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volume 1, issue 24

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Off the Shelf:
Starsiege: Tribes






By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman

Title: Starsiege: Tribes
Publisher: Sierra
Developer: Dynamix
Average Price: $45


  suppose I should start this by pointing out that I have never enjoyed team play in multiplayer gaming. In fact, Iíve been quite vocal in this regard. My problem with team play games is this: when I play first person shooters online, Iím doing it for one reason, and one reason only: violence.

Oh yeah, I like violence in these things. Thereís nothing like the thrill that comes from blowing some poor schmuck on a dialup connection away with a rocket launcher. (Yes, Iím a Low Ping BastardÖand a shameless one at that.) I play quite a bit online, mostly Quake (1), Shogo (my deathmatch game of choice, these days) and Sin. And in each case, I immediately leave any server that has team play turned on.

Sure, Iíve tried team play before, but manÖpeople just hate me! I canít help itÖin these games, my first inclination is to shoot anything that moves. Can you blame me? Itís just so damn much fun! :)

I remember when Threewave CTF for Quake was first released, and some of my friends were really getting into itÖI tried it, and couldnít figure out why someone would join a server just to stand next to the damn flag for an hour. This is fun? Gimme a rocket launcher and a quad any day over that. Only once did I ever actually enjoy a game of Quake CTF, and then it was because the team was made up of seriously hardcore CTF gamers, who were just kicking ass everywhere. Itís easier to enjoy a game when your teamís winning, I guess. But as fun as that was, it wasnít enough to get me to give up my beloved deathmatch.

Starsiege: Tribes, on the other hand, is very different. Itís certainly no substitute for serious deathmatching, but it is the best team play experience Iíve ever had, and itís pretty damn addicting, to boot.

When Tribes was first released, I really wasnít especially impressed with the game beyond its technical achievements (more on this in a bit). I pretty much dismissed it as yet another boring team play game. But one night after Shooters, Blue showed me the sniper gun, and more importantlyÖshowed me how to get it.

Now, Tribes isnít that complex, but it is pretty in-depth. You see, in Tribes, you canít really just pick up weapons like you can in every other first person shooter out there (wellÖexcept Rainbow Six). You have to go to an equipment station and get outfitted. While most servers have this disabled, there is also some minor resource management involved here, as your team only has limited ammounts of energy. Itís a pretty cool innovation for the FPS genreÖitís just a shame that few servers actually have it turned on.

Once you figure out how to get your weapons, youíll be able to figure out which weapons are right for you. See, in Tribes, you canít just pick up every weapon you find. You have to actually decide what you want, and thatís based on what you want to do: defense, offense, orÖother. I tend to go with the other category most of the time, which basically means that Iím not really defending the base, because Iím behind enemy lines, but Iím not offense either, because Iím not trying to get the flag, Iím just helping whoever is. It makes sense if you play the game, trust me.

So anyway, Blue showed me the sniper rifle, and how to use it. Itís one of the best sniper guns Iíve ever used, and thatís because of its simplicity. The sniper in Sin, while certainly nothing to sneeze at, is more of an action based weapon than a tactical one. In Sin, you have two settings: zoomed in, and zoomed out. Which is fine for that game, but when youíre talking about maps the size of the ones in TribesÖwell, you need a bit more. The Tribes sniper rifle works like this: you have a key that zooms you in (when held down, allowing for instant access back to your normal view) and another key that changes the magnification. Cool stuff. Thereís no zooming sound, and the view only changes by adding a big olí green crosshair to the screen. Itís simple, and extremely effective. Sniping is what really got me into Tribes, because when you can zoom miles ahead of you, it becomes really damn fun to pick off people that far away.

But, the more I got into Tribes, the more options I started exploring. I tried the uber-heavy armor (there are three kinds: light, medium, and heavy) and the all-powerful mortar gun for some defense action, and manÖthat was fun, too! I found myself actually enjoying standing next to the flag for an entire game. Go fig. :)

There are plenty of other great gameplay options for you in Tribes as well: thereís the APC ships that you can fly across the landscape, firing missiles, and delivering your teammates to the other side. Thereís the grenades, which rule, especially when youíre in a hard-to-find spot above the enemy base dropping grenades down. And of course, there are the maps themselves. The maps are huge, stretching for miles across (fortunately the actual play area is nice and compact, but a good tactic can be to leave the play area to come around behind the enemy base).

Another feature in Tribes that deserves a mention, is the "speech" system. Itís not a full duplex audio thing (although there are programs out there that can add this, but theyíre third-party applications, and performance may be less than perfect) but instead itís a very capable series of pre-recorded phrases. The only way this can actually work is if there are enough phrases that you wonít get frustrated with it, and Dynamix has done an admirable job here. All the key phrases are here, from, "our flag is secure" to, "shazbot!" Despite the fact that inevitably someone says it every game, I still have no idea what that means, of courseÖbut itís nice that itís there, I guess. :)

While I pretty much play only CTF, there are other games to play within Tribes (and there are servers popping up now that are running themÖwhen the game first shipped, it was a Herculean task to find any). In addition to the traditional Capture the Flag, thereís Capture and Hold, where your goal is to take locations, rather than a flag. What makes C&H fun, is that each location has a benefitÖlike turrets, inventory stations, etc. So while youíre increasing your score, youíre also making tactical decisions by which locations you try and storm. Defend and Destroy is pretty self explanatory. The goal in this one is to raid the enemy base and destroy everything inside. Itís probably the most challenging, and frustrating of the games. Find and Retrieve is pretty sillyÖyou have to go find certain items and bring them back to your base. I couldnít understand the draw here, and apparently Iím not aloneÖI rarely see any servers up for this one. Lastly is plain old DeathmatchÖbut man is this silly. Trying to deathmatch in Tribes just doesnít feel right. Itís like they threw it in to satisfy those people who wanted it, but they didnít really expect anyone to actually like the thing. So much effort was put into making Tribes a great team play game, that the result is a pretty goofy deathmatch, where youíve got all kinds of team play options at your disposal, but youíre not using any of them. Skip this one entirely. If youíre looking for deathmatch, start up Shogo.

If all this sounds intimidating, thatís because it can be a little at first. The game does have tutorials, although they are very rudimentary, and not really in-depth. Chances are that youíre better off just skipping them altogether and hopping online. Just skim the manual and get down to some hardcore Tribes action (and hope youíre put on a team that understands that youíre a newbie).

Visually, Tribes is fantastic, assuming you have a 3DFX card. The OpenGL patch should be out soon (possibly by the time this sees print) and that will add support for other cards, but for now, if you donít have one, youíre stuck with software. And the software mode, while certainly adequate, canít even come close to the hardware accelerated version.

The only faults to be found in Tribes (besides the aforementioned lack of hardware support, but thatís being corrected) lie within its fundamental design: itís an online only game. No attempt at all has been made to add AI players for single player games, which is a bit disappointing. (Although supposedly this is in the works as well, although the impression I get is that itís not really a single player thing.) What this causes somewhat indirectly, is the problem that Tribes can only be as much fun as your team allows it to be. If you get put on a team with a bunch of annoying 13 year olds, youíre probably not going to enjoy the game very much. It can be frustrating at times as you hop from server to server attempting to find a reasonably intelligent game going on, but itís worth itÖtrust me. Once you find a team that actually knows what theyíre doing, youíll find yourself really enjoying the game.

In short, Tribes is really quite a revelation. It proves that an online-only game doesnít have to suck, and more interesting perhaps, it proves that team play can in fact be fun. Who knew?

- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman is the editor-in-chief of loonygames. He likes believes Dilbert to be a pawn of satan. You got a better explaination?


Credits: Bargain Bin logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. This edition of Top Shelf is © 1998 Jason Bergman. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is a majorly hostile gesture.