Tribes Aerial Assault is based on a multiplayer first-person shooter series that debuted on the PC in the late '90s and quickly gained a large and loyal following. Now Tribes has come to the PlayStation 2 in a game that includes most of the core components of last year's Tribes 2 for the PC. In the game, players assume the roles of futuristic warriors on a 40th-century battlefield, fighting against a race that's literally been bred for battle and is trying to win possession of the humans' newly acquired worlds. In practice, though, the plot won't matter one bit as you engage in pitched battles against rival teams of players, all of you using your high-powered weapons, jetpacks, and vehicles to try to best each other. This can add up to some pretty serious but at times chaotic fun, if you have a network adapter and a broadband connection.
Tribes Aerial Assault puts you right in the thick of combat, giving you the ability to fly around using a jetpack, create and pilot various vehicles, repair weapon posts, or go on an all-out offensive to try to take out enemy strongholds. By default, the game uses controls that are similar to what you'd find in other console first-person shooters--the left analog stick moves your warrior around and the right analog stick controls where your weapon is being pointed. The jetpack controls and the bulk of the weapon controls are mapped to the shoulder buttons, which allows you to effectively move and shoot without having to reposition your hands on the gamepad.
The game also features the ability to lock on to your opponents. This function is normally mapped to a shoulder button, and it allows you to automatically target the enemy when he or she is within range. While this may not sound too appealing in an online game that is supposed test your ability to aim and fire better than other players, it does add an unusual dynamic by changing the focus of the game from being able to aim effectively to being able to dodge while shooting effectively, giving the gameplay a feel that is similar to that of the Virtual-On games. You have to be extremely conscious of your position in relation to your immediate environment and your targeted enemy. Tribes allows players to disable the lock-on feature, and online servers can be set up to force all players to live without it as well. Playing without the lock-on enabled turns the game into a more conventional first-person shooting experience, putting the focus back on lining up your shots well, but this can be particularly difficult in Tribes Aerial Assault, where you'll often be forced to engage fast-moving, high-flying targets from long range.
Tribes Aerial Assault includes several different types of game modes, whether playing online against others or solo against AI-controlled opponents. These gameplay types include capture the flag, capture and hold, deathmatch, team deathmatch, and hunters, in which you have to collect flags from other players and bring them back to a particular point on the map to score points. While shooting down enemies will earn you points in Tribes, capturing the flag in CTF mode or completing other team-oriented goals will earn you many more, which makes the game more about working as a team than just simply blasting other players.
In light of this, it's unfortunate that Tribes Aerial Assault makes working as a team very difficult by limiting your ability to communicate with your other team members to simple positive and negative comments. It would have been much better if the developers could have included some form of USB microphone support similar to what's found in the recent SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs, though even a simple menu chat system with basic orders like "follow me" or "cover me" or "return to base" would have really helped. On a good server and with good players, you can still kind of get a feel for what's going down just by glancing around and paying attention to your teammates' positions--but this is no substitute for in-game communication. Team-based games that don't offer good communication features often devolve into chaos, which isn't much fun.
The game's main mode of play is its online component, which supports both broadband and narrowband connections. Broadband users can host their own games with a maximum of up to 16 players. Narrowband players can also host servers, though it's not recommended that they do so. Finding a server at just about any time shouldn't be a problem for broadband users, but narrowband games are a bit harder to find. Typically you can set up a narrowband game for up to four players, which is a bit of a gamble and can either be fairly smooth or terribly laggy. Interestingly, the game also supports two-player simultaneous play online play using a split screen. So if you've ever wanted to play an online game with a friend using the same unit, this is your answer. Obviously, you can also coordinate better with a teammate if he's sitting right next to you.
The offline gameplay found in Tribes Aerial Assault consists of a limited single-player campaign and a collection of maps, all pitting you against computer-controlled bots that try to simulate the experience of playing online. The single-player campaign also serves as a collection of training missions that are designed to teach you to play better. The AI of the computer combatants ranges from just fine to pretty terrible, depending on the situation, but single-player Tribes is still good for practice. The game's campaign mode doesn't have a whole lot to it, but the bot matches can be interesting for a while, especially if you play the game with a friend on a split screen.
Tribes Aerial Assault is a fairly impressive-looking PlayStation 2 game. The maps themselves are one of the better aspects from a technical standpoint since they spread out in all directions for what feels like forever. The character models are fairly detailed and feature some decent textures. The models used for the vehicles and ships also look good, and the game can model a number of them onscreen at once without slowing down very much. The draw distance is quite far out, making for fairly high visibility, which is important when a swarm of enemy attackers is setting off to overrun your base. The explosions and particle weapons also look nice, thanks to some well-implemented lighting effects.
In terms of audio, Tribes Aerial Assault isn't remarkable, but it's certainly good. The music is a blend of low-key techno and metal, which fits the game's futuristic theme well. The music takes a backseat to the game's sound effects for weapons, explosions, and propulsion--all of which are fairly well done.
In the end, those hoping to play it online using a dial-up connection or those interested in the game for its single-player components aren't likely to find enough in Tribes Aerial Assault to warrant a purchase. But broadband-enabled PS2 owners will find that Tribes Aerial Assault is a fun, tactics-oriented online first-person shooter with some impressive technical features.