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Second Opinion: The Life And Death Of TF2

“Doctor” I Coleman tries to determine the cause of death for this seemingly healthy multiplayer shooter.

This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of.  This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of.  Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not.  Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad.  Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about.  Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.

Tonight, we mourn the passing of a game that sits at the top of my most-played games on Steam – something I’m sure many of our readers can relate to. It’s a game that introduced many of us to competitive first-person shooters and to the joys and sorrows of large-scale multiplayer games in general. Let us take this opportunity not to mock the dead, nor to glorify it, but rather – in the words of the immortal Bard – to “take him for all in all,” for “he was a man,” and “I shall not look upon his like again.” And so, as requested by YouTube user Johannes Gutenberg, let us give Team Fortress 2 both a requiem and a Second Opinion.

So, folks, this week we’re doing something a little different. I’m sure somebody’s already left my “favorite” comment – This isn’t REALLY a second opinion – but believe it or not, there’s precedent for this. When someone asked me to cover Undertale, I pointed out that there wasn’t really one clear narrative to challenge, but two – one saying that Undertale was the best game ever made and another saying that Undertale was overrated garbage. The result was a video called “Undertale’s Long Year,” where we covered an extremely emotionally-charged game in the most objective possible light, hoping to break down both narratives and do some proper critical analysis.

Now that somebody’s asked me to cover Team Fortress 2, we’re gonna do the same thing. Let’s get one thing out of the way first – the game is dead. I know that there are still a handful of people playing it, but most of the extant playerbase has fled to Team Fortress 3 – I mean, Overwatch – and Valve has pretty well guaranteed that no new players will be coming to the game ever again. We’re unlikely to ever see a proper content update with new weapons and Valve-designed maps, and even if we do it will be far too little, far too late. And once the Team Fortress Comics are complete in, I dunno, probably two or three years given how fast that team works, Jay Pinkerton and Erik Wolpaw will probably follow the rest of Valve’s writers and leave the company, leaving Steam hype man Robin Walker as the last man standing from the original core team that made the game great.

We’ll talk more about how and why the world’s number one war-themed hat simulator kicked the bucket later, but the point is that in the wake of its passing every Tom, Dick, and Griffin in the gaming community has had to give a hot take. A lot of people now view the game with scorn, saying that Team Fortress 3 – I mean, Overwatch – is everything the game should have been years ago. Some claim that the game was “ruined” as far back as the Mann Co store update. Others contend that Team Fortress 2 is a perfect jewel of a game and that we’ll never see its like again. And some people are still claiming that the game’s not dead, which is an adorable exercise in utter delusion. So let’s turn back the clock on a decade of TF2 and try to find the truth – or, rather, my personal interpretation of the truth.

So. In 2007, Valve released The Orange Box, a compilation of games that included re-releases of Half-Life 2 with a new second episode that conveniently ended right before any actual plot resolution happened, a weird experimental demo-thing called Portal that ended up being everyone’s favorite part of the package, and Team Fortress 2, the sequel to the fairly popular 1996 Quake mod. The game had first been revealed at E3 of 1999 and most people had written it off as Duke Nukem Forever-style vaporware. Fortunately, the game ended up exceeding all expectations – it was a cartoony shooter oozing with personality and great, wildly varied gameplay of a kind we’d never really seen before – or at least, hadn’t seen done nearly as well.

While TF2 made some important contributions to the medium – for example, the level of detailed statistics they provided for each player – its real trick, and the thing that gave it a solid eight-to-nine years of longevity, is that it was a competitive shooter that was focused entirely on being fun. Keep in mind that this was still at the time when first-person shooters, whether designed for singleplayer or multiplayer, were overwhelmingly brown and gray military shooters, each promising increasing levels of realism as they sucked away increasing levels of fun. Initially, Valve had envisioned the same thing for Team Fortress 2, but the end result was more like a giant middle finger to 2000s FPS design. Oh, your game is the most realistic war simulator ever? Well, ours takes place in an alternate version of the 1950s where a magic metal called Australium holds the key to eternal life. Oh, you spent a ton of money rendering real-world Iraq in dull grays and browns? Well, we spent our time making our game look like a Norman Rockwell painting. Your game is about hiding behind cover? Ours is about using rocket launchers to fly through the air like a bald eagle suicide bomber.

But it wasn’t just goofy fun – it was actually smart. Sure, anyone could pick up the Heavy with no prior experience and at least somewhat contribute to the team, but a high skill ceiling rewarded playing enough to learn trick shots and difficult characters like the Spy or the Sniper. Classes, too, were ingeniously designed in a way a lot of other games have tried to copy but have rarely if ever pulled off. See, somehow TF2 managed to strike the perfect balance of giving every class a specific purpose and a unique role to play in the team while also having each one be powerful enough that you could have fun and be somewhat self-reliant even if the rest of your team sucked (shoutout to every group of people I’ve ever played with who thought that having more than two Spies on a team was okay.) The result was a game that made you part of a team but also made you feel like you were really contributing to that team, not just acting as one of 16 nameless faceless meatheads running towards an objective.

And yet, even at this early stage, Team Fortress 2 was showing some cracks in the armor. Why, critics asked, were there no bots in multiplayer, something that was already standard in 2007? Why did each class only get one weapon for each loadout slot, and why was there no progression system to encourage continued play on the small handful of available maps (one of which was the notoriously awful 2fort?) The answer, Valve assured us, was that everything we wanted was coming – in updates.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Obviously, content updates aren’t a bad thing – especially when they’re free, as all of TF2’s have been. Without them, this type of game has no longevity, and becomes the sort of disposable once-a-year release typical of franchises like Battlefield, Battlefront, and Call of Duty. Obviously, I have a lot more respect for a company that chooses to support a single game over nine years than one that exists only to remain just interesting enough to get you to buy the next one. At this point, our smart readers can probably smell a “but” coming, and what an ugly, smelly, hairy “but” it is.

Updates are good, BUT Valve has constantly used updates to put off doing important work on the game. Any complaint can be waved away with “there’s an update coming.” Even now, when people ask for new weapons or new maps or any kind of support that actually suggests that Valve gives a darn about the game, we’re told that it’s all coming in some nebulous future update.

And another thing: I’ve really grown to love the story of TF2. It’s not surprising – after all, the comics have been led by Erik Wolpaw, the greatest man to ever write for videogames or about them. But how much credit can you really give the game for that? Team Fortress 2 started one of my current least-favorite trends in gaming today, which is the idea that multiplayer games should have no story content whatsoever and relegate all of it to side media. Worse – the idea that it’s okay to just completely make up a story as you go along. That worked for TF2, because it had a smart team of writers behind it who worked to keep everything consistent and entertaining, but put the brain-geniuses at Blizzard or Gearbox behind that type of franchise and you quickly end up with more lore inconsistencies than you can shake a Scottish Handshake at.

Good videogame stories are those that actually take place in the world of the game – that’s something that Valve used to do really well. And while we all talk about how much personality Team Fortress 2’s characters have in-game, maybe it’s time to look at how true that really is. I mean, in the comics and in the short films, the Spy is a suave, ruthless killer who the rest of the team fears and respects but who’s secretly harboring a lot of self-doubt about his abilities and about abandoning his son. In the game, he’s an over-the-top stereotype with a bad French accent. In the media, Sniper is a dedicated professional with an increasingly complicated relationship with his parents. In the game, he’s an over-the-top stereotype with a passable Australian accent. Sure, a lot of the in-game lines are funny (the first time you hear them), and I’m not expecting them to interrupt a fast-paced multiplayer game with some kind of lengthy character monologues, but wouldn’t it be nice if it felt like any of the lore made it into the game? Sure, they put more effort into making each class feel like a character than any other game at the time, but simply doing “more” doesn’t automatically mean you’re doing a good job.

Now, there was, in my mind, one major exception to this: the Mann VS Machine update. Longtime fans will remember what an exciting time that was – the weeks of buildup to the big reveal. I mean, I printed out some of those anti-robot propaganda posters and hung them in my locker. After five years, Valve was finally advancing the story, introducing not only new characters but a whole new world with a whole new objective: setting aside the mercenaries’ petty differences to protect Mann Co. and their way of life from an endless horde of deadly robots. Not only did it bring an awesome new game mode unlike anything any other game had ever tried before (or has really done since), but it really felt like we as players were banding together to face this new threat. It took the major theme of Team Fortress 2’s story – which is that the silly, the stupid, and the seemingly worthless can prove themselves stronger than any quote-unquote “superior” forces – and brought it into gameplay by having a small team of ragtag players band together to destroy the robots that were seemingly superior in every way, armed only with determination and bottles of their own urine. Mann VS Machine was exactly the kind of combination of emergent storytelling and gameplay that Team Fortress 2’s bizarre setup was supposed to encourage.

And then it got two tiny updates and died. Valve’s company line has been that they stopped supporting it because no one was playing it, but A) that’s demonstrably untrue and B) the reason the playerbase dropped so dramatically is that there was no support for it. I mean, you could pay for more and better maps, but nobody understood how that shit worked. See, buying a Ticket lets you play a Tour of Duty (which is a group of several Missions) in Mann Up Mode, which allowed you to earn Loot. Now, Loot and Tickets are both distinct from Vouchers, which were purchased separately, also with real money (although Loot isn’t purchased with real money – it’s purchased with Tickets) and they – Vouchers, that is – reward your co-op partners with extra Loot at the end of a Mission, even if your Ticket has been consumed, although you need a Ticket to buy a Voucher because you can only use Vouchers in Mann Up Mode Missions and you need Tickets to play a Tour of Duty. Does that all make sense? And if so, can you please explain it to me?

See, here we get to the real meat of the matter. Last week, we discussed how a lot of the things Valve does don’t make sense to people because people assume that they actually care about their customers. The truth is, they don’t. Team Fortress 2 may have once been a passion project, but for most of its lifespan its purpose was simple: it was a machine for extracting money from its players. People loved the Mann VS Machine update, but people didn’t want to buy the stupid Ticket-Voucher-Tour Of Duty-Who Cares items, so Valve saw no reason to continue supporting it. It’s the same reason they gave the game a $10 price tag just long enough that they could be sure they weren’t going to make any more sales and then made it free-to-play so that they could get more people in on the microtransactions. Never mind screwing over longtime fans of the game. Never mind that they basically reset the balance to square zero by introducing a bunch of new players into the stable community (although the only thing worse than the new players were the old players complaining about the new players.) Yeah, we all just kinda forgot that the “free-to-play” name and model were originally invented by Valve, which despite the many excellent free-to-play games is usually a shorthand for “terrible game that’s just trying to psychologically trick you into giving it money.”

Oh, and those microtransactions existed for a year before the free-to-play release, obviously. Sure, they introduced them with a funny blog post that made over-the-top jokes about their corporate greed in order to hide their actual corporate greed, and sure, the ever-truthful Robin Walker sagely explained that every item was available through drops or crafting but that didn’t make it actually good. For one thing, the longer the store’s gone on, the more things haven’t been available from drops. Unless you mean crate drops, which you have to buy real-money keys for. And for another, the existence of the store still creates an imbalance. Yes, when a new weapon got introduced everyone who wanted it would eventually get it, but those of us who didn’t buy from the store were going to spend the first post-release week or so getting slaughtered by those who did (until any balance issues were fixed later – in an update, naturally). The thing is, Valve wants that kind of imbalance – they want to create an environment where the have-nots are envious of the haves, because now they got to play off their store as being pro-player – a good solution for players with more money than time to get items – while still raking in the cash from otherwise non-buyers who got suckered into paying up.

There’s a lot of smart design decisions in Team Fortress 2, but what Valve got really smart at doing was making things inoffensive just long enough for us to accept them as normal, then taking away the good things about them. It’s why the Mann Co store had really nice sales events four times in 2011 and then never again. It’s why the weapons updates dried up, too – weapons have to be droppable, but nobody minds if you hide cosmetic items behind a paywall. And, in the end, it’s what they did to the game, too. Almost all of the updates for the past couple of years have just been Valve taking the top four community-made maps and making them “official,” along with new crates (which, remember, can only be opened with money) which are full of the most popular community-made items. Valve can’t even be bothered to make their own crap to sell us anymore, and the worst part is that by putting these items on the workshop the creators legally have no right to their work and no access to the profits from it. Valve is literally exploiting unpaid labor to keep this rotting ship afloat, watching as talented artists fight amongst themselves for the privilege of doing some Valve employee’s actual job for them.

However, they couldn’t let it rest without making one last incredibly terrible decision. It was nearly a year ago – July 7th, 2016. With the release of Overwatch and Battleborn, and having alienated most of their fanbase, Valve realized that it was going to have to do something it really didn’t want to do – produce content. People had been asking for a proper competitive mode – something that had become standard in the years since TF2’s initial release – for years, and Valve finally decided to give it to them. They got Bad Robot to make a new game mode, stole a couple more community cosmetics, put together a terrible 35-second short that was mostly logos, and released the Meet Your Match update – the only thing that might be able to save TF2 from its inevitable fate.

And it was a disaster of epic proportions. They tore out the old servers and the new servers were so buggy that even today they have miserable framerate issues – as you have probably seen in this video and/or the last. Quickjoin was gone and now you have to wait ages to get into a game – a problem that’s only gotten worse now that almost everyone has left. As for competitive matchmaking, it was borderline unplayable – if somebody left the match, you got penalized if you followed them, meaning that you either had to sit out an unwinnable 5v6 or get put in the low priority queue where you could wait actual hours to get into a game. This wasn’t helped by the fact that players were getting assigned to servers they couldn’t join. The worst of these issues were eventually fixed in multiple updates throughout the rest of the year, but the damage was already done. Valve’s “ship it now, make it actually work later” policy had finally caught up with them. Team Fortress 2 was officially dead.

She was a beauty in her time – a genuinely innovative shooter with a unique aesthetic and hyperkinetic gameplay that will never quite be matched, no matter how hard the Monday Night Combats of the world try. But at the same time, even from the beginning she was hampered by the terrible, money-grubbing decisions of the company that would eventually choke the life out of her. We’d like to remember TF2 as a passion project, one of the last skill-based competitive shooters that was truly made for the love of the game and a desire to make people happy rather than a corporate cash grab. But we can’t kid ourselves any longer.

And so, we honor the dead. And to the killer we say, simply, but passionately: Fuck you, Valve.

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct GamerSyndrome.com with years of experience writing for and about games.
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