I’ve recently poured some time into the open beta of Tribes: Ascend, the latest installment in the longstanding first-person shooter franchise. When the multiplayer-only game launches later this month, it will operate under the increasingly popular free-to-play model. Developer Hi-Rez Studios hopes to recoup costs by selling weapons, classes, and other perks through an integrated cash store. I can’t speak much to the economics of the situation, but from what I’ve seen in beta so far they’ve succeeded in delivering a highly polished and insidiously challenging first-person shooter.
Much of the difficulty of Tribes: Ascend is derived from the franchise’s hallmark skiing mechanic. Every player is equipped with a jetpack that can be used to effortlessly surmount obstacles and a pair of friction-negating boots that can be used to slide down sloping surfaces. When employed in tandem, these tools allow a player to skim across landscapes at blistering speeds. It’s an exhilarating experience, akin to playing Halo as Sonic the Hedgehog. However, this freedom of movement essentially turns every player into a moving target. Carefully telegraphing an opponent’s trajectory becomes an essential skill, one that has a particularly steep learning curve. You’ll have to sink a number of hours into Tribes: Ascend if you want to boast an accuracy level higher than that of a storm trooper.
Blinding speed aside, Tribes: Ascend is fundamentally a class-based shooter. Nine classes are available for play, each fulfilling their own niche on a team. These classes range from the lightly armoured but highly mobile pathfinder, to the well-rounded soldier, to the sluggish but sturdy juggernaut. The roster of Tribes: Ascend is comparable to that of fellow class-based shooter Team Fortress 2, and anyone who has played Valve’s popular multiplayer title will be able to ease into the roles quickly.
The free-to-play model of Tribes: Ascend also apes Team Fortress 2, albeit with mixed results. In Team Fortress 2, every item available for sale in the store is a sidegrade rather than a straight upgrade. This is an elegant system; it ensures that players cannot buy power and that no single weapon is invalidated by a newer one. Tribes: Ascend falls short in providing this sort of level playing field. Many of the initial weapons are weak or lacking in versatility, a problem most evident for the soldier class. A player is basically required to discard the soldier’s paltry assault rifle for a heavy hitting spinfusor (a weapon carrying a whopping 42,000 experience point price tag) at the earliest possible opportunity. The plodding rate of experience gain coupled with the omnipresent plugging of the cash store in the game’s interface adds insult to injury. The skeleton of a solid freeto- play game is there, but weapon imbalances hurt the integrity of the model.
Visually speaking, there’s not a lot to complain about in Tribes: Ascend. Although the tried and true space marine aesthetic does little to distinguish the game from its competitors, Hi-Rez Studios’ art direction is top notch. Each of the weapons, vehicles, and sets of armour is crisply modeled and share a consistent visual flavour. The alien environments are specifically lush and varied, providing an excellent backdrop for the high speed action. My sole complaint lies with the map design. The need to accommodate the skiing mechanic has lead the developers to eschew landmarks and eye-catching set pieces in favour of endless vistas of smooth hills and slopes. The lack of clear visual cues coupled with the expansive map size makes it easy to get lost, and the game does little to funnel new players in the right direction.
Tribes: Ascend is not for everyone. The blinding movement speed, slow experience grind, and open maps are hallmarks of a game designed with the competitive player in mind. In the world of Tribes: Ascend, twitch reflexes are king and the weak are quickly culled from the herd. That being said, I still managed to have a blast with the first-person shooter despite my crippling lack of ability in the genre. If Hi-Rez Studios can iron out a few nagging problems before release – specifically with weapon balance – I feel that Tribes: Ascend has a bright future ahead of it.