There is a distinctly foreign feeling to your first game of Tribes: Ascend. It seems strangely familiar at first glance, a sci-fi shooter with teams, loadouts, objectives, all the jazz you’ve come to expect from a FPS in today’s market. Ascend, however, is wrapped up in packaging that hearkens back to the days when PC shooters were the way to kill people over the Internet, and it revels in the knowledge that a player cannot just jump in and start wrecking things. Instead, they have to sit down and relearn how to move, shoot and survive. A first-person shooter with a lengthy learning curve is a rare thing these days, but when everything clicks and that player feels the surge of adrenaline that can only come from what Hi-Rez is bringing back to the shooter scene in Tribes: Ascend, it’s all incredibly worth it.
Push the Sandrakers Off Our World
At its core, the gameplay in Tribes: Ascend is fairly unchanged from previous iterations, and has only been refined further from its early beta state. You can still keep the spacebar held down to “ski” down hills, achieving ludicrous speeds. You can keep on jet-packing through the air, soaring across mountains and turrets in a strange sort of aerial death ballet. The refinements have come with just how fluid this experience feels: very few shooters have so finely nailed smooth movement at high speeds, and T:A pulls it off with such an enthusiastic “oomph” that it makes other shooters look even slower than they already are by comparison.
The interplay of “skiing -> jet-packing -> repeat” may be the way to move around, but the decent smattering of maps you’ll romp around in across five distinct gametypes can change up how often that dynamic works. Ascend launches with Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, still intact from the beta. They’ve also added a 5v5 Arena mode that takes place in several small, geometric arenas that really don’t allow for much in the way of skiing, along with a more modernized “capture points” approach. Gone is the Rabbit mode that I wasn’t terribly fond of in earlier iterations of the game, kept confined to a single custom server – maybe it will come back in some new-yet-familiar form. If it doesn’t, there’s still plenty of different ways to get your fill.
Each gametype uses a different set of maps for the most part, with a few major maps having slight layout changes or cosmetic differences depending on what gametype you’re playing in. Some are wholly exclusive to certain modes: you won’t find an Arena match taking place in the sprawling frozen wasteland of Katabatic, for example. The worlds of Tribes are enormous, with tons of valleys and paths for cranking up the speed, but they’re not so big that it feels like you can get lost in them. Plenty of landmarks are scattered throughout each killing field, and before long you’ll have your favorite paths lodged in your memory. Soaring down a hill only to jetpack up the next and blast an unsuspecting enemy with a shotgun blast is a feeling that I plainly don’t think can be replicated in any other shooter.
Tribes: Ascend sets the stage with nine distinct classes, each falling into the standard “light/medium/heavy” armor classes. They’re all fairly specialized, with most having defensive or offensive preferences, but there are enough unlockable options within each potential inventory for a player to change up how their preferred class works. Each class has a bevy of different unlockable options to really set a player apart from their allies, but it’s not on the grandest scale imaginable. For example, you won’t see eight different Pathfinders with eight different primary weapons: only one or two options are available for each class as far as weapons are concerned, forcing players to focus in on one particular play-style while changing up minor things like their perks or equipment packs that offer class-based bonuses.
Each item in the game can also be upgraded a few times on its own via experience or “Tribes Gold”, the paid currency aspect of an otherwise gratuitously free-to-play shooter. While you’ll never have to buy this gold to upgrade your gear, it’s a much quicker path to 100% class completion than slowly grinding out match after match for precious XP. To be fair, a lot of the paid options in this seem to revolve around the idea of attaining what you want more quickly as opposed to items that shake up the balance of the game: gold can be spent on upgrades, “boosts” that double your XP gain for a specified amount of time, or cosmetic skins that are just now getting rolled out.
If a person had to pick something up in the form of a paid option, the boosts are really the way to go – purchasing anything from within the game will bump your account up to VIP status, and in addition to the plethora of bonus XP you’ll gain from the boost itself, you gain a little bit more every time due to that fancy moniker. It’s a nice touch that goes a long way towards making your microtransaction feel like it’s worth the investment.
Go Fast or Go Home
It’s hard to pin down what exactly makes the actual gameplay in Tribes feel so alive. Whether it’s the subtle twists on established game type formulas, like the introduction of flags into the depressingly unchanged TDM trope, or the sheer exhilaration that comes from headshotting some poor fool with a crossbow at 215 Sanics (the hidden measurement of speed, activated by typing in “GOTTAGOFAST” in the Secret Code menu), it’s just plain refreshing to see a shooter that isn’t bogged down by the grip of reality. Ascend is absurd in the best way, enjoying every high-speed chase and catastrophic explosion that it whips up, until the player can’t help but laugh along with it. It’s safe to say that this game just would not work in any sort of realistic backdrop, and I think that’s for the best.
There are a few minor things that I could nag about that don’t quite live up to expectations. There’s no voice communication to speak of, opting instead for the “Voice Game System”, a series of short statements to convey just about any possible situation within a match. It’s no different from what you see in other shooters, maybe a little more expansive in its options, but the small selection of voice-overs used to express these statements start to wear thin the more they’re used. As you might expect, this can lead to some rather enthusiastic spamming of certain phrases. One 15-minute match in particular stands out when the top left of my screen was nothing but a sea of people calling out “Shazbot!”, a singular word synonymous with the series itself.
Occasionally, there will be some hiccups with the servers to speak of, and when they happen you’ll be able to enjoy a minute or so of not really getting to do anything of note. These issues aren’t nearly as prevalent as they could be and only a few have happened in the many games I’ve played, but the world takes on a slightly more frustrating hue when you’re forced to watch your disc grenades repeatedly traverse the same stretch of ground before exploding in your face.
Tribes: Ascend feels like an old-school shooter in a brand new suit. It has all the thrills and speed inherent with the “shooters of yore” while adapting to an easy-to-approach freemium model, and while there is that fairly stiff learning curve I mentioned at the start, it should in no way be a barrier that keeps you from enjoying one of the most insidiously enjoyable shooters since Team Fortress 2. The war between the Blood Eagles and the Diamond Sword is just starting to get exciting, and we’re in the beginning days of a shooter that I hope sees countless battles in the months and years to come.
You can start playing Tribes right this second by signing up on their website. You should definitely do that.