Any time a game is designed strictly for online play, that game's developer is taking a serious risk when bringing the game to market. After all, there are still plenty of gamers who prefer single-player titles. So in order for a multiplayer-only title to be successful, it must provide that elegant combination of great gameplay, painless online connectivity, and speedy performance to ensure its popularity and success. Starsiege: Tribes from Dynamix and Sierra comes awfully close to striking that perfect balance, and, although performance can be a problem, the game manages to provide one of the more memorable and addictive online gaming experiences yet.
Set in the universe formerly known as EarthSiege, Tribes is a first-person, squad-based action game in which you take part in team battles against one or more rival clans. Game variants include the obligatory deathmatch mode, along with capture the flag and a slew of other challenging game types: Defend and destroy requires you to guard your base while taking out your enemy's, capture and hold is like CTF except that you must grab and defend specific spots on the map, and find and retrieve is basically a big scavenger hunt with heavy weapons. Of the roughly 200 Tribes servers online at the time of this review, at least 75 percent were running CTF games, with defend and destroy being the second most popular choice.
Gameplay is very similar to multiplayer mode in NovaLogic's Delta Force but with far better visuals and many more options for customizing your weapons loadout. The game features nearly 40 maps, each of which is a wonderfully rendered landscape with rolling hills and plenty of big, open spaces. As in Delta Force, a great deal of combat takes place at extreme ranges, but thanks to the superb 3D graphics engine, you can more easily make out your targets in Tribes. Also, the action moves effortlessly into and out of the various base structures scattered on each map. The indoor-outdoor transitions in Tribes are quite seamless, which makes the overall combat experience that much more immersive.
You have the choice of light, medium, or heavy armor, each of which can accommodate a varying set of weapons and equipment. Players in heavy armor, for example, are the only ones who can carry heavy mortars (which are incredibly powerful and good for taking out base defenses from afar). Light-armored players, on the other hand, are the only ones capable of wielding the deadly (and oh so wonderful) sniper rifle in combat.
The weapons in Tribes are decent, with a few energy weapons, a slick gun the fires explosive discs, a short-range Gatling gun, and a trusty grenade launcher. The sniper rifle is the only "instant effect" gun in the bunch, as each of the other weapons fires a relatively slow projectile. This can make the game's long-distance combat rather difficult, as you must aim very carefully and learn to anticipate your target's moves - jumping madly into a free-for-all Quake II-style fray is usually a recipe for disaster in Tribes. The game lacks any sort of close-combat melee weapon, which was a bit disappointing.
You can also carry a variety of other equipment, such as gun turrets, which are typically set up to automatically defend your base and your flag, and repair kits, which are always helpful for fixing damaged consoles and energy stations. Different types of consoles allow you to change your armor and weapons configurations, get a quick reload, or summon up a transport aircraft to fly. Like the armor variants, there are three types of aircraft in Tribes: scout, medium, and heavy. The larger craft can carry other players, making them useful for long-range mass attacks. The single-player scout craft, on the other hand, is quite speedy and has the ability to fire explosive rockets. Energy stations keep the aircraft and other types of consoles operational and are the key to survival in Tribes - take out an enemy's energy source, and they will be hard-pressed to mount a viable defense. One other type of station, the command console, allows you to view the battle from an overhead map. You can even issue orders and assign targets to other players from here (of course, it's up to them whether or not they follow your directives).
Getting into a game of Tribes is about as painless a process as I've seen in any online game. After choosing to "play game" and "join multiplayer game" from the main menu, Tribes pulls up a list of all available servers currently registered with the master Tribes server. Each server is pinged and checked for number of players, type of game, and game map being used. Connection quality is rated using a red, yellow, or green icon. When you see a server you like, you click on it and hit the "join game" button. The process is extremely quick and intuitive.
Once you're connected to a server, your results will most certainly vary. I rarely encountered any significant lag at any "green" server I joined, but the chat line in every game I played was littered with lag complaints from other players. I saw many players get stuck and drop from the game entirely, as well. On only one server did I have any lockups or dropped connections, and there it seemed to be a problem with that specific server's stability.
Playing Tribes can be pretty intimidating at first, as the game's meager single-player training missions do little to prepare you for the online carnage of a multiplayer battle. Also, despite the game's team structure, there are still plenty of freelancers in each game, running about with their own agenda and little regard for teamwork or joint objectives. And when a loose group of freelance hotshots runs into a well-organized team, the results are always the same: Complete and utter humiliation for the solo artists.
Tribes could stand to be improved in a few areas, notably in the matter of the weapons consoles. Currently, these stations almost always have long lines of players waiting for access. You can urge other players to hurry up with a prerecorded voice command, which rarely has any effect, or take advantage of the game's "favorites" feature to preset five custom weapons loadouts and speed up your own time at the weapons console. Perhaps if you could begin a mission - and respawn - with one of your favorite loadouts already in place, the console-glut problem would ease up a bit. You would then only have to visit the console for repairs and to change loadouts for a specific purpose (such as picking up a turret for deployment).
Also, the game could really benefit from more and better training missions. Firing each gun a few times does little to teach the intricacies of aiming a mortar, for example. And the Terra Nova style keyboard command layout takes quite a bit of getting used to, especially when used in combination with the jetpack (for which the game offers little guidance). One way to handle this deficiency would be to include a skirmish mode, so that you could at least get in a little practice before running smack into a team of seasoned veterans online. You can learn quickly in a multiplayer game, but you can also get wiped out repeatedly without ever getting the chance to see or learn from your opponent - and that's not going to keep new players coming back.
Finally, the game really needs to handle scores and statistics a little better. After a mission is completed, you get about ten seconds to call up the scores and see how you and your team fared. Unfortunately, the score window is too small and offers too little information - which is gone in a few seconds anyway, as the game automatically launches a new mission after the previous one is completed. First off, Tribes should present the stats in a larger, easier-to-read window. Secondly, Dynamix really should consider tracking assists or some similar stat. As it stands, the only player who gets credit for a kill is the one who gets in the final shot - never mind the sniper who took the bad guy down to 1-percent health to begin with. Lastly, why not save a player's accumulated stats locally? Kills, games won, flags captured: It may be a team game, but I kind of like to know when I've killed my 100th victim online.
In light of the game's outstanding gameplay, however, each of these criticisms is a minor point at best. Looking at the game as a whole, there's no denying that Starsiege: Tribes is an ambitious game that successfully delivers a rich and addictive multiplayer gaming experience. Any team-minded action fan will love this game, and I suspect that more than a few freelance types will also.