Review: Team Fortress 2: Mann vs. Machine

It’s hard to believe Team Fortress 2 is 5 years old. I remember waiting breathlessly for the Orange box to come out, unable to decide which game I’d play first: TF2 or Episode Two of Half-Life. There was also some puzzle game included as a bonus, but puzzle games are lame.

Three days of nothing but the amazing Portal have since proved that last thought incorrect, but over time I came to love Team Fortress 2. I was shocked, in preparation for this review, that I hadn’t played in almost a year. Thanks Steam for making the passage of time so blatant.

Last summer Team Fortress 2 went free to play, and to mix things up (and get some players back, no doubt), they’ve added a new mode: Mann vs. Machine. It’s pretty awesome.

If you’ve never heard of TF2, I’m shocked, but here’re the basics: two teams battle it out in a variety of different game modes. Some modes, like King of the Hill and Capture the Flag, are pretty self-explanatory. Other modes like Payload require escorting a bomb-laden cart across a map, and Control Point maps require you to capture and hold —  you guessed it  — control points.

The brilliance of TF2 is not just in its map design and quirky aesthetics, but in the variety and balance of its nine classes. I won’t bore you with descriptions for all, other than to say each plays very differently with strengths and weaknesses benefiting their different specialties.

The new Mann vs Machine mode is an interesting twist. You and five teammates must defend against increasingly difficult waves of computer-controlled robots. The robots are all mechanized versions of the TF2 classes.

It’s hard not to make the comparison to Valve’s own Left for Dead series, where a small team must progress through waves and waves of zombies.

Robots drop cash when killed, so in between waves you can use the cash your team has collected to upgrade your character. Bonuses include increased damage, health regen from kills, incoming damage reduction and so on. There’re also class-specific bonuses like a second sentry for Engineers, increase airblast distances for Pyros, and increased overheal amounts for Medics. Adding customizability is hardly ever a bad thing. Sadly, there’s no carryover of your mad new skillz to other games.

Playing through a few rounds (MvM launched this week), I found the play to be wonderfully frenetic.  The AI is surprisingly good, if less vicious and vindictive than human opponents. The rounds seem to go faster than with the “regular” game, as there’s always some place to be, some teammate to assist, and always more robots to kill. That latter point is probably the biggest difference. The most you’d be up against in the old game was 16 other players (more on modified servers), but you never had the overwhelming wave feel like you get with MvM. I’m not sure how many robots are in each wave, but when your team is only 6, it feels like a lot.

There is only one issue with the new mode I’ve found, and it’s pretty significant. There are only a finite number of servers, especially if you’re like me and refuse to play on servers where I have more than a 50 ping. Where servers could once hold around 31 other active players, now they only hold 5. The number of potential slots open to play has shrunk significantly. So there’s a lot more waiting on servers hoping someone will drop so you can play. I imagine this will become less of a problem as the initial swell of returning players wanes. Until then, it’s a little annoying.

The best thing? It’s all free. If you’ve never played TF2, or like me had moved on to other games, the new MvM mode is well worth checking out — and inevitably getting hooked on.