Ok, Newbloods, listen up! This is Lieutenant Linkphreak speaking, and I expect your full attention. You’re lucky you got me today, so feel privileged – your other instructors wouldn’t be so kind. Intel reports a heightened concentration of Bio-Derm forces flying into this area. Seems like they want this planet that we’ve fought so hard to establish a base on. However, they’re not the only ones. The other tribes want a piece of this world also; apparently, they’ve discovered just how rich in resources this rock actually is. Suit up, shoot straight and fly fast – you never know who has a bead on you until it’s too late.
Tribes may just go down in history as the First Person Shooter that wouldn’t die. When Sierra decided to discontinue support for the original Tribes title, the game’s fans were so rabid that they formed their own servers, made their own patches, and flooded the company with calls and mail for a return to their beloved title. Well, Sierra listened, and the result was a huge hit on PCs everywhere. Well, not content to contain the interplanetary destruction to computers, Sierra has released Tribes: Aerial Assault for the PS2.
For those of you not familiar with the overall plot of Tribes, don’t worry… In a way, there really isn’t one to speak of. In the 40th century, humanity has essentially splintered into four factions: The Blood Eagles, the Diamond Swords, the Harbingers of Phoenix, and the Starwolves. As territorial tribes, these four groups scour the universe in search of new planets to colonize and conquer while battling each other for galactic dominance in a never-ending war. However, the human tribes also have a common enemy, that of the Bio-Derms. Genetically bred for combat by the humans, these mutant creations escaped from their creators and have swarmed over many worlds, taking aggression out against their former masters. As a member of one of these 5 tribes, it’s up to you to destroy your opponents and capture your world for your tribe’s glory.
Instead of the typical run and gun that you’ll find in most FPS titles, Tribes capitalizes on specialization, a creative way of injecting even more strategy into a FPS. See, every player is outfitted with a jetpack that allows characters to fly or “ski” quickly along the ground, which helps them traverse maps quickly. Continual use of your jets will deplete your energy and make you drop like a stone, so a balance must be struck between controlled bursts and longer sprays. For larger, more spread out distances, there’s four different types of vehicles, ranging from fast Grav Cycles to slow but destructive Bomber aircraft. There are also three different classes of armor, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Light armors can pilot any vehicle and are very fast, but can’t take a lot of damage and have the least amount of weapons available. Medium armors can carry one more weapon than lights and sustain a little more damage, but cannot pilot certain vehicles. Heavy armors can carry the largest, most powerful weapons of the game, take a lot of damage, and pack a lot of weapons, but are unbelievably slow and waste a lot of energy. Finally, with inventory packs, you can determine just what kind of offensive or defensive player you are. For quick strikes, you may want to attach an energy pack to continually power your weapons and jetpack. If defense is more appealing, you may want to deploy a remote turret to guard critical chokepoints. Or, if you’re interested in base protection, you might want a repair pack in case any damage occurs to your structure. Loadouts can be changed at any time, merely by finding and accessing an inventory station. Obviously, part of the success within any match is understanding which loadout is the most effective one for the current situation.
While there is both an offline quickmatch option with either bots or human competition as well as a Campaign mode with an attached plotline, these offline modes serve to quickly accustom you to online play. Quickmatches allow you to set the parameters of your battles, including the number of bots, type of game, and other variants before throwing you to the wolves. The Campaign mode, on the other hand, casts you as Blood Eagle Jarak Ransom, a Newblood tribe member who is run through the paces of multiple “exercises.” Those of you who are used to multiplayer shooters are used to genre standards like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag. Capture and Hold is an old game with a new twist; instead of just capturing and holding areas for points, objectives in Aerial Assault matches can be packed with cannons, inventory stations, or other offensive and defensive items that can turn the tide of a match. The newest mode is that of Hunters, which is a mix of both Capture the Flag and Deathmatch. Each person is given a flag when they start or respawn, which they can bring to a collection area, called a nexus, for a point. However, if players collect other flags from fallen enemies, they can receive an exponentially higher score. Once these tests are passed, Jarak is sent to the front to take on the Bio-Derm hordes in a number of missions, including bombing runs, base infiltration, and unit eliminations.
Graphically, Aerial Assault comes across technically sound. The numerous cosmetic changes that can be applied to the PC version of Tribes carry over to the PS2 version soundly, and the character models feel appropriate given their choice of armament. For example, when you’re in a Heavy armor loadout, you look suitably big enough to take on a platoon. Models also move with the proper weight to their armor, and you’ll be able to detect what a person’s equipped with by merely glancing at their physical size and how they run. Death animations are somewhat varied, so someone getting fragged with a rocket launcher looks different than someone dying from a machine gun or from a large fall. Particle animation is really nice, and observing explosions, smoke trails, and debris is rather impressive. Even more remarkable is the large distance you can see in all directions before any noticeable draw in pops up. This makes the environments seem much larger than they might actually be, and provides a good contrast to some of the more drab ground textures, some of which only appear on certain levels or stages. The largest problem that Aerial Assault demonstrates is slowdown, especially during a hectic multiplayer match. If everyone fires at the same time or triggers explosions in succession, the game crawls to a screeching halt, even on broadband connections.
Don’t expect too much from the sound department, however. There’s a techno beat that accompanies the onscreen action; however, you’ll be far too distracted by the explosions, ricochets, and other sound effects to notice or even care what it sounds like. You’ll probably even miss the music during calm moments because the sound is noticeably tuned down, which makes it even harder to hear. The sound effects, however, are quite good, with plenty of booms and bangs to match the action onscreen. Vocally, the speech within the game is a double-edged sword. In campaign mode, the lines delivered by the story’s character actors are very well done, with plenty of sarcasm, surprise, and even light doses of praise. However, in multiplayer or actual gameplay, the responses come off canned and rather stale. Plus, if you want to make a specific positive or negative comment, you have to pound upon the corresponding button before you cycle to your intended comment.
This sound issue illustrates one of the largest problems within the game, which is the lack of communication. Without keyboard support or even basic microphone support, you’re playing a silent multiplayer game. There’s no way to communicate effectively with other players on your team, organize specific strategies, or creatively taunt your enemies within Aerial Assault. This can siphon the fun out of matches, especially the Capture the Flag and Capture and Hold modes, very quickly. Without this fundamental tool, you just have to blindly hope that your teammates will know to flank an entrenched enemy position, go after a stolen flag, or provide you with fire support on a base assault. To be blunt, this deficiency really sucks.
The other thing that’s questionable within Aerial Assault is the AI, particularly within single player games. You’ll quickly detect that the enemy AI can be pretty coordinated, requiring a ton of strategy, good aim, and luck to defeat them. Base infiltrations are a good example of this, where they’ll hunker down near choke points, perform flanking maneuvers, and use cover effectively. On the other hand, your computer-controlled teammates can be some of the dumbest characters pixilated. Many times, they’ll let the enemy swarm them, quickly being eliminated, or they’ll teamkill off two or three teammates, shifting the playing field dramatically in your opponent’s favor. This winds up forcing you to perform daredevil, rash maneuvers to recapture flags, destroy incoming foes, etc. That’s fine if you’re playing by yourself, but as any seasoned veteran knows, engendering this kind of behavior into newbies quickly destroys any strategy that can be designed in online matches. Hotdogging will usually enrage your teammates, quickly making you a player that will be exiled.
Tribes: Aerial Assault is a decent port of the much-loved PC action within the Tribes universe to the console realm. Adding a Campaign mode while retaining the innovations of the multiplayer game is a great way to attract more players to this series. However, with imbalanced AI in the single player mode and elimination of much needed communication from the online version, more and more console gamers might track down the PC version to see what they’ve been missing.