Team Fortress 2 is now free, so everyone with a Steam account owns it. If you haven't played before, it can be an intimidating, hat-riddled game. We thought it'd be useful for us to tell you what you need to know to start having fun. But we thought that at 5pm on a Friday, so we've only got the very basics ready so far. We'll add to this over the weekend, but here's how the game modes work, and which classes you should play first.
Update: part two is now up , covering how you get new items.
First of all, have a play around with the offline training mode - it's good for the very, very basics. When you're ready to go online, click Start Playing - you'll have to choose a game mode. The default is Payload, but it's a little complex. Click the arrow on the right and pick King of the Hill. It's a mode where there's only one control point to fight over, and whoever holds it longest wins. It's Team Fortress 2 in its absolute simplest form, so it's a great place to learn how all the classes work.
If Start Playing fails to find you a game, go back to the main menu and click Browse Servers. This is a big scary list, but once it's finished loading, look for one that has a number less than 100 in the Latency tab. If they're all jumbled up, click the Latency tab to sort by that.
You can make this list easier to browse by setting a few filters at the bottom: you don't want full servers, empty servers, or password-protected servers.
Once you're in game, pick either team. You usually can't join the one with the most players. Then you'll have to pick a class.
A good starting choice is the Medic: you heal people on your team by firing a beam at them, and that's immediately useful and appreciated by your team mates. At the basic level, it's all you need to do. And that gives you time to watch how your team mates play, see who beats whom, and learn a bit about what the weapons do.
When you fancy a change, switch to Heavy. You're slow, and your gun takes a while to spin up, but once you start firing someone's usually dead by the time you stop. You're also the first person Medics will think to heal, and since you just played Medic yourself, you know how to be a good patient and keep them protected. It's a really satisfying relationship.
After that, it's mostly personal preference. Soldier's the best all-rounder, so another good early choice. Don't stick with any of them for too long until you've played all nine: each new one you try helps you understand the role of the others better too. Spy is probably the hardest to be effective with when you're a beginner, but he's worth playing just so you understand roughly how they work.
Some classes, particularly Spy and Demoman, work very differently once they unlock certain items. To describe all the differences would be long and pointless. But if a black Scottish cyclops charges at you with a giant sword, get out of the way. And if a you hear an electronic crackle shortly after a Spy appeared to die, he's alive, and he's behind you.
Payload: the attacking team must escort a cart along some railtracks to an objective. The more of then stay near the cart, the faster it moves. The defenders can stop it by killing them, or standing near the cart themselves.
Payload Race: same as Payload, except both teams have a cart. Up to you whether to focus on escorting your own cart, or stopping the enemy escorting theirs. First cart to the finish line wins.
Control Point: much like King of the Hill, but with five control points. You fight over the central point at first, then whoever gets that can try to take the next point along on the enemy's side. You can't capture a point if you don't own one next to it, and you lose the game if the enemy team captures all your points.
Attack/Defend: just like Control Point, except the red team owns all the points at the start. Only the blue team can capture: once they take a point, it's theirs forever. Red wins if they can hold out for a certain time.
Capture the Flag: each team has a briefcase in their base. They have to capture the enemy briefcase, and bring it back to their base. If their own briefcase has also been stolen, they can't score a point until it's returned. First team to a certain number of captures wins.