Tribes Vengeance: The Forgotten FPS

One of the best from a year full of greats

Tribes Vengeance: The Forgotten FPS
Source: Gamer Info.

2004 was the year of the first-person shooter. It’s almost embarrassing how good we had it: Half-Life 2, Halo 2, Doom 3, Far Cry, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay… and that’s just the very best of them. What’s important is that each one, in ways both big and small, properly shook up the genre.

After 2004, there was just no turning back.

But there’s one title that seems to go missing in the conversation about the spoils of 2004. Overlooked or, at worst, disparaged—despite solid contemporary reviews! That title is Irrational Games’ Tribes Vengeance, of which I am unashamedly a huge fan (any others out there?). Looking back, it’s easy to see how it got lost in the furor around Half-Life 2 and Halo 2. But that doesn’t explain the absence of love for Vengeance’s best component: its bold, romantic, and sweeping single-player campaign.

Now, full disclosure: I never played the previous Tribes games, and I never got into Vengeance’s multiplayer component, which, as I understand it, has always been the backbone of the series. But none of that interested in me 2004. I was far too hungry for rich narrative-driven experiences. It was all about that campaign, which I suspect might be an anathema to Tribes diehards. But take the campaign on its own merits and its story of star-crossed lovers ripped apart by a cruel war belongs among the very best of those 2004 shooters.

"Your father thought he could change things. As did your mother. They were wrong."
Source: Author.

My first experience with the game came from a demo disc packaged with PC Zone. It featured one of the game’s midpoint levels, which sees a cyborg assassin on a night-time infiltration mission into enemy territory.

As a slice of gameplay, it boasted everything Vengeance had to offer: an expansive map with a variety of objectives that could be completed in any order, vehicles, combat, and terrific rocky slopes for getting to grips with the game’s jetpack and ski feature. Just being able to blast into the air, slide down a rockface and use that to propel you forward was then, and remains today, an immensely rewarding activity. To top it off, it truly felt like you were a lethal assassin, stealthily disabling the enemies' defences, installing malware in their network, and inching ever so closer to your target. It was captivating.

But where the game really ticks is the story story. Written by Ken Levine of System Shock 2 and Bioshock fame, Vengeance tells a galactic tale of political intrigue, class warfare, and bloody betrayal. Romeo and Juliet by way of a space opera, if you like. The telling is interesting, too; it's an inter-generational story told in non-chronological order that follows multiple characters, mostly set twenty years apart, with events in the past catalysing what we end up doing in the present.

Source: Author.

It kicks off with the capture of the Imperial princess, Victoria, who is destined to assume her father’s throne as empress. Her captors are a tribal group called the Phoenix, who live on squalid reservations on largely abandoned worlds. The Phoenix’s leader, Daniel, doesn’t exactly warm to Victoria—they’re sworn enemies, after all. But as a sinister conspiracy to keep their respective peoples at war soon engulfs them, their relationship crosses boundaries no one in their galaxy had ever dared as they grow closer and closer. Too close for the powers-that-be, seeing their romantic union as an existential threat to the galaxy’s carefully maintained status quo of haves and have-nots.

The doomed lovers may not see their aspirations realised in their own lifetimes, but their daughter, Julia, carries their torch through the present-day sequences, culminating in a lovely piece of cathartic storytelling.

Levine’s writing is let down by some overt sexism and clumsy lines that border on the offensive, as well as the occasional cliché—and I'm sure there's a case to be made for Stockholm Syndrome. Yet it endures as a genuinely compelling story about kinship and the struggle to transform a galaxy through love alone. Corny? Sure. Effective? Absolutely.

Source: Author.

If there's a flaw in the narrative structure, it's the switching between multiple perspectives. On paper it certainly sounds good, and sure, it allows us to experience the story from the opposing views of its characters. But when we the player suspect we're being set up by some grand conspiracy, it's jarring to fight characters you've previously played as and invested in. It feels like too much to ask of the player, though that might just be me.

Written by Ken Levine of System Shock 2 and Bioshock fame, Vengeance tells a galactic tale of political intrigue, class warfare, and bloody betrayal.

The levels themselves are impressively varied; we progress through snowy alpine vistas, blasted wastelands, and desert bases, each environment tailor-made to accommodate the jet pack and ski feature. It's a miracle how smoothly it plays, with your movement becoming almost balletic once you’ve mastered how to time your boosts and skiing. Agility is the key.

The combat itself can be a tad clunky. Whenever you engage with the enemy, the recoil and damage feel like they were designed with multiplayer in mind, which can shake you out of the experience a bit. Yet it still works and benefits from a range of unique objectives spread across the game. A particular favourite involves disabling a trio of enemy sky stations in order to gain access to their core base. The gradual sense of panic on the part of your enemies adds a whole lot to the pacing—you really feel like you’re making a difference, one destabilised power core at a time.

Source: Author.

Of course, it’s not without a few missteps. Tribes Vengeance is pretty fond of arena levels, which really stall the game's otherwise pacey momentum. Coliseum fights and ability trials grind the whole thing down when really, all you want to do is push the story forward. The first one’s an overly long chore, but they do shorten later in the game. I suspect they’re meant to harken back to the multiplayer modes, but in the single-player context, they feel unnecessary.

As for the future of Tribes, we’ve got one coming this year: TRIBES 3: Rivals by Prophecy Games. From what I’ve seen it looks like a blast and I can’t wait to get my hands on it, but the developer has already confirmed we won’t be seeing a single-player component.

I find this such a shame, and not because Vengeance ended on a nail-biting cliff-hanger. It isn’t about resolution (although sure, it’d be nice); it’s about properly recognising just how good Irrational Games’ Vengeance was. The universe of Tribes is huge and varied, full of potential, and with so many stories to tell. Later this year players will be able to tell their own during their matches, but for me, I just want to see where Julia’s story goes next.

Because in the pantheon of 2004 shooters, Tribes Vengeance really was one of the very best.

I can't recommend it enough.

Haven’t tried Tribes Vengeance? Head over here to give it a shot. These folks have done an amazing job of keeping this game alive and running on modern systems.


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