Tribes 2 isn't easy to master, and it won't play well on every gaming PC, but when you're up and running it's a tremendous amount of fun.
When Starsiege: Tribes came out at the very end of 1998, it was the first of its kind: a retail first-person shooter designed specifically for multiplayer competition. The intervening years have seen other popular action games focused primarily on multiplayer competition, but none have had the same emphasis on teamplay in large, wide-open areas, with plenty of players participating in each match. Not until Tribes 2. Experienced Tribes players will find that the sequel makes relatively few changes to the successful core mechanics of the original but that it features substantially improved graphics, even larger network games, and more items, vehicles, and equipment to use in battle. For those new to the series, Tribes 2 also offers extensive offline training options. Unfortunately, a number of technical problems in the initial retail release have dampened some players' enthusiasm for what is otherwise an outstanding multiplayer action game.
Tribes 2 inherits its sci-fi setting from Dynamix's series of mech games, including Earthsiege and Starsiege. Much of what distinguishes Tribes 2's style from that of other first-person shooters stems from this background, including the distinctively large outdoor settings in the game, and also the focus on high-tech equipment such as jump jets and mobile armor suits. Most of the contextual story built up in the earlier games has since fallen away, along with the "Starsiege" surname, since most players came to refer to the original simply as "Tribes" anyway. But the context of Tribes 2 still lends some coherence to the in-game taunts and the mix of harsh environments that will become your playground. You have the choice of three classes of mobile armor suits to wear in battle--the light scout, medium assault, and heavy juggernaut--and they differ in mobility and arsenal. All the classes have a lot of equipment choices and can carry three to five weapons, plus grenades, mines, and a special equipment pack all at once. The inventory system has been significantly streamlined in the new game, so you can set up equipment presets that go into effect when you use a base inventory station anytime during a match.
Tribes 2's different style extends to its pacing, which is somewhat slower and more deliberate than what you'd find in some other popular shooters such as Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike. The first thing you'll notice in comparison is the effect that the jetpack has on combat. The jetpack gives you limited upward or directional thrust, and though it takes a while to learn how to combine this with ordinary ground movement, the combination is potent, so players in light and medium suits move very quickly over rough terrain. Players jetting through the air are quite difficult to hit with the game's slow projectile weapons, so combat between aerial players often focuses on trying to lead an opponent's landing to deliver explosive splash damage. The game's direct attack weapons make it possible to fell a flying opponent, and the new heat-seeking missile launcher adds an additional threat that's hard to shake once it locks on. The net effect of the game's mobile armors suits and jetpacks is to make combat less decisive and less deadly in wide-open outdoor terrain, while the explosive heavy weapons and turret defenses tend to keep indoor brawls vicious and short. But there's room for you to play various niche roles, such as when you're equipped with the cloaking pack and the game's new melee weapon, the shocklance--a combination that can be used to sneak up on enemies inside their own base for a fatal backstab.
The game's designers have made it easier to "ski" in Tribes 2, a technique discovered in the original game that let you move very quickly over hillsides by jumping repeatedly while running along the surface. Now you merely hold down the jump key to maintain flight momentum when you touch the ground. Skiing has been balanced to more strongly define the mobility distinction between the player classes and ensure that heavy suits aren't as fast on the slopes as they were in the first game. Tribes 2's maps are generally quite large, so heavy suits now have to rely much more on vehicles to go on the offensive and travel to the enemy base. This is key, because most of the action occurs in and around the map's bases and towers, where the objectives for the team games--like the eminently popular capture-the-flag mode--can be heavily defended, requiring heavy-suited players to break through the enemy lines.
The game offers a lot more than just deathmatch and capture-the-flag game modes. The free-for-all variations derived from popular Starsiege: Tribes mods are good for games with fewer players and make the most of Tribes 2's map style. Rabbit is a single-flag game where the player who carries the flag is "it." There's often a terrific scrimmage as other players try to grab the flag and make a run back to their bases. Hunters is reminiscent of the headhunter mods for other multiplayer games. As players die, they drop flags that can be collected for points at a central location. The real scramble happens when someone who's gathered a lot of flags is fragged, an event that's greeted with a jubilant "Yard sale!" voice-over as opponents gather to fight over the remains.
However, it's with the large team games that Tribes 2 is really impressive. The scale of these games is unmatched; there will often be 40 to 60 (or even more) players on a single server. The game's network code is quite good and supports these numbers well on servers with sufficient dedicated bandwidth, but some warping does occur in games containing many more than 60 players. The larger maps easily accommodate this many players and generally feature vehicle pads so that a portion of each team spends its time in the game's six vehicles.