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Tribes 2 Preview

There's no way to put it diplomatically, so I won't even try: Starsiege Tribes is a bad, bad thing. And soon, there'll be a lot more of that badness. Perhaps I should elaborate. Quake and Unreal are lodged in the social consciousness like the burning end of a Marlboro in one's right eye - there's no denying that. But Tribes 2 tapped in to the community dynamic with a vengeance. Full on, hard-core Tribes 2 web pages and entire web rings (complete with custom skins, mods, and original universe-based fiction) are going up before even the demo is available!

Y'know the feeling when you're staring down the barrel of a gun...
Of course, hard-core gamers did this with the original Tribes, too. Tribe loyalty went to extreme lengths, even so far as composing MP3 encoded fight songs? I'm not kidding! The social dynamic of the squad-based tactical action game hit like a powerful nervous-system stimulant, with many of the same results. As Tribes 2 brings more players online, the potential for factional rivalries gets ever larger.

Special effects such as explosions and weapons fire are all being revamped.
So what are the main differences between Tribes and Tribes 2? "We've rewritten everything. I guess that's what you'd call the first main difference," says Tribes 2 software engineer Mark Frohnmayer. "It's totally revamped - a brand-new graphics engine with support for OpenGL only. The environments will pretty much speak for themselves, with the amount of detail we're going to be able to put in there."

In the process of saying these words, Frohnmayer uses Tribes 2's massively expanded mission editor to drop an object - a metallic ramp, in this case - into the ragged hills of an alien battleground. He then effortlessly drags the twenty-foot ramp to a monstrous new size that rivals the mountains around it, thanks to the scaleable object sizing. Then he gets silly for a while, scaling other ramps and bits of organically-curved metallic buildings to create towering, cyclopean ski-jumps, half-pipes, and other Olympic monstrosities that look like something from a Hot Wheels set made for the gods.

The background story to this futuristic gang fight will be expanded in the sequel. The factions will have greater graphical distinction.
In addition, all the soldier models have a radically higher poly-count, sporting independently moving heads and torsos (torsos that heave with breath - a nice touch). Vehicle physics have been overhauled too, making them more maneuverable over the varied terrain rolls, hills and valleys.

Tribes 2 will give devoted squad-based gamers real reason to keep their potentially crazed selves at home - namely a gorgeous, mesmerizing, soul-devouring world editor.

The Terraformed Jungle - Beautiful Worlds, Hideous Terrain

At least half of Tribes 2's coolness rating comes from its staggering world editor. You can do just about anything with it, and the results, while impressive, are by no means preordained to be good. Aside from daredevil ramps and jumps, you can use the built-in mission editor to randomly generate sprawling, infinite terrain maps. That's right, infinite - after a main battle zone a couple of clicks square, the "surrounding" terrain simply repeats in a tiled manner. The ground-types range from lush green plains to snow-capped peaks; from baked desert hardpack to large bodies of water; from fog-shrouded lowlands to staggering, spiky, ridiculous peaks with slopes like a tent peg. Five texture sets with dozens of individual items such as trees, and area-themed buildings make for countless combinations.

The terrain and model textures have improved dramatically.
Just to prove the point, I asked the Tribes 2 team to show me just how icky and wrong a landscape they can whip up. Plopping in a fractally-generated landscape from the "Lush" worldset and going to work for perhaps three minutes - dragging moors into mountains and smashing Kilimanjaros into craters - Frohnmayer whips up what has to be the most unfriendly, ghastly, alien-looking yuck-scape I've ever seen. The world he created had outrageously thin and treacherous snow-capped peaks with impossibly steep grades, fog-shrouded lowlands (you can mess with weather effects, too, setting your battles amid violent storms where you can be hit by lightning), and unattractive brownish lakes under a bruised purple sky, grotesquely warmed by a snot-green sun. Good thing the game retains its flyer units and jump-jet packs, 'cause there ain't no way you're getting a wheeled vehicle through there.

The scalability of the structures can make things rather interesting, too. Click-drag a fortress up to the heights of the foothills, and you've got the makings of a "little people" mod, with Tribes soldiers having to use their jump-packs to attain the lowest ledge of what would otherwise be floor molding! Build a sprawling bunker and artificially "sink" it low into the ground, and you've got instant haunted-house corridors suffused with an eerie fog. Combine curved surfaces and you end up with rock faces with gigantic holes in them - geologic doughnuts like something you'd see in the Painted Desert or in a cartoon starring Wile E. Coyote.

One confirmed new vehicle is this promising (but as-yet-unnamed) armed scout for two players.
Being the kind of guy that I am, it occurs to me that by using the game's editor to alter values such as gravity and weapon blast-radius effects, I could effectively create war zones where man-portable slug-throwers could send bullets for miles, or shoulder weapons whose shells impacted like tactical nukes, damaging everything in a quarter-click radius. I asked the Tribes 2 team if this scenario were possible, and they just smiled and looked away. Yes indeedy-Bob - I know what I'll be doing the first two weeks after the Tribes 2 release. I might even get around to playing the game sometime.

Play with yourself

A ground assault vehicle (a dune buggy with mounted gun) is the other vehicle confirmed thus far, with others likely to follow.
Being an inexperienced player - a "NewBlood," as the rank has come to be known - in the original Tribes blew especially big chunks; even moreso than in other shooters, the learning curve was downright hostile, and the intimidation factor upon joining an actual "hot" battle-zone was considerable. With a clunky team control interface, team games all too easily devolved in to individual skirmishes with little coordination as newcomers slowly adjusted to the tactical thinking that was required. To address that issue, Tribes 2 will offer ten single-player training missions (including two mini-campaigns comparable to those found in Unreal Tournament) in which green recruits can man their teams with AI combatants before establishing a beachhead in the brutal online reality of a Full Metal Furball.

Hailing Frequencies Open

The squad-based gaming thing is all about connection, and sometimes it's just a pain in the ass. Everybody's connected right? But many an otherwise fired-up game player has been turned away from or even intimidated by the wonder of squad-based gaming by the sheer hassle factor involved. Tribes 2 aims to get around this with a single-click scheme that locates suitable games (defined by criteria such as number of players, world-sets, game-types, etc.), allows players to set up their own Tribes pages with templated ease, and offers instant access to new materials and add-ons (the design team resolutely refused to use the word "patches" in my presence)!

Lock and load and get online

The exact shape and make-up of the new weapons won't be decided until later in the game's development. The balance needs to be absolutely perfect, and that requires extensive testing.
In addition to modified team-multiplay standards like Capture the Flag, there is also a cycling offense/defense game structured not unlike football, and certainly offering more than a casual nod to the Assault mode of Unreal Tournament. First one team must meet offensive objectives such as capturing standards or destroying hardware while the opponents defend as best they can, and then the roles switch. Victory is not achieved merely by mass rushes or blitz tactics, but by each individual Tribe member fulfilling role-specific victory conditions. Finally, even less-glamorous support roles (such as field engineer) will give their players a sense of purpose, rather than running back and forth fixing things at the Supreme Commander's whim.

A "survival" mode allows one player to nab and maintain control of a flag while everybody and his gun-toting grandma has to hunt him down - a nasty proposition in a game-world infamous for snipers.

The indoor areas benefit greatly from the improved texture detail.
The star of Tribes 2's new ordnance loadout is the man-portable missile launcher, whose weight and setup time take their toll, but whose long-range, strategic-weapon punch make it less like a copter-killer and more like a building-killer (mess with the range, blast power and radius settings for this weapon in the mission builder and zing! you've got an instant mini-nuke, which can radically alter team-based tactics for obvious reasons). At least two other new weapons will join the mix, with others being included if time permits.

Details as to the aural background of all this comraderie-based carnage are officially unconfirmed, but Motley Crue are almost certain to be composing original tracks for the project.

Tribes 2 seems to be coming along as a sleek, buffed-out, major expansion of the core team-based action mechanic that the original pioneered. With increased control over the battlefield command, a complete overhaul of the graphics engine, and more carefully considered levels (with all the possibilities for user-created craziness), Tribes 2 will emerge as the significantly more mature older brother of the wet-behind-the-ears, occasionally naove, yet still entertaining original.

Updated: 7.10.00

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