I have a bitter relationship with Team Fortress 2. I tried to get into it a few times (once in 2008, then again in 2010) and just didn't see much lasting appeal in it. I'm not a big fan of PVP shooters in the first place, and once TF2 became a hat simulator I almost completely wrote it off. Then more and more of my friends started playing and I got dragged back into it. I still hold very mixed opinions of the PVP modes (sometimes it's real fun, other times it's stale and monotonous, other times it's pure rage-inducing), so my curiosity was piqued when a new co-op mode was released: Mann vs Machine.
The concept sounded vaguely similar to that of Killing Floor, a game in which I've invested hundreds of hours over the past two years; both are co-op shooters with six players per team, both task you with fighting waves of mindless droning enemies, and both have you spending collected money at a trader between waves. Essentially, Mann vs Machine is Killing Floor with TF2 classes and its own unique premise, and I think it has the potential to be a really great game mode. I've had a lot of fun with MVM over the past week, but I do have a few issues with it. Here's my pseudo-review of MVM.
The basic premise is that Gray Mann wants to take over Mann Co, and thus sends out hordes of his robot army in an attempt to bomb various Mann Co sites. With a team of five other players, you fight an army comprised of robotic variations of TF2 classes who are trying to carry a bomb from one side of the map to the other. It's loosely similar to a typical payload match in that regard; kill the robot carrying the bomb and prevent others from swooping in to pick it up. The bomb-carrying robot follows a pre-determined path across the level (which varies from wave to wave, indicated by blue signposts during the downtime between waves).
The trailer for Mann vs Machine
Each TF2 class gets its own unique robotic version to fight against. The aesthetic design of the gray horde evokes close resemblances to the stylized nature of the regular classes, looking instantly distinguishable and having their own fun designs. Each wave sends out a different mixture of robots to fight with different varieties of each robot type, including occasional giant versions with increased health and damage-dealing capabilities and heavily-armored tanks that slowly deliver their own bomb to the bomb site. Waves get harder as you progress towards the final wave.
Killing enemies causes them to drop wads of cash on the ground, which then has to be collected by a player before it disappears. Collected money goes to a universal pool which is distributed equally among the team. In the downtime between waves, you can spend money at the trader upgrading your weapons and stats, improving your damage, rate of fire, reload speed, movement speed, jump height, and so on, as well as adding unique attributes to weapons like +25 health per kill, bullets that penetrate through enemies, or causing knock-back on hit. With a canteen earned from completing your first MVM mission, you can also buy consumable power-boosts like crit-charges, uber-charges, and ammo restoration.
The best thing about MVM is that it adds so many new varieties to way you can play your class, just based on the upgrade system alone. There's an extra degree of strategic decision-making between waves in terms of which combination of classes to use and which upgrades to buy. It's sometimes pretty difficult weighing how much money you have with which upgrades you want the most, and which ones will be most beneficial for the upcoming wave. If I want my sentry to survive longer, should I increase its maximum health, or increase my wrench's attack speed so I can repair it faster?
Besides all that, it's just really fun getting through eight waves and having all kinds of crazy upgrades for your character, making you feel like a super-powered machine-slaying beast. It goes above and beyond all of the conventional gameplay you've grown so accustomed to over the last five years, and the matches themselves can offer a tough, rewarding challenge. They often come down to clutch performances from key classes and everyone working together as a cohesive unit, which makes co-op matches just as fun (if not more so) than traditional PVP matches.
Corpses everywhere surrounding the bomb, including my own.
What I like most about MVM is that it turns my favorite class, the Scout, into a versatile, essential part of the team. In the PVP modes, there are a lot of instances when the Scout is simply not a viable option. Many payload maps, for example, rely heavily on one-way chokepoints which completely negate the Scout's mobility and prevent him from flanking as he's supposed to. With MVM, the Scout's primary job is to collect money, which is absolutely essential to survive in later waves. He already has better mobility than the other classes, but he also has a much wider collection radius and gains over-heal bonuses for money drops. This allows the Scout to stay on the front lines collecting more money and dishing out constant damage. I've had over 800 health at one point when playing Scout, and an upgraded scattergun with the Fan O War makes him a viable damage-dealing class as well.
While the Scout is almost essential, you pretty much need to have certain classes to survive reliably in MVM. Engineers, for example, deal out a ton of damage with their sentries and can hold the line almost on their own. I've played a lot of matches where we struggled to get past even the early waves, which then became a piece of cake once I or someone else switched to Engineer. Spies and Snipers seem to get the short end of the stick in terms of MVM -- both are great for dealing high "spike damage" to big targets, but suffer big time in terms of damage-per-second. When I tried playing Spy and Sniper, I felt really ineffective at dealing with the horde of smaller enemies which comprise a majority of most waves. I always feel like I contribute the most to the group by playing Scout or Engineer.
The main issue I have with MVM is that the difficulty doesn't seem to scale based on the number of players in a match. It's designed to be played by a full group of six people, so if two people in your team rage-quit, the difficulty is increased for the remaining players by 33%. It's very easy, therefore, to get stuck in a vicious cycle of failure -- your team fails a wave three times in a row, so people get frustrated (understandably) and quit, making it harder for the remaining players, frustrating them even more while they wait for more people to join. Then you've got issues of an unstable group with people constantly dropping in and out, unable to find a groove which continues to frustrate people.
This is the most ridiculous, OP team setup I've tried
It doesn't help that the advanced modes (which comprise 66% of the available missions) seem incredibly difficult for a random pub group to succeed at. You really need a coordinated group playing the right classes, taking the right upgrades, who are good players in their own right, in order to succeed in the advanced modes. I can see this being a very satisfying challenge for hardcore players, but the "normal" difficulties are almost too easy for a group of halfway competent players. There doesn't seem to be much middle-ground. I usually get through an entire normal match in 20 minutes with relative ease, and then spend 90 minutes trying to get past one, single wave in advanced mode.
Mann vs Machine also suffers from limited maps. Right now there are only three, and two of them feel very similar because they both have a Western theme. Each map has three different missions you can play (one normal, two advanced) with different waves in each mission. You can keep things varied by playing different classes and taking different upgrades, but after a while the maps and missions start to feel pretty repetitive. I played three matches as Scout with the same group of people, and then started to feel bored and switched to Heavy. After playing one round and missing a lot of cash, everyone asked me to switch back; it was nice seeing people appreciate the Scout and being specifically asked to play my favorite class, but you can only play one class so long before it gets a little monotonous.
So with one week of Mann vs Machine, those are my thoughts on it. It has some issues preventing me from getting fully onboard with it, but I like the premise and think it has a lot of potential to develop into a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I think I'll probably find more lasting appeal with the co-op mode, as compared to the various PVP modes -- here's hoping Valve continues to update and improve MVM.