I was asked to write about why Tribes: Ascend is great. I want to tell you why Tribes: Ascend is beautiful.
I don’t want any of you to underestimate how important that feel is to the sum of Tribes: Ascend’s beautiful whole. In Tribes, you don’t move – you dance. Every dash for a flag is a smooth supersonic slide, every escape from a booby trapped generator room is a ballet. There is something hypnotic about the way the characters in Tribes: Ascend interact with each other. They chase, swarm, assist and duel. It’s like watching the behaviour of animals in nature. It’s so beautiful.
From a hilltop, watching the battle taking place below, it’s like seeing birds in flight.
I said “characters” earlier, and that might have confused some of you. Tribes: Ascend is a free-to-play multiplayer FPS. But that doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t have characters. Every single match does, because the structure of Tribes: Ascend creates a narrative. Every player has a role, and every death has a story attached. Let me explain.
Unlike most multiplayer FPS games, Tribes lets you choose your function in each game. Let’s say you’re bad at one-on-one duels with opponents. Maybe you panic when you get in those kind of situations. You could decide to be the guy who hangs back at the base, building turrets and repairing stuff. If that radar goes down, you could be the guy who brings it back on-line. And that radar enables other players to see enemy invaders. Nothing you choose to do in Tribes is inconsequential. A victory is a genuine team effort. You will matter, and other players will know your name. And when you die? Every time you die in Tribes, it happened while you were doing something. Most other FPS games have you dying while you’re busy just trying not to die. Tribes has you falling while chasing a flag, or upgrading a turret, or making a suicide run on a generator room. Many little stories for many different characters, meeting many different ends.
But it’s when two of these characters meet on the battlefield that Tribes truly ascends.
There’s a wonderful Ridley Scott film called The Duellists. In that film, two characters challenge each other to a series of duels, taking place over decades. Every chance encounter results in a duel. In Tribes, you will form many relationships just like that. You will know their name. And when you see them, and they see you, you will find a place to dance.
Each Tribes map is large, with lots of space to explore. Most of that space features hills and plains, where Pathfinders can work up their speed, skiing towards the flags. There’s another reason for all that space to exist, though. It’s there so that duellists can find a little bit of privacy to do their dance. When you and your enemy meet, one of you will make a leap to the side – out towards the silence of the hills. That movement is an invitation. It’s a jump away from the rest of the narrative, a jet pack thrusting a character into a side-story.
These one-on-one duels, the pace and the beauty of them, are unique to Tribes. When two good players duel, it’s not just a test of accuracy. It’s not just about the gunplay. The fundamental basics are, of course, an understanding of the physics of the game. But after that, everything else is bluff, elegance, confidence and show. Every moment is a decision. In Tribes, you don’t shoot at where someone is. You shoot at where they will be in a moment’s time. This dance isn’t just about your own footwork – it’s about knowing every step, twirl and flourish your partner will make. It is a game within a game. If Tribes: Ascend was just a two player duel game, it would already be something special. Something deep, rich and zen. Bushido Blade with jetpacks.
But Tribes: Ascend is so much more than that.
The game offers many modes, but they are all a sideshow to the best Capture The Flag mode in gaming. The CTF match is so simple that it can end in a minute, if one team is all at sea and the other is on point from the start. If you don’t establish a defence, the Pathfinders will leave you broken and breathless. These Pathfinders, flying across the map like sentient bullets, define the entire game. Tribes is a game of speed. If you are a slow class, like the Brute, your role is as an enemy of speed. You disrupt the dance. You change the tone. You send those up-tempo Pathfinders home with the most unromantic slow dance ever performed.
Learning to hit something moving unbelievably fast is the thing that separates great Tribes players from good ones. Reading the landscape, and understanding where that living rocket might be in two seconds time, is as difficult as it sounds. When it clicks, you feel like Superman. A Superman who landed in a bastard’s farm, and grew up a murderer. Here, though, is another place where the beauty of Tribes: Ascend becomes crystal clear.
When you fail, you admire your enemy.
It’s jaw-dropping when you are standing by a heavily protected flag, and a player just rockets past, taking the flag with them. Often, you turn and they are out of sight, over a hill. Your own chasers take flight, like birds exploding into the air after a gunshot. It’s such an exhilarating thing to be a part of that it barely even feels like the defeat that it is. Tribes is a game that encourages daring acts, and encourages the players to respect them. In one game, I blasted into an enemy building, dropped grenades, fired some shots, destroyed turrets, killed about six players, and was out of the back door without once stopping. I was over the hill before the sixth man had dropped. A player who had just died in that atrocity typed one word into chat: “Beautiful”.
I haven’t really spoken about the fact that this game is free to play, or about the way experience is gained, or about buying gold to unlock stuff quickly. I feel that too much of the talk around this game has been about the way the monetized element is structured. What is being lost is that there is a game out there right now that is the very best of its type, and is a celebration of everything a PC game can be.
If you’re currently up on a hilltop looking down on all of us, trying to decode the mystical messages in our flight patterns, I beg you to ski on down that hill into the fray. Come fly with us.
It will be beautiful.