For several years now, a tight-knit group of the gaming elite have been off in the far-flung corners of the Internet enjoying a highly tactical, nicely team-centric game known as Tribes 2 or (if they're a bit more traditionalist) Starsiege: Tribes. Central to the mastery of these games is the jetpack: here only he who truly understands the power of his own momentum, and the artful downhill sliding known as skiing becomes l33t, and his skills are shown in more ways than lying on a hill and endlessly sniping at spawn points. Now, for once, the publishing peeps were paying attention, and when they saw all the cult fun being had their exploitation antennae started twitching. If a highly respected developer was entrusted with the Tribes format and tailored it for the mass market, who knows what wonders might occur? And, while Irrational is at it, why not develop a single-player contingent with all the ski-fresh goodness of the online game? And why not make it one big tutorial so that noobs are given a couple of seconds before having their arse handed to them when they plug into multiplayer games?
Why Not Indeed
So here we have the fruits of this labour. A giant tutorial that doesn't resort to endless target ranges and angry men shouting instructions at you about how to crouch. It's a game that appears to lag behind the current crop
of high-budget, high-intensity shooters, with comparatively basic graphics, sound, ragdolls and peculiarly bouncy object physics - but it's also a game with some rarely seen sparkle. Whether you're marvelling at its remarkable fluidity (milked straight from the bosom of the goddess of gameplay), or ogling the epic, five-character narrative that leaps from generation to generation and consistently flicks your intrigue switch - it's clear that Vengeance is on to something good.
It's Like Dynasty
There are three main factions within the game - the sniffy Imperials who control interplanetary affairs with a royal blue iron fist, the Phoenix tribe that the Imperials have forced into the wilderness that lies within their territory, and the Blood Eagles - who are a lot like the Phoenix but markedly more evil.
The action kicks off aboard the regal Imperial flagship with a princess called Victoria being coerced into a politically-minded marriage, before (one sudden Phoenix attack and a fairly casual kidnapping later) having a bit of a culture shock. Seduced by the charms of her Phoenix abductor Daniel, she begins to see the truth behind her royal parents' heavy-handedness and the plotline kicks into gear. The action then flips between this timeline (which is actually the past) and the exploits of her daughter Julia - who 30 years later has used bitter memories of her childhood to become a battle-hardened tribal sports star. Levels then skip back and forth, raising and answering questions about the eponymous lust for vengeance that plagues many of the cast. Over the course of all of this you get to control five characters: Victoria, Julia, the impressively side-burned Daniel, a battle-hardened Phoenix Heavy called Jericho and, best of all, a mysterious metal-bodied cybrid known as Mercury. If you're slightly geeky, he's a bit like the Silver Surfer. If you're not at all geeky, he's like an extremely cool man who's been made out of metal.
Now I'm not saying that Tribes: Vengeance is set to win any virtual Oscars for Best Cannon Fodder in a Supporting Role, nor am I going to suggest that you won't find the petulant princesses more than slightly annoying to control when you start the game. I'm not even going to refute the claim that cheesiness is only ever a step away from the Victoria/Daniel love plot. What I will say, however, is that the structure of Tribes: Vengeance is a hugely brave, original and thoroughly excellent attempt to break convention - taking you away from your accustomed shootage blueprint and into pastures new. It's true to say that Max Payne 2 did similar things with time-skips and parallel levels for separate characters. It's also true to say that these were more effectively signposted, and done in a more coherently cinematic style. That said, in terms of chin-stroking, information dripfeeding and coaxing 'WTF?' moments out of apparently simple (yet simultaneously illuminating) moments in the script, Tribes: Vengeance is an experiment that's been pulled off with stunning flair. I, personally, see this as the best shooter plot since the original Deus Ex.