There’s only one class left for Valve to update in Team Fortress 2, the Engineer. One by one, Valve have given each of the other eight characters a set of alternative weapons, and with each release there’s been a batch of new maps, game modes and features to play with. The amount of free stuff we’ve had since I wrote up the first details of the unlocks system at the start of 2008 is obscene.
When the inventory system went down briefly before the latest update, we were temporarily stuck with TF2 much as it was in 2007. The feeling was, “Where did the game go?” Compare that to something like Halo 3, released around the same time, which has functionally barely changed and charged a total of £20 ($30) for its new maps.
One thing that hasn’t changed since that article (funny to read in light of how much has) is the spirit of the updates, framed there: “The unlockables aren’t just beefed up versions of the weapons, they balance major advantages and disadvantages to fundamentally alter the role of that class.” While Steam forumites have turned that ethos into an imperative law to be screechingly enforced by the limp fist of internet tantrums, the gist is basically universal: the unlocks are supposed to change the way the class plays in a meaningful way. How successful have they been?
Medic (April 08): decent – the Kritzkrieg is a nice idea but badly needed the large charge-rate boost it later got. The Ubersaw set the standard for awesome new melee weapon ideas with negligible drawbacks that would continue to enrage weird forumites for twenty more months without ever actually making the game less fun.
Pyro (June 08): great – the Backburner turns the Pyro into the ambush class he was always meant to be, but they also added the airblast ability to the standard flamethrower to make the trade-off more interesting. To this day there are two distinct breeds of Pyro playing properly different roles. Also, the Axtinguisher is the second best idea Valve ever stole from me (and somehow implimented in 19 days).
Heavy (August 08): weak – the Heavy was one of the least played classes at the time, today he’s dead last. It’s not because he’s underpowered; he’s the second highest scoring class and the most deadly by a head. It’s just a very rocky experience getting those kills, because everyone seems to have an easy way of doing something horrible to you, and you don’t seem to have a way of avoiding any of it. He needed unlocks that would give him some flexibility, some get-outs or workarounds. Instead he got a gun that’s good against Scouts (rarely a problem in my experience), the admittedly neat Sandvich and some fun but impractical gloves. Needs a revisit.
Scout (Feb 09): mixed – the Force-A-Nature and Sandman get changed, patched and bitched about so much that I have to assume they haven’t been totally successful yet, but I can’t get a handle on them myself. People can do things with the Force that I don’t even understand – suck me towards them or one-shot me – and yet it’s utterly useless in my hands. Bonk tackles the main problem with the class, survivability against Sentries, but it’s still not useful enough that I ever want to play the class once turrets crop up.
Sniper (May 09): superb – the Huntsman transformed him from a stay-at-home trouncing twat to a roaming predator, powerful but vulnerable. Its viability at medium and near range leads to so many breathsnatching life-or-death snap shot moments against guys who’d kill him in a second if they didn’t have an arrow in their face. Jarate lets him help friends take care of threats he’s not suited to, or just insult his killer before an inevitable death. I don’t really see the point of the Razorback in a world where Spies can headshot, but whatever.
Spy (May 09): superb – the Dead Ringer creates an Action Spy subclass the likes of which we’ve never seen, and the Cloak and Dagger lets him be the methodical, oppourtunistic infiltrator his abilities always hinted at. Some clever thought about which kind of cloaks should recharge from ammo makes the choice a tough one, and better still, situational. Now that people have cottoned onto it the Dead Ringer noise is a little too loud – it might be fun if he masked it by calling out a random line of the class he’s dressed as: suspicious, but not conclusive. The Ambassador is effective but, if you ask me, too much of an overlap with the Sniper and pretty horrible-sounding.
Soldier (Dec 09): great – the Direct Hit finally makes rocket combat feel like a mindgame rather than a spamgame, and the Equaliser is way better than my idea: it’s the speed increase at low health that really makes it. It’s the one weapon I love to hear people complain about, because having been that Soldier who one-shotted them, I know how terrifyingly close to death he was. Bugle: indifferent.
Demoman (Dec 09): good – the sword and shield don’t make a new subclass of Demoman, they make the tenth class. His massive resilience to explosions demands proper restrategising, and I love the way the Heads mechanic makes him one of the few classes with something to lose. The more lives you take, the faster and tougher you are, so the more you want to preserve your advantage and therefore life. Charging is hilarious. I do think the sound and feel of melee combat in TF2 isn’t quite up to doing a big sword justice, though: it feels wrong for its blows to be met with a quiet crunch, for its swings to connect in much the same way as a bottle’s, and to be able to whack a Pyro three times without killing him. I also think it’s a crime not to have provided a Grenade Launcher alternative: is sucks for all the reasons regular grenades suck.
It’s an excellent track record. The mis-steps haven’t made those classes worse, just failed to improve them – a failure that’s default in other games. The way these unlocks are earned has also changed, but strangely. For the sake of the scrollbar, I’ll save what’s wrong with that and how to fix it for another post.