Several years ago, Dynamix rocked the foundations of online FPS games with the release of Tribes. It represented a new concept in multiplay shoot-em-ups: Teamwork. While other CTF mods for Quake and its brethren of the day were out there, Tribes took the concept to a whole new dimension, with players able to set up defensive emplacements, and pilot three varied classes of air vehicles from fighters to transports.
Now, Dynamix has done it again with the sequel to the original, Tribes 2. The overall gameplay is the same, but there have been several improvements over Tribes in terms of gameplay dynamics, control functions, and inventory management.
With a decent graphics accelerator (say, GeForce or better), T2 is pure spasm-inducing eye-candy, with water effects that look so realistic you almost want to try to dive through the monitor for a quick swim. Characters move smoothly, and weapon effects are varied enough so that you can easily tell at a glance what's being used on whom. Present at all times is your character's HUD which displays a directional compass, your armor integrity (health), and how much energy is left in your armor's storage batteries for use with the jetpack or certain weapons or accessory packs. It also has a handy IFF indicator that pops up over the head of any other warrior on your screen to let you know if they're friend or foe.. provided your team's sensors are up and running.
T2 is almost as impressive audibly as it is visually, with each weapon and explosion sounding almost like the 'real thing' on a decent soundcard. This time around, Dynamix included a halfway decent if somewhat repetitive MP3 soundtrack for each different variety of map, but it's nothing that you'll really miss if you decide to turn it off. It may be a good idea to do so anyway, so you can properly listen to one of the newer features: Integrated voice-chat. With a working microphone and a full-duplex soundcard, you can talk almost-realtime with your teammates, allowing for better coordination and fun for all... theoretically at any rate. In practice, once you get past its somewhat arcane enabling process the voice-chat function works, however even with the voice-chat set to full volume, it's hard to hear over the sounds of battle. Tweaking the microphone gain on the sender's end may correct this, depending on the quality of the microphone. A headset mike is highly recommended for this feature. Even if you cannot take advantage of this, T2 improves upon Tribes' voice-messaging system, with a few quick keystrokes enabling you to send canned soundbites ranging from 'Enemies in our base!' to 'I got your number! I GOT ALL YOUR NUMBERS!!' in a variety of voices from smug to utterly psychotic.
There are a number of gameplay modes to choose from, the most popular by far being CTF, and in each one, you can take full advantage of the game's armor-class system. By changing between one of three armour classes (light, medium, and heavy), and a variety of weapons and backpacks, players are able to assume a number of roles for the team. Light armour, a cloaking pack, and a shocklance would make a good combination for a stealth attacker or forward scout, while heavy armour, a shield pack, and a mix of medium and long-range weapons makes a good base defender. Alternately, you can find someplace to hide and bring up the nicely detailed command-and-control map, and issue orders to your teammates. The inventory system is fairly intuitive, with a single keystroke bringing up your current loadout, along with twenty presets, ten of which can be switched to with the numeric keypad. Select a combination, click on the Done button, then step onto your nearest available inventory pad. Two seconds and a rather nice special effect later, you're in your new gear and ready to rumble.
Probably the most intriguing feature of T2 however is the vehicles. Adding three ground vehicles to the mix, you now have your choice of a Scout Fighter, a Bomber, or an Assault Transport which can hold up to five heavies with a pilot, earning it the nickname of Gunship. Also available among the ground vehicles are the Grav-Cycle, a two-person GravTank, and the Jericho Mobile Base, which when deployed offers a fully-capable inventory station, and missile defense turret. In a well-coordinated team, these vehicles add a whole new dimension to the gameplay: Imagine driving a couple of Grav Tanks up and pounding on the base defenders with their mortar cannons while a scout goes on foot to light up defense emplacements with the targeting laser as a bomber screams by overhead, dropping a load of explosive goodness to knock out turrets and sensors, distracting the enemy while another team cruises up on GravCycles to make a grab at the flag.
...Pretty nice image, isn't it? Unfortunately, a well-coordinated team is difficult to find unless you actually join a tribe, and even then it's not guaranteed. Dynamix did add some more training missions this time around, and also included bots for offline practice, though their AI routines sometimes make rather dubious decisions, even on the super-smart settings. For online games, they've included a rather comprehensive voting system. Using this, players can vote to kick or ban annoying people, change maps or time limits, or even elect a temporary server admin to help run things. A number of community-oriented features have been incorporated into the game's interface as well, including in-game email, message boards, and news functions as well as a limited browser.
The silver lining does have a cloud however... the game is rough on hardware, and unless you've got a fairly recent system, good luck running it at all, much less with acceptable visual quality. There are also issues with Voodoo chipset cards, including texture tearing, and the dropping of native Glide support from the game's driver repertoire, leaving one with a choice between OpenGL and Direct3D. There were also a number of crasher bugs and various installer issues, but with over half a dozen patches issued since the game's release, it's a fair bet that Dynamix and Sierra are doing all they can to ensure a quality product, even if some of the quality comes after the fact.
Overall, Tribes 2 ultimately pleases rather than disappoints, and is likely soon to be classified as a hazardously addictive substance. With its mix of team-oriented play, innovative vehicles and inventory control, and community interaction, it promises to be a hit that's here to stay.