Mann Vs Machine: A TF2 Robocalypse

Forget zombies! Robots! Everyone loves the mass destruction of AI, who cares if they’re sentient? But hold on, we have to wait really patiently to get tickets or be matchmade to even play this crazy co-op annihilation. Oh, bother. Is it fun? Sort of, but it won’t last very long.

There was a time in my old office when Team Fortress 2 was the go-to lunchtime game when people would shovel rice and squeaky long beans into their mouths and try to blow each others’ heads off at the same time. It was exciting for awhile because I found myself switching from my usual class picks to battle my colleagues’ playstyles – until shiny Battlefield 3 came along, and then all was forgotten. Life happened. Other games happened.

Cut to more than a year later, and Valve announces co-op mode for TF2. I am thrilled because I always buy into their marketing, especially after Pyro-vision. But on launch day I had to wait. And I waited. Long. Only until 3 days later did my boyfriend find a less obvious way to jump the queue and land in a proper server where you’re not perpetually on Team Spectator.

Before you start blasting robots into scrap metal you have to choose which mode you want: Mann Up or Boot Camp. Boot Camp is pretty much your standard TF2 fare, just that you and/or your party have to be matchmade to a server that is either empty or has just the right amount of space to accommodate. It’s just horrible waiting at least five minutes for a server, only to have it say, “Any moment now,” and then have the clock reset to some inhumane timing like 15 minutes. It switched me off a couple of times. Maybe it’s because I don’t live in the US.

Mann Up, on the other hand, makes you fork out cash to buy tickets or vouchers in order to play and obtain items through mission completion. Nothing special about the items because they’re the same as what you get with your regular TF2 games. When you complete six missions, you get something fancy to decorate yourself with. Frankly, I’d much rather buy a hat direct from the Mann Co. store. If you lose or quit, your ticket/voucher is not consumed.

It’s always best to go in with a full team because the number of bots marching in the 6-8 waves remains constant and swarming. 6 players, the max possible in a server, give you a fighting chance to stop them from advancing and dropping a nuke in your base. The nuke falls harmlessly to the ground when you eliminate the bot carrying it.

I don’t have a particularly impressive arsenal of weapons so my team of 3 was easily overwhelmed by wave 4 or 5. It’s not difficult because the AI is simply forward-marching and you know what path they’re going to walk, but team coordination is still of paramount importance. I can’t express how annoyed I felt when engineers looked to frag more than support team mates. Grr. Perhaps you might also like to consider revisiting some equipment you have rotting in your inventory because they can be more effective in MvM than you think.

Before and between waves you can upgrade your physical/weapon stats with the money you pick up from downed robots. These range from increased damage and ammo capacity to better jump height, health regen and movement speed – all specific to your choice of class. No need to fight over the cash, everyone gets the same amount. If you pick up $100 your pals get $100 too. At the end of every wave, you can see how much money you missed out on with an alphabetical credit rating, so make sure you grab everything because bonus cash will be granted for getting an A+. The only problem with the upgrade system is that you’ll lose all your upgrades when you swap out for another class. This means that you’re most likely try to max out your chosen class throughout all waves, or try to adapt by swapping classes and be noticeably weaker for the last half of the sessions. Give and take. After completing all waves, the map changes and you start from zero again.

The bots themselves are really just mechanical versions of every class. They have giant versions of scouts, demomen, heavies, soldiers and pyros, and these more resilient versions can be annoying if you don’t have the right team combination to take them down effectively. Before each wave, there are several icons at the top of the screen to let you know what kind of enemy you’ll be facing and how many, which is convenient, but it may have been better to just randomly generate them. It’s almost like Valve is trying to make life easier for us.

MvM has two additional irritants added to the enemy front line. First there’s a mace-headed Sentry Bomber, the bane of all engineers because they specifically track down sentry guns and blow everything up (including you, if you’re) within a certain radius. There’s also a large, slow tractor-looking tank carrying a giant bomb which will keep trudging on towards your base until you can take it down with sheer firepower. It can get challenging when you have to juggle the progress of both the tank and the bots carrying the loose bomb, but if you upgraded enough and you have great team synergy, it’ll be a walk in the park. My team is somewhat of an uncoordinated mess, but it’s good bonding with my mates.

While fun at the moment, MvM only has three dedicated maps on rotation to satiate your machine-killing needs. I’m grateful that Valve even provided us with a new bit of TF2 to enjoy, but the same 3 maps on rotation are going to get repetitive. I’m afraid this won’t hold my interest as long as it would if, say, they made MvM versions of the payload or capture-the-flag maps. Another reason why enthusiasm will wane faster than expected: setting a predetermined path where the bots travel makes it a little lazy. Yes, AI will never be as enjoyable as human players, but if they can maintain a fraction of that challenge by making AI behaviour more unpredictable, I’d see better longevity with MvM.

Have to give it to Valve though, for putting in effort to create additional content/fun for TF2 faithful. It’s that kind of gesture that makes existing players feel like they are cared for. I have the fuzzy wibbles just feeling the love.

Talky talk

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