Tribes: Vengeance review

Edge takes the tribes out for a spot of driving, exploring and general killing

The few clans organised enough to gather around Battlefield: 1942 discovered a neat trick. At the start of the match, they could rush far-flung capture points if a couple of daredevil troopers hopped on to the wings of a B-29 bomber and, precariously balanced, wing-walked their way across the skies. With a simple tap of F9, their parachutes would open and they'd drop into enemy territory. It's an exploit, but it's a fun exploit.

Spend time with Tribes: Vengeance and you come away with much the same feeling. The game is imbued with possibility. The toolset might be small but the options, and the chances for players to go from quite skilled to online ninja, are enormous. While there's obvious pleasure in learning the perfect mortar arc, the inclusion of a grappling hook fills the mind with options. Fire it out at any point and it will immediately latch on to any surface. There are no special cases, so you can catch a lift with a passing bomber, dangling from its behind, or just use it to drag an enemy flag runner to the ground. For others, it's the sniper rifle: taking out pilots from afar, jetting up into the sky and hijacking their vehicle before it hits the ground. Make a plan. Execute it.

Sitting somewhere between Quake 3 and Thrust, Tribes is a real oddity. It's essentially two games split in half; an excellent online multiplayer option and an extended singleplayer storyline that veers wildly from mediocre to outstanding in the space of a couple of levels. The opening sections are dire - a series of scripted run-and-gun corridor missions set in a burning ship, they're claustrophobic, slow, cumbersome and the very antithesis of the previous Tribes games. Out of doors, it gets better; there's a marvellous sensation of space as you realise that these firstperson battles are to be fought in three dimensions. You can fly. And so can the AI. You jockey for position, firing your jets in short bursts, predicting where your opponent will be, holding off on firing until you're certain, absolutely certain, that your shells will connect.

It comes down to tactile response. The game encourages you to feel your way across the landscape, using the jetpacks to climb the peaks, then 'skiing' down the other side, throwing up a dust wake. Skiing was an exploit in the original Tribes, but has been elevated to fundamental game mechanic. Experienced players will see the potential inherent in geography: downslopes used to build momentum for the upward climb, using the fringe to launch up, up and away.

And, as your experience with the tools grows, so do your options. The most intriguing singleplayer missions are set up as playgrounds, four or more objectives within a couple of square kilometres of open terrain and a free reign on what you tackle, when, and how. One infiltration mission sees you inserting a computer virus into three specific enemy subsystems: the radar, fixed gun emplacements and recharge points. Coopt each in turn, and their benefits are immediately transferred to you. Make another plan. Execute it.

The open levels are complemented by a wonderfully written, absolutely charming storyline. Every scenario is played from a different character's perspective, each highlighting their motivations and place within the wider universe. A bored, naive princess; a lonely tribal leader; his lieutenant; a nine-year-old girl or a droid assassin. The dialogue is immediately engaging, the characters balanced and weirdly believable. And, while there's little of that gradual dawning that videogames do so well, story told through geography, the very fact you're playing these characters makes you feel for their fate.

And yet it can occasionally feel slightly primitive. The spinfusor disk is incorrectly sighted, for instance, just a little off in the Y-axis. Distracting. The ground-based vehicles, a buggy and a jet-propelled tank, don't carry the same sense of momentum as the rest of the game - there's almost too much friction between them and the ground. Take your finger off the forward key and they'll judder to a stop, rooted to the ground. Aggravating. Again, it needs to be said: the indoor missions are a letdown - ceilings simply get in the way. Disappointing.

But, out of doors, raining bubblegum- blue death from above like Icarus in iron trousers, none of that matters. All that's important is that feeling: of height, of speed and of possibility.

Tribes: Vengeance is out now for PC

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