Before Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena were even a twinkle in a game designer's eyes, Dynamix released "Starsiege Tribes", a multiplayer-only first person shooter which was focused on teamplay and vast open maps. With a more strategic feel than most shooters of the time, the game soon became a cult-favourite with a hardcore online following.
So it's no great surprise that one of the most eagerly anticipated online shooters at the moment is the sequel which Dynamix, long since swallowed by publisher Sierra, have been working on for some time now. We recently got our hands on a beta version of the game to find out if it's been worth the wait...
The first thing that strikes you when you see "Tribes 2" in action is how much better than the original it looks. The terrain is smoother, the character models are less blocky, the textures more detailed, and the skies border on stunning. A completely new engine powers the game, and although it can't match the likes of Quake 3 when it comes eye candy, as far as outdoors areas go Tribes 2 is virtually unsurpassed.
It's not all about graphics though, and a lot of the new features of the engine have been designed to add to the gameplay as well as to look pretty. The new weather effects, for example, can have a big effect on the way the game is played. There are now three layers of cloud cover in the skies above you, and these can dip to smother the tops of mountains, obscuring your view of the battlefield. Heavy snow can also reduce visibility and make life harder for snipers.
The addition of pools of water, lava and quicksand adds more tactical possibilities to the game, while voice communications will be supported out of the box to allow easier co-ordination between team mates. There were even rumours at ECTS that the game may come bundled with a headset. Meanwhile a new 3D map has been added for commanders, replacing the old 2D interface. Unfortunately this looks rather clumsy at the moment, and is prone to crashing. Hopefully with some more tweaking though it will give players a better gods-eye view of the battlefield, and allow team commanders to keep track of the action and pass on orders more easily.
Something else which has been given a lot of attention in Tribes 2 is the vehicles, with six different types now available to the upwardly mobile gamer. These are equally split between ground and air, which doesn't leave you with as much variety as you might think, but is a big improvement on the original Tribes.
In the air there is a heavy transport plane, fast moving fighters, and close-air support in the form of bombers, which have a seperate gunner who can use a tail gun to fight off enemy flyers and a bombardier with his own bomb sight to dispatch targets on the ground. If you prefer something a little more down-to-earth, the game also includes a fast moving but lightly armoured anti-grav jet bike, an assault tank with a plasma turret or mortar, and even a mobile supply truck which carries an inventory station, sensor jammer and missile turret. Although it moves very slowly, the truck effectively acts as a mobile base, and should prove to be useful as a forward supply post on some of the larger maps.
Unfortunately we haven't seen any of these vehicles being used online to date, as the beta version was far from stable, and there seemed to be few people actually playing it whenever we checked the servers. Probably because they were all busy rebooting Windows after yet another crash...
One of the things which has helped give the original Tribes its longevity is the community of amateur developers that has sprung up around it, creating new weapons, game modes and maps. The sequel will come with an impressive in-game editing system which allows users to easily modify weather conditions, cloud movement, fog density and colour and other details from within the game.
New maps and missions can be designed from scratch for both single and multiplayer action, and should only weigh in at around 100Kb if you use the standard Tribes 2 textures, making them quick and easy to download, hopefully encouraging more people to use the custom maps. Custom art can also be used, but will obviously increase the download size.
And Sierra have learnt from their experience with Half-Life, where popular user made add-ons such as Counter-Strike have helped to give the game a far longer shelf-life than might otherwise have been the case. The Tribes community can expect more support than ever, with the Sierra team helping mod groups to get to grips with the new tools and file formats, and to make the most of the game's potential.
At the moment that's about all there is though - potential. Sierra have been running an exhaustive online beta test taking in experienced Tribes players, newcomers to the series, and (more recently) members of the press, but sadly the beta version which we were sent to play with has proven to be all but unplayable, with the game crashing every few minutes.
The basic gameplay looks promising, but it still needs a lot of work, and the new single player component was particularly shaky. The bot AI was poor at the best of times, and yet trying to play with more than half a dozen of them on my reasonably specced Pentium III machine brought the game's frame rate crawling to a near standstill. Online play was somewhat better, and in the small games that I took part in the network code handled my 0800 modem connection admirably. The downside was that every time I tried to play it I found myself being forced to download several megabytes of patches, and none of these seemed to stop the game from frequently collapsing without warning.
Sierra have now suspended the beta test completely while the developers deal with the many problems which have already been reported by beta testers over the last month or two, and it's unlikely to re-open before the new year. Of course, the whole point of a beta test is to find bugs and gameplay issues, and credit should go to Sierra for opening up the process to so many fans of the original game at such an early stage.
While Tribes 2 is showing a lot of promise, it will also need a lot of polishing and bug-hunting before it is ready to release. The graphics aren't quite as impressive in motion as we were expecting, the AI needs working on, the gameplay could use some tweaking, and the whole thing is still rather daunting if you're not familiar with the original game.
I very much doubt that we will see Tribes 2 being released until Easter at the earliest, but hopefully we will get more stable beta code before then and will be able to give you a better idea of what to expect from the game...