Team Fortress 2

Valve has just announced a new 'Jungle Inferno' update for Team Fortress 2, with the highlight being a brand new map. Dubbed 'Mercenary Park', it's a "new jungle-themed disease-ridden three-control point map" created by Valve. 

The video below doesn't really show much of the map, it being a new animated short providing some narrative colour to the proceedings. But the map isn't all there is: there are a handful of community-created maps as well, all jungle-themed, and for modes including Attack / Defend and King of the Hill.

There's a bunch of new taunts as well: the Yeti punch is what the name implies, and there are a tonne others too, all listed neatly over on this update page

This is all just the "Day 1" content – expect more stuff to roll out or be announced over the coming days.

Counter-Strike

Image by DoctorRed2000 on DeviantArt

For the last few days, Valve has been teasing the release of a revamped version of venerated Counter-Strike map Dust 2, and yesterday they spilled the full beans on the new facelift. Valve's been refreshing old Counter-Strike maps for a while now, in an attempt to keep CS:GO looking as modern as possible, but messing with Dust 2 is a bit more of a risky proposition than modifying less-played maps like Train.

The more beloved a map is, the larger the potential backlash will be. Dust 2 has been a staple of competitive play for over 15 years, and was far and away the most played map in the game until its removal from the active map pool back in February. 

It's not surprising, then, that Valve's rework is so conservative. While all the assets have been replaced with higher-res, higher-poly ones, achieving the goal of bringing the map in line with modern graphical expectations, changes to the way the map plays are modest. 

The biggest change is to the visual clarity, which has been improved across the map. Most of the dark or busy looking areas that allowed players to blend in with their surroundings have been illuminated: the tunnels leading to B are much brighter thanks to a new open ceiling, and a lot of the crates throughout the map have been draped in white cloth to better contrast with player models. Bombsite A benefits from the deletion of the busy-looking doors at the back of A long, and some cleanup of the wall decoration along catwalk. These are bound to be uncontroversial changes, and are in line with what Valve has been doing with the other map facelifts.

There’s also been some common sense cleanup work that probably should’ve happened years ago. Stuff like widening the window from CT spawn into B site, and simplifying the scaffolding near CT-side mid doors, feels like pretty basic quality-of-life improvements that will prevent newer players from getting stuck on weird geometry or having their shots glance off of random pipes.

What impact will these changes have?

In the coming weeks we’ll get a better idea of the full ramifications of this update. A couple things to keep an eye on will be whether the new single car on A long (which replaces a pair of cars that were at odd angles in the map’s previous version) will actually be useful as cover now, and whether the increase in room to maneuver behind B site’s car will increase its viability as a hold point for CTs.

It s a healthy overhaul that makes some modest but interesting changes without reinventing the wheel.

There are also some subtle changes that may not even be intentional, and may or may not have a substantial impact on gameplay. Foremost among these is a problem we’ve seen already on some of the other modernized maps, but doesn’t seem to have caused enough of a ruckus to attract Valve’s notice: almost every previously-flat surface is now slightly bumpy (presumably for visual fidelity reasons), which affects the way grenades bounce off of floors and walls. Given how big of a deal smoke and flash placement is in CS, this may prove to be problematic in the long term, as it’s going to reduce the accuracy with which banked grenades can be placed.

Also on the topic of small, maybe-unintentional changes, the spawn locations have shifted slightly. A helpful redditor has pointed out after exploring the map that counter-terrorists can now get to their side of A long a full two seconds before terrorists can get to theirs, which may impact which corners CT players choose to hold, and which angles T players choose to peek from. Again, these are the kind of changes that will require some time to shake out, and we won’t know the full effect of this stuff until the competitive meta has fully adapted, which may take even longer than usual given there's a decade-plus of habits to unlearn.

But Valve seems to have struck a good balance with this update. It’s a healthy overhaul that makes some modest but interesting changes without reinventing the wheel. From a purely visual perspective, the new Dust 2 is beautiful, and undeniably an upgrade from the previous iteration. The terrorists have also gotten new higher-fidelity player models as part of the deal, and they’re a big improvement over the dated look of the existing models. (Puzzlingly, the CT models have not gotten the same treatment thus far.)

There are of course a host of bugs related to the new geometry, allowing for all manner of unintentional boost spots and weird clipping, but this has always been the case with these big map refreshes, and generally they get fixed in a fairly timely manner. Once these issues are addressed, we should expect to see Dust 2 re-added to the Active Duty map pool (possibly at the expense of Cobblestone) and the tournament circuit will quickly demonstrate what effect, if any, the update will have on the way Counter-Strike’s most iconic map is played.

Team Fortress 2

Valve's next TF2 update is going to be a biggie, overhauling some of the multiplayer shooter's most iconic weapons and fixing items that have been unbalanced for years. When Valve announced the changes in June it didn't say when the update was due. After a blog post from the developer yesterday we still don't have a precise date, but we do have a much better idea.

"We're putting the finishing touches on a mammoth new update, and it'll be shipping in the very near future, we promise. How near? Well, very. Imminent. Not this week imminent, but you know. Really soon."

Hmm. The language suggests that it could arrive later this month. I really hope so, because it's the first TF2 update for a while that I'm actually excited about. There's tweaks across the board but some classes, such as the Scout or Spy, are getting a lot of attention (the Scout's triple jump-enabling Atomizer bat is now much less viable, for example), while others like the Demoman are being left mostly alone. 

You can read more about the changes in Valve's "sneak peak".

Every player will have a different view of the planned changes, but personally I'm looking forward to a nerf to the Spy's Dead Ringer, a cloaking device that players use to feign death that is really frustrating to play against. Ammo kits and dispensers will no longer fill the device's meter, so Spies won't be able to use it as often.

How do you think the changes will impact the game?

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

On Monday Valve announced that it was overhauling Dust2, Counter-Strike's most iconic map, and now it has detailed all the changes, released images and opened the arena up for beta testing in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Most of the changes are visual—Valve has quadrupled the texture resolution and changed the art style, opting for a lighter colour palate and a more obvious North African feel, with signs for a Kasbah (basically a fortress), a bazaar and a hotel. Overall the map manages to feel a lot brighter but more decrepit, with weathered walls and crumbling pillars. I'm a big fan.

There's no major changes to the structure of the map, which I supposed is to be expected, but there are some important tweaks. The most noticeable one is at the B bomb site, where the raised area to the back corner has been lowered so it's level with the rest of the area, as you can see in the image below (old on the left, new on the right). The slider won't work here, but you can use it on Valve's blog post unveiling the changes to compare the two versions.

The broken down car on the site has been moved to make it easier to get behind, the famous 'window' looking down on the middle of the map has been widened, while the section of tunnels that approaches the bomb site has had parts of the roof smashed away so that more light floods in.

Bomb site A has changed less: Valve has removed some of the dark doorways and generally de-cluttered the area so there's less objects to get stuck on. Take a look:

At Mid, Valve has added a new shallow staircase, removed some alcoves and improved the lighting. The last change is to the T-side character models, which Valve hopes make them look like "hardened veterans" of CS.

You can test the map out in the game's beta branch—here's some instructions on how to opt in. Do you like what you see?

Half-Life 2

The Orange Box unlocked on Steam at 00.01 Pacific time, 10 October 2007. Ten years later, we've put together a series of articles celebrating this unforgettable bundle of Valve's games, with new features on Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Portal and Team Fortress 2, as well as an interview with Valve on what this release represented back then.

We've also published Tom Francis's original reviews of the games from the UK magazine, for some context on what it meant to PC Gamer for all of that to launch at once. 

Here's what you can read today:

Valve reflects on The Orange Box, ten years laterOur original review of The Orange Box from 2007Remembering HL2: Episode Two, and the conundrum Valve faced afterwardsHow Team Fortress 2 changed FPSesThe cake is a lie: the life and death of Portal's best baked cake meme

Half-Life 2

The Orange Box launched ten years ago. It was undoubtedly the greatest bundle of games ever, with the simultaneous launch of Portal, Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, alongside the existing Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One. The former three were instantly significant in the landscape of PC gaming: Portal was an influential puzzle game that many cited as the surprise highlight of the set, while Team Fortress 2 arrived as a fully-formed multiplayer phenomenon that would constantly evolve across the next decade. Episode Two, of course, was the last time we experienced a new chapter of arguably the greatest singleplayer FPS series of all time. 

It was a massive moment: imagine that many amazing games dropping at once now, from the same developer. It just wouldn't happen. Here, Valve's Robin Walker reflects on the factors that led to The Orange Box's release, and offers some behind-the-scenes insights on both Portal and Team Fortress 2.

PC Gamer: What did the release of The Orange Box mean for Valve at that time, and what does it represent as part of Steam's history?

Robin Walker: The Orange Box was a huge step for us internally because it was the first time we’d ever managed to complete more than a single product at a time. In some ways, the Orange Box was a company level 'hack' where we made three separate products that all consider themselves the same product for shipping purposes, which meant that people could rationally prioritize their work across all three of them. If you were on Portal, and everything was going well, but TF2 was struggling, it made sense for you to jump over and help TF2 out because all three games needed to ship together.

The Orange Box was also a great product to really highlight why the retail channel was reducing game developer’s options. We found with Episode One that retail really didn’t understand or like a premium quality $20 title—they stood to make less money per box, and they had a limited amount of shelf space in their stores. The Orange Box avoided this by combining multiple quality products into a single box that was worth that full amount, but in doing so it created other problems. Retail had never seen a new, high quality box containing more than one title. Historically, a box that contained multiple titles was a bundle of old or low quality titles.

So in terms of Steam’s history, to us the Orange Box represents the era in which distribution channels placed a huge amount of friction on what kinds of games were made, how big they should be, and how much they were sold for. These weren’t things that retailers should be blamed for, they were simply the side effects of operating in physical space. It’s great to be able to look around and see such an enormously wide spectrum of games being made today, many of which wouldn’t have had much of a chance to find their audience in that physical distribution world. 

Were you surprised by the response to Portal, in that a lot of people considered it to be the highlight of The Orange Box at the time?

We didn’t really know what to hope for with Portal. We’d put it in front of enough play testers to be confident that players would have fun with it, but Portal didn’t fit any existing model of a successful game for us to know how it was going to really turn out. There wasn’t much of a history of first person puzzle games, let alone ones that combined a new gameplay mechanic with comedy. The Orange Box really solved Portal’s biggest challenge, which was to explain itself to players. By putting it in the Orange Box, we didn’t have to do the heavy lifting of explaining to people why they should buy this thing that was unlike anything they’d played before—instead, we could lure them in with Episode Two & TF2, and surprise them with the game they had the least expectations for.

Portal became incredibly influential to the indie games scene—its length, storytelling and environmental design are felt in a lot of today's games. Can you recall that process of the Narbacular Drop team joining Valve, and the key decisions that eventually made that game what it is?

By the time we saw Narbacular Drop at the Digipen student day, we’d already hired multiple groups of inexperienced developers who had built interesting things. When we hire those kinds of teams, we’re fundamentally more interested in the people than the thing they’ve built, and in our discussions with them, the Portal team seemed like a group of people with a huge amount of potential. We paired them up with some experienced developers at Valve, and let the team loose.

In any game's development, there are too many decisions to count, and many of them will ruin the game if made incorrectly. One decision that ended up being very important was the one behind GladOS. We had been working on Portal for about a year, and at that point we had 14 levels of the game in a state where they were being regularly playtested. There was no GladOS, the player just moved from puzzle to puzzle without any sense of progression or reward beyond the increasing complexity of the puzzles. The playtest response we kept seeing could be summed up as "This is really fun! When does the game start?". This was both great and terrifying. Players were having fun, but they seemed to consider everything they played as just training leading up to something else. Considering the entire game was really just a process of learning about the core gameplay mechanic, this scared us a lot, making us worry that we’d have to create a whole other section of the game afterwards.

But first, we asked ourselves what it was that was causing players to consider everything as training. After much discussion, we settled on the idea that it was the lack of threat or pressure. Nothing in the game pushed back on the player. There was no real failure, no cost to mistakes, nothing overall to fear, no larger goal to strive for, and hence no real reason to advance. We talked about various solutions, and in the end decided that introducing an antagonist made the most sense. The antagonist could start as a narrative tool for introduction & reward, and over time become the thing that pushed back on the player, eventually giving them the core goal of the game—"I want to learn all this because I need to be able to defeat X". We had little in the way of art production on the team, so it being a character that largely spoke to you via voice over was a straightforward production solution.

In the end, there are many important decisions after this that were critical to GladOS working as well as she did, such as her entire personality. But her genesis begins with a straightforward process of us trying to solve the core gameplay problem in Portal. Even today, it’s always fascinating to us that players seem to start Portal talking about the gameplay, but after they’re done, all they talk about is GladOS.

You've kept updating and transforming Team Fortress 2 over the years, and few competitive games have that kind of lifespan. What's been the philosophy behind that? How have you kept reinventing the game while still making it recognisably TF2?

The philosophy is pretty simple—listen to your players, pay attention to what they're doing, ship your work, and iterate as much as possible. But TF2's a strange thing. In some ways, it seems so different to how it launched in 2007, but at the same time, it still feels utterly familiar. There are still Snipers on the battlements in 2Fort having a fine old time paying no attention to what's going on with their flag in the basement. There's a much wider set of potential threats to deal with than they faced back in 2007, but they now have many more choices in exactly how they want to face them. And no matter what they decide, they can ensure they look different to all the other Snipers in the game.

So TF2's core gameplay seems to be fairly resilient in the face of all the horrible things we've done to it, and I think that's largely due to how we've approached our role in the process. We've always felt that our job was to support players in whatever they're trying to do. As a result, it's the players who've decided how TF2 should be played throughout the last decade. We've added all kinds of elements to the game, from both our and the community's minds, and the players have been the ones to digest and choose the way those elements ended up incorporated into the whole, even if it meant outright rejection in some cases.

You provided audio commentary for The Orange Box at the time, which was a really nice opportunity to let players get granular with the various games' creative processes, having previously tested it in Lost Coast. Can you recall the process of doing that? What was it like to examine your work through that lens as a developer?

We approached commentary as a tool to explain our craft. In our experiences listening to commentaries of other creative works, it was the nuts & bolts of how they actually did the work that interested us the most. Throughout our years of developing games, we constantly found that problems we thought were going to be straightforward to solve turned out to be nasty, thorny issues involving complex tradeoffs between design and technology. Often, that complexity was hidden entirely by the solution. So we thought it might be interesting to players if we could lift the rock and show them everything that’s going on underneath all that apparent simplicity. We’re game developers, so hopefully players will forgive us for thinking that game development is a fun thing to talk about.

Also, that commentary and accompanying analysis was all written before the product launched, which means we didn’t have the chance to examine our work through the context of how it was received, let alone how it would fit into the gaming landscape 10 years later. Would Portal be something people would like? Or would it be some weird puzzle game Valve made that no-one wanted any more of? Without that perspective, we found it hard to talk about anything other than what we were confident in—what we did, and why we did it.

Portal

Seeing "the cake is a lie" memes in 2017 hurts me about as much as slipping on a linoleum floor and bashing my head on a marble counter top. If I had to choose between reviving the meme for another complete circuit or never playing Portal again, I'd eradicate the game from my Steam account.

I don't hate Portal or anything—it's my favorite game of all time. I even have a bad Aperture tattoo on my back. I've just heard that fucking catchphrase belted out with such frequency since Portal's release in 2007 that it's forcefully supplanted treasured memories and worldly knowledge, like my the sound of grandfather's voice or the equation for calculating the volume of a cylinder. "The cake is a lie" is good fun, but Portal is so much more than a cute combination of words.

It's a catchphrase that has since fallen into whatever meme obscurity is called. So, already bearing the scars, I set out to wrap myself in its cold, disemboweled corpse to examine its lifespan and determine what kind of irreversible changes a viral sentence about cake could inflict on videogames, for better or worse.

Hoop dreams

Portal writers Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek didn't set out to make Portal's cake catchphrase a meme—they were born before the '80s so they still don't know what memes are. They just wanted to write a funny game. For them "the cake is a lie" is just part of a clever plot device, a thematic anchor that offers a chuckle or two in its setup, reveal, and post-credits wink. Its viral potential was never even a consideration.

"We thought we should have a warehouse full of Hoopy t-shirts and mugs and posters…we would watch that hoop roll by over and over again," Wolpaw told Game Informer. "That was the part of the game we were most proud of, and nobody cared.” 

Don't worry if the name doesn't ring a bell. As the innocuous hoop that falls from the sky after defeating GLaDOS and escaping an exploding Aperture, Hoopy isn't the most iconic character from the Portal universe. Chances are Valve didn't actually expect a chunk of industrial metal to become Portal's unofficial mascot; Hoopy is a classic Wolpaw-ism, a roundabout point made to illustrate how distant a creator is from how the public will perceive their work. 

Between writers, animators, programmers, and everyone else juggling ideas and managing strict development pipelines, it's easy to imagine why they couldn't try for or predict the popularity of "the cake is a lie"—or any meme-able phrase. A forced effort to 'make a meme' would come off as crass and awkward. Hoopy with googly eyes and a shrill voice would be a grave mistake. Valve ended up demonstrating that the best way to make a meme was to not make one at all.

The recipe for success 

A deciding factor in Cake Meme's success can be credited to the year it blew up, a year in which some of the most legendary memes gained notoriety and cemented themselves near the head of the wacky, inexplicable semiotics parade. 2007 gifted us a kid in corpse paint that really likes turtles, a biting infant named Charlie, a prairie dog dramatically turning its head towards the camera because that's good fun, the hit single Chocolate Rain, and the practical joke that never gets old except it did in 2007: Rickrolling. 

Catchphrase memes like these are easily spread across the entire web and have a very low barrier to entry for participating in their proliferation.

Don Caldwell, KYM Managing Editor

Somewhere smooshed between Tay Zonday and an errant turtle shell sits 'The cake is a lie.' It's a phrase that won't carry much impact to anyone that hasn't played Portal, but according to Don Caldwell, managing editor and meme specialist at KnowYourMeme.com, that's all it takes. 

"It seems once a game reaches a certain level of popularity, the fan base is constantly looking to make jokes out of whatever quirky content they discover in the game." he says. "Catchphrase memes like these are easily spread across the entire web and have a very low barrier to entry for participating in their proliferation."

Through the sheer volume of players repeating the message, the underlying idea eventually caught on with people that hadn't played or even heard of Portal before. 'The cake is a lie' is straightforward enough: all your effort is for nothing. Once removed from its fictional context, the phrase carries the same pseudo-intellectual weight as any quote from the Matrix

And like "There is no spoon" or the more recent "You know nothing, Jon Snow," early use of "the cake is a lie" indicated a wry state of knowing. For Portal players, the phrase represented a shared experience, and for everyone else, a clever way to flag down false sources of motivation.

An arrow to the cake 

Shortly after Cake Meme peaked, as most memes do, it quickly outpaced itself and became so far removed from its original context through repeated use that its purpose was lost in the noise. Memes co-opted the catchphrase by haphazardly smashing together One Nerd Thing with Another Nerd Thing. "The cake is a lie" itself became a lie.

According to Caldwell, memes without an attachment to a specific image are easier to distort and deploy. "Catchphrases like this tend to wear out their welcome a bit quicker than other memes, as they get repeated ad nauseum across chatrooms, discussion forums and comment sections across the internet." Caldwell tells me. "The same thing happened with 'I took an arrow in the knee' as well. People got sick of it really fast."

Interest nearly dropped off completely in early 2009 before spiking on July 6 of the same year. Caldwell attributes the renewed interest to an xkcd comic referencing the tired phrase, a sentiment that returning Portal 2 writer Erik Wolpaw wholly endorsed. "If you thought you were sick of the memes, I was sick of it way ahead of you." he told Gamasutra three years into his hell child's life.  

"Cake is a lie" Google Trends search data; 2016 - Present

Discovered after its release in 2011, Portal 2 still contained one overt reference to cake via a door labeled "Cake Dispenser". The reference is the likely cause of another spike in search traffic and roused some short lived interest in the meme again. After 2011, "the cake is a lie" flatlines. 

The trend isn't surprising: popular game memes come and go with increasing frequency. As Caldwell mentioned, Skyrim's 'arrow to the knee' meme drove us all to the brink of quitting games forever, Fallout 4's Preston Garvey became the face of awful quest givers, Adam Jensen never asked for his "I never asked for this" notoriety, and we've been told "It's dangerous to go alone" at a steady rhythm for decades. 

Memes have since become their own industry. Games are harvested for sharable content the moment they release, diluting the chance for any one meme to last for more than a few months anymore. "The cake is a lie" isn't the funniest videogame meme ever produced, but we may never have another of the same scale as grassroots as Portal's baked deceit. May it rest in equally divided pieces shared among a dinner party, but may there also be a gluten free option available as well, also resting.

Great memes never truly die, I suppose. Jump to 2:45. 

"The cake is a lie" lived like its subject: short and sweet. Its impact was dissolved in misguided overuse, a fate most memes share. Even so, Caldwell thinks while the cake jokes will become extinct in the next decade, he doesn't think we'll ever forget them. "Portal was embraced by the internet in a way that few games had been up until that point. If anything, Portal (and "the cake is a lie") proved that video games could have vibrant, creative online fandoms just like other forms of entertainment." 

Now, those vibrant fandoms are the status quo. Even the smallest games have their own subreddits or Discord servers spilling over with fan art and community curated memes. From Dusk's soap secrets to PUBG's chicken dinner, we'll be entertained and overburdened with an endless cycle of exhaustive catchphrases and hackneyed JPEGs captioned with Impact lettering from now until the end of everything.  

Begrudgingly, I have to admit that as irritating as "the cake is a lie" became, without it there would be no gentle aura buzzing around Portal's history. We'd look back on it as a great puzzle game with bold, surprising ideas, but we may not have a cultural touchstone for how it made us feel. And I may not have this dumb back tattoo that I still adore in secret, a browser history I can't erase unlike the memes I laugh at and share with alarming frequency. 

Cakes are rarely the apex of humor, but Portal proves the memes that sprout from great games come from a gentle place, too.

Half-Life 2

Ten years. It almost doesn’t seem that long since we left Gordon Freeman in the ashes of a dead world, frozen in time with increasingly little chance of the enigmatic G-Man showing up to conclude business. The promise of Half-Life: Episode Three never really died, kept alive by jokes and hopes and increasingly desperate attempts to see a ‘3’ even hinted in anything Valve did.

Going back to Episode Two though, it’s not too surprising. The industry’s brief fascination with episodic content was a bad idea for basically everyone not called Telltale, which approached it by carefully working out pipelines for content and limited and games where one team could be working on one episode while another team did the prep-work for the next, allowing games within a couple of months. Valve, like Ritual with SiN: Episodes, was effectively looking at a new game every time, each time having to be bigger and better for a likely diminishing playerbase.

Even by 2007, and upgraded over the years with effects like HDR lighting and improved models, the Source engine was starting to creak. Tech aside, the Half-Life 2 world that had looked so real back in 2004 now felt distinctly blocky retrograde in the wake of games like BioShock and Crysis and Call of Duty 4, which, yes, was a very different style, but took shooter set-pieces to crazy levels of polish and inspiration. For Half-Life to continue as a blockbuster, it had to take that generational leap again, and at this point Valve was already turning its attention elsewhere. Soon it was too late. It could risk leaving a gaming generation blueballed over a sequel (and of course the lady equivalent!). It couldn’t so easily risk a Half-Life that didn’t set the world on fire, and it wasn’t long before it was hard to imagine what Episode Three versus a full sequel could realistically do.

That’s not to dismiss Episode 2, though. Like the best DLC/add-ons, Valve treated the Episodes not just as more Half-Life 2, but a way of exploring the potential of the game and expand what that actually meant. Episode 1 for instance reversed the order that you got the weapons, cranked up the feel of City 17 being under siege and playing your part in a warzone, and focused on the team-up of Gordon and Alyx Vance, after the largely solitary travels of Half-Life 2 proper.

The keyword of Episode Two was ‘freedom’. Kinda. To a point. It certainly wasn’t a game like, say, STALKER, where you could head off in whatever direction you wanted and fight the evil Combine. The path through the game was linear. However, it was also considerably wider, giving you a car and moving out of caves and streets and other very controlled areas to the relatively open roads of the White Forest and its abandoned houses and waypoints. One of its best set-pieces involves defending an empty inn from attack by both regular troops and the game’s new Hunter enemies, and running around from window to window to take on the attackers as they break down the doors and try to swarm you. It’s an open combat environment that feels like a carefully laid trap by the enemies rather than simply holding out against waves, as with a remarkably tedious antlion fight earlier, where you’re running upstairs to shoot out of windows and then back down as guys burst in, and otherwise trying to watch your flanks like an actual guerrilla warfare situation.

The thing is that replaying the game, despite having fond memories of wandering around the countryside and so on, the road trip is only about an hour of its running time. The first part is all underground, in a tedious trek through a maze of antlion tunnels, and just as you’re starting to enjoy the driving around, it’s over, give or take some conversations with NPCs that definitely didn’t drag on this much in 2004-2007 and can’t be sped up no matter how much junk you throw in their faces with the gravity gun (still, incidentally, one of the greatest weapons ever invented).

Only then do you get another taste of freedom with the final boss—another non-linear base defence bit, this time involving a car, attacking Striders, and the expansions’ one new weapon—a bomb created by new character (but old Black Mesa scientist) Magnusson. It’s a fun, tense standoff that certainly beats the heck out of fighting Nihilanth in the first game, or the dark matter Skeeball that ended Half-Life 2, but it’s also over pretty quickly. Like so much of the episode, the openness feels transitionary—the acceptance that Half-Life needed to grow into something new and the realisation that the tricks that were so cool in 2004 were wearing thin. Even then it gets some fun use out of physics, like smashing open a door with a carefully positioned cart, but still.

It remains a fun enough shooter, but the reality versus the memory is definitely unsatisfying. It doesn’t help that it’s the middle part of a trilogy, and in Empire Strikes Back fashion, one that exists primarily to set up the finale. Emotionally, it ends on a low, with a big win for our heroes, but the brutal murder of a major character right in front of both Gordon and Alyx. The job isn’t just unfinished, it’s unfinished leaving at least one big maggot-shaped alien needing a kicking.

Luckily, we now have at least some idea of how things would have gone, courtesy of writer Marc Laidlaw’s "Epistle 3". This not-exactly-coded ‘fanfic’ took the form of a letter from one 'Gertie Fremont' to find a ship called the 'Hyperborea' in the Antarctic and defeat the evil 'Disparate', and tells of a last-ditch suicide mission to the heart of the alien menace, before loyal partner 'Alex Vaunt' gets whisked away by a mysterious suited presence and 'Gertie' is likewise pulled from the action by the not-Vortigaunts. In short, a more explosive cliffhanger, not a big series finale.

The challenge facing Episode 3

It’s important to note that even outside the tongue-in-cheek premise, Laidlaw wasn’t the only writer of the Episodes, no longer works for Valve, there were no doubt many revisions of the story (Laidlaw himself has said that ‘Like most things in the HL series, answers are developed strictly as needed’ —there is no official big secret to be revealed about, say, the identity of the G-Man) and it’s anyone’s guess how Episode Three would actually have played out. Still, it’s both more than we usually get when series fizzle out, and better than leaving Gordon staring at a corpse for all eternity.

Now, if some of this sounds harsh towards Episode Two, it’s largely in retrospect. At the time, even with its issues, it was an exciting step forward for the series and a fresh take on things. Half-Life 2 in all its forms is still stunningly playable for its age compared to most of its peers, helped by its commitment to staying within Gordon’s POV and its set-pieces typically flowing naturally and designed around the game rather than being a flashy background to climb over or simply witness. Episode Two was a great couple of hours of action, even if it was somewhat upstaged by the other parts of The Orange Box—Portal’s sheer novelty, and the beyond-wonderful early TF2.

There’s a reason that everyone wanted Episode Three so much, and it wasn’t just to see what happened next. While Episode Two wasn’t Valve’s best moment, it was Valve at its most exciting time creatively. The company that would do something like The Orange Box. The company that had overcome everyone’s early dislike of Steam to create a platform people actually wanted to use. The company that could do absolutely anything, make whatever game it wanted, and be guaranteed to deliver. The promise of Episode Three, much like Half-Life 2 before it, was that it could be anything but was sure to be great. And maybe the result could have lived up to that. 

Maybe. Or maybe not. We’ll never know for sure.

But at least we can savour what we actually got. 

We’ll always have City 17.

Team Fortress 2

Not long ago, every first-person shooter had to have a multiplayer mode. Part of multiplayer's job in the late '00s and early '10s was to extend the lifespan of your purchase—to keep Xbox and PlayStation owners' copies in their homes and off of GameStop's second-hand shelves after they finished a six or ten-hour campaign.  

It was a dark time for FPS players. We got underwhelming and under-supported multiplayer for games like F.E.A.R, Crysis, Singularity, Prey, Homefront, Far Cry 3, Medal of Honor, Call of Juarez, Duke Nukem Forever, Rage, and Syndicate. In the worst cases, the multiplayer modes of these games contorted the themes and designs into competitive forms. Spec-Ops: The Line lead designer Cory Davis described the multiplayer component of his game years later as "a cancerous growth," saying that "the game mechanics were raped to make it happen, and it was a waste of money."

One surprise to come out of this era was BioShock 2, which fully embraced the awkwardness of turning the intricate story and setting of Rapture into a deathmatch. You played as one of 10 unique characters living in Rapture at the outset of the civil war. Each had their own backstory, melee weapon art, and loads of custom, situation-specific dialogue that you'd hear during matches (Mlle Blanche de Glace, a French actress, might say "So strange on this side of the camera," when using the Research Camera to earn a damage buff against an enemy). BioShock 2 characters' appearance was tied to their progression—as they leveled up, they'd look more and more like a mutated Splicer, a reflection of their abuse of ADAM. The multiplayer lobby itself was a Rapture apartment, and your character would receive new, unique messages on their answering machine. 

The whole thing was framed as a prequel for the first BioShock, grounded in an idea that's only taken hold over the past few years: yes, you can and should put story into a multiplayer FPS.

image by RAGEPANDDEMOMAN

Talking it out

Credit for killing the trend of tacked-on multiplayer should go to Team Fortress 2. In the 10 years since The Orange Box, Valve's spy-fi FPS has made plenty of contributions to the genre, to Steam, and to the PC. But most significantly, it helped teach the industry, and games like BioShock 2, how to tell stories in competitive multiplayer games.

We take it for granted now, but in 2007, TF2's addition of dozens—eventually hundreds—of situationally-triggered character voice lines was innovative. Without watching a cutscene or reading a dull menu blurb, players would be hit over the head with the idea that the Scout loves baseball ("I'm battin' a thousand!"; "Yo, I oughta' be on a baseball card!"), or that the Soldier is an over-the-top nationalist ("You are now a conscientious objector to being dead, hippie!" after dominating another, apparently lesser Soldier; or "Your white flag does not stop American bullets," to the Spy). 

The Spy has his own set of lines that mock the Scout after a kill. I like "May I borrow your earpiece? [mimicking Scout] 'This is Scout! Rainbows make me cry! Over," but the best one has to be "Well, off to visit your mother!" a reference to the canon relationship between Spy and Scout's mom (this literally haunts the Scout's dreams) and a special reward for sticking a knife into the fastest character in the game. We'd see a similar system in Left 4 Dead just a year later.

The voice lines are more than gags: they're economical hits of characterization, taken passively in the breaths between TF2's combat, that lessen the repetition of playing 2fort for the two-thousandth time. One by one, they form a tapestry of connections between TF2's nine classes, reinforcing the hide-and-seek game that Spies and Pyros play, or the symbiotic relationship between the Heavy and Medic.

Some of this is owed to how integrated Valve's writers were into the development of TF2 during this part of the studio's history. "[W]e don’t have a strict wall between design and writing," Valve writer Erik Wolpaw said in 2011. "We’re all together in the same room, designers and writers." You can see the fruits of this integration of writers in TF2's biggest updates, which made new patches not simply 'content,' but richly-themed events led by their fiction, rather than their features.

The massive WAR! update in 2009 solidified the template we'd see for years to come. Even by today's standards, the patch was an avalanche of lore, weapons, new systems, and excitement that made the seven days it lasted a special experience for players. The highlights:

  • Kicked off a weeklong contest between Soldier and Demoman players. Via the TF2 wiki: "A kill tracker appeared in the HUD of anybody playing as a Demoman or Soldier, with the counter increasing each time they (as a Soldier) killed an enemy Demoman or they (as a Demoman) killed an enemy Soldier." Whichever side won would earn a new weapon for their class.
  • Launched an official Propaganda Contest, calling for fan art (that in turn helped market TF2 to the wider gaming community) focused around the war between Demomen and Soldiers. The winner of the Propaganda Contest, J.Axer, received a one-of-a-kind cosmetic item, a Towering Pillar of Hats with a ribbon pinned to it.
  • Six new items, for either the Soldier or the Demoman, were made available.
  • Valve published a 21-page comic that formed a backstory for the update: the Demoman and Soldier had become friends, which in the eyes of TF2's in-game announcer, the Administrator, had to be put to an end.
  • Published a series of web pages that colorfully housed all the information around this update, which also included easter eggs like the Shakespearicles portrait.
  • Oh, and crafting was added.

Framing the addition of a new item as a time-sensitive dramatic event in the TF2 timeline that players themselves had to participate in in order to resolve was a brilliant act of marketing, and we see this concept replicated in competitive games like Overwatch, Destiny 2, CS:GO, and Dota 2. "A secret, exclusive seventh weapon has also been developed by the TF2 team," wrote the TF2 Blog. "In other words, either the Soldier or the Demo (but NOT both) is walking out of this update with one more weapon than the other. If you want your class to have it, you're going to have to fight for it." 

The Soldier and the Demo were natural rivals that, up until that point, hadn't had their yin-and-yangness formally expressed. They were both splash-damage classes with different styles: firing parabolically, or firing in a straight line. They could both use their weapons to propel themselves forward. An ordinary sticky bomb kill on cp_well, scored that week, had new meaning, adding to the overall body count.

All of this fun helped to soften the introduction of a new crafting system, laying the groundwork for TF2's item economy. Valve would use this technique again when it introduced paid items and loot crates a year later not as a storefront, but in the form of a fictional character entity: Mann Co. Although it wasn't without controversy and uproar, again, narrative framing and ample humor softened the landing microtransactions made on TF2, a much riskier and more novel concept in 2010 than it is today. You weren't buying items from Valve, you were buying them from a shirtless Australian.

Made to last

It's true that plenty of Team Fortress 2's storytelling has been done outside of its .exe, in comics, short videos, blogs, and marketing imagery. But in widening where its story was being told, Team Fortress 2 broke an old way of thinking, that a singleplayer campaign was the beginning and end of a game's fiction. It's part of the reason we've stopped seeing multiplayer shoehorned into shooters like Prey, Wolfenstein, and Deus Ex.

That approach has produced some of the most well-rounded and memorable multiplayer characters ever, ones that rival protagonists and villains from conventional games. When Blizzard announced Overwatch in 2014, game director Jeff Kaplan “If people want to compare Overwatch to Team Fortress 2, we would take that as the world’s greatest compliment," said Kaplan. “We love that game; it’s probably one of my favourite games of all time. Those guys are geniuses," he said.

Not many FPSes are being played enthusiastically by a million-and-a-half people 10 years after release. But Quake, Unreal Tournament, Counter-Strike, Rainbow Six, and Battlefield don't have 15-minute short films about fighting giant loaves of mutant bread.

Portal

To celebrate 10 years of the Orange Box, we're publishing the original PC Gamer reviews from our archives. All three games were reviewed by Tom Francis in issue 180 of the magazine. The reviews capture our excitement at the release of a bundle containing three 90+ rated games. October 2007 was a great month for PC games.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two review

Last night I had a really weird dream. I dreamt that instead of ending where it ended, Half-Life 2 just carried on after the explosion at the top of the Citadel. Vortigaunts rescued me, then Alyx hugged me, and I ended up catching a train out of town into a countryside full of tiny Striders. Then a Combine Advisor made me do my uni finals all over again, only this time I hadn’t revised and the papers were all in Chinese. And I was naked. 

It’s surreal that Valve are still churning out more Half-Life 2, three years on. As beautifully crafted as Episode One was, it did tread on a lot of its parent’s toes. Episode Two certainly doesn’t do that. It turbos away from them at 90 miles an hour in a customised Dodge Charger, with Alyx riding shotgun. 

I won’t spoil any details, but Ep2 is what happens after you and Alyx break free of City 17 once and for all. The setting for most of your previous adventures is nothing more than a smouldering scar on Episode Two’s skyline, and the Citadel looks like a longfinished game of girder-Jenga. Because of that, and because you spend a lot of time driving a car that could have swerved straight off the set of a postapocalyptic Dukes of Hazzard, Ep2 feels wild, dangerous and cool. 

Your time—a little under five hours—is diced into refreshingly different sections. Valve still do pacing better than anyone. They break fights with puzzles, driving with combat, solitude with friendly faces and claustrophobic tunnelrunning with epic, sweeping vistas of naturalistic landscape.

These make Ep2 feel huge. It only took me an hour longer than Episode One, but every inch of it is gorgeous uncharted territory, and there are more inches than the running time suggests. Spending a third of the episode in a supercharged two-seater means covering a lot of ground, of course, but it’s more than that. There’s an openness to a lot of Episode Two’s chilly forested landscapes that’s new to Half-Life.

Even the shotgun is newly beautiful, gleaming ominously in the sun with a convincingly weighty gunmetal sheen.

It’s all the more inviting because Episode Two is the most sumptuous chapter of the Half-Life saga, and by a country mile. It’s as if Valve’s tech and art teams are trying to outdo each other: the Source engine has had a striking technical overhaul that renders textures, materials and curves uncannily well, and the artists clearly relish having a fresh palette to work with. 

Towering conifers bristle gently in the breeze, casting soft shadows across winding mountain paths. Each toothy vortigaunt’s big peering eye glints glassily, a perfect ruby sunk into finely wrinkled brown skin. Even the shotgun is newly beautiful, gleaming ominously in the sun with a convincingly weighty gunmetal sheen. We get to see the pine-covered rocky land of this nameless nation, and it conforms to no established gameenvironment stereotype. It resembles only the real world—some proud, cold country I feel sure I’ve been to—and it has that authentic real-world grubbiness that only Valve have figured out how to recreate. 

The combat explodes across this soothing canvas with a brilliantly messy splat. Something clever involving particle physics has allowed Valve to make thick black blood, lurid yellow goo and something a lot like vomit spray repulsively from your victims with every cracking impact. The new poisonous Worker Antlions burst like bioluminescent bombs; injured Hunters drool a sticky slurry of their own innards from where their mouth should be; and when the vortigaunts fight... Jesus God. The trailers released last year showed nothing of this—some consolation for those of us who spoiled big chunks of the game for ourselves by watching them.

The three-legged Hunter creatures are the highlight of the fighting: velociraptors to the Strider’s T-rex. They’re the perfect size for Gordon-killing: compact enough to chase you indoors but hefty enough to take the shotgun blast that awaits them there. More importantly, they’re bright enough to do so when you least expect it. Valve have trained them to deduce where you’re heading and get there first by a different route, and the effect is alarming. 

They’re another departure from what we’ve previously been shown of the game: they used to fire a tiresomely familiar pulserifle burst, now they fling a torrent of bulbous azure darts on swirling trails. These thud into whatever they hit, quiver pregnantly for a moment, then detonate in a flurry of fizzling plasma pops. Cover is no longer enough: wherever you hide, in a few seconds you’re going to have to throw yourself from the room before it explodes. 

Once they’ve flushed you out with their flechettes, the Hunters use Episode Two’s wide open spaces to take a scampering runup and smack you into the stratosphere. The seemingly generic name is exactly apt: they take the initiative in combat, and nowhere is entirely safe. The Hunters continually provoke and surprise you in ways that Half-Life hasn’t since the first game’s marines. 

The sense of threat is a prevailing and escalating theme As you can see, the pistol has been beefed up a little. Once, just once, itd be nice to have a windscreen. This is what Vorts do to Antlions. of Episode Two, and it extends to the plot. You and your friends are trapped, maimed and violated in ways that are distressing on a really visceral level, and it’s properly gruesome to watch. The blood-soaked tone gives the story a force that makes it the darkest and most exhilarating chapter yet. It’s Half-Life’s Empire Strikes Back—and it even has a less snowy analogue to the Battle of Hoth.

That fight needs to be mentioned—but mustn’t be described—because it’s the first truly satisfying climax to a Half- Life game. Half-Life’s Xen was disastrous, shunting energy balls at a bigger energy ball in HL2 was uninspired, and taking down a single Strider with the RPG at the end of Ep1 was almost comically banal. But at last Valve have crafted a finale worthy of the adventure that precedes it, and the result is the largest, most open-ended and complex battle of the series. It’s also one of my favourite Half-Life moments so far, and that’s saying a lot.

Episode One seems dismally small and boring by comparison, however much I loved it at the time.

Episode Two is, needless to say, so polished that it hurts to look directly at it in sunlight—so my only criticisms are pretty feeble. The first is that it’s slightly too easy, right to the end. I wouldn’t mind if Hard mode only increased the damage you took. But it also reduces the damage you deal, and that renders almost all the game’s weapons meek and unsatisfying. Speaking of which, we still haven’t had a single new gun since the end of Half-Life 2. That game never went nine hours without introducing several new weapons, so where are our shiny new deathsticks? The armament is the only part of the Half-Life formula that’s starting to go stale. 

Episode One seems dismally small and boring by comparison, however much I loved it at the time. But the one edge it does retain over the second is Alyx: she’s not quite as charming here. There are a few really wonderful character moments with her, and one superb performance from actress Merle Dandridge, but nothing quite as heart-meltingly cute as Episode One’s Zombine joke. To be fair, that’s only because the grim plot mostly keeps her in her less convincing :o and :( emotional states. 

Still, I didn’t think it was possible for a mere episode to surprise, excite and energise me as much as it has. The simultaneous global unlocking of the next chapter of Half-Life is becoming one of the most geekily enjoyable events on the gaming calendar, even with the mortifying suspense of relying on Steam under heavy load. Not just the playing, but IMing inanities to friends while it unlocks with an agonising slowness, and retiring exhaustedly to the nearest forum afterwards to exchange breathless superlatives. “Oh, and the bit where—and then she—and the Advisors!”

Half-Life 2’s critics groan about its linearity, and its fans groan about how long it is between episodes. But the series shrugs off both complaints when you start seeing it for what it is: a series of playable movies. Better than anyone, Valve make cinema that you’re a part of—and they do it at about the same rate Warner Bros churn out new Harry Potter films. 

In Half-Life’s day, it was a compliment to say a game felt like a Hollywood movie. In the intervening years Valve have become more professional and accomplished than any visual effects studio working in Tinseltown, and now it would be an insult to liken one of their beautifully crafted works to the messy dross the American film industry churns out. 

I know some gamers love a sandbox—I’m one of them—but it always baffles me when that love seems to preclude the enjoyment of anything else. Do these people storm out of cinemas when they realise their popcorn munching isn’t controlling the actors? Are there really people who can’t enjoy a gorgeous, hurtling ride like this? That would be sad, because they’re getting seriously good. Bring on the third.

Verdict Fresh and thrillingly darkScore 93

Team Fortress 2 review

Last night I had a really weird dream. I dreamt that Valve were finally going to bring out Team Fortress 2, only they’d made it look like some crazy Pixar cartoon, it was budget-priced, and all the classes talked as you played. And I was naked. 

But here we are. This is the trouble with a dream job: you have to do it even when you’re asleep. I’m just going to review this ridiculous ‘Team Fortress 2’ fantasy until I finally wake up and discover that I am, after all, a chartered accountant. 

Let’s not dwell too much on the original mod for Quake and Half-Life—that was ten years ago, not everyone played it, and TF2 is very obviously aimed at new players as much as old. Worth mentioning, quickly, is that it’s got the same nine classes but fewer weapons for each, grenades have been removed entirely (thank God) and, well... look at it. Look what they did to it. 

The changes might sound like simplification, but like the art style it’s more about exaggeration. The Spy used to have a double-barrelled shotgun, for goodness’ sake. Taking stuff like that out hasn’t made it a simpler game, it’s made the choice to be a Spy a more meaningful one. Every class is so tightly focused on doing its thing that TF2 feels like nine different games fighting each other. That’s bewildering at first, but it’s a joy to watch characters this beautiful smash each other to pieces while you learn.

That Pixar comparison isn’t fair. TF2’s gurning murderers look better. Valve have remodelled their class-based multiplayer FPS after the work of turn-of-the-last-century illustrator JC Leyendecker. Google Image him and you’ll see the similarities in the angular, characterful silhouettes. They’re a world away from the lumpy sacks that were The Incredibles, and as it turns out, class-based multiplayer combat has long needed that distinctiveness. 

It sounds like a small thing, to be able to tell what class someone is as surely and as clearly as you can see them at all. To have an immediate sense of the heft and power of a Heavy, rather than an abstract notion of his hitpoints. But stuff like this has an intensifying effect on your moment-to-moment experience: you feel, see and comprehend the game world in Technicolor. It makes all the relationships instantly clear and the importance of your actions explicit. In short, it makes everything you do 300% cooler. 

That’s Team Fortress 2: multiplayer magnified. Cooperation means more, victory is sweeter, betrayal is more bitter, defeat more humiliating. But it’s what lies at the heart of multiplayer gaming that matters most, and that is, in the parlance of our times, the lols. 

The image of a Scout circle-strafing a Heavy quickly enough to smack him into a stupor with a tiny baseball bat is inherently funny. But it only really gets a belly-laugh when the Scout is a scampering stickboy in knee-high socks, and his victim a meat-headed brickheap of a man. Character is a catalyst for comedy, and until now multiplayer games just haven’t had it. They were already funny, but TF2 just brings it out beautifully, every round.

All that stuff—gloating, humiliation, snuff slapstick—is best with friends. But another of TF2’s charms is that you form relationships with the people you’re playing with so quickly. They might not be friendships exactly, but they add an edge of human interest to every interaction. I don’t know Gabe Newell very well, but after he’d followed me around as my personal Medic for a while, I felt like I did. The same goes for Robin Walker after he and I—as Engineers—constructed an elaborate ecosystem of killing machines that reaped dozens of enemy lives.

I don t know Gabe Newell very well, but after he d followed me around as my personal Medic for a while, I felt like I did.

That’s a quirk of the way friendly classes tessellate, but TF2 is more interested in playing up your relationship with players on the enemy team. Each time you die the game freeze-frames on your killer after a short delay, and that delay is calculated very cynically to catch him in the middle of an offensive taunt animation. Worse, the game then invites you to save this lewd image of your murderer for posterity. And the game looks so damnably good that you’re usually compelled to do it. 

Valve know we like to mock the dead, dance on graves, hump corpses. So as well as making that mockery more crushing, they’ve also made a game of it: taunting now roots you to the spot, pulls you out into third-person view to watch yourself swagger, leaving you utterly helpless. You’ve actually got to make a strategic decision about whether you’ve got a few seconds to play air guitar on your victim’s carcass or not. I’ve seen chain-reactions of death where a Sniper waves to his unfortunate victim, is shot dead mid-mock by another, who then performs the same taunt—with the same fatal result. 

The taunts, and the lines uttered alongside them, are part of the persona Valve have given each class. If you’ve seen the Meet The Heavy or Soldier trailers, you’ve had a taste of this. (See the disc for the most recent.) But the idea that your character is a character, with his own personality, is only as relevant as you make it. If you leave the taunt and chat commands alone, you’ll only really hear yourself if you’re a Heavy: the big guy can’t resist cackling deliriously if you’re getting a lot of kills, and an extraordinary spree will usually be punctuated with a bellowing “SO... MUCH... BLOOD!”

The other classes’ involuntary comments are too quiet and infrequent to hear often, but in a quiet moment I did hear the liquor-chugging Demoman mutter that “On the plus side, I already don’t remember this.” If, like me, you develop a particular fondness for one character, you can hammer the chat shortcuts and taunts to mutter battlecries at every opportunity. It was the gasmasked Pyro I fell in love with, and if you’re wondering what his voice is like, the answer is a punchline in itself: muffled. 

His battle-cry is “Mmmph mm mumph umph!” and his call for a medic is “Mmphumph!” His dumpy teardrop physique, shrew-like tiny head, waddling gait and baggy, flame-retardant suit—they all evoke an endearingly downtrodden man. So I run everywhere garbling incomprehensible insults, rocking out on my fireaxe over my crispy fallen foes, and waving my bent petrol-pump flamethrower exultantly over my head after every match; win or lose. “Mmmph mm mumph umph!” 

Most maps kick off with the two teams separated by a metal mesh that lifts after a minute, giving Engineers time to build their defences and everyone else a chance to taunt each other. The result is two rows of people jeering, singing, laughing, braying, dancing and whooping at each other in a cacophony of clashing voices. It’s a long-needed outlet for our natural tendency to pre-game smack talk, and it makes the atmosphere of the calm before the storm electric. 

TF2 comes with six maps; three are new, three are remakes. The roster doesn’t feel slim once you play them. Hydro, a control-point map split into six zones, restructures itself between rounds to put teams into one of 16 different configurations. The others are mostly a linear series of control points—all except Gravelpit, which gives attackers a choice of two to assault, and 2Fort, which remains stubbornly Capture The Flag. Capture The Intelligence, sorry.

All are heartbreakingly gorgeous. The soft lines, gentle shading, warm palettes and wonky edges set off the gaudy action magnificently. It’s tempting to pussyfoot around with weasel words such as ‘among’, ‘could be’ and ‘in years’, but screw it. Team Fortress 2 is the most beautiful game ever made. I say that as a man who’s seen Crysis running on maximum settings, and I’m not kidding or exaggerating or on any more than the usual amount of drugs. Sorry about that, every other videogame artist in the world. This was not your lifetime. 

Granary and Well are a little straightforward flow-wise, but TF2 sometimes benefits from a simpler arena. A linear series of control points might not sound like a lot of fun, but the simplicity shifts the focus to tactics and clever use of classes. My team won a round when another player crept behind the enemy lines to camp their locked-off control point, capturing it the moment it came into play. This despite the fact that he—presumably inadvertently—announced his plan to the entire enemy team by using ‘say’ instead of ‘team say’. The post-game chat revealed that they didn’t take it well: 

EricS: We’re actually going to have to erect flood barriers from all the QQing going on over here. 

Finole: I need a raft. 

Robin of Death: Driller’s quit FPSs. 

Robin of Death: And the company. 

Gravelpit is a more interesting equation: the defending team has to guess which of three tall towers the attacking team is going to gun for first. Dustbowl, meanwhile, is sure to be a cult favourite all over again: it retains the deafeningly chaotic opening, the succession of increasingly bloody chokepoints and the desperate last stand. 2Fort is faithful to the classic original in all but appearance, and makes a particularly rich playground for the more tightly focused classes.

Hydro’s more like a set of maps than a single arena, and feels a little arbitrary for it. Valve have made it this way to keep it fresh, but I’m not sure multiplayer maps need to be fresh. CS’s de_dust is great partly because we all know it so well—so is 2Fort, for that matter. Hydro’s hypermagical rejiggling just extends the period for which you’re not really sure where you’re going. We won’t know for months whether it was worth this to keep mixing things up, and I’m happy to bear with Valve’s experiment for now—some parts of Hydro are superb. 

The initial confusion of Hydro does highlight a real shortcoming of TF2, though: no minimap. Only the most co-ordinated, voice-communicating hardcore clan has any useful notion of where their team-mates are. In a game where the nine different classes are so interdependent, it’s vital to know where your turrets are set up, whether there’s a Medic nearby, and if the Heavy cavalry is on its way. Valve’s logic in omitting it is that some players never use them. Fine for those guys, but there’s no substitute for the rest of us to knowing where our team is without having to ask everyone all the time. 

Mind you, a minimap would make the Spy’s life harder. He was always Team Fortress’s most inventive class, but his new incarnation is even more extraordinary. He can disguise himself impeccably as any class of enemy, and now he can also render himself temporarily invisible to slip into their base. There’s no friendly fire in TF2, but shooting all your team-mates to uncover Spies wastes too much time and ammo to be practical. 

As a Spy in disguise you still take damage from enemies, but you’re man enough not to show it—you don’t bleed. That gives rise to a hilarious mindgame: a good Spy will take a near-lethal shotgun blast to the face from a supposed friend without flinching, confront his attacker toe-to-toe as if to say “What?”, and continue his infiltration beyond suspicion.

The Spy’s disguise-o-meter, built into his cigarette case, will give him the name of an enemy who really is the class he’s pretending to be. That means that every now and then, you experience the alarming existential crisis of encountering someone with your own name. Realising they must be an enemy Spy, you declare to your team that “The Spy’s a Soldier!” Whereupon, of course, everyone empties their magazines into you. 

If you can stay away from your namesake and take the Spy hunter’s check-shots unflinchingly, the challenge becomes to act like an enemy. I like to dress up as a Heavy, because his reassuringly enormous size makes it hard for anyone to believe he could be a slinky Spy in disguise. It also means you get healed by enemy Medics—a peculiar sensation—and that can lead to an utterly bizarre psychological dance. 

The Spy, you see, needs to get behind his victim for a one-hitkill backstab. The Medic, meanwhile, should always stay behind a Heavy for protection while he heals. So the two of you run in circles trying to get behind each other, until the Medic realises—with an almost visible pang of horror—who you really are. He draws his bonesaw, you draw your butterfly knife, and the duel commences. It’s sublime. The knife-edge between the thrill of deception and the shame of discovery makes playing a Spy more tense and thrilling than any other multiplayer experience—even the original TF’s Spy.

The other class highlights are more obvious: shredding a dozen enemies as a Medic-boosted Heavy, bolting past a superior force as a Scout with the briefcase in 2Fort, and detonating enough pipe bombs as a Demoman to fill the room with blood—and the screen with kill reports. In fact, the only class that doesn’t excite is the Medic. His contribution is to heal the major players while they charge in, but he can’t do anything else while he heals so his whole life is just holding down fire. When he’s healed a thousand or so points, he can temporarily make himself and his mark invulnerable, at which point he has to... keep holding down fire. It’s so cruel that he doesn’t get to let rip after all that joyless service to his team. 

I have to admit that this, and the minimap problem, bothered me less and less the more I played. Team Fortress 2’s friendly look hides what’s still a dauntingly intricate game, and when you’re still learning the ropes, and the maps, its few flaws seem exasperating. But the measure of a multiplayer game is how much you want to go back to it. Right now I’m quivering a little, and last night I dreamt about it, so yeah. Team Fortress 2 is a bit special.

Verdict Rich, gorgeous and endlessly fun.Score 94

Portal review

Last night I had a really weird dream. I dreamt that the students who made Narbacular Drop, the space-bending indie game I played last year, had been hired by Valve to make a beautiful new version in the Half-Life universe. You played this wide-eyed girl with strange metal braces on her shins like Eli Vance’s prosthetic leg, and a droning robotic voice kept saying sinister things that I found incredibly funny. Also my Year Nine maths teacher was there. And I was naked. 

But you’re probably here to read about Portal, Valve’s first-person puzzle game about opening rifts in space to cross uncrossable obstacle courses. It’s designed around one simple but mindexpanding idea: you can shoot a hole in any wall, and then another one somewhere else, and if you walk into one you’ll come out of the other. Fire them side by side and you’ll walk straight back into the room you just left. Fire them on floor and ceiling and you’ll fall through the same room at terminal velocity forever. 

The Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (let’s face it, the portal gun) is your only weapon, but its brazenly impossible uses are endlessly fascinating to perform. The internal logic is flawless, but you somehow never grasp it entirely however hungrily your brain gropes. It is, I’m just starting to realise, abstractly kinky. Portal, honey, how can your physics be wrong when they feel so right?

The game grips you by the wrist and leads you briskly past the befuddling basics of these rifts, straight to the good stuff. Within a few short levels you’re using orthogonal portals to translate your gravitational potential into lateral velocity and flinging yourself exhilaratingly over turrets and lethal slime. By nudging you gently through rooms that cleverly lead your eye to the correct—yet patently impossible—solution, it swiftly teaches you a dazzling roster of lunatic tricks. 

Portal is a magnificent puzzle game. The titillating wrongness of every solution and the wonky thinking required to get there make you feel like a space-folding genius, and yet you’ll almost never get stuck. Soon you’ve learnt so many weird ways of perverting the forces and spaces in any room that you can throw yourself through them, like a futuristic Prince of Persia with abilities more improbable and wondrous by far. 

The solutions eventually become more gymnastic—opening new portals mid-fling and plummeting back through those you’ve previously opened with pinpoint precision. But by then you’re ready, and performing deliciously counter-logical mental inversions at breakneck speed is something to be relished.

The writing is effortlessly sharp throughout, and with its single inhuman character Portal taps a thick vein of black, absurdist humour that becomes the game s propulsive force.

The atmosphere, meanwhile, grows thickly sinister. Your singsong robot guide GLaDOS (you’ll find out what it stands for) doesn’t seem unduly invested in keeping you alive. Soon her own delusions creep into her instructions to you. “The weighted companion cube,” she announces as you snatch up a box, “will not threaten to stab you and cannot, in fact, talk. If the weighted companion cube does talk, the Enrichment Centre urges you to disregard its advice.” But as her coldly voiced lines become more murderous and surreal, they also get funnier. The writing is effortlessly sharp throughout, and with its single inhuman character Portal taps a thick vein of black, absurdist humour that becomes the game’s propulsive force. You’ll play faster just to hear the next beautifully unhinged line. 

The game escalates magnificently. The puzzles change nature, requiring your to beat the system with the tricks it taught you rather than jumping through hoops. And at the same time, the humour reaches fever pitch—GLaDOS becomes so brilliantly deranged that at times it’s hard to control yourself for laughing. The final flourish—the most inspired credits sequence I’ve ever seen—reduced me to a convulsively cackling wreck, insensible and almost in tears. This is the funniest game I’ve played since Psychonauts.

Sadly, Portal is as short as it is sweet. It took me—admittedly a Narbacular Drop veteran, international super-agent and one of the greatest minds of our time—a little under two and a half hours. That’s long enough for the story it tells, and it tells it well, but it’s so damnably good that the craving sets in as soon as the satisfaction fades. 

Depending on gamer demand, Valve say they’ll opt next for a straight sequel, a closer tie-in to the Half-Life games or some form of multiplayer. I just want more GLaDOS. Her lilting, darkly comic words of lethally unhelpful advice deserve a place in the annals of scary robo-speak, right beside “I can’t do that, Dave” and “L-look at you, hacker.” 

“If you begin to feel lightheaded from thirst,” GLaDOS chirps, “feel free to pass out.”

Verdict Brain-melting offbeat genius.Score 92

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