I picked up the Orange Box with the money I got for my sixteenth birthday in January 2008. By then I’d been playing games for a long time. I’d been chewed out by my parents more times than I can remember for spending too much time “playing Nintendo” and I’d been in online clans for Halo: Combat Evolved and CounterStrike: Source, but no game has ever grabbed me in the way Team Fortress 2 did.
Just to put it into perspective, in my Steam library Team Fortress 2 has more than twice the total play time of my second most played game and before this week I hadn’t played it in two years.
Team Fortress 2 just has a special place in my heart, I would play it every single night when I got in from school and I often I would play while I was on the phone to my girlfriend at the time who is now my wife. It’s also the first game I was actually good at. All the while I was in those two clans I was alright, eventually becoming above average, but Team Fortress 2 is the first game I ever played where I personally could turn a match. On top of all this Team Fortress 2 is the game that my first ever published piece of writing was about. All in all this game is something special to me.
I still remember the first time I played Team Fortress 2. I ended up in a map I’ve never found again – I’ve looked many times – and feeling a little overwhelmed by the nine mercenaries I had to to choose from, I picked Engineer. I figured that it’d be for the best to have something that can shoot for me and just watch for a bit until I can dive in as another role.
I’d built my sentry gun in a defensive position – I didn’t want to overextend myself – and I watched all the other classes pile past me to get to the fighting. I was happy to set up my little sentry nest and wait. Eventually we started getting pushed back, my sentry gun was wildly whirling around and shooting at the team forcing us closer to our spawn, I’d emptied my shotgun into as many of those bastards as I could before switching out to my pistol and doing the same. We were starting to turn the tide, mainly thanks to one Medic-Heavy pair in particular. With both my guns empty I was focussing on fixing my sentry gun back up when the Heavy finally got taken down, the Medic switched to me and hit me with an ÜberCharge before saying over voice chat “Get ’em Sharkbait”. I was completely out of ammo, but as the edges of my screen pulsated and my wrench glowed a metallic blue I charged at the first guy I saw swinging my wrench wildly for eight seconds. I didn’t manage to kill anyone and as soon as the Über finished I was shredded in a hail of bullets.
I remember when I died I was thinking that this game is incredible. I’d never played anything like it. My main experience of online multiplayer was a Halo: Combat Evolved and the idea of choosing from different classes and not just grabbing whatever gun I wanted was unbelievable to me.
After a few weeks of playing I started to pick up the strategic nature of class selection, picking a Spy to counter a Sentry nest or taking Pyro to burn them sneaking Spy bastards. A key part of the strategic aspect of Team Fortress 2 was that you always knew exactly what every enemy running at you had at their disposal. Each class was crafted to have a unique look, their silhouettes alone show you who is running at you, gun loaded. Even when Valve added a secondary weapon set for each class you knew what they could hit you with.
Then more updates came. They did bring some great things, I always enjoyed the Payload game type as it brought a whole new challenge of attacking and defending a moving control point and with that different strengths and weaknesses in each class could be found. Five years after launch Valve were still putting huge time into Team Fortress 2, in 2012 The Mann vs Machine co-op mode was added and it created a whole new experience in the game I loved but was already drifting in and out of.
See I was pulling away as with every update that brought a new game mode or a cracking new map it felt that there were ten updates throwing hats. With every hat that was added it became that little bit harder to see which class was about to shoot you. Then other accessories came, making it even harder to distinguish what weapon was under the gratuitous flair. Then it started to matter less what class was aiming at you as more and more weapons with different passives were added.
Fast forward to now. I’ve just finished a two week holiday and during that time off I was scrolling through my Steam library trying to find something to play when I landed on Team Fortress 2. I booted it up for the first time in two years. After an hour I came to a conclusion – my favourite game isn’t for me anymore.
I tried to play 2Fort, a map I played for hours on end specialising as a Spy with a habit of killing off Snipers. I’d gone from server-clearing to barely helping. I figured it’d been a while, maybe such a specialised class was a bit out of reach until I’d warmed up, so I gave 2Fort another go as Pyro. After torching a few scouts as they came for my intel I was starting to feel better about myself, then I got steamrolled time and time again by a series of guns I didn’t recognise with effects I’d never heard of.
I picked myself up and dove into one of my favourite multiplayer maps of all time. I’ve spent hundreds of hours defending Dustbowl as the Red team. I picked up my trusty Sniper rifle and headed out to my favourite dark corners to start putting holes in the Blue team. I got a few kills, but Blue took the first point quicker than they should have and started to force us back so I swapped out to play as a Demoman. I gave it another twenty minutes, but being burned to a crisp, riddled with bullets and blown up got tiring after a while. That’s when I realised Team Fortress 2 isn’t for me anymore.
I used to be able to tell exactly how a player was a threat to me as they got closer, whether I needed to just get out of their way, weave about and take shots at them or just rush them. Now not only does it feel like I was struggling to figure out even what class someone was, it feels like the so clearly defined class roles have been blurred with some of the loadout items.
At first I was a little disappointed. This is a game that I have very fond memories of. I’ve put hundreds of hours into it learning just how to act as a Spy to get into the right position to backstab half the enemy team. Dozens of hours learning every nook and cranny of Dustbowl and I realised I’ll never drop into a game and turn a match for the losing team again. I don’t resent it, I’ve had my time with Team Fortress 2 and I’m letting go. I’m not frustrated I can’t play it like I used to, I’m not angry Valve have moulded Team Fortress 2 into something different, I’m thankful I got to spend the time with it I did.