Saturday, December 15, 2018

Starsiege: Tribes -- 20th Anniversary

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Starsiege: Tribes, or simply Tribes, released for computers November 30, 1998 from Dynamix, a developer founded in 1984 and purchased by Sierra On-Line in 1990. I'm a couple weeks late on the anniversary because I had it in my head that the game released in late December but many say 11/30 so I'm going with it. The first game is the only Tribes title to reference the Starsiege universe that includes other Dynamix games, such as Earthsiege and Starsiege, games where players control bipedal machines similar to those found in the MechWarrior series. This will be a rather long post though I'll try to give as short of an overview as I can, talk about some personal experiences, and touch on the other Tribes games too. I had hoped to have a video where I'd walk through all of the weapons and various gameplay elements, and jump online to play a round. Unfortunately, I cannot get the game to run properly on my computer or in VirtualBox; I tried for nearly six hours and just can't spend any more time on it. 

Starsiege: Tribes box front, back, and inside flap.

Although the game has a lengthy backstory, other than a few training missions there is no single-player component (one was originally planned) which may be common today but being multiplayer-only was unusual in 1998. The instruction manual actually dedicates 22 of its 80 pages to the fiction complete with timeline and artwork that most players probably ignored or quickly forgot about. To summarize it as briefly as possible here (check the bottom of this post if you'd like to know more), the game is set in the distant future and there are four tribes -- Blood Eagle, Diamond Sword, Starwolf, and Children of the Phoenix -- that are often at odds with one another. Most game servers ran Blood Eagle vs. Diamond Sword by default; all Tribes use the same gear so the only impact was what the character models looked like. Aside from lacking a single-player mode, the multiplayer-only shooter stood apart from the first-person shooter (FPS) crowd in a number of other ways as well. Whereas most FPS games at the time dropped players into confined spaces, Tribes took its battles outdoors on expansive maps, heavily promoted teamwork with up to 32 players per server (some servers were set higher), and equipped everyone with a jet pack. Jet packs allow players to navigate across the maps quickly and attack enemies from all angles.

Tribe profiles from the instruction manual. 

Other key game features: built-in demo recording, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) integrated into the game (great for setting up matches), multiple classes (light, medium, and heavy), a variety of quickchat commands in male and female voices, three air vehicles, command map, base assets that can be destroyed and repaired, deployable items (small turrets, sensors, jammers, inventory stations, beacons, cameras), and packs. Packs are used in addition to the jet pack; selections include energy (improves the jet pack), jammer (hide from enemy sensors), ammo (carry more ammo for each weapon), and repair (fix items or heal players). This probably sounds overwhelming but it really isn't once you've played for a bit. Not all of the items were used too often in matches and some are only helpful on certain maps/modes so over time you'll find what works best, and you can have five preset loadouts to use at inventory stations to quickly equip what you need.

Tribes hotkeys card.

Players can carry three primary weapons in light armor and four in medium or heavy armor: chaingun, disk launcher (aka spinfusor/stormhammer), blaster, grenade launcher, electron flux gun (ELF), laser rifle, plasma gun, and heavy mortar. The spinfusor is the weapon of Tribes and certainly my favorite weapon. It launches blue discs that may remind you a little of TRON discs, and it's very satisfying to hit enemies in mid-air with the discs. ELF guns are for harassing enemies as you can drain their energy to prevent them from flying. Enemy snipers can be a frustration in many FPS games, and for some it might be in Tribes, however it works quite well here because to fire the laser rifle you need to have energy. If you fire directly after using the jet pack your energy will be low so the rifle shot won't do a lot of damage. It also drains the jet pack leaving the user vulnerable briefly and since it is a laser rather than a bullet it will give away your position with every shot -- no hiding/camping for too long! There are also hand grenades, land mines, and a targeting laser that doesn't use a weapon slot. The targeting laser is primarily for pointing out enemies and helping heavies line up mortar shots on base assets.

Preview from Next Generation magazine's October 1998 issue that convinced me to buy the game. That first image under the title is the Desert of Death map I mention below.

Capture the Flag (CTF) was always the most popular mode of play, though the game offers Capture and Hold, Defend and Destroy, Find and Retrieve, and Deathmatch. Fortunately, I got to play a lot of these modes because my first team played in the Online Gaming League (OGL) planetary league. OGL was a ladder/league site for teams to compete on and the planetary league had each team attacking and defending planets. Each planet had a single game mode and map attached to it and that's what would be played in every battle for it. Using all of the modes and maps kept the game from ever becoming stale (not that it ever could!) and provided many opportunities to develop new strategies. I'll recount my favorite memory from OGL competition but without a video to show you the map Scarabrae it probably won't have any impact (I'm adding one from YouTube that shows the outdoor portion at least). It's a big map with floating bases and indoor flags that are easy to defend, especially with organized teams. Our strategy was load up the air vehicle transports with all but two of out team members, land on the enemy roof, and overwhelm them. We ignored our generators and relied on those two left behind to keep the flag home. Getting the flag out of the base is only half the challenge as you then have to survive crossing the map, and this map has a central tower with rocket turrets that fire on the team that doesn't control it. I can't remember who captured the flag but we got it and then put up a strong defense for the remainder of the map.

This video is from YouTube user suszterpatt. On the map Scarabrae they are using a tactic that launches them across the map rather quickly; they shoot the vehicle to damage it so that it explodes when they intentionally crash it and they are wearing a shield pack to protect from damage as the vehicle explosion propels them forward. 

I should point out that Tribes is known for its impressive net code as well. In 1998 some players did have cable modems but the majority were still on dial-up, including myself. For a while I usually only had speeds of 28.8Kbps which led to pings in the 300 range most of the time. Maybe I couldn't snipe too well on dial-up, however, it still ran great and I had a lot of fun. Heck, I was still new to PC gaming and was even playing without a dedicated video card but when a game is this good it doesn't matter what it looks like. That being said, I really had no idea how good the game looked until I was told I should get a Voodoo3 card from 3Dfx and that's what I did.

Review and interview from  Next Generation magazine's March 1999 issue.

Tribes might be just a game but it did have some impact on my life since I met many people while playing. Even though I was still learning mouse and keyboard controls at the time, and was very new to shooters -- I had never played Quake or Unreal at that time, just a little Duke Nukem 3D and Doom on 32X -- someone asked me if I wanted to join a team shortly after I began playing (I'm thinking it was the first week or two). I guess I just had l33t skills even on a dial-up modem! I'm joking though I did have good aim and so I joined that team, and stayed with them a long time. In fact, I met that person who recruited me a couple times in real-life as I was living near Phoenix back then and he was not too far away in Las Vegas. He even built me a new computer and being on the team helped me learn a lot about PC hardware. Believe it or not, I do remember the map I was on when I was recruited too and even around where I was standing on it, and that might be why perhaps one of the most hated maps is my favorite: Desert of Death!

Many of the game's original maps would show up again in Tribes 2 (T2) but not Desert of Death. The reason it isn't popular is because there are no inventory stations so every player is in light armor the whole map and you have to run to specific spots to grab additional weapons and packs when they spawn. I do like the map for more than the memories I have of it: desert maps are my favorite which it of course is, it's also a night map which are rare in CTF, it has an indoor flag that's really tough to get against a good team, and I like playing in light armor and dueling with spinfusors which that map has a lot of. Indoor flags are great and I don't just say that because I played a lot of light defense. When I did grab flags I found it much more exhilarating to have to fight for it rather than just speed through a defense super fast with no contact. The Desert of Death flag is the most difficult flag to grab against an organized team since it is in a hole surrounded by walls on three sides and requires flying up out of a small opening that someone probably saw you go into so you'd have to dodge weapon's fire on the way out.

Tribes 2 box front, back, and inside flap.

Dynamix also created the sequel that released on March 29, 2001 but just five months later the studio was shut down by Sierra under its parent company Vivendi. T2 got off to a rough start largely in part because it was running on a brand new game engine that had some kinks that still needed to be worked out when it shipped. According to a review I wrote of the game a month after release it was already up to eight updates! Despite its buggy state I stuck with it and likely played it more than any other game to this day. T2 incorporated many new community features, providing in-game news pages, personal email for every player, and team pages with recruiting tools. It has built-in voice chat too which was a rarity in 2001. Unfortunately, that didn't work well so teams continued to use third-party software for communicating during play. A few other additions are a 5th group (not exactly a Tribe) called the Bioderms, a very close range weapon that can kill instantly, a stealth pack, spider clamp turrets, maps with water, and three ground vehicles, including a mobile base that deploys a full inventory station. Both Dynamix Tribes games also had mods that added new modes and player-made maps, plus fans made early attempts at broadcasting matches with announcers. I did watch some matches on T2TV and it was easy to follow the action. We didn't have esports yet but Tribes was helping to lay the foundation 20 years ago.

Tribes: Aerial Assault box front and back.

After the closure of Dynamix the series did continue. The next release was a PlayStation 2 (PS2) game called Tribes: Aerial Assault that I tried offline. While T2 is multiplayer only like the first game, bots are available for practicing in T2 and the PS2 game has those in offline play as well. Aerial Assault is similar to T2 with slightly altered maps but it sure is tough to use a Dual Shock controller to play. In 2004 the third main entry, Tribes: Vengeance (T:V), was released and it does include a full single-player campaign from developer Irrational Games (System Shock 2, Freedom Force). The single-player isn't too bad, however, the multiplayer portion did not connect with me like the first two games did. T:V's maps are generally smaller and the movement is not quite the same. Someone I played with who did not like the first two Tribes games enjoyed T:V quite a bit so it may have appealed to a different type of player. One of the main additions to T:V is actually a grappling hook. That probably sounds unusual for a game where everyone can fly with jet packs but players that were skilled with the hook, like my aforementioned teammate, could change direction at very fast speeds and stay airborne almost indefinitely on some maps.

Tribes: Vengeance box front, back, and inside flap.

Hi-Rez Studios acquired the Tribes property in 2010 and released Tribes: Ascend (T:A) in 2012. I've played a lot of T:A even though I don't love it. My main issue is all of the odd weapons that feel out of place; they are primarily a result of the game being free to play. There needs to be content for players to unlock or purchase in free-to-play games so it has multiple variations on many standard weapons, plus things like throwing knives, a plethora of assault rifles, and other weapons that make it far too easy to frag with. In my time with the game I ignored most of the new weapons, sticking with spinfusors and mortars to make it feel as much like old Tribes as I could. Really, the best course of action to take for a new Tribes game is simply to make a remaster. Remasters are very popular these days and the first two games have many great modes and maps, they just need a new coat of paint. I'd guess the biggest obstacle to that is Tribes doesn't translate well to gamepad controls and consoles are where the big money is at.

If you're interested in trying out some of the Tribes games, Hi-Rez made all but the first one available to download and play for free a few years ago: Tribes Universe (that file that says it is Starsiege and Starsiege: Tribes only has Starsiege). There are other locations with files for the original game and people do still play the game so I know it is possible to get it to work on modern computers even though I failed. I'm also going to leave a link here to a recent article that has more details on the significance of Starsiege: Tribes with quotes from those who worked on the game: The Ringer.

Lastly, as I mentioned above, I'll add some more story for those that are interested, plus a few more images will be at the bottom. Tribes 2's manual actually has zero story in it even though the game's lead writer Blake Hutchins did create one that he emailed me for a preview I was putting together for way back in 2000. Unfortunately, I don't think I still have the original email as that was to a now long defunct work email address. Maybe I saved it or printed it out but I cannot currently locate it. However, while no longer exists, the database that powered it does and I'm still employed there so I have access to some of the old writings, like the previews which were one of the short-lived things we attempted. I'm going to paste the story portion of that preview here that covers a bit of the first game and the setup of the second game.
The four primary tribes are Children of the Phoenix, Starwolf, Diamond Sword, and Blood Eagle. Collectively these four tribes are known as The Tribes of Man. Before any of these tribes formed, there was a war called Starsiege where humans fought side-by-side for their claim of the universe. In 3289, four hundred years after the end of Starsiege, a meta-jumpgate was found. This jumpgate allowed humans to travel over great distances and into a region that became known as the wilderzone. To make a long story short, the humans quarreled with each other over their differing views. They became divided and began fighting for their beliefs. 
The Children of the Phoenix are the oldest tribe; they value tradition and wish to reunify all of the tribes. Looking to The Great Wolf to lead them, the Starwolf follow a shamanistic religion. Known for their battle strategies, the Diamond Sword believe the mind is the greatest weapon. Lastly, the Blood Eagle are a tribe that was originally sent by an Order of Imperial Knights to conquer all tribes. In Tribes 2 the storyline is about to be shook up as a new tribe (actually they are referred to as a horde rather than a tribe) is being introduced. Known as BioDerm, this horde consists of a race of creatures that have been at war with the Empire for centuries and is now set to enter the wilderzone. 
Tribes 2's storyline opens in the middle of 3941, one year after the first game. The Children of the Phoenix are preparing to hold the Seventh Firetruce as they continue to strive for peace and the unification of all tribes. However, the chances for peace between The Tribes of Man are worse than ever. Leaders of the Diamond Sword have gone silent, civil war is close to a reality within the Blood Eagle and a faction within the Children of the Phoenix wishes to unite all other tribes under their banner by force. 
Elsewhere, in the star system Ymir, the Starwolf, who are in a war with the Blood Eagle, have brought together the majority of their forces in preparation for an invasion on the Blood Eagle world of Vodanu Mariq II. However, the invasion never takes place as the BioDerms come through a jumpgate taking the Starwolf by surprise and killing close to 150,000 of their warriors, as well as a large number of the civilians and support personnel. A few ships manage to escape but the battle leaves the Starwolf tribe almost completely defenseless. 
Four days after the Starwolf decimation the Firetruce begins. During his unity speech, the Phoenix Prime Renn Gistos is assassinated by a renegade member of the Diamond Sword. Leadership of the Children of the Phoenix is then taken over by the Keeper of the Flame, a woman who goes by the name of Lilith. Shortly afterward, Lilith flees to Ashkelon III and turns leadership of the Children of the Phoenix over to Firelord Anton Malderi. He in turn uses the assassination on the Phoenix Prime to convince his people that the only way to unite The Tribes of Man is by force. As they prepare for their crusade, the Children of the Phoenix undergo a name change to the Harbingers of Phoenix. 
At this point, Starwolf who claim to be distant kin of the survivors, begin entering the wilderzone. Under a new banner they swear vengeance against the BioDerms. 
If any old Tribes players happen to come across this post I currently play games under the username Psydswipe which became my primary alias during Tribes 2. Before that I had a variety of names and played on at least a half dozen teams. I didn't want to ever stop playing so when a team took a break or called it quits I joined another, and sometimes I played for two teams at the same time. Tribes 2 became split between what was known as base (the way the game shipped) and classic (an updated version of the game that was faster and more comparable to the first game) which led to different types of ladders to compete on and for a short time I did compete in both classic and base for two separate teams. You can never have too much Tribes!

Since I failed to get the game working I decided to skip the other part of the video I was going to make as well. That would have been an unboxing and showing a couple other items that I'll put photos of here. Being a member of the press in 2000 and knowing people who attended E3 in the late '90s, I was able to acquire a few Starsiege folders, a Dynamix folder, and a Starsiege pin. The image above that says "The Ultimate in 1st-Person Warfare" is from the inside of a folder given to press to promote the game. These folders are a little scuffed up as they get wear easily; I touched up the scans but not the photo of them. 3/14/19 UPDATE: While searching through my things for Sega items I found a stack of Tribes press materials and am adding them here as well. It's a lot of paperwork and the whites vary as I brightened some sheets more than others.

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