If you listen to the developer commentary in Team Fortress 2, the multiplayer action game that's part of the upcoming Half-Life 2: The Orange Box package, there's an introduction from Gabe Newell, the CEO and founder of developer Valve Software, that pokes a bit of fun at the game's incredibly long gestation period. "Welcome to Team Fortress 2. After nine years in development, hopefully it will have been worth the wait," Newell says. Judging from some time with the game, it certainly feels like Valve has put years of work into designing and balancing this class-based action game.
Of course, Valve didn't spend all nine years working on the game, though TF2 has come a long way since the media got an initial glimpse of it way back in 1999. First, here is some Team Fortress history. The original Team Fortress was a user-made mod, or modification, for QuakeWorld and was one of the very first team-based multiplayer games that introduced the idea of having distinctly different character classes in the mix. Instead of having everyone run around with the same guns and abilities, Team Fortress made you select what role you wanted to play on the battlefield. For instance, you could be a sniper, or a medic, or a demolitions guy, and so on. Valve later hired the creators of Team Fortress and got them to work on Team Fortress 2, which was originally going to feature modern combat. Then the game got moved to the back burner to disappear until it was resurrected and revealed last year. Gone is the modern combat setting and in its place is a very animated, Pixar-inspired look.
At the heart of Team Fortress 2 is the idea of team-based battles with nine distinctly different and colorful classes causing all sorts of mayhem. The soldier is the most "conventional" class because he's armed with a rocket launcher, shotgun, and spade (which is used as a melee weapon). The heavy is the "tank" of the game. He's slow, can absorb a lot of punishment, and armed with a bullet-spewing chain gun that can mow players down. The demoman is the explosives character, capable of launching grenades or placing them all over the ground as traps. The pyro is equipped with a flamethrower, making him utterly deadly in close quarters. The sniper can kill you from across the map. The scout can zip around with great speed. The spy can turn invisible or disguise himself as a member of either team. The engineer can build sentry guns, health and ammo dispensers, or teleporters around the map. The medic can heal teammates, as well as temporarily make them invulnerable.
It's the dynamic of all these characters working in tandem (or sometimes just running around) that makes the game a wild experience. That's partly due to the game's unique art style. Most games veer toward photorealism, but TF2 is decidedly artificial. It works because many tactics, such as "rocket jumping" (aim the rocket launcher at the ground, jump, and then fire, using the force of the explosion to hurl you skyward), seem silly in a "realistic" game but fit right into the cartoon visuals here. Each match starts with the characters all laughing and yelling, but it won't take long before you pick out the different personalities in the game.
Team Fortress 2 will ship with six maps, but it's interesting that unlike in other games, different game modes cannot be played on each map. Instead, each TF2 map is associated with a specific game mode. For instance, the map 2 Fort is the only capture-the-flag map, where each team has "intelligence" located in their bases. The goal is to recover the other team's intelligence and return it to your base while protecting your own. Meanwhile, the Dustbowl and Gravel Pit maps are attack/defend control point maps, where one team has to protect control points while the other tries to seize them. Granary and Well are control point maps, where there are five control points that must be captured. The kicker is that you've got to capture them in order of the chain they are in: You can't sneak behind the enemies and capture their rearmost point if the one closest to it remains in enemy possession. And then there's hydro, which is a territorial control map. Hydro basically closes off portions of the map that aren't in play.
The Xbox 360 version of Team Fortress 2 is almost identical to the PC version in terms of content. The biggest difference is that while the PC game will support up to 32 players on a server, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games will only go up to 16. Our testing session at EA only had eight players at the most, so it'll be interesting to see what 16 players can do on these levels. Still, Team Fortress 2 is easily one of the coolest multiplayer games that we've played in a long time. The Orange Box ships next month.