Tribes: Ascend is finally out of beta and ready to welcome all-comers in free-to-play jetpack combat. Is it enough to be the series' true successor though, or just another casualty of its own reputation? We sent Richard screaming through the air to find out.
Mostly, Wot I Think when playing Tribes: Ascend is "Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!" It's a game of speed and jetpacks, of aerodynamic combat and the satisfaction of launching a perfect hit on a distant dot. There are games where you can just run around and spam bullets like a crazy-person and end up at the top of the leader board like some king or queen of awesomeness.
Tribes: Ascend is not one of those games. Just look at its most famous weapon, the Spinfusor - a slow-moving projectile that doesn't even hit particularly hard, and seems custom-built to be rubbish against fast moving enemies zooming round on every axis of movement. Score your first aerial kill though and you'll see exactly why so many people love its glorious blue silliness. This is a game of skill and precision, where teamwork is critical and points have to be earned.
That it's turned out so well is a genuinely wonderful surprise. Tribes is one of Those Licenses - if not the first multiplayer game that much of its audience played, then at least one of the first team-shooters that showed the joy of going online and racking up a parent-quaking phone-bill. As Irrational Games found with Tribes: Vengeance, recreating that magic isn't easy.
With Tribes: Ascend, it's fair to say that while earlier beta versions were decent, they weren't quite there. Skill based weapons like the spinfusor sat next to much less involved kit like hitscan based pistols for instance. Throughout the process though, developers Hi-Rez Studios have outdone themselves with their responsiveness to community feedback, constantly tweaking and changing elements and creating something special regardless of whether you're a Tribes newcomer or a more established fan. Most importantly, not only is Tribes: Ascend one of the first games designed to be free-to-play that's worth playing regardless of the lack of a price-tag, it's one that comes with every bit as much spit and polish and love as any commercial shooter.
While it offers several modes, like regular Team Deathmatch and Capture and Hold, Tribes lives and dies on the CTF battlefield. Two teams, two bases, two flags. Between them, a seemingly endless expanse of hills and mountains and scope for clever play. If you're a flag-capturer, you'll see it as a blur - your jetpack hurling you through the air, your feet ski-ing down slopes as you hold down the key that sticks two fingers up at the concept of friction. If you're a Juggernaut, those hills are where you deliver explosive packages from incredible distances. Technicians busy themselves on the homefront, keeping the generators going that power your defences. Soldiers... do whatever needs to be done, with a spinfusor and a smile. A spinfusor, anyway. With nine classes to choose from, there's a fun role for every style of play.
If you've never played Tribes before, expect a few frustrating games to start off with. Your jetpack often seems designed to run out of puff exactly a split-specond before you reach the high-ground, and weapons like the spinfusor take serious practice. Not all combat is at long range, but much of it is, and even most of the weapons with splash damage offer relatively little margin for error considering the aerial nature of the combat. It's probably best to leap into Team Deathmatch mode first, just to get the feel of things, before stepping up to full-on Capture the Flag where turrets, vehicles, base defences and attacking power generators come into play.
Even at your worst though, you should be able to see light at the end of the tunnel, and be confident that you're not losing simply because the other guy dropped a billion quid in the store. For all the upgrades you can buy and unlock over time, the only reason skill isn't the name of the game is that "Tribes: Ascend" apparently had more of a ring to it. Marketing, eh?
Here's an example of the Spinfusor in action. In case it's not obvious, a blue-plate special is killing an enemy in mid-air. It is not the easiest thing to do, to put it mildly... though is still a bit easier than enduring this godawful music for the full five minutes. Shudder.
The only real catch is that managing all the complexity can be tricky, partly because of how much your team has to handle, but mostly for the lack of integrated voice chat. At least, so far. On the plus side, this means not being shouted at by the usual screaming waste of semen that infests most online shooters. It does however make instantly responding to an incoming flag-carrier zooming in at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light trickier than it might be, with your main communication method being a short-cut tree of barks like "Need! Covering fire!" and "Warning! Enemies!" that still soak up valuable split-seconds of your attention.
In most cases, the counter to this is that with good play, you should be able to react to most situations on the fly. An Infiltrator going lone-wolf may still knock out the generators that help the flag-catcher get past turrets, while a Juggernaut doesn't need specific back-up to hurl attacks. It helps that the basic classes you get for free are the most suited for simply pitching in and doing your best, with the more advanced paid options serving more specialist roles like infiltration and holding your ground rather than being pure upgrades. You don't have to top the leaderboard to make a solid contribution, and it's tough to be a major drag on your team outside of the special 5v5 Arena mode (which is probably why you have to reach Level 8 to take part in it).
In short, while the level of skill required to play well is much higher than most shooters, there's no need to be scared off by the challenge. At least at the moment, there's room for everyone on the maps in at least the more general roles, the player community has been friendly enough on almost all the rounds I've played since joining the beta, and there's nothing quite like the feeling when you start landing hits on a regular basis and can count yourself as a battle-hardened Tribesman/not quite the cack-handed newbie you once were. Delete as appropriate.
Right. So, how much will all this free goodness actually cost? Essentially, not much, and even a free player can be competitive, though you will end up spending money at some point. Not much though, and everything you do buy, aside from XP booster packs, you get to keep.
Most importantly, despite the amount of stuff in the store, most of it can be safely ignored. You'll soon figure out what role suits you, from flag-capturing to defence, and can focus on that rather than actually having to buy everything. You can also try any class before you buy it via he Training mode, which includes a full set of target drones to play with. It's not a Skirmish or anything though - they just stand, jump and run in circles rather than fighting back.
Three of the nine classes are available up front - Pathfinder, Soldier and Juggernaut, filling the Light, Medium and Heavy archetypes - and each get something in every weapon slot to start you out. Others can be bought up-front for gold or earned with XP, though just biting the bullet and paying is usually best. Not only does XP take a long time to build, it's the only currency you can upgrade gear with. Put in context, buying the Soldier's iconic Spinfusor costs 42,000 XP points, or 240 gold. Upgrading it to max level (giving you extra ammo and bonus damage to armoured targets) costs 7,800 XP. You can see where your points are best spent...
XP can be used to purchase almost everything, though there are a few exceptions - bundle packs, boosters and skins are gold only. Classes range from 160 to 280 gold, though their weapons vary dramatically in price. A Raider's grenade launcher for instance is currently 240 gold, while the Juggernaut's MIRV clocks in at a whopping 780. Annoyingly, there's no in-game way to see the prices for equipment without actually buying the class. As an example though, to fully kit out your Soldier (which you don't necessarily have to do!), you're looking at:
240 gold for the Spinfusor
240 for the Eagle Pistol
420 for the Proximity Grenade
240 for the Anti-Personnel Grenade
240 for the Utility Pack
...making for 1380 gold in total. There are also two sets of Perks shared between all of your classes which clock in at 160 each/2800 for the lot - though you can only have two active at once, and not all will fit your class role. If you play Infiltrator, you can safely skip Super Heavy for instance, while only a flag-capturer needs the extra reach of... well... Reach.
In actual money terms, gold costs $9.99 for 800, $29.99 for 3000 and $50 for 5000 - the last two coming with a free XP booster pack. Buying any gold at all also makes you a Tribes VIP and gives you a lifetime 50% boost on any XP earned in-game that will make it considerably faster to buy your unlocks. Put simply, while you will need to spend some money to get the most out of Tribes: Ascend, focus on a couple of roles and it doesn't have to be very much.
Oh, and no. At the moment, there are no hats to wear into battle.
Should this change however, I demand a "SHAZBONNET!"
As far as missing features go, only two really jump out - dedicated servers and proper ranking. Both are due to be added, though you won't be able to host your own games as such. Instead, you'll have to rent them from within the game. You can check out the options here, but I've not seen any pricing information on how much it's going to cost to get one when they go live. In the interim though, simply playing with friends is a bit of a nuisance - not least because there's no way to even guarantee getting onto the same team when you join a game.
On the whole though, Tribes: Ascend itself is good to go and well-worth checking out. It promises to have a solid future with new maps and modes, and its handling of free-to-play purchases at least feels fair. It's a great shooter, fantastic multiplayer fun, and while it's certainly not afraid to put its own spins on the classic Tribes template, it's more than worthy of its name.