April 13, 2012 by Tim

I remember playing Starsiege: Tribes when it was first released, back when the only internet was dial-up and PC games still came in these enormous, oversized boxes. The way Tribes handled objective-based matches, along with protecting/invading bases, all on top of a cool sci-fi setting had me totally hooked. It added “shazbot” to my vocabulary, and the thrum of spinfusors is a sound I’ll never forget.

Unfortunately the two sequels, Tribes 2 and Tribes: Vengeance never quite grabbed me the same way. I don’t recall them being necessarily bad games, but I don’t think they quite captured the same essence that the first game did.

I’ve recently started playing Tribes: Ascend, though, and I may be hooked. While still not a direct translation of the game I loved all those years ago, and I do wish that certain elements were emphasized a little more (base infiltration, for instance), overall Hi-Rez studios has a pretty solid F2P title on their hands.

It’s been in beta for a little while now, but it just officially launched yesterday. Tribes: Ascend takes most of the stuff I loved about Tribes, and pumps it full of methamphetamine. The game is fast… sometimes almost too fast.

Jetpacks were always a staple of Tribes, and one of the features that gave the game its identity early on. Jetpacks make a triumphant return in Ascend, but now coupled with the ability to “ski” down sloped terrain. By turning on this ability, your character’s boots become frictionless, letting you careen down hills picking up speed. Combined with the ability to jetpack up inclines, you can really get moving across the battlefield in Tribes: Ascend. Nobody stays still for very long, making matches incredibly hectic and intense.

So far I’ve only played the Deathmatch and Capture the Flag modes, and both have their merits. Deathmatch adds a small twist in that a flag spawns during the match that a team can try to hold. While a team holds the flag, every kill they score counts double, whittling down the opposing team’s finite lives even faster. It turns the game into a healthy combination of keep away and massacre.

Capture the Flag is self-explanatory. In CTF, however, you have a base like you did in the original Tribes. Inside this base is a generator that powers all of your turrets and vehicle spawn points. If the enemy destroys this generator, you’ll lose access to all of your defenses and perks until someone from your team goes down and repairs it.

I remember in the original Tribes, this mechanic was heavily featured, to the point where you’d have certain people whose sole job it was during a match to either infiltrate and cripple the enemy’s systems, or try to defend your own. From what I’ve seen so far in Tribes: Ascend, the features your generator powers don’t make quite as big a difference in the match, so are often ignored.

This could be design, but it could also be that perhaps people don’t realize that they’re important, and therefore don’t spend their time repairing them once the defenses are destroyed. With the incredibly fast and nimble Pathfinder class, it seems like people can just fly by and nab the flag, and not generally worry about any defense turrets the enemy may have.

It’s a minor gripe, but it would be nice to see a little bit more emphasis placed on playing a defensive role. Right now it seems games of Capture the Flag are all about offense, and throwing your face at the enemy team until it so happens that you have their flag, and they’ve lost yours for a brief second.

The game is structured as a standard Free To Play title, meaning that there is no investment required to start playing, and most of the stuff in the game can be earned simply by investing the time into playing it. However, you do of course also have the option to straight up purchase some of the unlocks if you aren’t the patient type.

Three of the game’s classes are available for free, a quick scout type, a basic soldier, and one heavy gunner role. Another five or so more specialized roles are available for purchase, either through spending XP or gold coins. Each class has its own selection of weapons and addons, all of which have a huge myriad of upgrade options, again available through XP or gold coins.

Essentially there’s a great deal of content to unlock here just from the get go. You can choose one class you like, and focus on just unlocking 100% of its kit, or you can dabble across a variety of areas.

It also looks like Hi-Rez intends to offer cosmetic upgrades too, in the form of skins for the various classes, but I question the real practicality of these particular purchases. Don’t get me wrong, the character models/skins in Tribes: Ascend are gorgeous, and I don’t doubt that the custom skins will all look really cool too. However… when are you ever going to see them? Things move so fast on the battlefield that if you stand back, it often looks like a swarm of angry gnats buzzing around. You’re never standing still long enough to even notice if any of your opponents/teammates are wearing a skin.

I’ve played over a dozen matches, and I still can’t visually differentiate the default classes. Sure, you can tell if a guy is using a heavy armor class, but I doubt you’ll be able to tell which heavy armor class he’s using. You can play the game from a third-person perspective (which I find more difficult) so I guess at the very least you could see your skin if you wanted to. But I doubt many other people will notice it.

Other than that, though, it definitely looks like they’re set up to offer a wide variety of upgrades and unlockables in the future. Currently the only tribes available are the Blood Eagles and the Diamond Sword, with no sign of the Starwolf or Children of the Pheonix tribes. I’m not sure if they were just deigned unnecessary for what amounts to a two-team conflict, or if they might be added at a later date. It also looks like Ranked matches will be available in the near future.

In the meantime, the game is newly launched, so it’s a great time to get into it. It’s free, it’s fun (if a little frantic), and it looks gorgeous. If you’re itching for a fast-paced shooter with some solid features and jetpacks, give it a look.

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