When I first bought The Orange Box for my original PlayStation 3, it consumed me. One would believe in the actuality of videogame addiction if one understood how enamored I was (and rather still am) with this sequel.I was still in middle school, and gradually I fell in love with every title included on the disc. Half-Life 2 and its subsequent episodes were unlike any FPS I had ever played; Portal remains the single greatest game I’ve ever encountered.
But Team Fortress 2 remains something unique to me altogether. It is a multiplayer-focused experience with a litany of maps, though stifled support on the Sony platform — given Gabe Newell’s infamous thoughts regarding the system’s development (in)accessibility. My initial hours with the game were similar to those I spent with Half-Life 2: time went into adjusting to its incomparable gameplay design, especially given that most of my experience with the FPS genre came from hours upon hours of Modern Warfare 2’s frantic, run-and-gun multiplayer modes. I had a lot to learn, and so my first foray into TF2 featured much experimentation and redirected views on how to approach a given task — be it capturing a control point or simply taking out an opposing player.
But what really makes TF2 stand out from other contemporary shooters is its abundant, cynical cast of playable characters. I’d yet to ever encounter another game with equal host of unique gameplay styles, allowed across the nine individual classes available in this game, and I was quite overwhelmed during my first sessions. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘beginner’ class suitable for any player, which is part of what allows the game to remain so effectively balanced amongst its litany of characters.
Scout is quick and agile, though fragile and limited in defense. Heavy is best for blind shooters-from-the-hip and his size makes him an effective bullet-eater; however, his slow speed makes him quite vulnerable to stealthier or quicker opponents. Spy can infiltrate enemy areas through disguises, cunning, and invisibility, but he’s quite weak, has very limited methods of protection, and opposing teams are always on the lookout for him. Every character is the object of focused developer design, calculated to impress a stable level of fairness so as to properly align teams with abilities necessary for victory. They key factor, however, is that each has the ability to stand on his own amidst a team of enemies. Teamwork is never a necessity to survive.
It’s utterly brilliant, to be frank. The game throws players into a world — subtly complex on its own, through heavily ambiguous details — where objectives are simple to comprehend, violence is colorful and darkly comic, and level design allows for a plethora of playstyles. It is a competitive experience in which the greatest challenge is not securing control points or even killing enemies, but in growing to understand each character’s method of play.
By becoming more involved with each character, the player adopts their own sort of introspection into the type of player they best function as. Victory, therefore, becomes achievable only by facilitating a relationship with the characters involved, and thus coming to terms with who they are as a player. If one does not understand the supporting tactics of Medic or Sniper, or the defensive tactics of Engineer or Demoman, then failure is quite determined.
But what makes the game so endurable is the cynicism. Logging into an online match today on PC is an instantly-chaotic venture: eruptions of blood and gore, cacophonous artillery, and NPC commotion nearly deafens me as soon as I enter the battlefield. It’s an utter warzone, and cooperation is nearly impossible to accurately conjure. This environment thus indicates the game’s most important lesson to a new player: the key to survival and victory is looking out for your own ass. The entire system of play revolves around a cast of personally-involved characters, each indebted to preserving their own welfare with little acknowledgement of their fellow teammates whatsoever.
To play Overwatch then is a drastically different endeavor altogether. The two games are often compared, and rightfully so. Both are multiplayer-only experiences, which feature a large assortment of classes to switch between and a variety of locations with specific goals to achieve. They also feature an assortment of similar classes, functioning together to provide a team effort to achieve victory.
The difference lies in player motivation. Overwatch is indebted to the team dynamic, and a failure to cooperate with your teammates will get you nowhere and everyone else nowhere. The functional basis of Overwatch is built around the notion that teammates want to work together, that each character serves a distinct purpose. It’s the reason no two players can choose the same character during matches, as well as the explanation behind most of the cast’s individual gameplay characteristics. Even the underlying lore unites the characters through established relationships and narrative plotlines, structuring the very core initiative which brings them all together under the motivations of teamwork.
Team Fortress 2 meanwhile couldn’t care less. A familial bond is forged between the characters of Overwatch, meanwhile the cast of TF2 each exist as a prescribed, nameless archetype, designed to kill and rack up points. It’s the perfect foundation for a multiplayer opposition game: the characters all reflect a class to role play as, robotic clones with deceptively human appearances and personas, but each strictly dedicated to killing each other in unique ways.
Multiplayer games are not designed to elicit sympathy on the battlefield. They hearken back to the traditional emotionless drive behind general warfare, but through demonstrating the immortality of your chosen personage. This concept then completely undermines Overwatch’s commitment to allegiance when fellow soldiers are gunned down. When a teammate is killed, the player is not heartbroken by the loss of a comrade; if anything, they may be aggravated by the loading time keeping them from immediately returning — especially if it’s a medic.
Now this isn’t to say that Overwatch is designed to instill compassionate reaction to a downed player; but an enlarged emphasis is placed upon each of these classes as being real human beings. Making them immortal, however, strips them of their authenticity, as such does in every multiplayer game scenario, and disproportionately attunes our own relationship with the characters.
Overwatch in turn feels artificial then, in comparison to Team Fortress 2, where the violence is glorified and the team’s prosperity comes second to the player’s. The classes in TF2 all contribute to the team effort through selfish functionality.
The Engineer actively defends Control Points, Spawn Locations, or capturable Intelligence, which certainly looks out for the team’s interests in attaining end-game victory; but he does so offensively, utilizing a sentry gun as a shield which in turn allows him to profit off of his defensive tactics. The sniper may hold back and defend the Control Point from a distance, capping off opposing targets as they close in on the location from afar; however, once again that defensive shield he utilizes is a functional offensive weapon, granting him points for killing enemies, not necessarily actively supporting the team’s overall success.
The Medic, whose primary tool is used to heal other players, is also actively offending while defending. Partnering with a Heavy or a Soldier, as they blast their way through a bevy of enemies head-on, offers both Assist points as well as power for the Ubercharge, which grants finite invulnerability for you and a chosen teammate. Even the cooperative fundamentals of the Ubercharge are deceptive, given that the player is not necessarily impelled to utilize it as a supportive mechanism towards their teammates, but rather a catalyst by which they will attain more assist points and further develop the conquering of other players.
Reinhardt instead utilizes a literal shield as a means of defense, offering no personal reward. D.Va’s armor may appear durable, however she is quite underpowered without the aid of an assisting medic. Players are so often reluctant to pose as medics that they have become lauded for their philanthropy; because in Overwatch, a medic is necessary, but no one wants to play as one. Meanwhile, in Team Fortress 2, the Medic is an engaging and rewarding choice for multiple reasons, and their utter necessity for victory never materializes.
Which in fact brings to mind what is perhaps the defining element behind the game’s narcissistic scheme: the Domination system. When a player murders an online enemy four times without ever being killed by them, a triumphant trumpet score blares and indicates that the player is Dominating that opponent. This both actively promotes players to single out nemeses for personal egocentric achievement, as well as the Dominated persons to retroactively seek vengeance to rid themselves of the title. There is no team association founded within the Domination system, only further personal gratification.
Team Fortress 2 understands the inherent allure prescribed towards violent multiplayer games. Players enjoy being the lone gunman, the unique operative who can look after himself; and TF2 allows them to roleplay as a multitude of that same persona. Each class designates this ideal, but at the same time appropriately supports the team effort as a whole. It is genius, an innovative psychological tactic to promote unity which allows the game to so actively stand the test of time.
Overwatch is not any less of a commendable, enriching experience because of this; but it fails to facilitate the broader, psychological strokes induced by TF2’s design. The player is not as actively engaged with the world and its inhabitants as the inhabitants themselves are, which creates a distinct fissure between person and sim.
I believe this is a major reason why I continue to play Team Fortress 2 so religiously. Overwatch kept me engaged for numerous hours after i initially fell in adoration, but it has since grown to offer little to prompt me to actively return. Now please consider: for one, I only dabble in Quick Match when playing both games; also, I understand the significant competitiveness instilled within the Overwatch community — hell, within a year, it’s already grown to become one of the most successful eSport titles active today.
I also comprehend the multitude of ways on which Overwatch similarly endorses personal achievement (what with the Play of the Game system, the end games medals awarded, loot boxes, and the very notion of levelling up the character); but that may in fact even moreso promote my argument against its affirmation of allegiance, providing a hypocritical counterpoint. When I describe my personal affiliation with both games, I do so maintaining that my opinions are in fact based on personal preferences. Plus, both are huge games with complex designs, each of which are rightfully deserving of intense individual analysis and conceptual praise.
The cynicism which so fuels TF2 is what makes it far more approachable and successful than Overwatch. It occupies time by satisfying the carnal desire to self-sustain. Multiplayer games are all founded upon the notion of self-gratification and indulgence; but few primarily recognize this as TF2, as the game’s cast, tone, functionality, and environments accordingly satisfy. It’s a bloody good time, and Overwatch almost seems family-friendly by comparison. Perhaps this tonal difference directly corresponds to the key difference dividing these two similar experiences: one is indebted to preserving familial institution amidst post-war settings; the other revels in the insignificance of mortality.
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