Starsiege: Tribes Review
By Adrienne Dudek |
I have to admit that when I first heard that Starsiege: Tribes was to be an on-line only game, I was a little disappointed. I wasn't sure that I really wanted to spend that much time playing against human opponents and thought that the game would loose some of its allure without offering anything for a single player to do on his own. Boy was I wrong. In the last month, Starsiege: Tribes has become one of my favorite PC games and one of the only ones that was capable of pulling both Tal and myself away from the charms of Everquest. Even so, the game does have a few problems that gamers should be aware of before they go and snatch a copy of the shelf.
Starsiege: Tribes takes place in the Starsiege and CyberStorm universe long after Diaspora that spread human colonists all over the galaxy. In this distant future, different tribes of colonists have emerged as a military band dedicated to one way of life or another. While there's a lot more to the story, the bottom line is this several major clans and countless minor clans are competing with each other for control of various planets. As with most action titles, it doesn't really matter why you're fighting, it's just matters how you're fighting.
The game itself is played differently depending on which type of scenario you've selected. In Capture-The-Flag mode (so far the most common type of game you'll see on-line and our personal favorite) you're job is to grab the enemy's flag and bring it back to your own as many times as possible before the clock runs out. This is a lot more difficult than it may seem as both flags are necessary to score a point. If your enemy is currently in possession of your flag and you have his, neither one of you can score until one of the flags has been returned to its home base. Capture-The-Flag quickly separates the men from the boys, and if the teams aren't matched well the final scores can be downright ridiculous.
The next game type is Capture and Hold, a mission type better suited to those who know how to use teamwork and are willing to take on both offensive and defensive roles during the course of a game. During a Capture and Hold mission, you are awarded points for how many areas your team holds and how long it has been holding them. Obviously, quick in and out tactics won't work here. You have to take a base with enough strength to be able to keep it. These battles are usually the most heated with extremely bloody skirmishes over central holdings.
If you're really starving for blood, you'll want to take on a Defend and Destroy mission, in which you have to destroy all of the 'goal' items in and around the enemy's base while keeping them from doing the same to you. Every time I played one of these missions it involved huge groups of soldiers killing each other in massive battles. A great mission type for the organized.
Find and Retrieve is a weird variant that I didn't get to play but once or twice since I couldn't find anyone running a game. The basic idea is that your team has to grab as many 'items' placed around the screens as they can and bring them back to their base. If anyone gets all of the items, they win. If time runs out before then, the folks with the highest score win. This is a good level for players who prefer speed over firepower to show off their stuff.
The final type of game, and the one that doesn't really work as well in Tribes as it does in other games is the Deathmatch. You can set this up to either be team-oriented in which the team with the most kills wins, or a free for all in which the individual player with the most points wins. Either way, it'll seem pretty bland stuff after you've tasted the depth of play in Capture the Flag or Defend and Destroy.
Now that you know what you're trying to do, you're probably pretty interested in the tools you have at your disposal. Unlike most action games, the weapons and armor in Tribes don't really follow any sort of hierarchy. They're all just different. Some players will amaze you by using weapons that you thought were useless to mow you down again and again, while those who insist on using high-powered guns that are slow and unwieldy will most likely blow themselves up a dozen times before they manage to hit a foe. Still, in the interest of getting on with it, we'll just describe the items in the order they appear on the keyboard.
First off there's your armor selection. The three choices available to you are light, medium and heavy, each of which is very good for a specific purpose. The light armor is very mobile, allows you to jump long distances and move very quickly, but provides only basic protection from attacks and doesn't offer much in the way of storage space. The medium armor can hold a bit more and offers better protection from attacks, but moves a little bit slower and makes it harder to fly long distances. The last choice, heavy armor, allows you to carry the biggest weapons and makes you very resistant to most weapons, but also slows you down to the point where you're an easy target and makes it nearly impossible for you to fly at all. Heavy armor is best used only when you have a faster friend to watch your pack, or inside your own base where you can put a safe wall at your back. Once you've picked the basic suit you'll be wearing, it's time to pick out some weapons.
The first of the guns is the blaster. Although it's bullets are fairly slow and don't do as much damage as some of the other arms in the game, the blaster has the advantage of a fairly large impact radius and the fact that it doesn't require any ammo. I've also seen people use blasters to fill the air around the top of a base with loads of deadly energy balls in order to discourage snipers from parking up there. Believe me, it works.
The second weapon on your numeric menu is the plasma gun. It requires ammo and its bullets waft through the air fairly slowly, but this powerful gun can lay a serious whoopin' on a foe who doesn't get out of the way. Look for experienced players to surprise you in the midst of a short-range fire-fight by switching over to this damage dealing monster when they have you so close that you can't run away.
Next up is the chain-gun, a short-range powerhouse that's an excellent back-up weapon in case you find yourself in trouble. The thing to remember here is short-range the bullets come out of this weapon in a spray pattern that makes hitting far away targets nearly impossible. Up close, on the other hand, the chain-gun can rub out an enemy in seconds. I like to use it with a sniper rifle to finish off enemies I've already tagged. The real downside of the chain-gun is that it requires ammo (bullets) and it runs out of them very quickly. There's nothing worse than pulling out this monster on a charging enemy and discovering that it's empty.
The disc launcher is usually a very frustrating weapon to beginners, but in experienced hands it is one of the most deadly arms available in the game. The disc launcher slings out a Frisbee shaped charge that explodes on contact with an opponent or the ground. Its advantages are that you don't have to be all that accurate (it hurts anything within its blast radius) and that its shots travel pretty quickly. Its drawbacks are that it's very slow to reload between shots, it requires ammunition (and you can't carry very much), and its large area of effect often causes you to hit your friends as often as your enemies. The technique used most often is to use the jump jets to try an fly over an enemy and then fire the discs straight down from above. This attack method is very hard to escape from and is equally hard to master.
The grenade launcher fires pout canisters that bounce a couple of times and then explode in a very large ball of flame. Although hand-to-hand fighter eschew this weapon (it's not very accurate), it can be a real heart-stopper when you lob in a few shots into an enemy base. Things to remember here its slow, its heavy and its hard to judge where your grenade is going to finally explode, but it makes up for all of this by being very, very, lethal. Don't fire anywhere near your friends.
Those "lone-gunmen" in the group will want to take advantage of the laser rifle, my personal favorite. By using your scope (which any weapon has access to at 5X, 10X and 20X) you can train your crosshairs on a foe and hit him with a beam from nearly a mile away. So what are the disadvantages of such a powerful weapon? First off, every time you fire everyone on the board can see where the beam came from. Second, since the laser requires you to carry an energy pack to make it work, you can't carry too many other weapons and remain quick enough to get away from a fight should you have to. Third, since you're going to spend a lot of time looking at the game through that scope (it's really hard to hit a target with the laser freehand), you're going to be an easy kill for anyone who sneaks up behind you. Finally, since the laser depletes your energy bar every time its fired, you won't be able to use your jump-jets for a few seconds. Still, one shot in the head can reduce a full powered enemy to a sliver of health and the gun has unlimited ammo. Find a friend and go on a killing spree.
One of the hardest weapons to love in the game is the ELF or electron flux gun. A very short range weapon, the ELF sends out a persistent bolt that drains away an enemy's energy. Most of the time this means nothing at all. Still, I've seen a warrior come in with this weapon to keep a large group from being able to jump out while his friends with chain-guns rub everyone out. Interesting, but often useless.
The heavy mortar can only be carried by those in heavy armor and is not a good choice for anyone who wants to survive a hand-to-hand firefight. Still, its brilliant green shells are so unbelievably powerful that they can damage a target even if its shielded. Unfortunately, this gun is highly visible when fired, requires a very heavy ammunition type, and is grossly inaccurate unless you have a pal lasing targets for you.
To lase those targets you'll need a targeting laser, the last of the hand held weapons. Although it does absolutely no damage on its own, the targeting laser allows any user of the heavy mortar to get a fix on a location for an extremely accurate shot. Two people working in tandem with these two guns can lay waste to an entire base compound in moments. Unfortunately, everyone on the screen can see when you're painting a target and will very likely try to kill you before the damage is done.
There are plenty of other objects in the game for you to goof around with. Weapons like the hand-grenade and the land mine can help make a seemingly innocuous sniper downright deadly. Other items encourage you to join into more team like activities the repair pack for instance will make you a big hero by allowing you to fix damage done to your base. Other items include the energy pack, which enables your energy levels to recharge faster after a drain, the shield pack which uses up your energy in order to make you resistant to damage, the jammer, which makes you invisible to enemy radar, and the battleground repair kit which will replenish some of your health bar when used.
So how does the game actually play? (You knew I was going to get around to that sooner or later didn't you?) Other first person shooters have done team-play before, but Tribes has found a formula that forces people to work together without ever making them feel that they've lost their individual freedom. How? By creating both individual and team-based solutions to each problem and by making the team-based methods easier.
Let me give an example... Let's say you're trying to get into an enemy base and keep getting fragged by one of the fortress' large cannons. One option is to try and take out the unit yourself by infiltrating the enemy base, finding their power generators and blowing them to kingdom come. This will render the enemies radar, base defense and inventory control inoperative until someone manages to repair the aforementioned generators. While all of this may sound cut and dried, on most levels it's a near impossible task. Not only will you have to make it past that same cannon that was bothering you earlier, but you'll be inside your enemy's base for a long period of time trying to kill or avoid a host of foes who are able to resupply themselves at anytime and reappear nearby when they perish.
If you instead decide on the teamwork route, you have two options. You can either attempt the same infiltration attack described above with a team of four or five well-equipped teammates or you can put together a mortar team. As described above, the mortar is the only weapon capable of delivering enough damage to blow shielded objects. Although you can, in theory, use them alone, the fact that you be crossing a lot of terrain in really slow armor will make you an easy target for any fool with a chain-gun. Your best bet is to equip a team of at least three people each with their own task. The first soldier carries the mortar. His job is simply to pull the trigger when the time is right. Your second team member should wear the light armor and carry a targeting laser (as well as a chain gun and possibly a disc launcher for defense). His job is to use the laser to target the shielded item so the mortar launcher knows exactly where he needs to fire. Finally you'll need one or more well armed soldiers to guard these two while they do their job. These guys should carry whatever weapons they are best with in order to lay waste to the inevitable attack that will come when your enemy notices a targeting laser falling on his equipment.
For those who are willing to play with another partner but aren't too into the idea of running with a crowd, there's the very effective sniper/guardian team. One player takes light armor, a sniper rifle and an energy pack (necessary for making that sniper rifle work) and the other takes light armor and a series of anti-personell weapons (as far as I'm concerned, that chain-gun/disc launcher combo just can't be beat) and they head out towards key enemy locations. The sniper picks off guards, the back-up keeps him from getting killed while he's looking through his scope. These are just a few examples of the myriad of different teamwork opportunities that the game delivers to even the most introverted of on-line warriors.
Still, as I stated earlier, Tribes has its share of problems. Tal and I both found the weapon selection to be rather narrow. It seems that there are large variety of different weapons that could have been added to the game that would have suited different situations a little bit better. On top of that, many of the weapons, while slightly different, are used for just about the same thing. Still, the game is so well designed for the most part that this is just nit picking reserved for those who do nothing else but talk about how games could be improved. The real soul-stealer for Tribes is its occasional, crippling lag. During some point in nearly every game, slow-down will make the game almost unplayable. Good connection doesn't really help very much with this situation either. We played nearly all of our games from a T-1 and still found the lag to be a significant issue. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to have an enemy in the sights of your sniper rifle only to watch him disappear and reappear a few meters away while you sit unable to move. Hopefully this is a problem that Dynamix will continue to work on in the coming months.
Okay, I've gone on for about 3,000 words now and there are still dozens of things I didn't have time to cover. Let me just end with this - even with its slow down and light weapon selection, Tribes is one of the best action games I've ever played. If you have Internet access and you don't mind having your life ruined by an absolutely addictive new hobby, you owe it to yourself to go out and pick up a copy of this game. We're still hooked, and there doesn't seem to be any end in sight...
-- Trent C. Ward