The family is at war. Princess Victoria is betroth to a snake-like, cloak-wearing noble with little respect for her interests, and her father and sister Olivia can only see their side of the debate; that refusal to wed could bring down the whole family and mean the deaths of thousands of innocents. It doesn't help that dinner is served with an unwanted side of invading Tribals, who blast their way onboard the Imperial Yacht, separating Victoria from her family and unwanted fiancé, forcing her to try and pick her way through the disintegrating superstructure armed with weapons she's never used and fought at every step by laser-toting space-goons with jetpacks...
This isn't really the Tribes we remember. That game was a blend of tightly balanced team-based first-person shooting, strategy and aerial combat, best remembered for its fanatical following and the invention of skiing, originally a physics bug and latterly a bullet point on the fact sheet, which thanks to a combination of a brief spell of zero friction on landing and some well-timed use of the jump button, allowed players to traverse levels at lightning speed. It was a game first and foremost, which is why it was so effective. Perhaps there was some convoluted justification for the whole thing (in fact there definitely was), but that was clearly a section of the manual we didn't read. We just hopped on 64-player servers and grabbed the nearest Shrike.
Tribes: Vengeance, developed by Irrational Games rather than the original Tribes or Tribes 2 team, is an attempt to strap these exploits - refined and hopefully bettered, with plenty of help from the community - to a genuinely engaging single-player campaign, which not only serves as a training ground for aspiring online skiers, but also delivers a science fiction narrative and varied adventure worthy of comparison to any other first-person shooter. During a recent demonstration at the headquarters of publisher Vivendi in Paris, we got a chance to try out both sides of the game. Today, we're taking a look at the single-player, which gives us a chance to take on the roles of many characters in the abovementioned family feud, beginning with the headstrong Victoria, and assess the likelihood of Irrational achieving their ambitious goal.
The battle to escape the clutches of the Tribals begins as the ship is jolted off trajectory by the invaders, and frantic radio chatter reveals that the Princess is in danger, and separated by some distance from her family. "Get to the bridge," Olivia insists, a cut-out of her head and the text rolling along the top of the screen as her voice pumps out of our headphones. "We're all waiting for you." We try. As we dash towards the only exit we can see, ships are visible chasing one another out of the sun-baked windows on our left. It's a bit like trying to watch TV through the bottom of a pint glass, such is the effect, but we still recognise the limp body of a man floating past as if he's been sucked out of a nearby hull breach. We make tracks.
Up ahead we come to another long room, as regally decorated as the previous one, but this time littered with upended tables, lampshades and cracked flooring. As we pick our way through, furniture is knocked out of the way thanks to the Havok-tinted physics code, and bits of the carpet crumple and flip over as the circuits beneath them take a hammering. We move towards the end of the room and spot three of our crewmen banging on a door, which appears to be busted just a couple of inches open. All of a sudden there's a terrific crack and the floor beneath them gives away, and they tumble into the hole, banging on ledges on their way down as the ragdoll physics direct their distinctive demise. A few seconds later, laser blasts impact on the wall in front of us. Wheeling round, we see a trio of invaders. Unarmed and without an obvious exit, we dive into the hole, and wind up in a corridor below on top of a pile of bodies. Another man nearby catches our attention, only to find himself blasted out of the equation by another explosion.
As we move on, Olivia tells us we have to get on with it, and we make a play for some stairs in the next room. They explode. Things aren't going well. Fortunately there's a hallway nearby, and - ah - the familiar sight of an inventory station lurking at the end of it.
The inventory stations in Tribes: Vengeance, even in single-player, are much as fans of the series will expect. By hitting F, up comes an interface allowing us to pick between three forms of armour, various shield packs, which offer improvements in health regeneration, speed and other areas (a minor refinement of the previous approach, which was a bit more complicated), and three weapon slots to fill with a mixture of any of the eight weapons on offer. As it happens, this station gives us a narrower choice, and we wind up in medium armour with a spinfusor (a sort of spinning disc weapon which throws up some nice splash damage), a burner (which leaves a throbbing fireball wherever it lands, engulfing anything nearby) and a blaster.
We still feel quite well equipped, and of course now we're in possession of Tribes' most distinctive tool - the jetpack. By pressing the right mouse button, we're propelled upward, or along, depending on our movement with the cursor keys (or WSAD, actually), and the feeling is very much as we anticipated - there's just enough oomph to send us up a ways, or cushion a long fall, but there isn't enough that if we were to fall off a platform, we could get much higher than we were in the first place. The jetpack makes mincemeat of our stairs-related deficiency in the previous area, and we zoom to the top of the remarkably tall chamber, just as enemies flock through the door after us and starting firing at our heels. A full confrontation can't be far away.
Sure enough, it isn't long before we're in the thick of it. "Where the hell is the Princess?" we hear two guards muttering as we approach the throne room through a vent, but whatever Victoria's answer might have been, she has no time to utter it, as they're quickly blasted into smithereens by a number of laser-toting Tribals, who quickly focus their attentions on Victoria. We kick the jetpack into life and whip out the spinfusor, and start tackling them, and it's suddenly clear that taking them out will be no mean feat. Even though we're on 'Normal' difficulty level - the middle of three - they're having quite an impact on our shields. Conscious that the save system isn't quite working yet, we take the time-honoured approach of ducking behind enormous pillars and nipping out to bang explosive discs into them from range.
Learn To Fly
Once we're done, we're rather glad of the sight of a resupply station in the next room, but there's no letting up where Olivia is concerned. "Find your way to the crew quarters," we're told. But how? Ah. A vent in the ceiling. Up through a vertical shaft we go, dodging streams of sparks, firing our way through a blockage and then emerging on a walkway overhanging a church-like room full of pews and, as it happens, more Tribals. Including a few we hadn't encountered before, with their own jetpacks.
This is a much tougher battle. The AI of the basic grunts isn't all that special yet - they fire quite constantly, and run around occasionally, but wouldn't bother Turing or anything - but these chaps in the air are much more trouble. We're forced to target them as they come down to land, taking maximum advantage of the spinfusor's splash damage. It suddenly occurs to us that we're learning how to play real Tribes. Online, the levels are generally a lot more open (although we've seen some indoors ones too), and mastering jetpacks and how to tackle enemies using them are key skills. Without feeling contrived, we're already being shown how to do this, and it bodes well for Irrational's claim that Vengeance has been designed to be more accessible than previous Tribes titles.
We're not quite done yet though, because with our jetpack wearing adversaries sadly departed - and flopping and flipping around limply in midair as their packs continue to fire, in an effect we could certainly get used to watching - we find ourselves faced with another inventory station, this one offering us the chance to switch to heavy armour. We need little invitation. The doubled health capacity is more valuable to us than the speed of movement, and a quick speed pack upgrade renders us perfectly versatile in any event. And so it proves when, in the next huge conference hall, we take on a group of enemies and their remote sentry turrets, and barely need to head back for a recharge at all due to our cunning manoeuvres behind pillars.
It's here that we encounter what appears to be the engine room, just off a small cargo area. With the gravity turned off. And the looming spectre of death: "All hands to escape pods, self-destruct initiated." The anti-grav certainly adds an interesting dynamic, because we no longer sink when our jetpack runs out. And neither do our enemies. And neither does the debris floating around in midair and banging off of us whenever we venture near it. It takes some wily disc wielding and burner use to make it past these areas and into a room where we can switch the gravity back on and resupply.
"You're nearly there," Olivia informs us, which is just as well, as we're booked in for dinner in a couple of hours. But we're clearly not going to get wherever there is without a fight, and the next arena is a bit more tricky - a sort of meandering dining room in an S-shape, with walkways snaking round the walls high up and Tribals swarming all over the place. As we prance into the air and kick our jetpack into life, chairs and tables are thrown hither and thither by our spinfusor's splash damage, the lights flicker and fade and departed enemies are just as hazardous as their packs see them tumbling about in the air, blocking our line of fire. Fortunately though, we make it through, and this is roughly where our adventure ends, as we encounter and impassable barrier that our PR handlers inform us can't be opened in this build of the game for whatever reason.
It's been an interesting ride. Obviously Halo-inspired, the first level of Tribes: Vengeance has taught us things about the game without the use of patronising on-screen text, without hurling them at us at the speed of a master-skier, and without really riling us. And given that we already knew everything we were being taught, that's quite an achievement. Accessible and still capable of keeping the attention of Tribes veterans? It could be.
We may not have had the chance to play much of the game in sequence yet, but we did also get to dip into some of the other levels courtesy of a debug mode, demonstrating some arena-style combat using one of the other playable characters, Julia, fighting a battle for control points, and we also came upon a more traditional single-player pursuit - prowling along hilltops sniping at enemies. The Unreal Tournament 2003 technology adapted for Vengeance makes light work of such huge environments - admittedly on some pretty high-end kit, in this case, but then the game isn't optimised yet - and it all looks very lush bathed in moonlight.
We also sought out a few levels featuring vehicles including the jump-tank, which is a tank that can quite literally jump jetpack-style using the right mouse button (which is interesting to say the least in enclosed environments and using Havok-style physics), and we got to grips with the Halo-like vehicle control system very easily, pointing the mouse in the direction we wanted to go and then holding W or S to move forward or back with that direction in mind. It was all very intuitive.
In short, with the game still in "pre-alpha" state, the single-player is looking promising, and we do believe the game's producers and marketing men when we're told that it's as important to Irrational Games as the multiplayer component, and not just the traditional warm-up act for the online aspect. It's a tough task to tutor novices in how to play something like Tribes at the best of times whilst keeping things interesting, but from our perspective we were having fun and we already knew most of what there was to know. That ought to be even harder to achieve. If Irrational Games can sustain that feeling, we'll be just as keen to play the single-player in more depth as we were to get online and capture a few flags. And moreover, that would be a Tribes game we came to remember.
Tribes: Vengeance is due out in late 2004 on PC. Check back soon for full multiplayer impressions and plenty more besides.