The original Team Fortress emerged in 1996 as a mod for the game Quake, and was a cult favourite in fledgeling online gaming circles. A couple of years later, a version of the game known as Team Fortress Classic was created using the original Half-Life game engine. To this day, huge amounts of players continue to obsessively play this game on Valve's Steam servers. For over a decade, speculation mounted regarding a sequel to the original game, and finally in 2007 Team Fortress 2 was released as part of Valve's Orange Box on the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. Following such a long gestation period expectations were high, and understandably so. Fortunately TF2 retains the addictive gameplay of the original, with a few bells and whistles thrown in for good measure. The big difference is the cel-shaded cartoonish graphics style, and a slightly more forgiving difficulty level. But make no mistake about it - this is a great game, and most certainly deserving of the Team Fortress title.
Team Fortress 2 plays much like any other multiplayer first-person shooter - the objective is to get out there and kill other people before they kill you. You can choose from nine classes of character, each with their own unique abilities and talents necessary to take out the enemy team. Each map has a different objective, with your team aiming to capture control points or collect enemy intelligence before the other team has a chance to do so themselves. Success often depends on the ability to contribute effectively as a part of the team, hence the name of the game, as a well co-ordinated strike can very quickly turn the tables on your enemy.
The nine separate classes are pyro, engineer, spy, heavy, sniper, scout, soldier, demoman and medic. Each class has its strengths and weaknesses, and they compliment each other pretty well. Pyros, soldiers, demomen and heavies are effective front-line troops, due to their ability to deal out a lot of damage. But for these classes to be truly successful in battle, medics are necessary to provide on-the-fly health top-ups, snipers are required for covering fire - and scouts and spies are needed for reconnaissance and sabotage respectively. Engineers can build a series of devices, including teleporters, health/ammo dispensers and automated sentry guns, and medics can also perform an "uber-charge" on a friendly player - which offers a limited period of invulnerability from enemy fire. "Ubers", when used effectively can provide an invaluable strategic advantage..
Although the classes have obvious tactical uses, there is a certain amount of flexibility involved. Each class can have multiple applications in the context of your team, and it is up to you to decide which way to play. This adds to the unpredictability and generally chaotic feel to the game, as no one online opponent will ever react the same way twice. For this reason Team Fortress 2 has a lot of replay value - the sheer number of players on Valve's Steam servers offers a mind-bogglingly large amount of potential match-ups. Thanks to the Steam client, you can also engage in voice-chat with your team-mates, or use the Steam instant messenger service in-game for text messages. This level of interactivity allows you to develop more of a sense of camaraderie with your fellow players, as well as allowing you to organise and co-ordinate your efforts much more easily.
The maps are cleverly designed, and each one offers a distinctively different gameplay experience. 2Fort is great for getting in some sniper practice, whilst Dustbowl is perfect for engineers and their sentry guns. And in the recent update, a new map called Goldrush was made available. In this scenario, your objective is to get the train to the enemy team's side of the map - a job well-suited to heavies paired up with medics.
The controls are smooth and comfortable, and if you have played the excellent Half-Life 2 you'll know what to expect. TF2 utilises a modified version of the Source engine, and aside from a few minor changes, the game controls almost identically. You can use either a mouse and keyboard or a gamepad to play. I personally found the former configuration to be better due to the faster turning circle a mouse provides, but gamers with exceptional analogue stick skills might prefer the latter. Like all games utilising this engine, it is possible to manually map out your controls to your own unique preference - a useful feature indeed.
The appearance of the game was perhaps the biggest surprise when it was released. The original TF featured realistic and gritty graphics, which were very impressive for their time. Whilst early screenshots of TF2 during development showcased a more modern version of this style, Valve in the end opted for a more "cartoonish" kind of artwork, using cel-shaded graphics and colourful level designs. This was an interesting move, and it gives the different character classes a lot more personality. It also succeeds in keeping the game light in tone, and the ludicrous level of violence simply wouldn't be this hilarious in a more realistic setting. TF2 also sounds, as well as looks, great. From the entertaining catchphrases uttered by the characters to the over-the-top 1960's spy-movie kitsch soundtrack greeting you as you boot up the game, it oozes sheer class.
As far as replay value is concerned, where should I start? First up, you'll be playing against hundreds of different players worldwide, on dozens of servers, which should shake things up quite a bit. It will also take you a while to get a feel for the different maps and classes, which should keep you busy for some time. But in addition to all of this, there are also custom maps designed by tech-savvy players - which means yet more variety, and more late nights spent playing TF2. There is also the matter of achievements, which you earn for performing different tasks in-game. Although generally of little value in 'real' terms, they do keep you coming back to the game for more action.
Valve also recently released their latest update for the game, which includes a new map - 'Gold Rush' - and a whole list of new medic-specific achievements to earn. And significantly, unlike the original set of achievements, by earning enough of these new ones, you can attain new weaponry for the medic. What's more, Valve look set to continue releasing these new achievement/map packs for each of the classes, which means there will be a huge amount of new content coming out for the game in the near future. This looks set to keep the already vibrant online community happy for a long time to come.
I'm going to finish up by reiterating that Team Fortress 2 is an incredible experience. The game strikes the perfect balance in not being too intimidating to newcomers, but rewarding handsomely those who choose to sink hours and hours into the game. And once you get going, believe me, you will keep at it. So if you have a decent PC and a broadband connection (as well as plenty of free time!), there are no excuses. You need to play this game! My only advice would be to buy it as part of Valve's excellent Orange Box collection - that way you'll have the mind-bending Portal and the excellent Half-Life 2 series to keep you occupied if your internet connection inexplicably happens to fail.