Reviewed: January 13, 2005
Released: October 5, 2004
Ever since the days of the original Quake and Unreal designers have had the difficult task of trying to blend single-player, story-driven action with intense multiplayer combat. Their solution so far has been to release standalone products to cater to each specific type of gamer, so online gamers could get their frag on in Unreal Tournament 2004 while the solo gamer could get a healthy dose of story and AI combat in Unreal 2: The Awakening.
Irrational Games has finally and successfully fused the single and the multiplayer elements in their latest installment, Tribes: Vengeance, a prequel of sorts that takes place several hundred years before the original Tribes game. You’ll get to meet some familiar factions and have the chance to play the game from several perspectives on various sides of the galactic conflict.
For those seeking a story, there is an intriguing one to be had, and it is delivered almost imperceptibly through actions, radio chatter and scripted events, rather than being rammed down your throat in obvious cutscenes. And despite the fact that you are bouncing between characters and even opposing sides of the conflict, it’s surprisingly easy to keep track of the story with the exception of an abrupt time jump about halfway through the plot.
From a gameplay perspective, Tribes: Vengeance plays out much like the previous Tribes games or any other FPS for that matter. The trademark jetpack is back allowing you to jump and glide great distances and you can “ski” down slopes (now a feature rather than a bug) in your battle armor that comes in three-sizes, each with its own pro’s and con’s.
Vehicles are of increasing importance with new and more powerful craft like the dual-cannon assault ship and the updated weapon selection features some classic favorites along with some exciting and deadly new pieces of equipment like the Rocket Pod. All of the weapons look fantastic and their power matches their appearance. Oddly enough, the tweaks to the original weapons actually make them more powerful than their original versions, which defies logic considering the huge shift back in time.
You can now play with the burner gun, a flamethrower that shoots fireballs, and an updated rocket launcher that allows you to guide the missiles after they’ve been shot. You also have an energy blade that is nowhere near as powerful as the one in Halo 2 but serves its purpose when you are out of ammo on all your other weapons. The sniper rifle now requires energy and ammo making it a bit more difficult to “camp” for too long.
Perhaps my favorite is the new shotgun that sends shots bouncing off walls. It’s a great way to clear out a room or ricochet your shots around a corner. There is also a new grapple weapon, or rather a tool, that plays a minor role in the campaign mode. You can really only use it at a few scripted locales, but with the ability to grapple a human enemy it becomes an artistic weapon in multiplayer. It’s not as controllable as the grapple in Bloodrayne 2 but you can still have some fun with it.
Gameplay is surprisingly diverse including your traditional run-and-gun sections along with some intense driving missions and some extremely challenging defensive missions where you setup base defenses and then have to hold off wave after wave of enemy assaults.
The levels are extremely well designed ranging from massive open-air battlefields to some exciting indoor environments choked full of enemies, exciting scripted events, and yes, the occasional jumping puzzle which is actually fun thanks to the jet pack. Having the ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” has given the designers creative freedom in designing some challenging vertical levels.
The outdoor missions give you relative freedom to go where you want and often complete multiple objectives in the order you choose. You can also choose your tactics, opting for a frontal assault or the stealthier flank and surprise from the rear.
AI is fantastic, ranking right up there with the stellar intelligence we’ve already seen in the UT series. While nothing comes close to human opposition, you will see some human-like traits exhibited by the AI including effective weapon use and even some strategic jet-jumps to make use of terrain and elevation changes.
The game makes great use of a modified Unreal engine, so we get all the glitz and technical wonders of that engine combined with the fantastic gameplay of the Tribes franchise. The cutscenes all use game engine graphics but are just as stunning as any pre-rendered movies you have seen, especially in subtleties like facial expressions and the outrageous detail of the bump-mapped armor and clothing. There are three types of armor and each faction has a very unique style so you can easily identify friend from foe at a distance.
Using hardware T&L and DirectX 9 support for pixel shaders you will be privileged to witness some of the best lighting, shadows, and 3D textures since Doom 3 only this game is bright and colorful enough to appreciate the effect. Armor is perhaps the best texture in the game with real signs of wear and pitted battle scars.
The framerate holds up admirably if you meet or exceed the recommended specs on the box. I was able to keep things moving smoothly at 1600x1200 for single-player but I ultimately dropped down to 1280x1024 for the larger online games. Some of the battles can just get crazy-intense with smoke and fire and people running all over the place – not a good time for a hiccup in the animation.
The level designs are excellent with stunning outdoor vistas and detailed indoor levels. There is plenty of interactive and destructible environments not to mention all sorts of subtle details you might miss if you aren’t paying attention. One of my first and fondest recollections was during the very first level while the ship was under attack and you could see all these fighters zipping around outside the ship engaged in combat. It was purely cosmetic but very cool and helped to immerse you in the seriousness of the attack.
The HUD is minimal and kept to the borders of the screen so you can enjoy the excellent graphics. Accessing armor and outfitting equipment is extremely easy thanks to a clean icon-driven graphical interface. Even the open menu shows some style as you are taken through a virtual ride through the clouds as soldiers fly about in full battle armor.
I definitely enjoyed the music, which ranged from some futuristic techno beats to some very cinematic orchestrations when appropriate for the content. All too often the music would be entirely drowned out by the overwhelming sound effects.
Tribes: Vengeance is a loud game with powerful explosions and intense futuristic sounds of weapons fire, engine noises, and the powerful rumble of your jet pack. It’s all delivered in a nice 3D surround mix if you have the hardware to support it.
The dialogue is very well done, thanks to a well-crafted script and a talented group of voice actors who are believable throughout the game. Even the radio chatter during combat is quality stuff and even useful at times.
Hardcore action gamers can expect 12-15 hours of intense combat for the single-player campaign, but once you go online there is no limit to the fun you can have with this game. Much like the games before it, Tribes: Vengeance is a virtual sandbox just waiting for the mod community to get their talented hands on it. There is no predicting what we can expect in the way of add-ons in the near future, but you can be sure there will be plenty of content to keep this title on your hard drive for years to come.
Multiplayer modes include Arena, a team-based elimination with multiple rounds, and Ball, which is basically a sports mode much like the game mode in UT. Fuel is perhaps the most innovative of the new modes and requires you to fill a fuel depot at your base by collecting fuel cells scattered about the map. You can only carry 15 cells at a time and if you die you lose a unit from the main tank. And then you have the always-popular CTF and Rabbit mode, which is basically the opposite of CTF.
Dynamix had done a remarkable job with the original Tribes games, so I was a little concerned when a new company came in to take over, but after a week of solid action gaming I have to confess that Irrational has kept the game true to its roots while boldly and successfully exploring new territory. The single-player campaign will certainly attract gamers who play for the story and there is enough subtle tutelage buried in the campaign mode that you will find yourself compelled to explore the online aspects of Tribes: Vengeance.
You might ask, “is this game any better than UT 2004?” and I would have to say, “not better but different”. UT 2004 did some pretty remarkable things, but Tribes Vengeance offers just as many innovative and extremely cool features making it a must-own title for anyone who claims to like FPS games, either online or off. And once the mod community gets up to speed, there will be no end in sight for this title.