The Infinite Zenith

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An Introspection on Team Fortress 2, or How I Spent My Time In Between Preparations for the MCAT and Remarks on Hats

“Throughout history, men have worn hats as a way of asserting dominance over other men. ‘I buy hats,’ a behatted man seems to say, ‘I am better than you.'” –Classless Update

Team Fortress 2 remains one of Valve’s finest games. An improvement to Team Fortress, a Half-Life mod that created a class-based multiplayer title based on team play, Team Fortress 2 took the Team Fortress concept and cartoonised it, creating an aesthetic in the manner of a clever pastiche of spy films from the mid-1960s. The resulting product was fresh, innovative and fun: the classes are balanced against one another so that no one role can be dominant in a match, and that a team with good player coordination can utilise their composition to control a match. At the same time, Team Fortress 2 had a very low barrier of entry. All of the classes have a high skill ceiling – it takes time to master each class and utilise their abilities fully, but every class begins with a solid all-around loadout that allows beginners to remain versatile in their capabilities. Over time, players can pick up or craft weapons that are more suited for their unique play style by means of a drop system. Maps are thoughtfully designed to accommodate both the game mode and for the classes themselves. Wide open spaces favour snipers and soldiers, while narrower chokepoints allow engineers and heavies to set up defensive positions. The permutations possible mean that no two games will ever be alike; players can utilise their classes both in conventional and creative manners to impact the course of a match with the aim of securing a victory. In this way, Team Fortress 2 offers nearly unlimited replay value as one competes against other players in a game of skill, and all the while, receive items that help them to play in a manner most suited for their preferences. Valve has an extensive track record of producing exceptional games and making decisions that command player loyalty – after its launch in 2007, Valve continued to improve and expand on the game. Four years later, Valve would make a decision that would irreversibly shape the future of both Team Fortress 2, and contemporary multiplayer shooters, as well: they made Team Fortress 2 free-to-play in 2011 after realising that players were spending considerable sums on keys to unlock crates, which contain rare and highly sought-after hats, cosmetic items that alter a player’s appearance, but otherwise, do not impact gameplay.

I had joined Team Fortress 2 at the behest of a friend – there is no compelling argument against free, and at the time, I’d been looking for a replacement to Halo 2 Vista, whose servers were on the brink of being shut down. Team Fortress 2 appeared to fit the bill, being a remarkably engaging and deep shooter that seemed to offer precisely the experience I had found in Halo 2. The crates, precursor to the gacha-style lootboxes and cosmetic obsession that dominates contemporary gaming, had no bearing on gameplay itself; for both myself and my friend, we found a title that appeared to have staying power. However, it soon became clear that most players were disinterested in the excellence behind Team Fortress 2‘s mechanics. One day, my friend and I joined a server. After spawning in, we picked out classes and immediately set off to capture an objective. After reaching the nearest control point and occupying it, we were both kicked from the server. The kick reason was we had joined a server that was intended for players to show off their hats and discuss potential trades. In the weeks following, it was nearly impossible to find any servers where standard game modes were permitted; players became more concerned with trading for hats than the game itself. The ability to trade for hats accentuated the issue – a virtual economy had formed around hats, and players were reportedly willing to spend hundreds of dollars for Unusuals, a rare hat type with unique particle effects. Others yet spent hundreds of hours pursuing leads to acquire the highly elusive buds, which were given out to Mac OS players for a limited time. In spite of this, I was still able to enjoy Team Fortress 2 in between studying for the MCAT; Valve had introduced a bots-only mode for offline training, and it was immensely cathartic to be able to turn the weapons I’d picked up and crafted to see their effects in an environment that was conducive towards gameplay. The sheer thoughtfulness that Valve put into Team Fortress 2 meant that, even when the game was all but unplayable thanks to players focusing on hats, there still remained a way to enjoy the unique atmosphere and game mechanics in Team Fortress 2. In this way, I spent a considerable amount of time, outside of my studies, playing matches against AI bots and taking in a game that, at its core, still remained superbly enjoyable.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • When Team Fortress 2 became free-to-play in the summer of 2011, my friends and I immediately signed on: the game had been of interest to us owing to the gameplay loop and the interplay between the classes, as well as the campy spy film aesthetic. I found myself gravitating towards the Heavy class because the handling had been most similar to that of Halo 2‘s Spartans; while the Heavy is slow-moving, a deep health pool and a powerful mini-gun means that a Heavy could single-handedly clear out a control point.

  • The Soldier had been another class I found enjoyable. Faster-moving than a Heavy and with a lower health pool, the Soldier is armed with a range of rocket launchers that deal impact damage on a direct hit, plus a small amount of splash damage and knockback. Rockets take some skill to use, but properly utilised, Soldiers can clear objectives out for other players to move in. For my friend, he’d found the Sniper class to fit his play-style. Having long held that sniping is the highest representation of skill in a given shooter, my friend always enjoyed learning the ins and outs of being a good marksman.

  • However, Team Fortress 2‘s balance between classes means Snipers are vulnerable to spies. Unlike other FPS, where snipers can single-handedly control matches by picking off foes at ranges that leave them immune to almost everything except a counter-sniper, Team Fortress 2 has the perfect counter for Snipers. The Spy can disguise himself as another team’s classes and sneak deep behind enemy lines to backstab snipers, killing one instantly. However, the Pyro class and their flamethrowers can reveal disguised spies, nullifying their efficacy.

  • In this way, my friend would actually become a fairly competent Pyro as a result of trying to stick it to the Spies who were constantly ruining his Sniper experience. This unintended effect, an emergent behaviour, was one of the signs that Team Fortress 2 had been remarkably well thought-out. Every class has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses that make them more effective in some places, and less effective in others. A good team, then, consists of a mix of classes and players who know what their class’ intended roles are.

  • Besides playing on multiplayer servers, I also found enjoyment in being able to spin up a private server with AI bots to get used to any new guns that I’d picked up. One of my favourite weapons in the whole of Team Fortress 2 was the Machina, a sniper rifle that could only fire once fully-charged, but when charged, it could also penetrate multiple enemies on a successful headshot. Save the base weapons, which are all-purpose weapons everyone starts with, the weapons in Team Fortress 2 are all side-grades, possessing attributes that make them more useful in some scenarios at the expense of a drawback that makes them less effective in other situations.

  • To this end, one could actually stick with the base weapons in the game without ever equipping new weapons, and still do well in a given match. Battlefield 3 would later adopt this method: the starting weapons for each class are great, and new weapons one unlocks will fit a specific play-style better, but the starting weapons will always be versatile enough to handle most of the situations players find themselves in. Initially, the desire to unlock other weapons and try them out were what led my friend and I to idle, the practise of running a headless client on an empty server to pick up items, which drop randomly during gameplay.

  • Our intentions had simply been to pick up crafting parts more easily, although over time, we did end up beginning to run up against the free account’s limitations. By Christmas 2011, both of us decided to purchase keys, which made us a part of the paid tier of players. The advantages of doing so were an increased number of backpack slots and the ability to trade, as well as craft hats using materials from the drops we’d picked up. As more players ended up going down this route, my friend began looking into the community’s trading scene to see if it were possible to trade crafted hats for other items of interest.

  • In the meantime, we would continue to play Team Fortress 2 in between my studies. I vividly recall one day, I’d finished my assignments and hopped onto a server that was Minecraft-themed. Team Fortress 2 had excellent official servers, but also gave the community the toolset they needed to created custom experiences. Some community maps are excellent, but others were also uninspired and dull. I would make it a point to quit every cp_orange map I landed in. In matches, especially on custom servers, I did notice a growing number of people who were standing in the spawn areas, chatting rather than playing the game.

  • It turns out people had been conversing about trading hats, and back in the day, it was only possible to do trades in-game, as Valve had not yet implemented the Steam inventory and the ability to trade for items outside of Team Fortress 2. Things came to a head by the time I began studying for the MCAT: there were more trade servers than there were actual servers in North America, and servers overseas had high enough ping that the game was difficult to play. Moreover, talk of trade and the virtual economy had far overtaken discussions about Team Fortress 2 itself.

  • This was because the updates to Team Fortress 2 had finally made it possible for folks itching to get their hands on the Earbuds to do so, and folks hanging onto Earbuds similarly realised they could suddenly pick up a large number of items if they were to ever trade said Earbuds away. The Earbuds were a cosmetic item that was introduced with a Mac OS update for a limited time, and even my friend hadn’t been immune to their allure. He managed to find a trader who’d been willing to trade his Earbuds for a game, and a deal had almost been reached, but this had been a very arduous process, one that involved staying up until 0200 local time because said trader had lived halfway across the world.

  • In the end, this deal fell through when the trader unexpectedly vanished. When trading was a big deal in the community, I found it quite difficult to join any servers. However, playing with AI bots on private matches still gave me a chance to experience Team Fortress 2 and its aesthetic. This is one of the reasons why I’ve been so fond of AI bots; they allow me to play even when there are no online options available. In this way, I was still able to try out the items I’d picked up or crafted, and AI bots also provide a way of getting used to how players move, which is great for practising sniping.

  • Here, I rock a festive Frontier Justice, an item I picked up along with a festive grenade launcher during the winter of 2012; the first year I played Team Fortress 2, I went for the Nice Festive Crates to activate my account and gain access to the increased backpack slots and trading system. However, they yielded unremarkable hats that proved to be a disappointment, so the next year, I went with the Naughty Crates instead, which give festive weapons. Weapons cosmetics are actually worth having simply because one can see them, but hats feel pointless because they’re generally not visible to players.

  • Team Fortress 2 has clearly undergone many updates in the past decade; nowadays, one’s player icon actually updates to mirror their appearance, and here, I’m rocking an Unusual Carouser’s Capotain, a gift from my friend who, in a string of unusually good luck, managed to unbox four Unusuals from a create some time ago. While Team Fortress 2 fell from my mind ever since I got into Battlefield, my friend’s continued to maintain an interest in Valve’s games. It had been he who suggested I idle, and together, we had collected a large number of items in the process, which we would craft into metal.

  • The idea had been, after his lack of success in picking up the Earbuds, we would continue to collect items and make hats on our own. We could keep the hats we like, trade amongst ourselves if either of us had a hat the other was interested in, and generally partake in the trade system the way it was meant to be used: with friends at a small scale. Over the years, I began losing interest in Team Fortress 2, but for my friend, the thought of really sticking it to the traders lingered on his mind. Picking up the Unusuals in the manner we did would vindicate him: the two of us now had some of Team Fortress 2‘s most coveted items without once grovelling on a trade forum or server for them.

  • While the way my friend and I played Team Fortress 2 would be considered unconventional, I knew of another friend who used Team Fortress 2‘s assets to make YouTube mashups with Madoka Magica. The meaning of these mashups have long eluded me, but I believe now have an answer: the fact that the mercenaries from Team Fortress 2 are protecting Madoka and her team suggest a subconscious desire to defend Madoka’s group from the struggles they face and defuse trouble with the wit and humour Team Fortress 2‘s characters are known for.

  • This in turn would likely be a sign that my friend hadn’t been happy with the suffering Madoka and her friends went through under Gen Urobuchi’s direction. Said friend had also made the videos that would pique my interest in the local anime convention, Otafest, and on that note, the attendance numbers for Otafest are now available for 2022. It turns out this year’s showing was impressive, being 99 percent of what it’d been when they last hosted a convention. Despite efforts to get the event cancelled, Otafest 2022 was a success, and this is uplifting to hear; I’m glad that Otafest had not taken a hit, and depending on how things look for me next year from a scheduling perspective, I would be happy to volunteer again.

  • I still recall sitting out Otafest back then so I could study: the summer of 2012 had been characterised by my choosing to skip many things so I could concentrate. Unfortunately for me, I also opted to miss the Stampede fireworks, which were said to be especially gorgeous that year because it’d been the event’s centennial event. If the local news is to be believed, the fireworks for Stampede 2012 were of a scale that had never been seen in Calgary previously, being a show that lasted over half an hour and featuring choreography that rivalled those of Hong Kong in scale and creativity. In the decade that’s passed, this is one of the few decisions from 2012 that I regret to this day: Calgary has not hosted fireworks of such calibre since.

  • All in all, while I may not play Team Fortress 2 with any frequency in the present, I still have a fondness for the game. The fact that AI bots exist mean I’m able to play the game whenever the wish to revisit simpler times hits me. The fact that Valve made Team Fortress 2 support AI bots despite lacking any of the sophisticated machine learning technologies back in 2011 speaks to their commitment to players, and this is something they share in common with Call of Duty games, which similarly have bots. For me, bots simply represent a chance to continue playing the game even after the servers shut down, and more recently, games like Halo: Infinite and Battlefield 2042 have added AI bots to their games, too.

  • I’m not too sure if I’ll be writing about Team Fortress 2 again, but this game ultimately proved to be just what was needed on days where my thoughts were otherwise wholly consumed by the MCAT. At this point in the summer, my physics final would’ve been on the horizon, and from here on out, my days would be fully devoted towards the MCAT itself. My summer settled into a pattern that would be consistent and unremarkable, at least until K-On! The Movie came out, and what happened with K-On! The Movie had very nearly cost me the MCAT.

  • My decision to focus on the exam benefited me, but it would also leave a lingering regret on my mind for the past decade. I will discuss this aspect in greater detail as we approach the ten-year mark to the release date for K-On! The Movie‘s BD, and for the present, I return my attention to the next post for RPG Real Estate – I will write about this series after the finale airs this Wednesday and aim to do so in an expedient manner so I have a clean slate for Machikado Mazoku: 2-Chōme once its finale airs.

I still vividly recalling the days where my MCAT preparation course would end, and I’d walk along a sun-lit corridor, thinking to myself that, after I finished doing drills and revisions for that day, I would’ve liked nothing more than to spend an hour just blasting AI bots and allowing my mind to rest. The MCAT would come and go, and by the time autumn rolled around, it turns out that Valve had several more surprises planned out for players. When October arrived, a Halloween updated was queued, and Team Fortress 2 became a spooky, ghost-themed game with cakes replacing the health packs scattered around levels. Excited to try the Halloween-exclusive maps out, players would begin moving back into the servers with the aim of trying out the maps. Games became populated again, and Valve would continue to support Team Fortress 2 for years to come. Although Team Fortress 2 holds the infamy of introducing loot boxes to shooters, and ended up creating a community that cared more for hats than the game itself, Valve had also shown itself capable of both creating game modes and options to allow players to play even when no one was available for multiplayer, as well as righting negative trends it created and revitalising player interest in the game itself. Contemporary titles have not fared particularly well with their loot box mechanics: without the vision and talent Valve possessed, modern games have a very sophisticated set of cosmetics, but lack other elements that make them worth returning to. Conversely, owing to all of the care Valve has directed towards Team Fortress 2, the game remains enjoyable even today – playing through the AI bot training on my own brings back memories of a time when, after reviewing topics as diverse as exam technique, verbal reasoning, electromagnetism, metabolic pathways and halogen reactions, I would lose myself in a 1960s-style spy film world. Over the years, I would stop playing Team Fortress 2 – while the game was still enjoyable, I ended up gravitating towards Battlefield and its aesthetic. Like Team Fortress 2Battlefield gave new players a good place to start from, but rewards experience and skill, but the key difference was that the modes and classes were a little simpler, allowing one to also lose themselves in a round of TDM, something that Team Fortress 2 doesn’t offer. I’d been very much a fan of Halo‘s Slayer mode, and Team Death Match represents a mode where it was possible to unwind without having an objective to focus on. However, Team Fortress 2 has never left my mind, bringing to mind those moments in between lengthy and intense study sessions.