Tribes: Vengeance Hands-On Preview

Sierra Entertainment and Irrational are hard at work on the next game in the Tribes multiplayer shooter series--and we got our hands on it.

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There was a time when action games, like first-person shooters, were really, really, really simple. You played the game from a first-person perspective, ran around a hallway, and blasted everything that wasn't you. Times have changed, thanks to games like the team-based Tribes series, which lets you play as a futuristic soldier on a team of futuristic soldiers--all the while armed with a few high-powered weapons, a jetpack, and some pretty serious speed. You achieved this speed in the previous games by using your jetpack to fly through the air and then "skiing"--gliding along the surface of the ground in freefall, which often let you accelerate to incredible speeds. Tribes: Vengeance will be the next game in the series, and it will have the competitive, team-based gameplay and the unique weapons and vehicles of the previous games, plus an all-new single-player game from the creator of System Shock 2 and Freedom Force. We've seen the game in action a few times, but recently we were finally able to take the game for a spin.

Did we mention that Tribes is back with a vengeance?
Did we mention that Tribes is back with a vengeance?

Tribes: Vengeance takes place several centuries before the events of the first two Tribes games, and it will offer a somewhat different and more streamlined setting. It will still feature futuristic weapons and vehicles, such as the two-man buggy, which we revealed previously, and a newly revealed, one-passenger air vehicle, the pod, which isn't especially fast but possesses excellent maneuverability. The single-player game will encompass a power struggle between three warring factions, or "tribes." These include the Imperials, the Phoenix, and the Blood Eagles. Each of these tribes will have a distinct look and feel that will be reflected in its armor and architecture. The Imperials wear heavy, boxy blue armor with gold trim, while the Phoenix tribe wears orange-colored armor with curved surfaces. Finally, the Blood Eagles wear jagged, angular, bright red armor. The single-player game's unusual structure was inspired by the sci-fi novel Cryptonomicon in that the narrative of the different levels jumps between different characters in different time periods. One of the game's main characters, for instance, is an Imperial trooper named Julia who is seeking revenge on the man who attacked her family when she was just a child. As a result, you'll play as Julia in different times of her life throughout the single-player game. However, you'll also be playing different characters.

According to multiplayer designer Michael Johnston and lead designer Ed Orman, Tribes: Vengeance will also be a game that's shaped significantly by user input, both from experts and beginners. The pair outlined four common criticisms of the previous games. One, they seemed "slow" at the beginning; two, their environments were too big and didn't allow much opportunity for fighting; three, the games were too complex to understand easily; and four, Tribes 2, specifically, was buggy at launch. The designers explained that each of these issues was carefully considered, so the team has now implemented actual gameplay features to address them. For instance, while Tribes veterans know that the games let you "ski" at incredible speeds by gliding along the ground after using a jetpack, the initial acceleration can seem slow to some players. As a result, the new game features faster acceleration from low speeds and affords you some limited movement in midair without using a jetpack, which represents a concession that new players might find useful.

The team is also including several smaller maps that were specifically designed for as few as two players at a time. This was done so that new players could get into the action quickly rather than having to roam around huge, empty maps. Also, the Tribes team is attempting to streamline the game to make it more accessible to new players. For instance, the new game has an onscreen minimap that lets you see your teammates' positions without having to come to a dead stop to open the command screen, as in previous games. Finally, the designers went on record by assuring us that the new game will not reuse any of the computer code from the infamously unstable Tribes 2. Instead, the game is built on a heavily modified version of the Unreal engine, and interestingly enough, some enterprising hobbyists have actually been working on the first modification for Tribes: Vengeance--a customized game mode called Starsiege 2845.

By equipping yourself with different armor, weapons, and packs, you'll have plenty of options.
By equipping yourself with different armor, weapons, and packs, you'll have plenty of options.

However, the game will still use the concept of equipment "packs" that you can use to outfit yourself. Tribes: Vengeance will feature a total of four packs, including the repair pack, which we revealed previously. Additionally (as in the previous games), the new game will let you equip yourself with one of three kinds of armor--light, medium, or heavy. Each has its own speed, jetpack capacity, and unique weapon. Take the light armor's sniper rifle and the heavy armor's mortar, for instance. The former is great for picking off enemies from afar, while the latter is useful for bombarding an enemy base from a distance.

Death From Above

Though we were unable to try out the single-player game, we were able to see some of it in motion, including a level in which the Imperial soldier Julia attempted to storm a Phoenix base while wearing medium armor. While she began her attack, we also watched as Julia received backup from a computer-controlled companion who was wearing heavy armor. To assist Julia, her backup continuously pelted enemies with mortar rounds. At this point in time, we were unable to see any computer-controlled enemies who used skiing to their advantages, but they seemed to use their jetpacks well and were frighteningly accurate shots--even against targets that were sailing through the air. The base itself featured more realistic architecture than we've seen in previous Tribes games. While other games in the series had bases designed with an abstract technological theme, this one featured ramps, rails, walkways, and cables and looked like a base that people would actually use. As Julia descended to the lower levels, the base also had several curved ramps that--through the proper application of skiing--could actually be used like curved halfpipe ramps that skateboarders use to pull off tricks. (In fact, periodically sliding back down and up again provided cover from enemy fire on the upper levels.) We also caught brief glimpses of other levels that will be featured in the game, such as a huge sporting arena, complete with a gigantic monitor above the spectator area; as well as an enormous subterranean cavern, whose stony walls and spiky stalactites showed some impressive pixel shader effects.

Cover me. I'm going in.
Cover me. I'm going in.

Fortunately for us, we did get a chance to play a bit of the game's multiplayer, which includes standard modes like capture-the-flag and deathmatch, as well as more unusual modes, like a ball-carrier mode in which you must pass and carry a ball into your opponent's goal (like Unreal Tournament 2003's bombing run mode). The final game's maps will apparently be usable and reusable in different match types, thanks to the game's "universal game mode" feature, which automatically adds or deletes environmental features depending on the game mode you choose. For instance, choosing ball mode causes a platform to spawn in the middle of the map to house the ball, while the same object would not be present in a capture-the-flag map.

Tribes: Vengeance will apparently ship with about 20 multiplayer maps, but most of our own games were capture-the-flag sessions on a straightforward outdoor map simply called "fort." This map featured two opposing bases on opposite sides of a river that were flanked by foothills. Each base featured an inventory station for equipping different kinds of armor and weapons (though the inventory station and many other objects and effects in the game were still works in progress). The hilly parts of the map provided a surprising number of play options. There were high hills to perch behind while using a sniper rifle, there was the ability to fly high above water to drop down in to the enemy base from the ceiling, and there was the option to ski across the terrain to quickly move from one end of the map to another. Evidently, highly skilled players who can master skiing will even be able to ski across water once they reach an exceptionally high velocity (the effect was described as being similar to skipping a stone across a pond), though we were unable to see this feature in action.

Though the game isn't finished by any means, Tribes: Vengeance does seem to remain true to the Tribes series' core gameplay. However, it seems to move at a slightly faster pace than previous games, since you can gain speed from a jetpack (from a dead stop) slightly faster than before to get your momentum going. We were able to try a number of different weapons, including the grenade launcher, which lobs powerful, bouncing grenades; the long-range sniper rifle, which fires a brightly colored laser beam with an obvious contrail that should reveal the position of any cowardly sniper; the rocket pod, which fires a swarm of rockets that can be manually guided with your mouse after launch; the blaster, which acts as a scattershot shotgun (similar to the flak cannon in Unreal Tournament); and the minigun, a rapid-firing machine gun that has been rebalanced so that if it's fired continuously, it will overheat and malfunction. We were also able to try out the mortars, which lob extremely powerful shells that create sizeable explosions, and the spinfusor (also known as the disc launcher), which is the traditional Tribes weapon. The spinfusor retains its damaging explosive impact and can still be used to "rocket jump" exceptionally high into the air (by firing the weapon at your own feet while jumping. These weapons will, of course, be subject to further changes and fine-tuning, but those we were able to try all seemed useful enough. However, as in previous Tribes games, movement seems to be at least as important as good aim, if not more so. As a result, sighting a skilled, fast-moving player who skis past you in an instant remains just as challenging as ever.

The pod is a new, highly maneuverable, one-man flying vehicle that has just been revealed.
The pod is a new, highly maneuverable, one-man flying vehicle that has just been revealed.

This early version of Tribes: Vengeance certainly looks promising. While the version we played, which is the same one you'll see in our most recent batch of movies, was lacking in certain graphical frills, the gameplay seems like it's off to a good start. And as it so happens, you may be able to share in our good fortune later this year. Irrational Games Australia plans to offer an open beta test before the game ships toward the end of the year. For now, be sure to watch our exclusive video interviews with producer Chris Mahnken and lead designer Ed Orman.

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