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Tribes 3 Enters Steam Early Access – But is it Tribes?

Tribes 3: Rivals has officially entered the Early Access phase on Steam. With a reported 100,000 users adding it to their Wish List, the game will certainly see a large influx of (hopefully happy) players over the next few weeks. While Rivals may bear the Tribes name, does the content and gameplay live up to what the series has previously provided gamers over the past 25 years?

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The Movement

Out of all the Tribes games we’ve played over the years (we’re up to six now), two key gameplay elements have always been present: skiing and jetpacks. While each Tribes game has been unique and tried to do its own thing, none could escape the core mechanics of skiing over hills and jetting through the air. Fortunately, Rivals follows suit while also adding a small twist. In prior games, when players pressed their ski bind they’d either just start jumping up and down, stay in place, or very slowly move forward. Rivals switches things up a bit by giving player a bit of a boost when activating their ski toggle, letting players get up to speed a bit more quickly.

While this might not sound like a game changer, it’s honestly something I think future games should include by default. It’s such a nice quality of life improvement that offers no real downsides when it comes to gameplay balance. Initially there was a bit of pushback, but over time players have adapted and accepted the mechanic. Going back and playing earlier Tribes titles after player Rivals, you really wish they had that same little ski boost.

Of course, skiing is a bit useless if your jetpack can’t provided the necessary oomph to traverse the map. The jetpacks in Rivals are…adequate. Other games have better jetpack mechanics, such as Midair 2 and some of the previous Tribes title (namely the first two games). The jetpacks in Rivals have been a constant battle for the developers to tackle since the playtests started in late November of last year. There’s a myriad of other values that tie into how players gain height, such as world gravity, player mass, map layout, etc., which makes balancing them that much more difficult. While I personally feel they’re in the best spot they’ve been so far, I’m still expecting new players to wish they had just a bit more.

The Maps

Tribes is usually looked at as having large, open maps with rolling terrain that players ski over. The first game saw no hard limits to map boundaries, and if you skied long enough you’d simply fall into the void. It wasn’t until Tribes: Vengeance in 2004 that a hard boundary came into play, restricting players into tighter play areas. Ascend in 2012 also had a hard map boundary, and Rivals has decided to keep the tradition going.

The boundaries in Rivals are much more “arena” oriented, giving off Rocket League vibes with flag banners scattered around the edges. Map sizes in general are a bit of a mixed bag, with some like Katabatic feeling a bit cramped on a full server, while others like Hollow, Torment, and Raindance having larger terrains and in turn making the action a bit more spread out. As a big fan of the original game, I do miss the larger terrains that were seemingly endless. Seeing hills blocked off by a boundary leaves me a bit sad. Fortunately the last few maps have leaned more towards having large play areas, so hopefully that continues throughout Early Access.

One surprising recent addition to maps are Outposts, which are secondary objectives in the middle of each map that players can fight over. Once a team controls an Outpost, they can then teleport to it from their base (each base has its own teleporter that glows blue if they can use it). Secondary objectives aren’t new to Tribes, but it’s actually pretty cool to see them return. At the moment they don’t really offer a huge advantage to either team, so maybe we’ll see a few tweaks to them over time. In Starsiege: Tribes, capturing a secondary objective actually game that team one point on the scoreboard. This would significantly increase their importance in Rivals, and I certainly wouldn’t mind trying it out at some point.

The Bases

The bases in Tribes, and the overall base experience, are where things start to take a turn for the worse. Whereas the first two Tribes titles featured sprawling interiors full of hallways and corridors to sneak around in with multiple entrances, Rivals scales things back quite drastically. The majority of bases with interiors are simple singe-level structures with one or two hallways and a generator wide open to destruction. The concept of staying back to protect your inventory stations and generators is long gone (inventory stations aren’t even a thing anymore). Sure, you can still technically do it if you wish. But you’ll be twiddling your thumbs most of the time since most players don’t bother attacking those areas anymore.

Flag stands are wide open for easy and fast grabs. A few offer a bit of protection, such as Dangerous Crossing, but they are otherwise still easy to get in and get out with the flag. If you played Ascend, nothing should feel too out of the ordinary. But if you enjoyed the base defense aspect of earlier titles, you’ll be left disappointed. Being able to spawn in your preferred loadout means keeping your base up and running has little effect on the overall gameplay, with your sensor being the most useful asset, but even when that goes down there’s no real gameplay impact other than spotting players using the Stealth pack.

The Weapons

Besides jetpacks and skiing, projectile-based weapons have always been a key element in every Tribes game (we’ll just ignore the early days of Ascend, okay?). Fortunately it’s no different in Rivals, with just two weapons being hitscan (the Shotgun and Shocklance). Every other weapon will require you to lead your shots to land a hit, but Rivals throws its own twist on things by increasing the overall speed and hitbox of most projectiles. This makes landing mid-range midair shots a lot easier, and mostly commonplace throughout most games. That doesn’t mean those longer shots still aren’t satisfying as hell to land, or launching a mortar across the map and killing the enemy flag carrier just before he’s about to cap your flag. That feeling hasn’t gone anywhere.

A couple weapons currently in the game do need a bit of work, namely the Light Chaingun being both hard to aim due to the tracers coming out of the weapon at an odd angle, and the damage output itself being a bit on the low side. The Sniper has also felt somewhat off over the past few patches, though the developers have stated it hasn’t gotten any changes that would make landing shots anymore difficult than it was in the past. On the other hand, having a slightly too weak Chaingun and Sniper does make things sort of nice…as long as you aren’t the one using them.

If you’ve played any of the previous Tribes games, none of the weapons should feel out of place. You’ve got your traditional Spinfusors, Mortar, Chainguns, Sniper, as well as a few from Ascend such as the Gladiator. This is one area where Rivals could expand upon and get a bit more creative, or even just bringing back a few classics such as the Plasma Gun. However, I think I’d prefer to see something new and fresh added to the series as long as its balanced and fun to use.

The Vehicles

Nope

If you’re looking forward to reliving the glory days of ramming a Shrike into another player, you’ll have to wait. Rivals currently doesn’t feature any vehicles, and the developers don’t seem very keen on adding them anytime soon. Bummer. This will be the first Tribes game not to feature any vehicular combat, and it’s a damn shame. Perhaps if the community gets loud enough about their absence, Prophecy Games will take another look at including them.


So, is it Tribes?

There’s more to Tribes than what’s mentioned above, but those are what I consider the key pillars to look at when playing a Tribes game. Does Rivals live up to the previous Tribes games? No. But is it Tribes? Definitely. Lets hope Prophecy Games continue to flesh out the game with more maps, interesting weapons, and expand the base gameplay more to add a bit more variety. Tribes 3: Rivals is now available on Steam for $17.99, but will eventually bump up to $19.99.

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