cheater in his basement playing round the clock and using the word fuck like the right to do so is about to be snatched from his chubby sugar coated fingers.
But through the darkness, there were two beacons that called me in to the safety of their shores, two shooters that whispered promises of teamwork, organisation and playing with a modicum of intelligence. The first of those would be the Battlefield series, which always struck me as a more complex and involved experience than your average military shooter. As of yet I have not followed through on my interest in Battlefield; I have had a rented copy of Bad Company 2 for Xbox 360 in my house for over a month and haven't touched it.
And then there's Team Fortress 2.
My connection to one of the most PC-synonymous and seminal online shooters is layered. For starters, I've owned Team Fortress 2 for like three years. I bought the Orange Box for PC ages ago, and had a ton of fun replaying Half-Life 2 and then playing through the episodes, not to mention the simply brilliant Portal. However, I knew what TF2 was conceptually,a nd I knew it wasn't for me. Or at least, I suspected. Second, as you might have gathered, me and Valve have a good history. For many years Half-Life 2 was rated as my second favourite game of all-time, just behind The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and held the #2 spot until it was pipped by Dragon Age: Origins last year. I have a huge respect and love for Valve, I love the games they make and their approach (well, except their complete disregard for the concept of deadlines...), and of course, I love Steam. Thirdly, in a world full of generic bland grey FPS games with strive for "realism" and "grit", Team Fortress 2 struck me as a game that actually had a personality. The class characters are just that - characters, and endearing characters at that - and the colourful art style really stuck with me.
So as I pointed my ship into new uncharted waters of PC ownership, I had the thought in the back of my head to give TF2 a fair chance and see if I could actually get invested in that game enough to play it competitively. I had it there on my Steam list, and like a beautiful siren it called to me. The exact thought that crossed my mind is "what do I have to lose?". And so I made the jump.
And it might be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Of course being someone who never plays online shooters I can sit here with the utmost authority and rattle off all the reasons why TF2 is so sublime, but really what it comes down to is whether or not it's fun. And as it turns out, is is. It really is. My initial hesitation was based not only on my track record with online shooters, but also from the talk I heard from people like our beloved Jeff Gertsmann, about how the player base was so brutally dedicated and intensely skilled in their respective classes that it was very difficult for a new player to penetrate the ether. Turns out that's a bunch of bullshit. I was amazed at how easy it was for me to get a basic grasp of strategy, teamwork and good ol' fashioned shooting, and even early on I could feel myself being pulled in.
However, my induction to Team Fortress 2 came about in a slightly unusual way.
TF2 has very limited functionality for a pure single player experience with bots. Of course you have all the classes present but the choice of maps is limited to just four - the seminal Dustbowl attack/defend map and three king of the hill maps, namely Nucleus, Viaduct and Sawmill. And naturally when it came to designing the game, the developers weren't particuarly fussed about making intelligent AI, so there were plenty of cases of teammates getting stuck or lost or stupid shit like that - most irritating of all being their incessant desire to fling themselves into the giant rotating blades on the Sawmill map, their computerised brains completely oblivious to the notion that this might be a bad idea - but it was still functional. To boil down the so-called Offline Practice portion of the game, it is just that - a functional way to play a simulation of the TF2 experience.
While the Offline Practice might be limited, it way a brilliant way for me to learn the classes. I started off as I'm sure many others do - I picked the Heavy and tried to just rip shit up. But the more I played the more I realised that I had the most success and in a weird way most enjoyed the more passive classes, specifically the Medic and the Engineer. The latter became almost my default class, the instantaneous option. It a somewhat baffling notion, that you can play a first person shooter and not do any actual shooting, but that made it perfect for me. Whenever I experimented with classes such as Scout, Sniper or Soldier, classes that actually require some precision and finesse to the aiming, I struggled big time. I'm not twitch enough to play those classes. But there in lies what makes TF2 so successful; there's something for everybody.
Not only that, but it truly is a game based on teamwork. I quickly learned that, since my actual human brain made me a massive asset to my team, how sharp I was in keeping up with whose health was running low and where the Heavy was while playing Medic had a profound effect on whether we won or loss, as did the positioning of my sentry and teleporters while playing Engineer. I felt like I was actually a part of something greater, and it's an oddly satisfying feeling, especially considering the mindless computer algorithms that where my brothers in arms.
From there I continued to explore the game's mindblowing depth. There was plenty of stuff that I didn't figure out straightaway, mainly secondary skills and not so obvious abilities, such as using the compression blast to remove fire effect from teammates while playing as a Pyro. The game does have plenty of hints to try and help you out, but really it's only in the testing where it really strikes home whether something is useful or not, and whether it's worth prioritising something when the shit hits the fan. Anyway, realising that certain classes weren't for me, I made a concerted effort to invest in actual combat classes rather than just the passive ones, and I found I had the most success as the Demoman - where I mostly focused on taking out enemy sentries - and continuing with the Heavy. I had a lot of fun playing as both, and while the Heavy might not be my favourite class, the loveable oaf might be my favourite character.
In counting up the hours I probably invested maybe 20 hours in offline practice, often while enjoying my music or my podcasts. It might sound like madness, but when I began this endeavour it was as a curiosity with the expectation that the game would chew me up and spit me out. However, I now feel like I could actually be a competent team contributor while playing with and against actual human beings. While I might not be too familiar with the practical uses of rocket jumping, and dealing with spies is a massive headache that Offline Practice does not prepare the player for, I feel like I know enough to not only play but to have fun. I like the concept of an actual team experience which, as the name implies, is so fundamental to the experience.
I have already played a handful of online matches, but since this post is long enough I'll talk more about my continuing adventures with Team Fortress 2 in my next blog entry. So to summarise, Team Fortress 2 is in my mind the ultimate benchmark for online shooters, a one-of-a-kind blend of incredibly fun and engaging gameplay, charming personality and compelling depth and strategy.