Tribes Ascend [Review] – Speed kills

23 Apr 2012  by   Peter Parrish
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Bringing back a much-beloved series, especially one that had its home on the PC, is a task fraught with danger. No matter how you approach development, you’re going to run into parochial devotees of the original who’ll pillory you for every change. If you don’t change enough, you risk being accused of just ripping off the original game or failing to advance with the times.

Successfully re-invigorating an older title is hard enough, but introducing a free-to-play model to a first person shooter is borderline masochistic. Balancing the need to actually make some money with the knowledge that the merest sniff of ‘pay to win’ could destroy the game’s credibility amongst its users is an unenviable task. That Hi-Rez Studios has got so close to bringing back Tribes in a manner faithful to the source material and married it to a somewhat acceptable free-to-play structure is cause for admiration.

Tribes Ascend is not perfect, and it deviates from earlier Tribes titles in enough ways to provide plenty of ammunition for jilted purists; but the game successfully captures what many would feel to be the essential Tribes experience.

Let’s address the implementation of the free-to-play model first, as it has a direct impact on how Tribes Ascend has been constructed and how it plays.

The game is divided into light, medium and heavy classes. One of each class (the Pathfinder, Soldier and Juggernaut) is unlocked from the start, letting you get a taste of each ‘weight division’. Gold (which you must purchase with real money) or experience points (earned by play) can be used to unlock restricted classes, new equipment (secondary weapons and the like) and new perks. Experience points alone can be used to improve aspects of your class (adding small health and ammo boosts, for example). Gold may also be used to buy experience point ‘booster packs’ which give you double experience for a defined period of time (from one day to two months).

Realistically, you’re not going to be able to grind your way to unlocking even a single class in its entirety. It’s also fair to say that players who’ve paid some money will have an advantage in the field. However, it’s possible to be competitive by only spending a fairly small amount of cash. 800 gold will (at the time or writing) set you back $10 USD. Alone, this is enough to unlock a couple of new classes and equip them with a few new perks and weapons. If you combine it with the periodic promotions Hi-Rez seems to be running (such as giving away 250 gold for a ‘like’ on Facebook), it’s not too costly to scratch together a nice set of kit.

Yes, there are some pieces of equipment that are absurdly priced (at 780 gold or 100,000 experience points, the Pathfinder’s alternative secondary weapon really takes the piss), but these tend to be exceptions. It’s also annoying that the only way to test out, say, the Technician class is to buy it. Overall though, it’s possible to practice with the three free classes, figure out (loosely) what sort of role you enjoy playing, and focus on that area without having to spend more than $10-20.

Free-to-play can be an unpleasant pill to swallow (since it usually just means ‘disguise the revenue stream’) but Tribes Ascend comes as close as I’ve seen to getting it right, and undeniably reaps the benefit in terms of a large playerbase. This is crucial for the long-term success of a multiplayer shooter.

And what a shooter it is; returning to the sort of high speed, high skill and high excitement title that has sadly fallen by the wayside in the wake of the more ponderous military shooters. Even moving effectively around the map in Tribes Ascend is a technique unto itself. Low speeds are generally a death sentence, so it’s vital to master the art of ‘skiing’ downhill to achieve high velocities and learn how to maintain those speeds in the face of undulating battlefields (by, for example, directing your angle of approach to match the slopes of incoming hills). Every class in the game is also equipped with a jetpack, so maneuverability is all.

This is important in all four of the game modes currently available to play, but particularly so in Capture the Flag (pretty much the quintessential Tribes mode). Grabbing the flag at anything other than a high speed is a recipe for failure (and, more than likely, for your team to be annoyed at you); as is attempting to catch the person who just grabbed your flag at anything other than an equally high speed. Class roles come into play here, with the lighter Pathfinder class well-suited for flag raids and the heavier classes better at base defense or attacking structures from a distance. Specialists like the Infiltrator have the means to sneak into the enemy base and take out their generator (which powers handy things like inventory stations and turrets), but may, of course, also use their skills as they please.

For a look at a Capture the Flag match (with narration by myself and fellow IncGamers writer Tim McDonald), have a look at the two-part video presentation below. These were recorded during the beta, but they still reflect a typical match.

If anything, the harsher class delineation of Tribes Ascend makes Capture the Flag even more likely to be the mode of choice for most. Basic Team Deathmatch still has a flag-retention dimension (the team holding the flag gets two kills for the price of one), so lighter classes have a clear role; but more specialised types feel a little superfluous in a straightforward killfest. Capture & Hold comes much closer to utilising the full range of player types with its take-and-defend approach, while Arena (a tighter, 5v5 version of Team Deathmatch) doesn’t really play to the strengths of Tribes at all.

Aside from the move to free-to-play, the change which should be considered most controversial in Tribes Ascend is the introduction of a few borderline-hitscan weapons. For those unfamiliar with that terminology, hitscan weapons assume and register a hit on an opponent if you pull your trigger button when the crosshair is over them. In other words, it doesn’t really calculate a projectile velocity (or assumes it to be near-instant).

The iconic weapon of Tribes is the spinfusor; a weapon which fires a relatively slow-moving projectile that impacts with a moderate area of effect. Twinned with the speeds and heights possible to achieve in the game, this leads to multiple back-and-forth shootouts, where the player with a keen eye and a sound mind for leading a target will usually prevail. There’s an art, almost a grace, to these conflicts, so it’s difficult to avoid disappointment when someone opts to ignore the opportunity to join this dance and just use a sub-machine gun varient instead.

It’s probably an effort on the part of Hi-Rez to ease some players into the game with a more familiar weapon type, but that doesn’t make it feel any less out of place.

There are a couple of other minor quibbles. The lack of any meaningful tutorial for each individual game mode is a bit of an oversight (meaning you have to learn the conventions on-the-fly), but at least a halfway decent guide to the technique of skiing is included. Still, prepare for some abuse from grouchy pros during the period where you don’t know what you’re doing. You may also have noticed how gigantic the weapons seem from the images dotted around this page. There isn’t really a good explanation for these, other than a strange creative decision made about the default field of view.

None of this overshadows the main achievement of Tribes Ascend, which is to bring back a multiplayer shooter which stands out from the packed crowd. Even though the genre is showing signs of moving back towards faster-paced encounters (Blacklight Retribution, Nexuiz), there’s really nothing else like this out there. The contoured maps, propulsive jetpacks and nifty skiing maneuvers elevate what would otherwise be fairly tired and mundane multiplayer game types to, quite literally at some points, new heights. Sure, you can dig out your old Tribes titles to fulfill the same craving, but Hi-Rez has provided a contemporary alternative that’s free at the point of entry and not exactly costly to pick up long-term. That’s something of a triumph.

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8/10
Worthy of inheriting the Tribes flag (after skiing downhill with it at some speed).
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