Can we take a moment just to explore how revolutionary TF2’s unlock design is? Think back to the days before the Gold Rush Update. TF2 was a complex and nuanced game, with 9 classes and 25 weapons, and then Valve announces that there will be unlockable weapons added, starting with the Medic class. What would you predict these weapons will be like?

Taking the standard dev theme for designing alternate weapons for a slot, probably something like this:

Hypo Gun

I’m running through a list in my head of shooters with swappable inventory unlocks, and I’m seeing a very tedious trend where the closest thing to weapon variety is that each option of a given weapon class (for example, sniper rifles) is slightly better at some stat and correspondingly worse in others. The Joceline double-barrel shotgun shotgun from Payday 2 deals more damage per pellet than the Mosconi double-barrel shotgun at the cost of a tighter cone of fire. The NS-44 Commissioner pistol from Planetside 2 deals more damage than the NS-357 Underboss pistol but has a lower rate of fire. A huge problem when I have when playing these games is that I struggle with choosing which weapon to equip while this little naggling voice in my head is telling me that it doesn’t actually matter. Considering many games (including both of the two previously mentioned) have hefty in-game prices for purchasing one over the other, it seems like an important choice but ultimately it hardly changes your gameplay.

Crimony, that's a lot of stats. But why do both guns feel exactly the same?
Crimony, that’s a lot of stats. But why do both guns feel exactly the same?

Whenever something like a crossbow or a flamethrower comes out in games like these, it’s really cool just because it’s a complete breath of fresh air. It introduces a playstyle that was literally impossible before it existed, instead of being a glorified weapon mod with a reskin.

TF2 blew that entire concept out of the water with the very first weapon packs. Just look at the achievement weapons; a Flare gun, a sandwich, a jar of piss, a bow and arrow, a mini-sentry… Pick any slot on any class and you can find all sorts of different choices that radically stand out from the other options. Even the unlocks that share stock’s weapon class like the Frontier Justice or the Kritzkrieg are still encouraging widely different playstyles from whatever they’re replacing.

There's a third option, melee weapons with only active upsides and downsides, like the Eviction Notice, but those would be boring and suck, like the Eviction Notice. Picture by Gen. Degroot.
The Eviction Notice is widely ignored for being boring and too similar to stock. Just imagine if EVERY unlock in the game were designed like that.

But TF2’s unlock design isn’t notable just for what it does; I’m also consistently surprised by what it DOESN’T do. It completely eschews the most common way for other games to completely change up a playstyle; adding new weapon classes into the old slots. You can’t swap out Soldier’s shotgun for a rifle. Sniper’s secondaries are always SMGs or some sort of non-weapon, and that’s a philosophy TF2 has stuck firmly to, which is amazing because it reinforces the assurance that your opponent will be wielding something you can actually anticipate. When you engage a scout, you know for sure he’s got a scattergun and a pistol, or something that plays like a pistol/doesn’t deal damage. There can be surprises, like when he belts a sandman ball at you, but at least you know he’s not going to suddenly pull out a secondary shotgun with underslung grenade launcher. The fact that TF2’s inventory options are so structured and yet diverse is an accomplishment I can absolutely respect.