What I’m playing: Tribes Ascend

Its a weird time in gaming when you play something that feels so new, but its actually over a decade old.  Today I’m playing Tribes: Ascend, the new free-to-play game by Hi-Rez studios, based on the now crazy-old Tribes franchise.

What happened to Tribes?  Back in 2001 Sierra released Tribes 2 and many fans believed this game was the definitive Tribes experience with jetpacks, spinfusors and skiing.  It was perfectly balanced and unique gameplay with an addictive quality.  But it was also one of the last games of what I’d like to call the “sliding shooter” genre, games like Quake and the original Unreal Tournament, where players moved quickly across big maps and had big amounts of health and armor.  These days the sliding shooter has been largely taken over by the “crouch-and-sprint” shooters we’re all so familiar with, like Counter-Strike, Halo and Call of Duty, to the point where many have completely forgotten about the old shooters, or may have only grown up with the new style (yea, I’m willing to concede I’m getting older).

So now Tribes: Ascend has been released and even though the formula is over a decade old, it feels brand-new.  Suffice it to say that nobody is really doing a game like this right now.  Let’s take a look:

Surprisingly great and professional graphics for a free-to-play

The gameplay of Tribes Ascend is based around 3 key factors:

  • Jet packs and Skiing
  • Huge, open maps
  • Slow projectile weapons

The first thing that people will notice about the game is that jet pack.  There’s no jumping in the traditional sense, but holding down the right-click button will slowly raise you into the sky. But that’s only half of the movement to Tribes.  The other is skiing.  Hold down the spacebar and you’ll basically turn into a human ice block.  If you’re standing at the top of a hill you’ll slowly roll down, building up more and more speed.  Learning how to roll down hills while skiing and move up hills with the jet pack is essential to getting around the game’s huge, open maps.

Vehicles are a seldom-used tool that can be a huge advantage on CTF matches

Most Call of Duty maps would be shamed by their tiny size in comparison to Tribes.  Even Battlefield maps don’t quite go this far.  You’re going to need to master skiing because of just how huge these things are.  Getting from one end to the other is a skill all its own.  Add in Tribe’s signature Capture the Flag mode and you’ll realize just how epic and huge these matches can get.  But all that skiing and jet packing across huge maps is compounded by the final part of Tribes gameplay:

Slow projectile weapons.  The vast majority of guns in Tribes take far longer to get from the tip of your barrel to the enemy’s face than you’ll be used to, especially compared to “click-and-you’re-dead” shooters like Modern Warfare or Counter-Strike.  Many weapons are like explosive disks, called spinfusors, and the time it takes for the disk to travel should be pretty similar to most rocket launchers in other games, but add that to people who are flying through the air and going 150 km/hr, you soon realize that its going to take a little more than point-and-click aiming.  Properly timing your shots and leading are key to scoring kills.  The high amount of health and armor on players also means that you need to do it a few times in a row.  Combine all of these gameplay traits together and you’ll find that kills are a little harder to come by than most other shooters, but good lord are they more satisfying!

Actually if it weren't for splash damage I would probably miss 90% of the time.

Which is great, because most shooters these days are just wham-bam, you’re dead and the only way to survive the onslaught of bullets is to duck and cover.  Not in Tribes.  Here you need to move your ass at all times if you want to stay alive, the faster the better.  The biggest key to a good shooter is that damage vibe you get from a successful shot, and while its way different to fire spinfusers here than it is to fire an M16, its still just as satisfying when you get a hit.  Direct hits do tons of damage and splash damage is also really helpful.  As far as that “feel” of the gameplay goes, I think Tribes Ascend gets it just right.

But that’s probably only part of the reason we’re really talking about Ascend.  The other big thing about this game is that its free-to-play, so is it any good at that?  In short: yes and no.  Its clear from the beginning that you need to spend some real money if you want any of the cool items.  The spinfusor for the solider class is 42,000 experience points, which you can earn for free.  But that would take probably at least 4 or 5 days of regular play for just one gun.  Alternatively, you could buy it for 240 gold, which is like the xbox live points of Tribes.  240 gold is basically 3 dollars.  3 dollars or 4 straight days of gaming?  Its pretty easy to see how they want you to go on this one.

Its like 10 bucks for this guy, but he looks sooooo badass!

But the game also gets the free-to-play thing right.  Other free-to-plays like the new Blacklight: Retribution will make you rent guns instead of buying them permanently, or if you do get it permanently, its for pretty ridiculously high prices.  Tribes always lets you buy things permanently, which I love.  I like to know that even if I don’t like the shiny new gun I just bought, I could still use it down the road if they buff it.  I’ll just go on the record as saying that permanently buying items in free-to-play games, especially shooters, is the only way to go.

And the real advantage of free-to-play is that its just that much easier to play with friends.  You don’t need to all buy a copy to play.  If someone in your group is still unconvinced, they can still try it at no cost to them.  All that said, one of my biggest complaints was the lack of a party system in this game.  You need to join in to games that are already being played instead of queuing up as a group.

But to be honest the odds of even seeing your friends on these big maps are pretty low.

And at the end of the day, I just can’t stop playing it.  Its just that fun.  Again, nobody else in the marketplace is really doing this type of game anymore.  Even the closest competitors like Quake Live and Unreal Tournament 3 aren’t really in the same gameplay vein, nobody else really does a game with skiing after all.

I highly recommend checking this out for a surprisingly fresh take on the first-person shooter genre, even if its a concept that’s over a decade old. Old fans and new-comers alike are both going to be pleased with this game because its just downright fun.  As a free-to-play game it stands to actually get a ton of new users over the coming months with its freemium model, but if you’re actually willing to shell out a few bucks for a couple items, you’ll probably get a lot more out of it.

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About Ryan Saul

Hailing from Portland, OR I work by day and blog by night. I like to consider myself a video game connoisseur, playing as many new things as I can get my hands on. Its hard to hold me down to one game for very long before I move on to the next big thing. Luckily, that works pretty well in terms of video game blogging.

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