Game Review - by Jeremiah Pratt
I have seen the future of gaming--and it is called Starsiege: Tribes. No one can argue Dynamix's claim that Starsiege: Tribes is truly "The Ultimate in 1st-Person Squad Warfare." In fact, that's a pretty safe bet because from what I've seen, it's really the only title featuring 1st-person squad warfare. Oh, some might argue that Quake's "capture-the-flag" add-on is squad warfare, but they certainly won't be waving that clan's banner after experiencing the innovative features of Tribes.
You see, regardless of what critics might argue Quake's capture-the-flag is essentially every man for himself. You might be wearing the same color as other gun-toting goons--and they might not be shooting at you--but that's just about where the friendship ends. The communication and strategy-planning tools simply aren't in place to give you any true feeling of squad unison or control. There's no way to issue specific waypoint objectives or to follow-up on a soldier's remote success. There's no way to coordinate shelling attacks. There's no way to request (or receive) repairs for your damaged armor from a fellow Tribesman.
Tribes takes the tired 1st-person shooter genre, yells at it a bit for being so damn complacent, whips it into shape, shows it some deadly new moves, and then sends it marching back onto the battlefield stronger than ever. If you're already familiar with the Starsiege universe, all you really need to know is that there are no "HERCs" in Tribes (HERCs are the giant robot "mechs" that one might normally associate with the Starsiege brand, assuming I can say "mechs" without being sued by someone). Instead, you assume the role of an infantry soldier (or commander, if your comrades will have you) in one of four main armies: Children of the Phoenix, Starwolf, Diamond Sword, or Blood Eagles.
One of the truly neat features of Battlezone was the ability to leave your tank, set out on foot, and snipe unsuspecting vehicles using your long-range scope. Tribes kept the huge outdoor environments (but improved them). They did away with the emphasis on vehicle combat (but included a few for good measure), added personal jetpacks (how else are you going to navigate around these huge worlds!). And focused on the thrill of being a single soldier in a densely populated world of organized conflict (but a single soldier who is still able to make a difference). As you might expect from a game that relies solely on multi-player combat (there are a few single-player training missions, but that's it), getting hooked up with other Tribesmen has never been easier. All you need is an ample Internet connection--no additional software or game service is required. Simply click on any of the dozens of live games that instantly pop up on your screen, or choose to host your own carnage. Up to 32 players can join in the action! Another great new feature includes the ability to "filter" the rather lengthy list of game servers to meet specific criteria that you designate. Perhaps you simply won't accept a ping over 150. Or perhaps you crave "Defend & Destroy" missions. Or maybe you still prefer games supporting only 16 soldiers. Tribes allow you to customize all of the displayed information, making it very easy to find the game scenarios that appeal to you the most. It even allows you to your favorite servers for the next time around!
In a year when licensing the Quake II or Unreal engine was the rule rather than the exception, Dynamix took a risk (what a gloriously wonderful risk it was) by building their own engine to create the Tribes experience (3D accelerator card recommended, but not required). In doing so, Dynamix was able to seamlessly combine the awesome outdoor alien landscapes of Battlezone with the indoor corridor combat we recognize from so many other shooters. And while the indoor graphics might not quite be up to par with the likes of Half-Life or Unreal, the outdoor vistas are breathtaking. In fact, never before have the great outdoors been so great (oh, I suppose except in real life--but not by much!). This game renders for miles. Other games now feel utterly claustrophobic by comparison sometimes you'd just like to sit and watch the sunset, but really can't for fear of being sniped. Such is life in a territorial Tribe. Don't expect load time when you move from your bunker tunnels to the expansive battlefield, either. The Tribes engine includes the ability to instantly advance from Quake-like interiors to full-horizon landscapes. There are no levels or load times to speak of--just territory to conquer. Tribes are also the only game of its kind to feature various weather conditions, as well as day and night scenarios. Of course, in the next release, I'd like to see more environmental/terrain features such as trees and water. They also need to get the jittery elevators working smoothly, but you can probably expect that problem to be fixed in a patch.
There are of course many ambient sounds. Each laser blasts off with a resounding zap, zap, zap. While being treated to the roars of jetpacks and chain guns. You may get weary of the Music Track. As each song repeats and repeats. Since there are so few music tracks and the games run long. This is the sole reason why the music grows old, real fast.
Of course, Tribes really shines when it comes to the actual gameplay. Sniping, jump jetting, sneaking, and repairing--it's all in a day's work for the common Tribal foot soldier. Occasional lag aside, Tribes' gameplay is on par with the best 1st-person shooters out there. Tribes even one-ups the Quakes and Half-Lifes of the world by including vehicles like scouts and troop transports. Recruit several of your boys onto a troop transport and they can gun down all the ground troops while you whisk around the mountaintops. Vehicle gameplay feels a little rough around the edges (or maybe they're just sluggish compared to the nimble personal jump jets), but it's definitely a genre advancement in the right direction.
You say you don't want to be just another grunt in the Man's army? Why not assume the role as your team's commander? With most other games featuring only 8 to 16 players, it would seem almost silly to have a "commander." But with 32 players, effective commanders can truly make all of the difference, especially in certain missions. All players can use their personal digital assistants to view the battlefield action at a glimpse. This top-down view displays all friendly troops and some enemy movement, depending on how well your team planned its sensor placements. Designated commanders can issue orders from this map, or you can use the device to place your own command requests. Need someone to back you up as you storm an installation? Just locate your nearest Tribesmen, provide them with a waypoint, and then request their assistance. You'll be surprised at how often you'll receive the support you need! I'll be honest, at first I was skeptical about how this whole "command" thing would work. Am I really ever going to take orders some from jackass in a Portland trailer park? Well, in some missions, it just makes sense to have a C.O. To hell with deathmatches and capture-the-flag missions (although they are included). I greatly prefer "Defend & Destroy" and "Capture & Hold" scenarios. They truly facilitate group coordination. I mean you can't just take a tower and abandon it! Someone else will just run in behind you and take the tower again. No, it takes troop coordination to be effective here. "You guys take Waypoint A. these guys and I will take the east installation." And once you take them, you've got to hold them. That's where teamwork is essential. And that's where the originality of Tribes shines through. For example, I was holding this tower by myself, and had been heavily damaged from my assault. I called for back up and repairs. I swear to God that I was amazed, thrilled, and proud to watch this fellow teammate (whom I don't know anything about) cross the great expanse, enter the compound, use his own repair kit to mend my technological wounds, then stand guard by me in anticipation of more enemy assaults. Tribal warfare features standard weaponry: blasters, chainguns, plasma guns, explosive disk launchers, grenade launchers, laser rifles, mortars, hand grenades, and mines. However, Tribes capitalizes on the popularity of sniping by including an excellent and powerful high-res scope for use at any time, by any weapon (although it's useless for some of the slower weapons). Using the scope is key to Tribes gameplay, enabling you to scan the distant horizons for enemy activity. Quite frankly, Tribes' weapons feel a little on the weak side for my tastes. I suppose that they are devastating enough, but for some reason, they just don't feel all that devastating. I call it "Unreal Syndrome": nice weapon variety, nice visual effects, unique ideas, ample sounds... yet for some reason, they just don't pack the "umph" that the weapons in Quake II and Half-Life do. It's a minor point, at worst. Your choice of armor also has a huge impact on gameplay. Heavy armor restricts your movement considerably, making the jump jets little more than height extenders. But snipers relying on single shots will be frustrated to no end when you thwart their well-planned surprise attacks. Scouts will prefer light or medium armor, but you're sniped easily, and you can't access all of the Tribes weaponry. For example, Tribes included a long-range mortar for heavily armored units. By brilliant multi-play design, though, you'll need a scout armed with a targeting laser to "paint" a distant target for you, else you'll just be lobbing those powerful explosives into the random distance. In addition to weapons and armor, you can customize your soldier with various backpacks, ranging from heavy duty repair kits used to fix damaged bunker installations (solar power arrays, vehicle launch pads, command consoles, etc.) to remote gun turrets used to watch strategic locations while you're away. Packs can slow you down, but if you have a competent commander in charge, he can ensure that other units cover you while you install those much-needed remote sensor arrays! Tribes also developed a better way to keep "score." Instead of just counting kills (and detracting a point for every time you inadvertently kill yourself), Tribes uses a kill/death ratio. So if you're into improving your personal score (team scores are measured on different criteria for every mission type), you can no longer just bolt around blowing everything up without regard for your own personal safety.
Finally, I should note that Tribes is one of the first games (and perhaps the only one!) where I don't have to write about enemy artificial intelligence. Quite frankly, there isn't any (aside from sensor-driven turrets)! You're strictly playing against humans, sporting the most devious and unpredictable intelligence possible. To be honest, I should say that I almost bumped Tribes down a rating notch or two for neglecting the single-player experience. Then I realized how utterly unfair it would be to grade someone on an objective that they weren't shooting for. It would be like downgrading Half-Life for being a bad racing simulation. No, the bottom line is that Starsiege: Tribes is an exceptional innovator--its focus on multi-player combat and cooperation is more original and refreshing than anything I've seen in years. If you have a good Internet connection, the minimum system requirements, and a hankering for some exciting new twists on a tired but proven genre, Starsiege: Tribes is the perfect way to bring in a new year of advancements and surprises.