Tribes Warrior Guide Article

Starsiege: Tribes – 16 years on

Originally written on November 14, 2014

By now most Tribes fans know the story of Tribes’ accidental success, but for those PC gamers who weren’t absolutely sucked into this high-flying shooter in 1998, allow me to give a (very) brief crash course. Shortly before Starsiege: Tribes launched back in 1998, both developers and beta testers at Dynamix discovered a neat little feature when tapping their space bar while going down a slope; they essentially became frictionless, and thus skiing was born. Lead designer Scott Youngblood, now a lead designer at Red 5 Studios working on Firefall, remembers the discovery of skiing fondly.

The emergence of skiing led to a complete transformation of the game, including routes being formed and mastered, vehicles becoming essentially useless as players became their own high-flying vehicles, and the birth of one of the most exciting and unique games of the late ’90s. While Quake had bunny-hopping and Counter-Strike had surfing, they were both typically played within a closed or otherwise restricted arena. Tribes on the other hand is known for its huge outdoor maps which, by sheer coincidence, were perfectly suited for its skiing mechanic. Players could spend minutes simply skiing around a map before grabbing the enemy flag. The game’s soft out-of-bounds grid and repeated terrains meant that players had no restrictions other than falling off the map if they dared to venture out that far.

Tribes’ focus on projectile-based weapons such as the iconic Spinfusor and Plasma Gun, or not-so-iconic Grenade Launcher and Mortar meant mid-airs were something to be celebrated and bragged about during a game, and were a very common subject matter of montages. Even now, almost twenty years after its release, mid-airs still feel fantastic in Starsiege: Tribes. Nothing quite compares to that feeling because nothing quite compares to Tribes. There have been a number of attempts at recapturing the magic that Tribes mistakenly created, including a slew of fan-made projects such as Tribal Wars, Rise, and Legends, along with larger projects like Fallen Empire: Legions. While noble, their attempts ultimately failed to find solid ground due to relying on word-of-mouth within an already niche community, or poor management coupled with a lack of funding

Tribes will be celebrating its 16th birthday today, though ‘celebrating’ may be a bit of an overstatement. Unlike other popular PC games of the mid-to-late ’90s such as Starcraft, Quake, Unreal Tournament, Half-Life, and of course, Counter-Strike, the original Tribes has unfortunately been unable to retain much of its player base. While there was a time when the game had over 100,000 players and a plethora of servers and mods to choose from, those days have long since passed.

Those remaining today are the die-hards. The ones who know the game from the inside out, and absolutely slaughter the rare newcomers who dare to step -or fly- in front of their Spinfusor. Online activity typically peaks later into the evenings, with just two servers managing to attract between 12 and 18 players each, 20 on a good day. In total there are roughly 5 active servers, none of which feature the vanilla game itself anymore. Popular mods such as Annihilation and LT (Light Tribes or Light Training, depending on who you ask) have taken over the original game that launched in 1998.

Perhaps Tribes’ most fun and unique features were the cause for its lack of a steady player base over time. Like it or not, skiing is hard. It’s awkward. It looks and feels archaic in this day and age. Those who popped their Tribes cherry with Ascend had it easy with the game’s fancy smooth-skiing as opposed to the original’s odd rapid-jumping technique. The original Tribes also has a fairly high time-to-kill (TTK), largely due to the aforementioned weapons that made direct hits harder to achieve when compared to modern-day shooters that commonly feature a plethora of hitscan rifles. The player movement also made achieving quick kills harder due to the additional air combat aspect where players can fly behind buildings for cover. Even the lack of health regeneration, a common element in many of today’s games, does little to decrease the time it takes to kill another player.

Tribes Legacy – Mod DB

Tribes also lacks any kind of rewards system, another common element these days. There’s no hand-holding the first time you start up the game. Sure there’s a tutorial, but it’s terribly outdated and mostly irrelevant since it never took skiing into account. You don’t get fancy badges or accolades for killing an enemy. There are no damage numbers popping up over your crosshair when dishing out Blue Plates. There are no weapons to unlock or any kind of progression system. There are no killstreak rewards like call-downs or the ability to fly a drone, or announcers yelling out ‘Killstreak!’. It’s an unsympathetic beast that never pats you on back or tells you ‘Good job!’ for capturing the game-winning flag.

The one thing that could have brought Tribes back from the grave never saw the light of day. In 2009 InstantAction bought the Tribes intellectual property from Activision and announced plans to bring Starsiege: Tribes to the browser ala QuakeLive, as well as an updated desktop client. Both would have featured higher-resolution textures, better scripting support, an updated HUD, and more. Stat tracking was also said to be included within the browser-based version.

This relaunch, known as PlayTribes, sadly withered away as the company attempted to essentially relaunch itself in 2010 and ultimately failed. InstantAction closed its doors towards the end of 2010 and with it any chance of Starsiege: Tribes seeing a rebirth. The one good thing to come of this was a leak of the PlayTribes desktop client, which has seen a number of improvements and is one of the most popular versions amongst the remaining Tribes community.

Despite the terribly bleak picture that was just painted there is still some action within the original Tribes these days. As I stated, the die-hards are what remain. Every night they come back to this game and have a blast with it. The skill ceiling is essentially non-existent. You can constantly improve yourself in Tribes due to how many factors are at play at any given moment during a game. Map rotations are still being tweaked. Anti-cheat measures are still being employed. Hell, people are still making maps to this day thanks to the built-in map editor. She’s alive, but just barely.

Fortunately for gamers itching for more verticality in their shooters, we no longer need to rely on community projects, indie developers, or generally dead games to get our fix. AAA developers are also hopping aboard the Z-axis train it seems with games like Titanfall, Evolve, Halo, Destiny, and even Call of Duty featuring jetpacks and grappling hooks these days. While most PC gamers would scoff at playing a console game like Halo or Destiny, there’s no denying the fact that there’s a shift in focus towards more player movement in a number of big-name games these days, both in existing franchises and new IPs. More importantly, these elements are starting to transfer over from one sequel to the next and becoming standard, such as Halo: Reach, Halo 4, and now Halo 5.

The optimist in me (yes, he exists. Deep, deep down) hopes that this new wave of FPS-Z’s from big-name publishers could also mark a growing interest in smaller projects such as Project Z, Project Freefall, Telos, Toxikk, and more. Perhaps even Tribes itself could return to the limelight one day, given Hi-Rez Studios has the cajones to tackle another one. The world needs more games like these. While Quake clones are a dime a dozen these days it seems, few are exploring additional movement aspects outside of bunny-hopping. As with everything, only time will tell how healthy the FPS-Z genre will be within the next five to ten years. It could take off like a bottle rocket, or remain dormant as a niche genre only enjoyed by a handful of gamers longing for the glory days.

So, here’s to Tribes. If anyone is brave enough to try the game you have a multitude of download options to choose from. I’d personally recommend grabbing one of the Tribes 1.40 builds, either the Basic Config which simply works, or the more recent HD build which features nicer textures.

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