13th Oct 2003 | 14:30
There are two schools of thought on Tribes games. The first, smaller group finds them as addictive as a purple fruit-pastille filled with crack. When they log on to the gigantic multiplayer Capture The Flag battles they delight in the free-roaming 3D landscapes. They've mastered the art of 'skiing' and using the physics and contours of the terrain to launch themselves at the enemy, and know everything about every conceivable tribal warrior from their favourite colour to the serial codes stamped on the inside of their armour. They were also horrified when Dynamix, the erstwhile developer of the series, was shut down in 2001.
The second school of thought joins a game of Tribes 2 and doesn't even have time to say, "Cool! I've got a jetpack," before being shot in the head by a pre-pubescent American from a distance of one and a half miles. So they play Counter-Strike instead.
This is where Ken Levine and his band of merry men at Irrational Games come in. Famed for creating the awesome System Shock 2, Irrational suggested that what the Tribes universe needed was a strong single-player element that would introduce the newbie to the physics, tactics and mentality of a seasoned Tribes-hack. A solid solo experience that wouldn't be a glorified tutorial or Battlefield 1942-esque experiment in single-player drabness, but a game that would stand on its own two jet thrusters and plunge disc-launchers into the mainstream.
We took a trip to Irrational recently to check out the new game, interrupting Ken Levine's breakfast to ask him how the hell he intended to jam all of the intricacies and character classes of Tribes multiplayer into a solo FPS. Initially, we learnt that Levine puts a remarkable amount of sugar into his porridge. Secondly, we saw that the way Tribes: Vengeance is dealing with narrative is nothing short of revolutionary. "Why do all games follow a straight 'beginning, middle, end' chronology?" he asks, shovelling on sweetener like a crazed diabetic. "We thought about movies like Pulp Fiction, where the camera tells the story as it wants to be told: going between different people, different times and different places. We've put our focus on one family whose story spans 20 years, with the narrative going back and forth in time to cover it. Within this you'll be able to play as six or seven different characters."
So, in one mission you could be playing a second-class citizen, a Phoenix Tribesman, fighting for your life in a bad-ass suit of heavy armour, while in the next you could be seeing through the eyes of a six-year-old imperial princess. "She's being chased by these bad guys," continues Levine as he excitedly reaches for a spoon. "She hasn't got any guns or armour, and at one point she gets a jetpack. Seeing as she's so small, and she's got a rocket strapped to her back, the physics are way overpowered for her. It's quite a ride!" What's even stranger is that the non-linear timeline means that a few levels earlier you will have played as this same character when she is around 20 years older. It's bizarre, we know, but it looks like it's going to work.
Speaking of mixed up chronology, Vengeance is actually a prequel to the two previous Tribes games, with Irrational wanting to develop a section of the Tribes back-story that wouldn't need reams of fanboy knowledge to get into. This timeframe, untouched by any of the other 12 games set within the Tribes universe, has given Irrational a lot of freedom in terms of narrative, but has also had a huge effect on the design and aesthetics of the game. "We wanted to represent the first generation of what you know as Tribes technology," says Levine. "It's a bulkier technology, where you see more of the mechanics on the surface - it's like seeing the difference between a biplane and a 747. Jetpacks will be spewing out black smoke, stuff like that. It's all about functionality."
The use of the Unreal engine means that this won't be the only change in the way Tribes struts its stuff. The trademark rolling green hills will still be there, but there are incredible new styles of map such as abandoned, ruined cities with decaying skyscrapers that will stun even the casual Tribes fan with its potential for online carnage. Another mouth-watering prospect is levels set in huge arenas specifically designed for the skiing, sliding and other three-dimensional tomfoolery that sets Tribes apart from the conventional strafe 'n' shoot mentality. "We've included Tribal combat as a sport in this universe now," explains Levine. "One of the characters is actually a sports superstar, the David Beckham of the Tribes world. You play as her in the context of a championship match in an arena with all these amazing slopes and skating surfaces."
So far, so good. But we all know that if Levine's crew bugger up the multiplayer then thousands of outraged Tribes fanatics will leave their rooms, blink in the daylight and hang him from the nearest streetlamp with a mouse lead. Even the suggestion that the fabled disc-launcher might have vertical discs instead of the established horizontal sent shockwaves over the Internet. Levine knows the risks, but is saying approximately chuff-all about online play until they have more than a 35 per cent build to show us. From the maps we've seen, though, it should be something pretty special. The Irrational lads have been in close contact with the Tribes online community, desperate not to disappoint their fanbase, and have even hired a prominent member of the mod-community to be their lead multiplayer designer.
The direction in which Levine and co are taking the Tribes franchise is undeniably risky, and if the game doesn't please either the newcomer or the old guard then they're truly up Shazbot-creek without a Burner. But Irrational certainly has the talent to pull it off, binding an epic and revolutionary story with a vastly under-appreciated style of gameplay. As long as they keep the hardcore appeased, it looks like they're on to a winner.