Windows - 1998
Description of Starsiege: Tribes Windows
Tales from the Field
"Another day, another capture the flag mission. I powered on my PDA looking at the overhead view of the battle arena and the locations of our various stations, turrets and sensors, as well as checking out those of the enemy that were within our sensor network. Our coverage was adequate - the pulse sensor on the roof lit up almost half the map, while motion sensors kept an eye on two of the three base entrances, watching for those sneaky saboteurs with pulse sensor jammers. I could also see a few of cameras already stationed within the enemy base by our own intruders. There were a couple of remote turrets around the flag room and one behind the main entrance, conveniently placed just around a corner waiting for the enemy to walk into it. I could see at least six others in our base and sufficient defenses were in place, except for the generator room - I resolved to check it out and then go for a little ride.
Heading down the ramp, I made my way to the inventory station. As usual, there was quite a line. When it was my turn, I quickly grabbed a medium armor, which let me carry the heavy turret, and a few mines. Hopping on to the lift, I made my way to the generator room, where the dual power sources were providing the juice for our supply stations and shields. The room was not in the way of much traffic, so I placed a couple of mines at the entrance - they would remain undisturbed till the enemy decides to pay a visit. It took me a while to find a good position for the turret due to interference from turrets on other floors. Finally, with a quick boost of my jetpack, I made my way back to the inventory station and changed into heavy armor (I'd rather use something faster, but only the heavy armor lets you carry the mortar artillery) complete with a shield pack. The shield is invaluable when you are concentrating on shelling the enemy base from afar - if someone honed their sights on you, your shield could absorb a few hits, giving you time to retaliate. People in speedy light armors prefer energy packs to charge their jetpacks faster for rapid escapes, and other heavies go for ammo packs that give them more rounds for their mortars...but I prefer to play it safe.
The enemy base was far away and in this heavy armor, it would take ages to get there. I keyed my radio and called for an APC pickup. The driver station of the APCs are small, only those in light armor can fit in. Bullseye answered my call - "be right there" he said. Even before I got there, I heard him announce "APC ready to go...waiting for passengers" on the radio. Good. Upon my arrival, I saw two other guys ready to go base smashing by the APC: Mike, another heavy with mortar and Doomsday, in medium armor, equipped with medium range area effect plasma guns. He was also carrying a portable inventory station with him! It's a daring move (that stuff weighs you down) but if he could place one within the enemy base, he could setup shop right there for repair and resupply. Bullseye himself, clad in light armor of course, had a laser rifle (the de-facto snipers weapon) with an energy pack to sustain it and informed me he also had a targeting laser. Buddies with targeting lasers are good news for heavies, as they are used to tell mortar wielders where to shoot for a perfect score every time. I hopped in and we were soon on our way.
Bullseye stayed low and used valleys to avoid detection - the APC was unarmed and would make a nice catch for enemy snipers. We swerved west to avoid the turret fire from the enemy controlled tower in the middle of the battle arena. As we ducked into the valley leading to our drop off point, an enemy scout vehicle popped over the crest and upon seeing us, veered into a bank to engage. There wasn't much distance between us and his broadside made a good-sized target even for the rather inaccurate chain gun I was carrying. Quickly zeroing in on him, I pulled the trigger for three seconds of sustained fire and soon he was flying head over heels without a scout underneath. Cheers rose from our small crew, as Bullseye settled the APC right behind a hill - on the other side was the enemy base.
We all got out and Doomsday took off, going over the hilltop and engaging his boosters to land on the balcony leading into the enemy base. Mike and I took our positions - barely peeking above the hilltop making sure their sensors were not detecting us. I signaled ready and Bullseye lit up the enemy pulse sensor on the roof with his targeting laser. All I had to do was line up the mortar's sights with the blue triangle on my display, and fire away. The mortar shells carved a green arc through the air... Two shots and the sensor blew up with a satisfying shockwave, taking out a an enemy light armor right next to it, who was trying to figure out where the hell the shells were raining from. The laser was painting the plasma turret on the balcony next, and it took three shells to take that one out - then suddenly my shield lit up purple all around me: I was taking fire!
Make my Day!
Quickly turning around I saw an enemy in light armor raining plasma on me. The plasma rifle is very deadly at close ranges and with splash damage, impossible to avoid in heavy armor. My shields were already down to nothing - my best chance was landing a mortar shot where it counts. As he was charging towards me, I popped a shell in front of him, but he was quick to fire his jets to leap straight into the air and took only a portion of the full blast damage. I started strafing left and lining up another mortar shot, but he managed to score two explosive disc shots meanwhile. I fired off another shot, engaged my repair kit to heal myself, but while trying to get out of the enemy's sight, I had wondered over the crest. The defenders at the base didn't miss the opportunity. A series of blaster shots landed on my back, and I fell down as my world went dark."
So, this is Starsiege: Tribes. For those in the know, it's Team Fortress on steroids (well, ok, a lot of steroids). For the rest of us, it's a multiplayer action combat game at squad level, where a lot of teamwork is required to accomplish results. The format resembles your typical first-person shooter, but the gameplay is rather different - it involves a lot of travelling back and forth, sneaking, observation, setting up stuff, blowing up enemy's stuff, giving/taking orders and daring flag runs. There's no single-player support: everything takes place on public servers that support up to 32 players online at the same time. The game offers some a few player training missions, but I found these lacking in depth, if not in scope. There really isn't any way to properly learn the game other than going online and playing a few games till you figure out what's going on. A more complete training package would have been nice, which would have cut down on the newbie ratio on the servers.
Tribes offers a few different flavors: Deathmatch (rather pointless, as this game's strength is NOT firefights. If that's what you want, Quake 2 does it better), Defend and Destroy (destroy the enemy's assets and stop them from doing the same), Capture and Hold (capture an objective and hold on to it to gain points), Find and Retrieve (find flags and bring it back to the designated flag holding area) and finally the good old Capture the Flag. Amongst those Capture the Flag and Defend and Destroy are the most popular. Some of the variants appealed to me far more than the others:
Defend and Destroy is nice, but some levels can be over way too quickly (two-three minutes) if one of the teams is lucky enough to have one-man-army members who can take out the enemy base in one swoop. Find and Retrieve is also an interesting twist on the old CTF theme, but requires quite a bit skill to coordinate everything, making it less suitable to public play. Lastly, some of the Capture and Hold levels to have too many objectives to make setting up defenses worthwhile, eliminating that aspect of the game. Tribes offers scripting, using a language very similar to C++, so user designed mods similar to those for Quake might appear to offer even more variety. Already, modified versions of the standard maps (no client-side download required to enjoy these either) and modifications, such as anti-team kill code that kicks those who attempt to destroy games by killing their teammates, exist.
Tribes has a built-in server browser for the purpose of finding that perfect server to play on. There is no central online service - as with other FPS games, there are a number of publisher-run servers and many servers run by third parties. At the time of writing, there were around 250 servers online; not bad at all. The browser is merely adequate - one big downfall is the lack of a "player search" function to find your friends. Hopefully standalone server browsers will start supporting tribes so that we can enjoy the more advanced features offered by those packages. Communication between players (outside of gameplay) is handled via standard IRC, again built into the game.The network code itself, once you are in the game, is also pretty good. Lag is a problem as always, but it rarely provides you with a disadvantage in fire fights. I was able to stay competitive with pings up to 400ms. The problem presents itself as periods of server lag, where nobody can really do much. Fortunately, these laggy periods seem to be the exception rather than the rule.
Once you find a server and get into the game, you start in observer mode and are automatically assigned to one of the competing tribes - there are usually two tribes but multi-tribe levels, where three or four tribes compete, are also available. Aside from the 3D first person view, there are two other screens of importance: the objectives screen and the commander screen. The former provides an overview of the situation including score, time remaining and the current objectives, and the latter displays an overhead map of the area and locations of other players and objects. The commander screen is a very important concept, and as far as I know the first time something like this has been implemented in a multiplayer game (twiddling my thumbs while waiting for that email to tell me how wrong I am). More about this in a litte bit.
The graphics are functional, but nothing to write home about. The animations of the players are realistic, the fog effect, which is present in software mode as well, is neat and the hilly terrain is nice to look at. A very nice touch is that not only a players armor and weapon is visible, but their back pack unit as well - so you can tell whether a teammate is handling the repairs or on his way to deploy a turret. Various levels of zoom are available, assisting snipers and scouts. The software mode looks pretty decent for a change, which should help those of us without 3dfx cards, as the program only supports Glide right now. A patch is in the works that will provide Open GL support. On the audio front, the game supports "team radio", an idea first seen in various Quake 2 mods, where you can choose the messages you want to deliver to your team from a series of menus. After about three key presses, your message is delivered in audio, as well as in text. It really makes it easier in the heat of combat.
What do you do upon entering the game? The answer is not simple, there are many choices. The gameplay of Tribes is much more complex than the relatively simplistic play of Quake's CTF or even Team Fortress. It's not simply a case of "Are there enough people on defense? If yes, go offense, if not, defend the base"as in CTF, or "What classes would be useful to the team on this map?" as in Team Fortress (no classes in Tribes per se - you just gather different sets of equipment.) There are many, many different approaches you can take, which is the game's greatest strength, and can also be its downfall... more on this later.
You start out with a decent complement of weapons near your own base, so if you wish to do so, you can immediately assault the enemy base or go kill that intruder/sniper that just took you out. Otherwise, you'll need to find an inventory station and equip, choosing from three different armor types, a wider selection of weapons, backpacks of various functions, misc devices such as mines, grenades and beacons, and deployable turrets, sensors and remote stations. Your choice of armor is dictated either by game's imposed limitations (snipers and pilots have to be in light armor, mortar artillery requires heavy armor and deploying turrets and stations requires at least medium armor) or your personal style: if you are going to go for the enemy objectives, or decide to play the repairman, you will want the fast but weak light armor. For defensive purposes such as guarding entrances or objectives a heavy armor may be better and base sabotage will usually call for medium armor.
Big Brother is Watching
A unique aspect of Tribes is that all the sensors within the game world are actually linked as a network. Sensors tell you where the enemy is, and are therefore critical to success. You have your wide area pulse sensors that can be jammed by sensor jammer packs, motion sensors that can't be jammed but have limited range and can only detect moving objects and cameras that even let you take control of them and take a look around - too bad they only have a 90 degrees field of view. And finally, all players have sensors built into their suits - which means if you see something, so can all your tribe members. Tribes is possibly the only game where scouting is a real job. Repairing, supplementing and generally making proper use of the sensor network is a key aspect of the game.
The Tribes environment is mostly outdoors, with individual bases and other buildings littered across a fairly large (for walking anyway) area. To make getting from A to B easier, some levels provide vehicle pads, from which fast and armed one-man scout flyers or 3 or 5 men flying APCs can be launched. While in transit via APC, you can still look around and shoot at targets of opportunity - four heavy armored soldiers launching mortar shells from an APC is a sight to behold. Vehicles are not the only objects you can control: some levels have command stations, which you can access to take control of turrets. Control of plasma turrets are better left to the computer AI, but it doesn't use the mortar turrets at all and homing rocket turrets can be used to fire at extreme ranges that the computer doesn't bother to engage targets at.
The firefights in Tribes would be pretty much run of the mill stuff, if it weren't for the jetpacks. If you are engaging in combat outside, chances are you are in light armor which makes the jetpack your sole means of survival at medium to close ranges. For heavier armor types, jetpack is used to gain some mobility, but the light armor can literally blast off into orbit using these puppies. The modeling of the jetpack physics is also rather impressive and felt very, very real (in perfect harmony with my two and a half years of jetpack training at the academy.) The weapons themselves are rather well done as well - there isn't a single "useless" weapon as is too common with other games of this type.
By the way, during the course of a few weeks, I occasionally ran into a problem where my mouse would be "read" by the program about once every two seconds (instead of several times per second) resulting in some jerky motions and total loss of control. The only fix was to quit and restart Tribes. At least one other person confirmed the bug online, but it's not frequent enough to be a major concern. Another acknowledged bug is Tribes suddenly quitting and dumping you to Windows desktop seems to be related to running out of swap memory space. Once I made sure plenty of free space was available for my swap file, the problem disappeared.
Command & Conquer
The commander screen, which I have mentioned briefly above, is actually accessible by anyone and not only gives you a dynamic map of the battle arena (accurate to the extent of your sensor network), but also allows you to issue, attack, defense, deploy and repair orders to anyone on your team. This does mean anyone can issue orders to anyone - the game allows the recipient to audibly acknowledge or decline any order via hotkeys. Once you are issued an order, the command and the heading leading to your waypoint are placed on your display (as well as on the commander screen map). You can even see through the eyes of other team members, providing invaluable feedback to dedicated commanders who are actually trying to evaluate the flow of the battle and trying to develop a winning strategy. All in all, the commander screen is an incredible feature, which on its own distinguishes Tribes from the pack. It has obviously been designed to address the requirements of team play, but on its own, it's not a complete answer. For example, the shelling the base process depicted above in my mini-story requires both someone to assist you with a targeting laser and someone to pilot the APC that will take you to your destination. You will have to ask for assistance, but in a public pick-up game where half the players are clueless newbies and the remaining half don't know each other, will you get it? If you get help, how long will it take for the assistance to arrive? Will the person assisting you actually be competent at his job? What if someone dies (very likely) before you complete your mission, will you be able to get things going quickly again?
Unfortunately, these questions are very real. Tribes is a game that simply cries for organized team play, which the public servers lack. It's not uncommon for players to go assaulting in pairs or to share defensive duties, or APC pilots to wait around for passengers but you can't really expect anything beyond that. While players do go for objectives that will assist the other players to capture objectives or grab the flag, such as taking out generators, isolated acts like this are not too productive. Ideally, everything should be coordinated so someone with a blaster outside can rapidly take out enemy turrets, and snipers should start taking out the enemy who cannot re-equip without any power. Of course, this is almost never the case. Tribes has much more potential doing one-man quick flag runs in light armor or trying to get may be two coordinated assaults going in the span of 20-30 minutes (typical level time limits per level.)
The Tribes of, uh, Tribes
Therefore, the commander screen is mostly useless in public games, other than as a map on which you can view incoming threats. The answer then, comes in the form of player-run tribes, akin to Quake's clans (which, for our outer Mongolian readers, are players forming groups that play each other on a regular basis). The Tribes background story mentions four tribes, which the player tribes can associate with and form sub-chapters of. Such tribes can carry team play to a level previously unheard of, by arranging responsibilities, coordinating efforts and developing tactics. But the process of finding a tribe, joining a tribe, then keeping up with the schedule of a tribe is not for everyone. Even if you are willing to pursue this, chances are the tribe you end up with won't really produce the results you want - it can take several weeks before you can figure out the tribe is not really for you and by that time you might be too tired of the whole thing to look for another one.
In the end, Dynamix has provided us with a great game with a lot of possibilities, but the sense of teamplay and working together that would make the Tribes experience so unique is not quite attainable unless you luck out and end up in a good tribe. The public server model doesn't work very well for a team game of this, relatively speaking, complexity. My impression is that only a few well-defined roles work well in such a setting: amongst them turret deployment (to a certain extent - if team damage is disabled, misplacement of turrets can be a headache), asset repair, positional defense, and flag/objective assault. Even then, resource allocation is a problem, since it's hard, if not impossible, to predict who is doing what - I've ended many times arriving at a repair station to find two more repairmen there, or waiting around in heavy armor, unable to leave my defensive position, for backup that never arrived.
Can Tribes be still enjoyed this way? Absolutely! But then, I have questions about its longevity. Granted, for the past three weeks, I kept going back to it almost every day. The atmosphere of being part of a team is still there, despite all the shortcomings, and I've had some great games. But my interest is slowly waning. Defensive roles are getting boring, the frequency of unsuccessful assault link ups is becoming annoying, and the occasional horribly unbalanced game where a few dominant players totally slaughter the other team is a plain waste of time, no matter which team you are on. Without taking advantage of the features that make it special, will Tribes really hold your interest beyond a few weeks?
Having said all that, there's no denying the fact: Tribes is simply the best multiplayer team game to grace our screens so far. It is an exceptional effort in its portrayal of a dynamic, interconnected environment that embraces many different styles of play, and the commander interface is a significant move towards better team play. I still recommend it without reservation to all Team Fortress fans who can appreciate a bigger, more complex game and those who can put enough time into it to make the tribe experience work.
Review By GamesDomain
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