When the original Tribes came out, I looked at the concept, and said “hey, that doesn’t look too bad, I wonder what it plays like?” Sadly, I never had the chance to find out, as I was broke at the time, and by the time I could afford it, I thought, “everybody’s way, way too good at it now, I’ll just suck terribly at it” and so I missed out on one of the most fun developments of recent time team-based tactical warfare. I’ve longed for cooperative play for the longest time, since the last game that had coop (besides Serious Sam) was actually, I don’t even remember. I’m fairly certain there was something after Doom, but it slips my mind, and I’m not certain if Duke Nukem had it or not. Regardless, there has been no coop play for a very, very long time in FPS games, which is part of the reason why I got so disillusioned with them and mostly stopped playing deathmatch has just grown incredibly boring to me, and I never got into the mods like Half Life: Counterstrike, or Team Fortress and its sequels.
Enter Tribes 2. Not only does it have a new graphics engine (which was partially my beef with TFC the Half Life engine was great at the time, but it’s been a couple of years now), but it has coop play (sort of) so I jumped at the opportunity to try it out. In a way, I really, really wish I didn’t, because I have so immersed myself in the game that I started using “shazbot” alongside more traditional words, and I renamed most of my network computers to map names, like Quagmire and Riverdance (I ran into some trouble with a couple of people who hated Celtic music, who absolutely insist that the map was named after a Celtic music group. I don’t know.) Not only that, but exam schedules being exam schedules, let’s just say, without excessive whining, that when there are two hours left before the exam, and the choice between Tribes and study tilts to Tribes without absolutely any kind of mental effort, there is something wrong there. That having been said, I love this game. I absolutely love this game. It’s so great that I wish I were playing it now instead of writing this.
The first thing that absolutely amazed me when I got my copy of Tribes was how beautiful the graphics were. I only have a GeForce 1 card, and I heard many things about how demanding the game is so I expected that my Athlon 750 would have a bit of trouble even running at a moderate resolution, mainly because of the GeForce. So what happens? I start the tutorial at 800x600, and see absolutely no problems. “Okay,” say I, “how about I crank it up to 1024x768.” So I did no difference, still silk-smooth. Then I saw stuff running around, vehicles leaving smoke trails, and other stuff like that I was completely entranced. The terrain is just way too cool. You really want to touch the earth. In multiplayer, though, 1024x768 was a tiny bit sluggish, so I had to turn down the resolution, but to retaliate, I set all graphics detail to the absolute maximum, and experienced no trouble so far after a non-stop week of playing.
The second thing that absolutely amazed me about this game happened when I did the customary thing I usually do for games I went to Sierra’s webpage to check for patches. I had to actually check my calendar, because my first thought was “Wait, wait, was this game out for about a year? Why the hell are there SO many patches for it??” To top it off, the patch versions were completely unintuitive, not to mention incomprehensible: I had no idea at first how to determine which version of Tribes I was running, so I had to either flip a coin, or go exploring. I decided to run the Online version, since I figured that it’ll automatically update the game, and choose the best patch for me. Silly me, thinking the world is a logical place. Sure enough, the patch window came up, and the installer was apparently out of date; so what did it do? It downloaded a new installer, and then the patch crashed. According to the MOTD, some users with “unusual configurations of Windows 2000” may experience these problems, but I blame market pitches there is absolutely nothing unusual about my configuration, especially considering I recently reinstalled it. Anyway, I had to brace myself and download a random patch from the Sierra webpage just to update something, at which point the automated installer worked fine. Since then, there’s been two or three more patches that I had to grab, all fixing issues of different sorts, some that I experienced, some that I didn’t.
The third thing that amazed me about Tribes is how many UAEs (unhandled application errors) are generated. Not even so much me as my friend I, in a gentlemanly fashion, strongly incited him to buy Tribes, and while he’s having fun (I believe), the game crashes religiously on him, 98% of the time forcing him to reboot his computer. I’ve made him reinstall Win98, try Windows 2000, and regardless of what he does, the issues persist. Apparently Sierra has been working on the UAEs, but I’m not sure how well that’s going.
Now, to the gameplay. The basic premise of Tribes is that your team fights the opposing team with a certain goal in mind. There are different modes of play, my favourite being capture the flag, where the goal is pretty obvious. There is also Siege, which is extremely fun: you hold a base, and the enemy has to penetrate it and do something to it (usually touch a switch at the heart of the base). There is also capture & hold, whereupon a team grabs the flag, and the opposing team has to conquer it back.
The most entertaining part of Tribes that I immensely enjoy are the vehicles. There are several types of vehicles available to the game player, such as a quick one-rider scout vehicle, capable of reaching speeds of well over 250 km/h, and most useful for quick hit-and-runs, or quick get-in-grab-the-flag-get-the-hell-outs. There is an assault tank, which takes two players: a pilot and a gunner. The pilot directs the vehicle, and the gunner has a full 360° control of the turret which can either fire machine gun rounds, or mortars. There is a scout flier, which is similar to the scout cycle in that it seats one person, is somewhat quick but it also flies, and has weapons on it, making it an excellent recon and ground troop support vehicle. Another fun vehicle is the bomber, which can seat up to three people a pilot, a bombardier, and a tailgunner. There is also a transport vehicle, for up to five people, which is usually used for loading up heavy assault people, and just dropping them off at the enemy base to just wreak havoc there (it is also appropriately named the Havoc). The physics of all the vehicles feel a tiny bit suspect, especially of the scout cycle and flier they have a little bit too much inertia and (especially the Shrike, the scout flier) are somewhat sluggish to move at times. But once you get used to that, all of the vehicles are perfectly well-fliable.
But not only do you have a wide variety of vehicles, you also have a wide variety of outfits (no, not THAT kind of outfits). There are three basic types of armour scout, assault and juggernaut, which can house an incrementally larger array of weapons and “packs”, which is a generic term used for, in essence, expansion items. Those can be anything from a shield pack, which renders you invulnerable to most weapons for a short while, to a repair kit, which can be used to heal yourself, to repair vehicles, or to repair base components (like turrets, power generators, etc), to a cloaking pack, which renders you near-invisible to anything, including most turrets, and most inattentive people. Helps a lot if you’re in the dark, too on a bright sunny day, a cloaked dude is a little bit visible against the backdrops. The weapons array is impressive, as well: everything from wimpy laser pistols to mortars and rocket launchers. Mortars can also be guided, too if a teammate sneaks up to the enemy base and paints a laser lock on it with his special targeting gun. Then, several other teammates can rain mortar fire onto the enemy base. The shocklance is an interesting weapon, too: most frequently used by cloaked assassins, it allows an instant kill of any enemy if fired into the enemy’s back, but almost zero damage if fired from the side, or the front.
The fun things to do in the game are by no means limited to grabbing the flag and running, though. It’s entertaining to just drive the enemy team nuts by doing evil things to it. For example, sneaking into their generator room and destroying their power generators: that, of course, means that they cannot outfit them with new weapons anymore via their Inventory Stations (which are basically teleporter-like stations where you can quickly change from a juggernaut to a scout, for example). They also can’t do many other fun things, like spawn new vehicles. Another immensely entertaining thing to do is snipe unsuspecting and unwary warriors, or, even better, cloak around the vehicle pad and either assassinate people spawning vehicles, or steal vehicles as they’re being spawned. Another incredibly entertaining (or annoying, depends which side you’re on) thing to do is something we’ve experienced in one battle when the enemy loads up a Havoc with heavily armored juggernauts, sends it into your base, they dismount and make a dash for the generator room. Then they barricade themselves in there, and tough luck getting power back they are well-prepared for it.
This brings up a serious point with the way the game is played most of the time. I’ve played quite a lot of hours of Tribes in the last week, but I can count the times that actual teamwork was happening on the fingers of any one of my hands. The occurrence above was one of them, and a few other coordinated attacks happened; but besides that, it seems to be a free-for-all where you can only kill half of the people. I expect that clan games are very, very different I suppose they would actually have tactics mapped out (especially if they are elite clans) but on most layman occasions, there is precisely zero teamwork happening. It’s amusing, actually, because it’s quite obvious that if even as few as three or four people worked together, they could do miracles to the enemy but that never happens. In fact, teamwork is so unexpected to me that when I encounter it, I’m so surprised that I sometimes don’t react fast enough. Case at point: usually, there’s no point in asking for a lift when you’re running to the enemy base for a flag. Nobody will come pick you up, you’re better off covering your needs yourself. So one time, I was running for a flag, and I asked for a lift for some reason, and gave my exact position, saying “I’ll be out in 30 seconds, if someone can pick me up, I’d appreciate it.” So I grab the flag, make a dash back for it, and what do I see? A NTDF clanner waiting for me in a Havoc. I was so shocked at that that I missed my first jump into it, then he jumped out, probably thinking I didn’t need it and anyway, we desynched there and everybody got killed, and we lost a potential point. My beef is that if more teamwork was happening on a regular basis, this wouldn’t have happened though don’t misunderstand, I don’t blame the NTDF guy at all, it was purely my fault. Maybe once people play more, they’ll get more into it.
To help teamwork, there is a command console screen, which is a screen that essentially shows you a top-down view of the battlefield, with all your assets and liabilities listed so that you can take quick action about them. All your teammates, base defences, vehicles and even enemies that are within sensor range are listed. You can quickly set up waypoints and give orders to teammates from that window, streamlining the process and improving communications. Of course, as I mentioned above, nobody uses that. Oh well.
Before you join a game, you can navigate through a variety of interfaces ranging from email to IRC chat to browsing a limited set of webpages. Unfortunately, all that is fairly useless. Email is glitchy (a friend of mine sent me an email about a week ago, and it only came through now), profile browsing/editing generates errors with no error message and an OK button, and web browsing is .. well .. somewhat subpar, because there really isn’t that much information there. I suppose it will all change in the future, but at the moment, it’s quite useless. The server list is probably the only window you will use, and will come to hate, deeply and innately. At least I have come to. It’s the most annoying, useless piece of a dialog window that I have ever encountered. First of all, if you’re not using a filter and pinging all the thousand or so servers that are serving on the average day, the window will NOT let you browse through it until it’s done filling up the list. If you try to scroll or anything of the sort, it’ll just jump back to the currently selected server. Theoretically, if you clicked fast enough, you could scroll but that’s fairly unlikely, since it updates it very quickly, so you end up sitting there for a few good minutes just watching it fill up the server list. In theory, you could use the filters but I found them to be only semi-functional: the “buddy servers” (i.e. ones where your buddies are playing) didn’t work for me, and the “favourites only” filter kicks in a couple of occasional servers which have nothing to do with being favourites. There are not enough options, in my view, in the filter list, as well I rather wish I could filter all servers playing a certain map, instead of fetching all servers and sorting by map name. You also cannot know how much time is left in a game on a server. The bad thing about that is that you might join a server playing your favourite level, only to find out the game has 40 seconds left on it.
Last, but not least, bot AI I thought I should mention that, even though nobody in their right mind plays against bots (in Tribes 2, anyway) not unless they need cannon fodder. All I can say is they are very, very stupid. They do talk between themselves, which is very creepy at first, but they are completely harmless. Several of them just stood there as I blew them up; you can swipe the flag from under their nose, they won’t care; and so forth. Maybe they’re not bad for a complete beginner, but they get quite abysmal after you play for a bit in the real world, and see how good some of the people are. The only thing the bots have going for them is their chats: those are really, really spooky at first. There is something creepy about bots going “I’ll attack the enemy base! Yes. I’ll defend our flag! I’ll set up our defenses! Thanks! Anytime.” Really, really creepy.
All in all, Tribes 2 is an excellent game. It’s still unpolished around the edges a bit, and the frequent UAE errors are extremely annoying, but as I said previously, some people experience them, others don’t. It’s been rock-stable for me, and it’s been completely unstable for my friend. Regardless, I feel that Tribes 2 redefines the team-based warfare genre with its vehicle combat, high-adrenaline missions, and mind-blowing graphics that will have you drooling over your keyboard, while dodging spinfusor discs. Shazbot, this game kicks ass!