When Valve and EA ship Half-Life 2: The Orange Box later this year, the two companies will provide three distinctly different games. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions will pack Half-Life 2, Episode One, and Episode Two. Then there's Portal, the very cool 3D puzzle game. And finally, there's Team Fortress 2, the long, long, long-awaited multiplayer action game that Valve once showed off as far back as 1999. The big news last year was that Team Fortress 2 was back and in a colorful style that could be described as Pixarlike. While most games veer toward gritty photorealism, Team Fortress 2 looks more like The Incredibles.
We got the chance to play the Xbox 360 version, and it was no surprise that the gameplay was pretty much identical to the PC version, which we got to play earlier this year. This is a team-based multiplayer game where you select to play as one of 10 distinct classes, each of which has a special role on the battlefield. The scout is lightning fast and armed with a shotgun, but if he's so much as sneezed on, he goes down. The soldier is tougher, carries a rocket launcher as a primary weapon, and a good beginning class. The heavy is the toughest and hardest hitting class on the battlefield but also the slowest. The pyro is deadly up close with his flamethrower but at a disadvantage at a distance. The sniper can hit from across the map, but you need to have some skill to use this class effectively. The demoman tosses grenades around. The medic can heal units and even make an ally temporarily invulnerable. The engineer can build weapons, health dispensers, and teleports around the level. Then there's the spy, who can disguise himself as a member of the other team and sneak up to deliver an instant kill from behind.
When all these classes are put into play, this can make for a crazy multiplayer game. The action is so over-the-top because explosions send guys hurling in the air or splattering them into a dozen pieces. The mode we played was a capture mode, where the goal is to control five points on the map. But the thing is that the points are arrayed in a linear manner, so to capture one point, you have to capture the point preceding it. If you're defending your last point, you can't rush behind the enemy and seize a point on the far side of the map because it's locked. This focuses the action on only a handful of points.
That would be plenty enough for most games, but Team Fortress 2 goes even further and has trains running through this level. Yeah, Halo and Gears of War have levels like that too, but in Team Fortress 2, it feels more like a cartoon sequence when someone gets run over. One nice twist that we discovered is that if time runs out and neither side has won the match, it goes into sudden death, which means there is no more respawning if you die. That's a fun way to come back and win because our team was getting kicked all over the place, but we managed to hold on to our last control point. That meant we went into sudden death, where the game got intensely conservative. You can't run into the open, die, and respawn anymore, so it's all about stalking your opponent. To prevent the match from turning into a camping festival where everyone is just waiting in ambush for the other team to make a move, there is a timer counting down, so you have to act. We managed to kill the other team, so even though we didn't control a majority of the capture points, we still won.
The action translated well to the Xbox 360 gamepad, and the visuals also look fairly good. The console versions still don't look as sharp as the PC version, thanks to the PC's superior antialiasing and displays, but the computer-animation look of the game works well on a television. This isn't a game that's stuffed with huge amounts of detail. It's got a clean look to it, which works to the game's credit. Watching this game in action is a treat. Even dying can be fun because of the fact that the game gives you all sorts of factoids on your performance. For instance, it'll tell you if you scored more kills as a certain class than before or if you managed to get more assists than before. It's all fun trivia, and you can use it to improve your performance.
Orange Box looks awesome, and it'll ship later this year. It's more proof that this is going to be one impressive year for gamers.