At this point, Team Fortress 2 is so deeply associated with hats and cosmetics people probably won’t believe that it actually launched without them. Cosmetics were first introduced in 2009 during the Sniper VS Spy Update, and the game’s cosmetics customization system has only been getting more and more complicated as time goes on. Foxzet wrote an article on TF2’s cosmetics two years ago, but I think this is worth looking at again.
But before I talk more about TF2’s cosmetics customization system, I think I’ll address something first. I did talked about it briefly in my Crosslinker’s Coil article, but it is something that should be discussed more in-depth here.
There was complaints of Valve abandoning TF2’s original 1960’s-inspired aesthetics since … who knows, 2009? And the blame has been squarely placed on cosmetics, turning the game’s look into something cartoonish, inconsistent and foolish, populating the game with garish cosmetic sets that looks like an absolute mess.
And they aren’t completely wrong. The visuals are a lot cleaner and more consistent-looking (lime green Potassium Bonnett anyone?), and in terms of gameplay this is better than what we have now. It makes identifying the mercs easier, and their designs really shine when you don’t have cosmetics cluttering up their models.
But thing is, how much does cosmetics really affect the recognizability of the mercs? And thing is, at this point I can’t imagine TF2 without cosmetics. Sure, there is absolutely no cure for those with zero TF2 fashion sense, but is it worth removing the individuality the players can express now?
As for the 1960’s aesthetics disappearing from the game, I am not too sure. The goofy, cartoony look has always been part of the game, arguably more so than the 1960’s aesthetics if we were to also reference all the voicelines and other media released alongside the game. In fact, I personally feel that the cartoonish goofiness is much more central to the game than the 60’s theme.
So yes, personally, I do not mind the current state of cosmetics. I do not feel that it affects the game’s overall aesthetic negatively by much. And I don’t think it was really against the original design of the game either.
And now, back to cosmetics. As we all know by now, TF2 has three cosmetic slots that allows you to equip the cosmetics that you desire, provided that their equip region is non-conflicting. Some of the cosmetics have different styles, which allows you to choose between two or more looks for the same item. Aside from that, Paint Cans are one-time-use items for you to paint certain cosmetics to a colour you prefer. Lastly, there are very rare (and expensive!) cosmetics with the Unusual quality that comes with extra particle effects.
What I appreciate the most about TF2’s cosmetic system is the sheer freedom it grants me to customize my look. Most of the time, games will have fixed cosmetic slots, for example head-torso-legs or some equivalent, and you can have one cosmetic for each region and that is it. In TF2, there are much less cosmetic restrictions. I can equip the Big Steel Jaw of Summer Fun, Cadaver’s Cranium and War Goggles onto the Heavy’s head. This is one freedom that most games don’t have when it comes to cosmetics customization. Sure, it leads to some absolutely horrific creations, but I’ll take that as the price for freedom.
Secondly, the sheer amount of options accumulated from almost 8 years of constant hat additions gave us so much options. This in turn gave players a lot of say on how they want to look. TF2 YouTubers are known by the hats they wear as much as by the classes they play. In fact, most of the time TF2 YouTubers are represented by their in-game avatars wearing the cosmetics they are known for simply because of how recognizable their loadouts are. The fact that a player can identify each other and themselves with the hats they wear just shows the sheer amount of customization available to the players.
Even when you decide to follow a particular theme (spaceman, horror, sci-fi or whatever), the options are so vast that you can make multiple loadouts that will fit within the same theme. It’s not surprising that there’s a community dedicated to TF2 cosmetic loadouts. In fact, some says that that is what TF2 is best known for, followed by the memes, animations, and the economy.
But TF2’s cosmetic options doesn’t just stop at hats. Weapons now begin to join the fray. The Gun Mettle Update brought us, among other things, Decorated weapons. While it was limited to some stock weapons only when it was first introduced, the recent Jungle Inferno Update now allows some of the unlocks to be Decorated as well.
Decorated weapons have five different levels of wear, from flawlessly perfect to something that just got bombarded by a meteor strike. The scratches, blood spatters and chipping on the paint are determined by a randomly-generated seed.
These fancy new skins serve a good purpose in complementing your cosmetic loadout. I mean, when the Tough Break Update launched I bought myself six different Minigun skins to go with whatever I feel like wearing.
There is only one tiny problem. I don’t really use the Minigun. I prefer the Tomislav.
But before the Decorated weapons are introduced, reskinned weapons had already existed. Australium and Botkiller weapons were introduced as rewards for Mann Up mode, and they are reskinned versions of stock weapons and some of the more popular unlocks (Australiums only for the latter).
Personally, I feel that the Botkiller and Australium reskins are far too restrictive as cosmetics in the sense that they will only fit thematically with particular cosmetic loadouts. But on their own, the Botkillers do look nice (except for the Mk. II heads, I hate those) and they add a more aggressive look to the cosmetic loadout it’s in. The Australiums are rather gaudy in my opinion, and I personally will rate them lower in terms of appearance than any of the Botkillers. But if you are going for a rich man look it’ll be quite fitting I guess.
And the first set of themed weapon reskins are the Festive reskins, which adds a bunch of Christmas-themed weapon reskins into the game. I will forever remember Smissmass 2013 as the year the TF2 Team’s artists designed the Festive reskins while drunk, since that was the year where the gaudiest and flashiest Festive reskins were introduced. My personal favourite is the Festive Ambassador because it looks elegant and slick, much like the Spy himself. If only there is an option to get rid of that LED at the front…
But even before all these themed reskins and Decorated skins, there are also reskins made for some of the weapons, like the Frying Pan which is the reskin of the stock melee weapons of all classes except for Spy and Engineer. They are generally used for a particular cosmetic loadout, like using the Nessie’s Nine Iron for a golfing Demoman loadout. I wrote an article on the large number of reskins the Eyelander has, but there are a lot more reskins available that aren’t part of the list of reskins (Decorated, Australium, Botkiller, Festive) mentioned so far.
And if I am to be honest, the look of the weapons themselves contribute as much to the overall look of your avatar as much as your hats. Considering how visible they are on your character model, and how some of them are permanently on your avatar’s model (the banners, shields, jetpacks, etc), there is no way that wielding the Wrap Assassin won’t make your cool sci-fi Scout set look weird. That’s why I generally make my weapon loadouts before my cosmetic loadouts, the previously-mentioned Minigun shenanigans aside.
Out of all the games I’ve played, TF2 gives me the most freedom in choosing the look I want. And I absolutely love it for that. It may seem silly to some that I prize something with zero gameplay impact almost as much as the gameplay mechanics, but it is still something in TF2 I can’t do without.