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Wish You Were Here -Tribes Ascend

It’s been almost nine years since Tribes: Vengeance (2004). The series started with Starsiege: Tribes in 1998, and gained modest popularity part in thanks to its unique (and initially unintentional) movement system.

While Vengeance was decent enough, a falling out between the developer and publisher denied it its first important patch, and the franchise fell by the wayside. Much to everyone’s surprised, Global Agenda developer Hi-Rez Studios picked up the license and now we have Tribes Ascend.

A science-fiction themed first-person shooter, Tribes pulled off a decent squad-based multiplayer game with customizable weapon loadouts. The “ski” mechanic that popularized Starsiege: Tribes evolved out of exploiting the game’s rudimentary physics. After flying high into the air using your jetpack, by tapping jump at just the right time when hitting down on an angled surface, you could build up serious forward momentum. Travelling at such high speeds dramatically changed the approach to Capture The Flag.

For Tribes 2, original series developer Dynamix took the “ski” idea and ran with it. Skiing was incorporated into the movement system, bringing with it new tactics and mobility options. A feat rarely rivaled even today, Tribes 2 also supported 128 player matches (64 vs. 64), and had full bot support to fill out teams.

“FREE” TO PLAY

Tribes Ascend is very much the distilled and quintessential Tribes experience, but with one major caveat. In the same way Hi-Rez Studios manages their free-to-play first-person shooter Global Agenda, so too is Tribes Ascend a “freemium” product. It’s an online-only game, so no LAN play unfortunately. The game client is free to download and you can play its main modes (Team Deathmatch, Capture The Flag, Arena) as much as you like. However, only a few classes are unlocked from the start. To earn the rest of the classes and unlock more weapons, items and perks, you need to earn enough experience points, gained by playing.

When selecting your class and loadout, you can see clearly how much experience or gold is required to unlock content.

And here’s the trick: the experience required to unlock things is artificially high. Not unreasonably high, but just high enough to make you consider paying real money to unlock them faster. Tribes Ascend follows the popular “pay to get stuff faster” model: you can purchase packs of Gold which let you unlock what you want, right now, without having to wait.

While this may offend some, it’s not an unfair business model, considering the game has no cover charge. If you pay $60 up front to purchase gold, you get just enough to unlock most if not all of the classes and some of their weapons and perks. The game is still in beta, so some things like vanity skin packs for the player models, and additional weapons and perks, are still in development.

If you’re patient, and content with playing the starter classes until you’ve collected enough experience to unlock the rest of what you want, it’s amazing what you get while paying absolutely nothing. It all boils down to how much you’re willing to pay for your impatience. Thankfully, Hi-Rez decided to be fair and everything  (except perhaps the upcoming vanity skins) can be bought with experience.

GOTTA GO FAST

The heart of Ascend is Capture The Flag. While Team Deathmatch and Arena (5 vs. 5) are indeed popular, the focused objective of capturing and returning with the enemy flag while defending your own is where the game’s mechanics come together.

Both sides start in their “base”, which contains the flag, a few automated defense turrets, a sensor array and a generator. The defense turrets can be upgraded using credits you earn during a match, which improves their tracking ability and damage. The sensor array can also be upgrade, improving how far out it will “ping” enemies, alerting you to their location. The generator powers the turrets, sensor array and player-deployed utilities like small turrets and scramblers. If the generator is destroyed, everything goes offline and your base is highly vulnerable. You can repair the generator, turrets and so on, either by being a Technician class which starts with an improved Repair Tool by default, or by using the Repair Tool found inside the base, which replaces whatever weapon your holding when you pick it up. You have to return to an Equipment Station to get your original weapon back. Equipment Stations also go offline when there is no power due to the generator being offline.

Powered by Unreal Engine 3, the visuals are lush and detailed, with a decent framerate on modern systems. You can adjust the graphical quality to suit your tastes.

While a base does have considerable defense, including a vehicle station for ordering Grav Bikes, the flying Shrike jet or a Beowulf tank, these defenses are no match for a high-velocity player intent on grabbing your flag. Even fully upgraded, the defense turrets have a hard time shooting down someone coming in at 200+ kph.

Players need to be proactive in their offense, diligent in defense and if you have someone capable of chasing down the high-speed enemy that just took your flag, even better. The various classes all have abilities that support these various issues, such as the heavy-armour Doombringer and its Force Field deployable.

When placed, the Force Field will block incoming weapon fire and damage any enemies that pass through it, proportional to their current speed. Placed at just the right spot, the Force Field can turn an incoming high-velocity enemy into a sudden flash of red mist before you even realize their were there. It’s hilarious to watch.

There are nine classes in total, three per armour class. Each one different enough to matter, but not overly complicated to master. Experience earned in one class can be used to unlock weapons for another, while perks are global when unlocked and upgraded. Perks are permanent passive bonuses when equipped, you can equip one Primary and one Secondary Perk. Some perk effects include increasing the range at which you can grab the flag, how quickly your shield regenerates, or getting extra credits or ammo from taking out enemies.

VGCA = AWESOME

The quickest and easiest way to communicate in Ascend, if you’re not using a voice-over-IP program like TeamSpeak or Mumble, is the “Voice Game System” or “VGS”. Hitting the “V” key brings up a main list of catergories and their appropriate shortcut keys, selecting one brings up a sub-menu where appropriate, and so on, until you find what you’re looking for. Unreal Tournament and Planetside have a similar system.

Infiltrators can become invisible, and often attack your generator. The Technician class can deploy Sensors that will temporarily de-cloak the invaders.

An example would be hitting VAC (Voice, Attack, Chase) quickly, which will result in “Chase the enemy flag carrier” being sent to your team, both as a text message and as a voice sample. The text message with also include the VGS short-hand in brackets, so other players can quickly learn what button combinations results in what text. The series “swearword”, Shazbot, will likely be the first command most people learn (VGS = Voice, Global, Shazbot).

You can still type regular text messages to the global chat and to your team, but when you’re busy running away from pursuers and need to focus on where you’re going without moving your hand off the movement keys, the VGS represents a very capable system for requesting assistance (VDM = “Cover Me!”), or when you need to offload the flag to someone else (VFT = “Take the flag from me!”).

If someone abuses this system, you can mute them from the TAB key scoreboard. There is also a Spot system for calling out targets. If you’re looking at an enemy, hitting the Alt key will mark their position in 3D space in the playfield, and alert your team to their type (Light, Medium, Heavy) and where they are (“Behind our base, inside our base, in the mid-field” and so fourth).

The maps vary in design and colour scheme, from the dusty dunes of Sunstar, the lava peaks of Temple Ruins and the cool blue ice valleys of Katabatic.

GETTING UP TO SPEED

For new players, Ascend has a basic tutorial that teaches you the fundamentals of ski movement, while context-dependent tooltips pop up to let you know about other elements. If you’re looking at a Defense Turret, the tooltip will let you know they can be upgraded, and “Press G to Upgrade Turret” will appear on your HUD. A more in-depth tutorial mode explaining the various classes would be useful, but it’s unclear if Hi-Rez plans to expand the tutorial system. You can free-roam on any of the maps to explore and find good ski routes, while a Ski Jump challenge map lets you practice getting some hang-time as you hit a giant vertical target that marks how high you hit it last time your passed through it.

Learning how to move around quickly, traversing the terrain in the most optimal way, is important in Ascend. Walking around is slow, and unless you’re a heavier class defending the base, you’re going to want to be skiing everywhere. Trying to take the enemy flag while walking on the ground is considered a “llama grab”, heavily mocked by the more veteran members of the community. Hi-Rez even released a Dead Island parody trailer called Llama Island, celebrating the “llama grab”.

Overall, Ascend isn’t a difficult game to learn. There are plenty of classes to cater to a wide variety of playstyles, and when the Ranked Battle system goes online when the game leaves beta, that will move some of the more caustic elements (overly-serious gotta-win-at-all-costs players) out of the general rotation, making it easier to experiment without feeling pressured. Possibly the most difficult thing to come to grips with is learning to lead your targets by a much larger margin than is conventional.

When you and your opponent are both travelling at high speed across rolling hills, Newtonian physics have more control over your projectile weapons than you might think. When shooting an exploding disc from the Disc Launcher, its lateral movement will be influenced by your own vector. It makes for some exciting jousting though, since your opponent has the same problem to content with. There are many tricks to learn, such as using the Disc Launcher to give yourself an added boost up slopes, provided you’ve equipped Perks that negate the splash damage from the Disc exploding.

ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

Ascend isn’t complete. The Ranking system isn’t active yet, Arenas only have two maps right now, and the overall class/weapon balance could do with a lot of fiddling. The Friend system constantly has issues, such as not letting you join a game in progress that your friend is already in, and you can’t manually select which servers to join (it’s entirely automated, you select what game-type you want and it puts you in a queue).

And yet, even in its incomplete form, Ascend shows a lot of promise. One example is your personal Player Overview section which houses all your match statistics, class usage, accolades earned and (eventually) your Match History. Hopefully Hi-Rez will take this information and provide players with a web-based version, much like Call of Duty Elite.

There is no replay function yet, and it’s unclear if High-Rez aims to add one. The ability to record matches and upload them to YouTube would be amazing functionality, and let’s face it, exporting to YouTube should be a standard in all multiplayer games by now.

Even so, Tribes fans can finally play a modern take on the franchise without having to spend any money on it, and a new generation of gamers can see what all the fuss is about. The high-speed action and weird mobility won’t suit everyone, that goes without saying, but what Tribes Ascend represents is something you won’t find anywhere else.

The Tribes Ascend client is at least a 4GB download, so be warned.

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