A Polished Corpse
Tribes is one of those games that I’ve learned not to talk about, at least not in mixed company. When I do talk about it, I get a gleam in my eye and soon find myself excitedly relating some tale of virtual derring-do involving the defense or capture of an imaginary flag. By the time I snap out of it, the people on the receiving end are either glazed over or giving me that look—you know that look—that says how unseemly it is for a man my age to be playing video games.
With all the things that have befallen the Tribes franchise in recent years, it’s a wonder that Tribes: Vengeance, the most recent entry, was released at all. The developers of the previous installment, the excellent Tribes 2, were rewarded for their efforts by being fired almost immediately after the game’s release, and the nimrods at Sierra who inherited the job of maintaining the title later issued a series of disastrous patches that actually broke the game. I learned some time later, well after my period of mourning, that some of the old developers had been summoned to issue a patch that actually worked. By then, I’d given up Tribes 2 for dead. A cancelled adaptation of Tribes for the PlayStation 2 seemed to be the final nail in the coffin.
The strength of Tribes has always been its intense, twitchy multiplayer mode, separated from other first-person shooters by its multiple armor options and by the jump jets that enabled each player to go soaring over the hilltops toward the mission objective. Tribes: Vengeance, I’m glad to report, doesn’t fix anything that wasn’t broken. Whether there are enough new goodies here to justify the purchase of a new game is another question, especially considering that the previous Tribes games are now freely available for downloading.
The Tribes series is an offshoot of a game called Starsiege, which had an elaborate backstory set in the distant future. The Tribes spinoffs largely dispensed with that story, cannibalizing its devices to create a very good, multiplayer-only combat game. Tribes players were dimly aware that the logos on their armor probably meant something, but they didn’t know what. With Vengeance, the developers have attempted to respond to fans’ calls for a rewarding single player experience and to reintroduce Tribes fans to the Starsiege universe. Sadly, they’ve failed on both counts.
The storyline of the single player campaign, which I did not finish, was a pallid assortment of clichés that vaguely reminded me of the Dune novels, a comparison that does a great disservice to Dune. There’s a quarrelsome royal family, precariously presiding over a galactic empire. A number of disenfranchised, spacefaring tribes are engaged in long-running guerilla wars with the empire and each other. A feisty royal heiress is kidnapped by one of the tribes, and, with the help of a charismatic, handsome tribesman, comes to see their point of view. Her even feistier young daughter grows up believing that her mother is dead and dedicates her life to avenging her mother… that’s about enough, really. This is a glorified training mode, with a plot that feels like an afterthought.
The core game has been polished and recast in the graphics engine that powered Unreal Tournament 2004. Some new toys have been added to the arsenal, including a spiffy grappling hook launcher that lets players swing around the map, Spider-Man-style. Other underused features from the previous games have been removed, notably the command interface that allowed one player to issue orders and set waypoints for teammates. The basic mechanics of multiplayer mode are better than ever, and sailing through the air with enemy players in hot pursuit still provides players with a particular kind of euphoria that can’t be had from any other PC shooter. Once you hit the ground, though, it boils down to another variant of red versus blue.
Tribes: Vengeance is a great shooter that preserves the best features of the series and improves incrementally upon a working formula. Unfortunately, in this overcrowded segment, gamers who haven’t already been sucked aboard the Tribes bandwagon are more likely to note what’s not here. Some sympathetic characters, realistic scenarios, or even just a sense of working toward the completion of a goal might have helped this game run with the Splinter Cells of the world. Soaring and skiing through valleys is fun, but after more than six years, just about any capture-the-flag story is going to be boring.