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“Is that Team Fortress?”

That’s a typical question when someone glances over your shoulder while you’re playing Loadout. It’s a fair question, and not just for the exaggerated cartoon art style of both games. Both games are frenetic team shooters that go all in for humor as a form of style. Both games are chock full of varied detailed weapon choices. Both games are free to play. So it’s a valid question to consider whether and why you’re playing Loadout instead of Team Fortress.

After the jump, which one has more hats?

As you might guess from the names, there’s a lot less team structure in Loadout than in Team Fortress 2. Loadout is aptly named for how all the finicky details of what and how you’re shooting are predetermined by your customized loadout, which consists primarily of piecing together whatever the hell weapon you want. This weapon type with this barrel and that trigger and these rounds in this magazine. Spend the appropriate amount of easily earned Loadoutbucks to unlock them and then take your new gun for a test drive! You have one equipment slot. Better take the shields just to be safe, at least until you’re comfortable with your newly created gun. Team Fortress will largely be decided by your team. Loadout will largely be decided by your loadout.

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The detailed weaponcrafting is the main draw here, and it’s a hugely important part of the gameplay because it caters to whether or not you’re good at shooters. Loadout is one of those games that gives an unfair advantage to people who are good at shooters. This isn’t a game like Call of Duty or Team Fortress 2, in which lethality and asymmetry, respectively, will prop up people who aren’t good. Instead, this is a game where the best way to do well is be good at shooters. How very retro. It’s as if Unreal Tournament and Halo were still relevant ways to design a multiplayer game! What year is this?

You might not realize the skill based component as you’re exploring the crazily generous weaponcrafting. All those components, all those itty bitty stat upgrades at the end of the long xp grinds, all those tweaks and mods and options! It’s gotta be anybody’s game given the ocean of possibility! Furthermore, Loadout isn’t going to tune anything for you. If you want a slow firing hard hitting gun that you have to aim carefully, knock yourself out. You better be good at aiming carefully. Alternatively, if you just want to fling rockets or pour bullets out of a gatling gun, help yourself. Build what you want. Refine it however you like by spending your ingame currency. And, of course, when you get killed, tell yourself it’s because the other guy made a better gun. You might even be right.

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But the ugly truth — ugly for us dilettantes who enjoy the quick fix of getting easy kills in Call of Duty — that eventually emerges in Loadout is that the weapon crafting and upgrades aren’t going to decide nearly as much as the simple fact of aiming well. Sure, you can create some sort of homing beam that zaps the other guys while you spazz out and jump around. And sure, you’ll get occasional kills chipping away slowly at someone’s hit points or triple teaming some poor guy caught away from his team. But Loadout is ultimately an old-school aiming shooter that calls for steady framerates, a solid internet connection, and the skill required to put the reticle on the target while you madly bunny hop towards the closest medkit on the map.

This isn’t meant as a criticism, by the way. It’s an observation, and a core part of Loadout’s identity that endures far beyond the immediately obvious trash chic. Loadout might look like a funny throwaway gimmick based on “haw haw trailer trash!”, but it’s got a confident design identity that runs far deeper than its coarse sense of humor. The xp grind is a long slow pull towards an additional 2% damage because the developers clearly don’t want to compromise what looks like some nicely tuned gameplay modes. It’s not all deathmatch all the time. Capture the flag (with a lethal twist!), hold the strongpoint, and gather the doo-dads are all a key part of how the game plays. There’s a smart interplay of shields vs. tesla beams and fire damage-over-time vs. jump rolling. Explosives, turrets, and double-jumps are all potentially powerful tactical gimmicks. There’s just enough “hmm” underneath the immediately obvious “har har”.

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For a game with such aggressive visual style, Loadout doesn’t offer much in the way of customization. There are only two character models. You can be a fat chick or a buff dude (the fact that the buff dude can be black or white doesn’t really count for a third character model). You can pick from a lot of T-shirt colors. There are a few funny hats. Even after the gameplay moves front and center, the trash chic is still going to be in your face when the round is over and everyone is doing the cabbage patch because no one’s going to pay real-world money to unlock the cat daddy or one of the three Gangnam styles. But the sad fact of all this aggressive visual style is that I have no desire to dress up these particular dolls in these particular clothes. Ugh. It’s enough to make a fellow pine for Team Fortress 2 hats. And I’ve never played a round of Team Fortress 2 that opened with this dialogue:

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But as a shooter, Loadout has a lot to recommend it. It’s fast, fluid, gratifying, varied, slick, and largely unsullied by its free-to-play business model. In other words, no, this isn’t Team Fortress. And, frankly, it doesn’t need to be.