Team Fortress 2 and the Resurgence of Class-Based Gaming

Posted by Aaron McKenna

Yaknow considering how much we in the tech press like to have a go at 3D Realms over Duke Nukem (it'll take) Forever, I think that Half-Life creators Valve get off extremely easy for their own vaporware transgressions - namely Team Fortress 2.

Originally released as a mod for Quake the First all the way back in 1996, Team Fortress 2 was originally scheduled to be a commercial release for Quake II (making it one of the first mod teams, though certainly not a group of bedroom coders, to go commercial like that), but the development team was bought up by Valve. They then switched production to the Half-Life engine, and first we got Team Fortress Classic, a free mod for Valve's seminal FPS.

Alongside this, TF2 itself went into production and things went so far that we got a juicy preview of the game, with updated visuals which looked pretty stunning for their day, bundled on the Half-Life disc. The games production has come on and off the radar ever since, with the dev team changing direction to more realism, less realism, presumably new engines... all the hallmarks of a true vapourware game, not dissimilar to 3D Realms' debacle of game development (though at least Valve have had to decency to keep their mouths shut about it, rather than constantly popping up their heads to say "Ohh, it's looking good...")

Now Valve's Gabe Newell has told us that TF2 will - finally - be released alongside Half-Life: Episode 2 later in the year. Details are sketchy at the moment, though you can bet the preview machine will ramp up into gear between now and Christmas to fill in the gaps. Basically, we've been given the promise of something looking like a Pixar animated movie. No, I don't know either... but it's not the graphics that interest me: It's the class-based warfare.

The original deathmatch has always been a rather capitalistic affair: everyone starts off equal, but then you gather up weapons and power ups that make you stronger than others. There's no predetermined skill or weapon set, and that's what suited the deathmatch. Things evolved along this path, and Counter-Strike can be seen as the natural evolution of this theory. Instead of having weapons and power ups strewn around the map for you to pick up, players buy them at the beginning of the round, earning more cash for kills and winning a round.

However there is another way to play - class-based warfare. Players enter the game and pick a predetermined class, usually following the fast guy, support guy, medic guy, engineer guy, sniper guy and specialist guy structure. The theory goes that it creates balance in the game and allows more intricate set-pieces to be set up - for example in Team Fortress the Demoman can blow holes in walls and so on.

This class-based warfare features in Team Fortress, Day of Defeat, Battlefield... quite a few games these days. But there was a time, not so long ago when Counter-Strike was all the rage, that class-based gaming was dismissed. It was playing second fiddle to the open-ended CS, which was in its heyday.

The tables have been turned in recent years however, and as the scope of online gaming has increased the popularity of class-based gaming has gone with it. A game like Battlefield, let alone the massively multiplayer FPS experiments like Planetside, would be mayhem with a system like that of CS. One needs predetermined classes to do all the things these games demand - repair vehicles, revive fellow soldiers and so on.

The good old fashioned Deathmatch still features heavily on the online circuit, simply because it is the easiest thing to develop as a multiplayer section of games like Call of Duty 2 and Quake IV. However its popularity has waned significantly, and only the advanced Deathmatch we see in games like CS and Unreal Tournament remains a consistently popular form of the good old fashioned DM. However they are now playing the second fiddle, as Day of Defeat was to CS back during the heyday of the stupid hostage.

As the demand for 64 player and up online games increases, so will the popularity of class based gaming. DM isn't going to die out, but we are seeing it being diluted quite a bit - Unreal Tournament attempting to work in the best features of games like Battlefield, for example. There is enough room on the Internet to host both class and classless games, but ultimately it is the class-based games which are holding more players attention for longer than the classless games.