I first played Starsiege: Tribes at the 1998 E3 Expo in Atlanta, Georgia. A relative newcomer to the multiplayer first-person shooter, I fondly recall ignoring whatever objective our team was supplied with, instead spending my time whooshing about the map with my jetpack, giggling to myself.
Eventually I got a copy of the game for my home PC, and things got a little more serious. I still swooped through the skies, but I was swooping with a purpose. The enemy had our flag, and I was going to get it back. In the early days of online first-person shooters I was younger and sharper, the competition less polished. Capturing the flag was a possibility.
Thirteen years later my reflexes aren't like they used to be. A combination of players that have honed their skills for over a decade and the mutant game-dominating children we've been breeding leave little hope for victory on my part.
As I sat down for my first round of Hi-Rez Studios' Tribes: Ascend, I felt like I might have a shot. For a brief moment, it was 1998 all over again.
Fans have been waiting for passable sequel to Starsiege: Tribes for more than a decade now. Tribes II introduced some neat new ideas (skiing as a feature, pre-selected equipment loadouts), but was plagued by bugs and poor performance. Tribes: Vengeance, developed by Irrational Games of BioShock fame, was released with little fanfare in 2004, smack dab in the middle of the releases of Doom 3, Far Cry, Half-Life 2, and Halo 2. Needless to say it didn't sell very well. The now-defunct InstantAction dabbled with a web-based Tribes, but the game never came to fruition.
Which leads us to Atlanta-based Hi-Rez Studios, which in 2010 announced that they were the new owners of the property, along with plans to create a massively-multiplayer online shooter set in the Tribes universe, similar to their first title, Global Agenda.
But before we get Tribes: Universe, we have Tribes: Ascend, a multiplayer-only online shooter that feels a great deal like the original Starsiege: Tribes.
It also feels like iPhone hit Tiny Wings.
As Hi-Rez COO Todd Harris sat me down at one of the developer's testing stations I was greeted by a screen familiarizing me with the controls of Tribes: Ascend. At the top, a diagram demonstrating the concept of skiing. Based on a mechanic that was a glitch in Starsiege: Tribes and a feature in Tribes II, skiing allows players to slide down hills, gaining speed that can then be used to rocket themselves up next hill via Tribes' signature jet pack. "It's Tiny Wings!" I exclaimed. Harris agreed that the mechanic was indeed similar to the bird-launching iPhone title.
Todd set me up in a practice game in order to familiarize myself with the controls before bringing in the big guns for a team-wide playtest.
The first order of business was picking a class. While Tribes: Ascend still subscribes to the series light, medium, and heavy armor types, Hi-Rez has split the three further into classes, essentially loadouts that define which weapons and special packs are available to the player once they launch the game, similar to the system used in Tribes II. In the build Hi-Rez is taking to QuakeCon 2011 there are nine different classes spread across the three armors. The goal is to have 18 in all.
Harris suggested I try out the Soldier, a medium armor class he said came closest to the classic Tribes feel. Armed with my trust spinfusor (disc launcher, if you will) I took my first steps into Tribes: Ascend.
Two high-tech ships hover on either side of the rolling green and sandy hills of Crossfire, a map inspired by the Tribes classic, Broadside. It's very reminiscent of the original game, though of course sporting the sort of updated graphics one expects from today's titles. It's nothing incredibly fancy, but when the discs start flying the scenery is the least of your worries.
The hills are perfect for getting the hang of the skiing mechanic, and soon I was propelling myself off the side of our base, over the hills, and into range of the enemy turret. I attempted to fake it out with a little aerial maneuvering, but it compensated for my movement and took me down. I declared it my nemesis.
Todd let me kill him a few times in order to rack up some credits, redeemable at vehicle stations for any of three rides: the two-man Gravcycle, the Shrike Scout Fighter (which I excel at crashing), and the slow-moving Beowulf Assault Tank. Each handles like a dream, only in one dream I am flying into hills and another I'm extremely heavy and ponderous.
As a few other players joined the match I was struck by how much this game feels like the original Tribes. Then I corrected myself; it feels today how the original Tribes felt like back in 1998. The fast, fluid action, the rolling hills; mastering the action of the spinfusor; being blown out of the sky by a well-placed shot.
The feeling only grew once the development team filled the room for a full-on battle.
It felt like a bunch of friends at a LAN party as the match started up, friendly banter tossed back and forth across the room as two teams of 12 players form, representing the Diamond Sword and Blood Eagle tribes. The banter was soon replaced by pre-recorded taunts, commands, and exclamations as the fighters demonstrated their mastery of the classic Tribes quick chat system (Shazbot!).
We played capture-the-flag on a map called Drydock, featuring more rolling hills with small mountain separating the two bases. I tried my best to keep up as flags were exchanged back-and-forth at a rapid pace, base generators destroyed and repaired on a regular basis. I thought I had the hang of the skiing system, but watching the developers slide effortlessly across the landscape made me realize I had a great deal to learn.
So learn I did, skiing back and forth across the map, firing the odd shot when the enemy flag carrier came into view. At one point someone across the testing room shouted, "I was killed by Kotaku!" to which I replied "You probably deserved it!" Eventually I earned enough credits to pilot the Shrike, crashing it into the enemy base in an act of defiance – definitely not the act of ineptness it may have seemed.
We played for a good half-hour, switching back to the Crossfire map for the second round. Here I tried out the heavy armored Juggernaut, a slow-moving beast that has no reason to be in mid-field without some sort of transport. Then I slipped into something a little sexier in the form of the light armored Infiltrator, using my stealth field to slip into the enemy base, unloading upon the defenders with my sub-machine gun. Once I even grabbed their flag. I died moments later, but for one shining instant I had it in my hands.
It's that sort of moment, awash with elation over my near (in my mind at least) victory, that gives me hope for Tribes: Ascend. It may not be the exact same game that players fell in love with back in 1998, but it sure feels like it, and even if I don't capture the flag, I'll always have my Tiny Wings.
Of course I'm no hardcore Tribes player. Check back with Kotaku next week, after die-hard fan Joel Johnson has his way with the game at QuakeCon 2011.