Team Fortress 2: war-themed hat simulator, subject of endless promotional item tie-ins, purveyour of comical delights to amuse and terrify.
And then, from nowhere: co-op mode. Horde mode. Mann vs. Machine. You against the robots, with nothing on the line but the potential for a digital hat to appear in your inventory – increased, naturally, by whether or not you’re willing to lay down some of your own money and purchase a Ticket. Or is that a Voucher? It’s so hard to keep track.
Hell is other people
My first experience with Mann vs. Machine was less then compelling. Myself and five friends sat in a lobby, watching an unashamedly incorrect ‘estimated wait’ timer tick down from 22 minutes to zero of the course of 43 actual minutes. It took so long I actually went and did my taxes.
Oh, and then there was the bit where the estimated time remaining was “???”, which was right before the game tried to throw us all into a server but then crashed and dumped us all back at the loading screen. I think I may have legitimately ragequit. It was like Error 37 all over again.
Depending on when you play, it’s still like this. There’s just not enough servers up to sustain demand, and since each server can only hold six humans at a time, they fill up fast. Even if you do get in, there’s no way to be reliably sure you’ll get a server with a playable ping, which is something Australians have enough trouble with at the best of times. We’ve added a
dozen servers of our own nearly 30 servers of our own, and it’s still not enough.
So by now, everybody on earth has figured out that the only reliable way to play Mann vs. Machine mode – at least for the moment – is to host your own server. You can find more information on that over at the TF2 Wiki, or get some help in our own TF2 forums.
Let’s do it live
Assuming you’ve got a friend who has the goods necessary to host a server for you, you’re set. And the cherry on the DIY cake is that Mann vs. Machine mode is a stupid amount of fun. It’s designed to perfection: whether you’re screaming as hundreds of robo-Scouts swarm through the level, passing the bomb between them faster than you can pick them off, or screaming as a Tank relentlessly grinds its way towards the bomb and you’re all smashing it with everything you’ve got but it’s not fast enough it’s not enough it’s not enough aaaaaa, the game pushes all the right buttons.
There’s only three levels for now, but presumably map makers will be rushing their own out soon. Each riffs off a colour palette and theme from the main game, with Decoy, Coal Town and Mannworks all offering interesting and fiendish avenues in which to banish robots.
Engineers will have a hard time in particular figuring out exactly where to place their gear: with the amount of robot killing you’ll all have to do, you can’t keep your dispenser to itself, so you might be tempted to set up your kit on the front lines. But then you’ll find yourself the victim of a Sentry Buster, and the blast radius will take out any unfortunate members of your team hanging around. And that’s not counting the Tanks that will just roll straight over your gear if you’ve built it in one of the lanes.
Upgrades, downgrades and buy-ins
Perhaps the most fiendish mechanic on offer in Mann vs. Machine is the buy-in: if you die, you can spend some of your hard-earned cash to bypass the spawn timer and get back into the action straight away. However, the cost for doing so increases each time, to the point where you’ll have to toss up between waiting 10 seconds and hoping your friends can take care of the gigantic Demoman firing grenades the size of watermelons just so you can afford the next upgrade — or taking one for the team and buying back in.
The upgrade system is intuitive and compelling, enabling you to pull off rates of fire and damage that would make you an unstoppable monster in the regular TF2 game. Fortunately you can respec at any time, and since you can see what will be in any given wave before it arrives, this can often be a good idea.
A breath of robotic fresh air
Co-op horde games are having somewhat of a renaissance at the moment, with Orcs Must Die!, Sanctum, and even Mass Effect 3‘s multiplayer mode all proving that teaming up together against an unending wave of enemies is great fun no matter how you slice it. To their credit, Valve have kept Mann vs. Machine mode completely free to play and, although the system by which one can shut up and give them money is somewhat unclear, you don’t need to drop a dime to have a blast.
If you’ve got a friend who can host up a server for you, put some time aside and try it tonight – or just wait a little bit longer until the frothing mania dies down.