The lights are on
Anyone who has ever played Team Fortress 2 has probably played Dustbowl. Endlessly replayable and endlessly entertaining, the push-and-pull struggle for control points that always exists on this map makes it a classic if there ever was one.
Dustbowl is a three-part map that involves capturing or defending two control points in succession in each stage. Dustbowl adheres to Team Fortress’s aesthetic love of the western frontier and old mining towns. It’s a simple yet perfect art style. With wood farmhouses and structures dotting the map, it’s charmingly unassuming – a perfect place for chaos.
But it is not the art style that makes Dustbowl memorable, it is the design. It is a map so smartly crafted that new strategies can be devised after hours of playing. What I love personally about Team Fortress 2 is that it allows for strategy and mid-game adjustments depending on the situation. Of course, you could pick soldier and just play with that class for 300 hours and have a good time, but it’s more interesting to vary it up.
What’s great about Team Fortress 2, and Dustbowl especially, is that it’s built around experimentation. The game’s inclusion of nine different classes is impressive in and of itself, but different classes are effective at different times. I ended up on a rotation of pyro, engineer, soldier, spy, or medic depending on the scenario. Everyone by nature of what their play style is will have different experiences and different memorable moments, but here are some of mine.
Getting to the first control point of the second stage is one of the hardest tasks in Dustbowl. The offense starts out of a bunker and it’s easy for the defense to place sentries on top of the structure to the left to rain death on the opposing team. It usually takes a team effort of ubered heavies and demo-men on offense to break the defenses. Even when that happens, the control point is elevated so there will be pyros and soldiers and engineers lurking in the building where the control point is.
What I figured out after hours of playing – and I’m sure countless others have too – is that there is an innocuous pile of tires right behind the building, where you can jump up and get to the control point easily. Everything is placed with intention in Dustbowl. So if you’re a spy, you can turn invisible for just long enough, jump up on the tires, and come out of invisibility when you reach the control point. If you do it early and you’re lucky, the enemy team will be too busy fighting near the bunkers to realize what’s happening and you can capture it within 30 seconds. When I first accomplished this, I felt like a genius. Most of the time puzzle games are the genres that make the player feel smart, not shooters. But that’s what’s great about TF2 – it was part of the game design to let players figure that out.
On, the defensive side, the savvy map layout makes careful choice of player location vital. For example, in the first point of the first stage, my strategy was to be an engineer and build a sentry on the elevated tracks right inside the doorway of the control point and sandwich myself between the sentry and a dispenser. This way, even if the opposition started shooting at it, I could just keep hitting and repairing my sentry as it was taking damage. It would be insanely hard to take down. I’ve also seen snipers stand in the corner and just rip people up, and demo-men stand behind the building on the left and use sticky bombs to wreck the competition.
Once the first control point gets captured in Dustbowl, the match can go in almost any direction. I’ve seen games where two scouts blitz the second capture point and the match is over before the defending team even respawns. Usually though, it turns into a heavyweight fight. Defending the second control point in stage two, for example, is an engineer’s dream. There’s an area to the left of the point that engineers enjoy loading up with sentries and shredding anything that comes within the line of sight. An army of sentries looks insurmountable, but it’s not impossible. The brilliant part about Dustbowl though is that there’s always a solution. It's always challenging; nothing comes easy, but there is always a solution. It just takes a thinking cap and a little coordination to get the job done.
The way this part of the map is designed is that the attackers can hide out and wait inside the sheltered alcove next to where it says Jenkins Coal Co. An enemy could come in to do damage, but usually it’s a fool’s errand since there’s usually more than a couple members of the blue team in there. So strategically, if everyone is working together, the medics can buff their teammates inside the alcove and wait until their ubers are ready. So let’s say two medics are buffing a demo-man and a pyro. They wait until the ubers are ready. Then a spy disguises himself as an engineer and goes into the danger area to temporarily disable the sentries. While the enemy engineers are trying to repair the sentries, the ubered demo-man comes in to blow everything up, and the ubered pyro comes in to set fire to the engineers and anyone who comes out of the spawn point. Then there could be a soldier from the far side near the medkit as backup shooting rockets. Have the spy sit on the control point while the chaos is happening and it’s over.
Dustbowl is great at making the defense feel powerful but not invincible. The red team can load up the final stage with sentries and snipers and heavies and soldiers, but there’s still a chance that the blue team will be smart enough to thwart their efforts. The final stage is definitely the most intense because it all comes down to the last control point. If the blue team can’t capture the point in time, technically they’ve lost, no matter how good they were at taking the last five points. If it comes down to the wire and the blue team is closing in, there will be manic efforts on the red team’s side to do whatever they can to protect the point. But oftentimes players die and can’t respawn in time, and there’s one poor hapless soul left alone to get overrun.
What makes a place stand out in my mind is the memories I have from it. Dustbowl is a map that's been played so many times that it's easy to think of good ones, because there have been so many to choose from. There are a lot of great maps in Team Fortress 2, but very few of them stand the test of time like Dustbowl has. A lot of maps fall out of favor, but I bet if you log on to Team Fortress 2 right now you can find a Dustbowl map full of players. There’s something about the way it is supremely well crafted and balanced that makes matches exciting almost every round. It was fun back in 2007, and it’s still fun now. That’s a testament to what a great place in video games it is.
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