It’s been a year since Midair first appeared at PAX 2016, and this indie and fan-powered homage to the classic, revered FPS Starsiege: Tribes has come a long ways since then–and it still has a long ways to go, too.
Archetype Studios Midair hopes to revive—or at least re-invigorate—Tribes, the groundbreaking first game in the series released in 1998. Tribes earned critical and commercial success and scored many “firsts” for the genre, such as seamless indoor and outdoor environments, jetpacks, and a style of play that separated it from the twitchy Quake-a-likes of the time.
But Tribes (and Tribes 2, released in 2001) struggled to hold an audience, which only faded with subsequent sequels and console releases. The franchise faded to relative obscurity as games such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Overwatch took hold.
In 2012, Hi-Rez Studios released the free-to-play Tribes: Ascend. It was generally well-received and ran strong for about 2 years. Unfortunately, Hi-Rez all but abandoned the game in favor of more lucrative fare, i.e. Smite.
Tribes has a long history and you can read some of it in my first preview Midair from PAX West 2016, and you can get the rest from Wikipedia.
Archetype fills the void
Midair is a shameless and unapologetic love letter to Tribes on every level. Archetype Studios is basically driven by Tribes fanatics who aren’t happy to see such a seminal FPS title languish. Leading them is Chris Mathews, the founder and CEO.
Midair launched recently on Steam Early Access, and while still rough around the edges it has clearly advanced well beyond last year’s early alpha.
First and foremost, many more ‘core’ Tribes elements have been added, including all 3 classes of armor (light (Light, Medium, and Heavy), each with pre-made loadouts that can also be customized. Nearly every major weapon has been added, such as the ‘Spinfusor’ clone (RingSlinger), along with a grenade launcher, Rail Gun (Sniper rifle), Chain Gun, Mortar, Grenades, and more. A variety of energy packs have been introduced.
“We’re still not sure about whether or not we want to put in the Shocklance,” Mathews tells me. “It was a bit of controversial item when it was introduced in Tribes 2.”
The Shocklance was the first melee weapon in the game, largely used by light and stealthy (invisible) assassins to take down bigger prey.
The core vehicles have also been added to the current version: A fighter, a tank, and a bomber. There are also many more maps.
Chris and Archetype Studios are very attentive to feedback. “Tribes had a huge community, but it ultimately became pretty niche. We listen carefully to the fans of the original games and we’re trying to stay true to them as much as we can,” Mathews explains.
“But we’re also trying to balance it with accessibility so we can draw in new players, and still leave some room to add our own take on things, such as the lore.”
Gritty out, colorful in
Although Midair is unapologetic in drawing its signature gameplay and core elements from Tribes, Archetype is still clearly putting their own stamp on it— starting with a lighter, more colorful art style.
Midair isn’t a dark, power-armored war game between gruff space marines. It’s backstory is more sad than tragic, and clearly lighter fare than the somewhat Game of Thrones-esque Tribes, in which warring factions in the distant future basically fight neverending planetary turf wars.
“We really didn’t want to be just another gritty, dark sci-fi FPS in powered armor. It’s kind of been done to death at this point, so we opted for something a little more colorful,” Mathews explains.
Midair’s lore explains the art style. Succinctly, all the combatants and supporting technology (including turrets and inventory stations) are artificial life forms that have had human consciousness transplanted into them.
The human race has essentially died off while these constructs imbued with human consciousness continue to fight game-like proxy wars (Capture the Flag being a prominent one) that were once used to settle disputes.
Even the inventory stations are animated and cute, beckoning you over to them. And interestingly, this also means that there is no human death in Midair—just blown up androids that respawn when their consciousness is re-uploaded into a new body.
Fly the unfriendly skies
“We’ve also tweaked the thrust vectoring for the jetpacks a bit. Old-school players may find it a bit of an adjustment. Basically it gives you better control in the air, but if you’re accustomed to just holding W while you’re skiing your jetpack energy will run down faster than you’re used to.”
What this means is that you can make micro-adjustments a little more easily when you’re in the air (as long as you manage your energy carefully), and it provides some added agility.
But it does take a little getting used to. (Mostly, you just have to train yourself to let off the ‘W’ except when you need it.)
So what the hell is “skiing?”
For the uninitiated, skiing was a physics bug in the original Tribes engine. After it was discovered, it was embraced by fans and game developers alike, and quickly became a signature gameplay mechanic unique to Tribes.
If wanted to ‘git gud’ you had to learn to ski.
Skiing was accomplished by flying high into the air with your jetpack, and then rapidly pressing space bar (jump) while sliding down a slope to increase your downward velocity. As you reached the bottom of a hill and started up the incline, you would punch your jets (hopefully fully recharged) and blast into the air augmented by the added velocity.
‘Skiing’ made it possible to achieve ludicrous speeds higher than the game developers ever anticipated, and it was a genuine rush to tear through the enemy flag stand at a ridiculous speed with a ‘wolf pack’ of flag chasers in hot pursuit.
Soaring over milestones but still a long road ahead
Midair has come a long ways since 2016, and it’s been in development since 2014. It’s fueled mainly by passionate volunteers and developers, all of whom are themselves big fans of Tribes.
The good news is that Midair appears to be making solid progress en route to a full release, and more surprises surely on the way.
There will be skins. Voice packs. Additional game modes such as Rabbit and others. Archetype is also tweaking various elements to add more customization options, such as energy pack augments that provide minor differences in how energy packs perform.
Archetype has created a ‘charge’ system so Engineers can spend more time building and repairing stuff instead of making repeated trips to the inventory station for deployable items.
Core gameplay is definitely on point, or at least clearly headed to where it needs to be. The voices are pretty much exactly like the original game, right down to the “Woohoos”—although sadly “Shazbot” is currently missing.
The maps are still very rudimentary. But very, very ski-able.
So what’s next?
There’s a lot to be excited about, but the road ahead to launch is long. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do, ” Mathews tells me.
And perhaps even more difficult: Successfully attracting, igniting, and sustaining a large community to make Midair a fixture in a highly competitive genre dominated by multiple 800 pound gorillas.
But if you are or ever were a fan of Tribes, then Midair is a game you should keep on your radar and be rooting for.