Tribes: Ascend is being lauded by many in the PC FPS gaming community as the “fastest” and most “skillful” FPS game released in years. I decided recently to give it a shot when some friends suggested installing it. I gave it a try for awhile and I figured I’d write up my thoughts on this game. For example gameplay, watch this video with terrible dubstep music:
My first exposure to Tribes: Ascend was actually during one of the Spoiler Warning hangouts where Josh fired up the game and Shamus lambasted it with the banal sexist criticism for being a militaristic fantasy game populated by mostly men. I don’t know much about the lore of the Tribes universe but I do know enough to understand that the premise of the game is that mankind has broken up into various warring “Tribes” spread out across the galaxy, and that the game’s flavor is intended to be a blend of futuristic technology and naturalistic social structure.
That aside, lets get down to the gameplay. Tribes: Ascend is a game about jetpack wearing soldiers who hop around large environments and can “ski” on frictionless fields that allow them to jet across landscapes at breakneck speeds. The primary weapon of these soldiers is a “Spinfusor” – An explosive disc that you’re intended to hit your target with mid-air. To me the spirit of Tribes comes down to two main elements: Mastering movement by skiing through terrain, and mastering aimed shots at high speeds with your ballistic weaponry. Tribes is definitely a game that requires a lot of skill to master, and both main elements of the game are rewarding — Mastering movement allows you to ski along the terrain at breakneck speeds, and mastering targeting rewards you with kills (and kills are not easy to come by in this game compared to other shooters).
The primary gametype of Tribes: Ascend is your basic Capture the Flag. The skiing mechanic of Tribes changes how the game is played: Flag captures are often at high speeds, with enemy players skiing down mountains in the rear of your base and then exploding out into the midfield breezing past stationary defense. This interaction creates a dynamic in Tribes where your best bet to actually return your flag is not to sit in your base and defend (as in many games) but to fly around the battlefield at high speeds until you can try to intercept a flag carrier. Tribes also includes different “classes” of soldiers, covering your basic archetypes like “Light” “Medium” “Heavy” and a variety of different niches in between.
Lets get to some real talk here. Tribes: Ascend is not the “fastest” FPS game released in years. People who make that claim are generally confusing “fast gameplay” with “fast movement.” Tribes: Ascend has fast movement, but this does not necessarily translate into fast gameplay. My time in Tribes: Ascend is best described as “meditative.” That’s not to say it’s not fun and engrossing — It is. But killing an enemy in Tribes takes a great deal more effort than in other casual-friendly games. That doesn’t mean Tribes: Ascend is unfriendly to casual gamers either, but it does mean that you won’t be getting that crazy Call of Duty experience where you can wave your gun in the general direction of an enemy and get a kill. Tribes: Ascend is an enjoyable game at all skill levels, but has a high skill cap.
Tribes: Ascend is a game I have had some fun with and look forward to playing. But it also has a number of missteps that just don’t make a whole lot of sense to me. If you start playing the game one of the first things you’ll notice is that there’s quite a few classes and pieces of equipment locked that you don’t have access to. The game, like many other games of this generation, has a progression system where you earn levels and can “unlock” certain weapons as you progress. I’ve seen this in other games and it’s not that big a deal in itself, but the big problem is that Tribes: Ascend is a so-called “Free to Play” game and the progression of unlocks is incredibly poor unless you want to pay real money. If you expect to unlock everything in this game, you’ll end up paying a few hundred dollars. Your alternative is to spend ages unlocking everything — Just to give you an idea, many of the weapons that you can unlock via in-game experience cost 88000 points. However you only gain a few hundred points from any game (this is based on a linear time-in-game to experience points valuation). I will probably never unlock any 88000 point item, and I have no desire to grind in a game like this which is supposed to be a competitive, high-skilled game.
You’ll also notice that a lot of the things you can unlock in Tribes: Ascend don’t fit the core gameplay. Tribes: Ascend is a game about playing Capture the Flag while skiing along with your jetpack and shooting people with explosive discs. But each of the bases in Tribes: Ascend features automated base-defense turrets, radar, and vehicle manufacturing posts, and ammo stations powered by a base generator. But none of the base elements aside from the ammo stations are useful — And even the ammo stations can be completely obviated by killing yourself and respawning seconds later. These features in Tribes: Ascend are part of an entirely pointless minigame of generator offense/defense that distracts and detracts from the core Capture the Flag gameplay.
The question you have to ask when you look at many of the things is “Do these additions make for a better game?” And the result in most cases is no. Almost all of the most irritating elements in Tribes: Ascend don’t meaningfully contribute to the game’s Capture the Flag gameplay. They’re there just because they can be. One of the classes you can unlock in the game is the Technician, who has an improved repair gun (it shoots electrical healing at mechanical stuff), can place turrets, and has some other abilities. But the primary role of this class is just to stand around holding left mouse button repairing defenses and covering the base. Why? Why, in a game that’s about high speed chases and awesome high-accuracy shots with ballistic weapons? And even though I don’t claim to be a huge Tribes fanatic, I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. A quick trip over to the HiRez Tribes forums revealed high-level players promoting a “new” gametype focusing specifically on one class (Pathfinder) and limited weapon selection (Spinfusor and Rifle). It doesn’t surprise me at all to see this type of limited ruleset evolve because the actual core gameplay of Tribes is entirely encapsulated by the ruleset — The other 90% of the stuff in the game is a distraction.
The ironic thing is, for all of the distracting, detracting elements added to Tribes: Ascend, there’s a striking lack of the thing the game really needs: Maps. There are four official CTF maps, with two more being playable on custom servers. Unfortunately, of these six maps, only two are really what I’d consider good. Ultimately there just aren’t enough good maps for this game to remain compelling over a long term. Even the maps that are good have problems because other areas of the gameplay have poor design. What’s really hard to understand is why mapping is a big bottleneck for a game when the maps themselves are primarily heightmap terrain with isolated small bases placed down. With three other Tribes games already made, there’s no shortage of map ideas that have been tested and refined over the years. There’s no real excuse for this paucity of maps.
There are other problems I would like to mention, such as Physics, and maybe I will in another time. Still though, despite its problems Tribes: Ascend is a fun game to play every once in awhile if you’re craving a quick casual game of capture the flag in a high-flying sci-fi setting.