Today’s young shooter fans may not realize the influence Tribes has had on games like Halo. The high-flying, vehicle driving, team-based antics of Tribe’s original outings have a lot to do with the Halo we’re familiar with today. The Tribes series has been on hiatus since the last game released in 2004, but with Tribes: Ascend, it’s back to reclaim its throne – or at least sit alongside other competing first-person online shooters.
Tribes: Ascend is a free-to-play game, which is surprising considering how rich an experience it is. I never found myself apologizing for the game or saying, “Oh well. It’s free, so I can’t complain,” because the game feels like a full retail release minus a single-player campaign. You can spend real money to speed up the process of gaining experience, unlock new loadouts and character classes, or customize your character with skins, but patient players never need to break out their wallets. You can unlock the same content as the paying customers with experience earned by playing. The process just takes considerably longer.
The unlocks to keep you going are worthwhile incentives, offering bigger and better weapons, and an assortment of additional classes and modes. There are nine classes in total, with many familiar ones if you ever spent time with a game like Team Fortress. The standard, well-rounded soldier (the one I ended up having the most fun with) is an option, as well as classes that can build turrets, employ stealth, snipe, move faster than everyone else, and heavy hitters who are slower, but have powerful weapons. The classes all appeal to your personal preference, so one is not necessarily better than the other, but each offers a different experience. Once you find your class groove, you can continually upgrade your character, and it’s easy to jump class to class if you’re getting bored.
The main draw of Tribes: Ascend is the mobility. Holding the spacebar deactivates friction, allowing you to slide down hills at impressive speeds. Using the hills as your own personal rollercoaster is an art, gliding down the surfaces and jetpacking your way up. You need precise timing to gain full speed, and when you get the hang of it, it can be an exhilarating experience.
The stages are built to facilitate this unique movement, which means the large maps don’t feel like they have been designed to foster interesting warzones. You don’t feel like you are partaking in individual battles; everybody is trying to snipe one another while they move around the map at full speed. It has a decidedly old-school feel to it, which may turn some players off. I would have liked to see more maps encouraging closer combat, since it’s harder to build rivalries from game to game when you are fighting speeding blurs.
All of the modes are of the team versus team variety. You’ll never be skiing around worrying exclusively about your own skin. You will be grabbing flags, holding down forts, and adding to your team’s total kill count. Not all the modes are available at the beginning, further encouraging continued play. These unlockable modes are where you find the motivated players who have put extra time into the game and are more interested winning than seeing if they can be at the top of the kill count on their team.
Getting a kill in Tribes: Ascend is hard. It takes many shots, and a lot of determination. You will rarely get the jump on somebody because of how fast everything is moving. You need to either chase down your foe and fire into their moving bodies, or aim for their feet with explosive weapons. The nature of the movement and the distance in the gunplay gives the shooting a floaty feel. None of your weapons or bullets feel like they have a lot of weight or power behind them. As such, getting a kill is a time-consuming, yet rewarding experience that is a welcome change from the “pull left trigger, pull right trigger, move on” twitch shooting of a game like Call of Duty. You also have grenades and a melee attack, but using either effectively is difficult.
One of the strange outcomes of being a quality free-to-play title that both helps and hinders the game is the large number of people playing. There are always be people to shoot at in Tribes: Ascend because of its low entry barrier, but it also means everyone is running and gunning on their own, despite the fact that all the available modes are team based. I never felt any allegiance to my team outside of not shooting at them when they crossed my path. Over time the casual players may abandon the game leaving more room for a more committed crowd, but until then you’ll want to bring a friend along to help build some camaraderie on your team.
Ascend feels like an old-school shooter but is able to be nostalgic and innovative at the same time. Speed and scale are what set Tribes: Ascend apart from comparable shooters. There’s a barrier to entry gaining access to all the classes, learning how to “ski” properly, and generally fending for yourself in the beginning, but it’s worth the time investment.