Tribe hard...with a vengeance!
When a game is technically broken and fundamentally flawed but has been given the green light, developers are practically ice-skating uphill when faced with the monumental task of fixing and improving. This was the case with the impressive, buggy and unstable Tribes 2 release from Sierra and developer Dynamix back in 2001. Underneath its shoddy surface was a very cool game, yet unfortunately many of us didn't want to wade through the flaws to find it.
Time has a way of healing old wounds, though. Sierra and Dynamix have since been folded into Vivendi, and with developer Irrational Games (System Shock 2) at the helm of this second sequel, Tribes: Vengeance marks a return to its glorious, pulse-pounding roots while maintaining relative stability.
The most impressive addition to Tribes: Vengeance is its fully functional single-player campaign. The previous two Tribes games were primarily online multiplayer affairs featuring identical offline training modes with computer controlled bots. Vengeance sports a slick campaign chock full of exciting missions.
The fairly predictable story focuses on two mother and daughter princesses from the Imperial faction. You play as various characters throughout the story, whisking back and forth through time in a type of Pulp Fiction-esque storytelling. One series of missions will have you playing as Julia trying to escape the deadly Phoenix uprising, and then you'll find yourself commanding one the Phoenix soldiers from the opposing side. Later, you're vaulted back in time to play as Julia's mother, a decorated and accomplished warrior in here own right.
The campaign is surprisingly fun and does a terrific job schooling newbies on the ins and outs of Tribes gameplay, making Vengeance more accessible than previous Tribes games. The enemy A.I. relies more on numbers than intricacy, but you'll find plenty of lush, expansive areas tailor-made to take advantage of traditional Tribes gameplay features such as weapons, armor loadouts, vehicles and the like. The 10-15 hour campaign is a mite short, but is still a testament to Irrational Games' creativity and ingenuity.
No matter how you cook it, though, this big meal is best served online. Supporting up to 32 players, Vengeance deals out proven but familiar gameplay. Out the box you have 5 game types to choose from – Arena (Team Deathmatch), Ball (grab the ball and score it in the opponent's goal), Fuel (capture fuel cells and deposit them at your base/depot), Ball (flag keep-away) and the "Alpha" game-type, Capture the Flag.
CTF play is pretty standard on the surface: capture the enemy's flag and deposit it at your team's flag post. But there's a catch, because your flag must be present in order to deposit. If not, you and your team must keep the flag away from the hordes of enemies bent on reclaiming it before you score.
To complicate matters and increase the excitement, each base has a power generator and a sensor. Knock out the enemy's sensor and they will be blind to the whereabouts of the opposing team and both factions' flags. Crippling their generator will leave the enemy with no power to fuel their armor loadout stations, their vehicles spawning stations, human catapult pads and base defense stations (turrets, mines etc.)
This gives way to some great strategies and tactics. Often a squad will launch a full assault on a base generator, and while everyone scrambles to repair the sucker another squad swoops in to grab the hopefully unguarded flag. Now smash the sensor and your escape can't be tracked. Sweet.
Vengeance's gameplay mechanics and world physics makes this a truly visceral event to watch and play. At the start of each match, you'll have to hit up a loadout station to outfit your character with the desired weapons, armor, and pack. Certain weapons are only usable with specific loadouts – Lights get sniper rifles, while Heavies get devastating mortars.
There are four different packs to choose from as well: shield, energy, repair and speed. Shield, energy and speed packs are pretty straightforward. Every character as an allotted energy supply which is tapped by the energy-based weapons (sniper, shotgun etc.) and your flight boosters making energy packs incredibly useful.
The repair packs are the most commonly worn. With this gem equipped, players will slowly recover any lost health. Hit the "Q" key and you are not only healed much faster but every teammate and nearby damaged structures will be repaired as well, including your vehicles! The loadouts, items and weapons gives Tribes a unique and expansive array of customization, play styles and depth.
The vehicles play a major role as well. Vengeance features a significantly less impressive complement of vehicles than you'd hope, totaling four in all. Truly the quantity could use some work, but what's there is good fun all around. The all-terrain Rover helps you climb those familiar hills, and the Assault Tank deals massive damage and has a jump feature to give it more mobility. The single-man Fighter, while not as quick as it should be, does provide increased mobility and its rapid-fire missiles are pretty brutal. The granddaddy is the destructive Assault Ship, which seats one pilot and two gunners.
The vehicles might be fun, but they're completely different from those found in Tribes 2. Gone is the one man hoverbike, which I personally miss. This and other omissions hurt Vengeance the most. Bases are now greatly reduced in size and complexity. The stealth pack (Predator style!) is gone, and you can no longer issue commands or waypoints.
This particular omission really blows. Many times I've stealthily landed a fighter behind enemy lines and would have liked to give it a waypoint so I could find the damn thing again across the vast landscape. So much for the best laid plans.
That being said, Vengeance soars aesthetically. The game looks amazing considering it runs on the Unreal engine. It's incredible what these guys can do with advanced shading techniques, though the settings are totally scalable and all look terrific. Higher-end machines will deliver incredible lighting and water effects, great shadows and flowing grass. The bump mapping and level of detail in general is no DOOM 3, but it's still quite impressive.
Some of the old features have been polished up as well. Boosting through the air looks great and is smoothly washed down with the improved skiing feature. As you descend from a boost, if you land on a downward incline you can hold the Spacebar to make yourself frictionless. This allows you to retain and even increase your overall speed as you hit an incline like a ski jump. Irrational even gave the characters some new animations to make skiing look cooler. Just to prove it, the game can actually be played in third-person with the help of the newly included cursor, a feature absent from Tribes 2.
Overall, Tribes: Vengeance is a great game. There are some missteps that a later patch or expansion should definitely address, but right out of the box the look, gameplay style and level of depth make this an easy buy for PC action gamers.