Tribes: Ascend is a game about leaping off a cliff, hitting your jetpack at exactly the right moment to build momentum, then skiing across the whole map while hurling explosive discs at equally zippy pursuers. Backwards. It's also one of Those franchises. You know the ones I mean. The ones with an army of fans fueled by nostalgia and high-explosives, ready to set fire to anything that dares even think about taking the name of their beloved game in vain.
But is Ascend a brave new start for the series, or just so much free-to-play kindling? I pulled my jetpack out of storage and ventured into the Not-Quite-Closed Beta to find out...
Like most Tribes fans, the original game has a special place in my heart - specifically, just past the third aortic valve. It wasn't my first online shooter, but it was the first my crappy internet connection let me really get into. "Come for the jetpacks," I remember hearing it whisper. "Stay for the scale. Oh, and feel free to slip that Starsiege disc I came bundled with into the microwave. Nobody's going to give a squitty little crap about that in a couple of months time."
Playing Tribes: Ascend's current maps and modes, I can safely say I don't feel the kind of geek-rage that resulted in what our in-house therapist now calls "The Syndicate Incident". That said, my memories of it are more a warm fuzzy cloud of "Wooo! Jetpacks!" and "This is actually playable on my rubbish modem!" than specifics of its balance system or map design. I played Tribes 2 for a bit, but not as much as the original. Most damningly in the eyes of the series' fans, I even... gulp... enjoyed the much despised Tribes: Vengeance back in 2004, if only for the novelty of its neat character-swapping single-player campaign. (I know. I'm sorry.)
With all this in mind, here's how things stand: Hi-Rez still has some way to go before launch if it wants Ascend to match its predecessors, but I've been enjoying it on both its own terms, and as a sequel - if not to the point of paying to unlock anything in its item store. As for how it compares to its upcoming semi-competitor Firefall, I have no idea. I've not played that one yet. They're two very different games though, with Firefall embracing open-world action and PvE, and Tribes: Ascend sticking firmly to the series' roots as a round-based team combat game.
If you want to get in on the Closed Beta, you have three basic routes - ask a friend who's already in to give you a key, if they have one, find a site giving them away, or
buy pre-order a £20/$30 copy for guaranteed admission, along with 3,000 futuristic funbucks to spend in-game and some other bits and pieces. Without paying up, you only get access to two of the 12 classes - Ranger and Soldier - and have to unlock the others with gold (520 for most right now) or playing roughly a billion rounds to earn enough in-game credit. On the plus side, anything you unlock will remain yours after launch, along with any ranks and progression in each class.
The problem with this approach is obvious. With only two classes as freebies, and only one of them wielding Tribes' iconic Spinfusor gun, maps have a tendency to end up as Soldier-fests, with only a handful in the games I've played going for more situationally relevant ones like the mortar-hurling Juggernaut. Soldier is a perfectly good class, and buying the others absolutely no guarantee of victory, but the core Capture The Flag game, complete with vehicles and bases to defend, just isn't the same without a wide spread of character classes around you.
It's largely because of this that I've been drawn far more to the drop-in friendly Team Deathmatch mode instead. This gives both factions a stockpile of lives, with a 2X bonus for the team that holds the flag at any given time. This adds a sense of focus while not requiring anything in the way of team co-ordination - people naturally gravitate to the flag carrier, while engaging in impromptu high-speed duels over the blandly attractive terrain maps.
Every class gets its own load-out, with weapons ranging from sniper rifles to futuristic machine guns. For Soldiers though, Tribes continues to belong to the Spinfusor - which is odd, because it's about the stupidest, most poorly conceived weapon in the history of everything. In fact, in any real world situation, even suggesting it be built would result in the creator being taken out and shot. In the Tribes-verse though, its introduction apparently went something like this...
"Sir! I've finished the new gun. I call it... the Spinfusor."
"Excellent! With this, we shall finally crush the Diamond Sword! Or Blood Eagles! Whichever one we aren't! Frankly, I can't remember myself most of the time! Tell me, is it all I hoped for?"
"Uhhh. Maybe? It's a spectacularly slow projectile designed for hitting enemies with jetpacks who are travelling at high speeds in three dimensions. For safety reasons, it also has very limited splash damage, and doesn't even hurt all that much if you get hit in the face with it. Also, its ammo is so big and bulky, our Soldiers will only get a few shots from it."
"I... see. Well, your death probably won't be torturous, but..."
"Did I mention it fires those glowing blue disc things from Tron?"
"WE SHALL MAKE IT OUR SIGNATURE WEAPON!"
Luckily, being stupid as hell doesn't mean it's not incredibly fun to use. Hitting enemies from a distance requires incredible precision/good luck that can be put down to incredible precision, and the fact you usually have to get in two or three solid hits makes it all the more satisfying to win. Duels are huge, spiralling and chaotic, forcing you to stay off the ground as much as possible (since that makes you much more likely to be hit by splash damage) while still tracking and predicting enemy movement. A good kill is a thing of beauty, especially in the rare occasions you get to turn and pop someone right out of the air. This is known as a Blue Plate Special, and the pop-up notification when you get one is sweeter than any sack of bonus points.
Along with jetpacks and the Spinfusor, the defining Tribes mechanic is the ability to ski around levels at insanely fast speeds. Most spawn locations in the maps make a point of starting you on a hill to make it easy to get your speed up, as well as providing you with an at-a-glance view of where the action is happening and where your skills will be most appreciated.
To ski, you simply jump down and hold the spacebar to be freed from the evil bitch that is friction, making judicious use of your jetpack to fly up hills and leap over obstacles. Momentum is retained whichever direction you look in, making it
easy possible to shoot pursuers if you're holding a flag, or spin to strafe a flag-carrier as you both hurtle across the map. Grab it yourself, and you're immediately thrust into a mix of Sonic the Hedgehog, Starship Troopers and playground tag - especially in Team Deathmatch, where the question isn't whether you can hold onto it, but how long you can evade your pursuers before your luck runs out.
As with almost everything in Tribes, it takes time to get the hang of this - but that just makes it more meaningful to finally clamber up the competency curve and start scoring points. Those points also pay your way into the more advanced tools at your disposal, like buying vehicles and calling in an orbital strike from anywhere that gives you line-of-sight on the target.
The downside of the combat style is that it tends to distance you from your enemies, to the point that you don't leap into battle against Infiltrators and Juggernauts so much as little red dots. Killing those little red dots feels good, but it's a thrill destined to fade as you get more comfortable with the weapons and being awesome becomes less of an Event.
Original Tribes made up for this slight disconnect with its focus on team-play, though it still remains to be seen if enough people will stump up the cash/time to make that as enjoyable this time around. Tribes: Ascend's use of a League of Legends style free-to-play model makes sense, but only having 12 classes to parcel out compared to that game's 41,540,329 different champions seems like it could be a problem for a game designed around the assumption that people would just be able to jump in and play the different roles as required. There's still time to fix that though, as well as adding other money-sinks like cosmetic character options, which could allow for more class choice up front if balance proves an issue after launch.
As for the pre-order option, it's not a bad deal if you already know you'll be playing Ascend. The gold will help unlock the majority of the classes for you up-front, as well as give you a handy booster pack that lets you unlock their individual talent trees considerably faster. These don't seem to radically change your role, but give you upgrades you'll want, like an extra 10 Spinfusor shots, or extra running speed, all paid for by experience won for winning games.
For the cost of it though, I'd advise trying to get a free closed beta code before committing yourself. It's an enjoyable game, but one that's definitely not going to appeal to everyone. There'll be an open beta a bit closer to the game's release in 2012, which will both hopefully have more maps, and have given early players plenty of time to unlock the other classes. That's when we'll really see how well Ascend lives up to the Tribes legacy, and if its world of jetpacks and flying discs can win over a whole new generation of Eagles and Sworders.