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Tribes: Ascend

Tribes: Ascend

Welcome to Gaming on the House; don’t look down and and mind your step! Each week, we’ll be climbing the rooftops of the gaming industry to seek out great experiences that everyone can track down and play, and the best part is they’ll all be free! That’s right; FREE! Gratis. Comp’d. Unbound. Unrestricted. Zero-down. On the House!… we talk about free games here, is my point.

Many may be surprised at how many fantastic games are really out there that everyone can legally enjoy with no monetary commitment. Taking together all the flash and browser games, freeware downloads from the independent scene, speed programming archives, free-to-play business modules, and even promotional re-releases from big name publishers, there’s a never ending supply of great games new and old waiting to be played, and it’s our goal to play them all! So, if you’re strapped for cash or just waiting around for that next big release to hit retail, why not give these games a try? After all, they’re free; what have you got to lose!

This week, we soar back into action with one of the greatest free-to-play games of its kind, and a return to a style of shooter that’s all but vanished in recent years.

Tribes: Ascend

It’s Blood Eagle vs. Diamond Sword… Starwolf has some weapon cameos.

Genre: vertically-inclined FPS
Link to Game: https://account.hirezstudios.com/tribesascend/
Game Info: Released in April 2012 by Hi-Rez Studios for PC and released on Steam in June. Currently on version 1.0.1082 (August 22, 2012).

I try to be selective of the free-to-play games I review within this feature. Knowing that the ultimate goal of many of these games is some eventual level of payment, I want to limit myself to the ones that you can still receive a quality experience with no money spent. As you can imagine, this cuts down the field dramatically as most entries either incorporate early level caps, or operate on a “free-to-play, pay-to-win” model. In fact, looking through my archives, I see that only one other free-to-play game has been reviewed (Champions Online, reviewed over a year ago!).

Tribes: Ascend, I think successfully gets by without being a “pay-to-win” game for a variety of reasons. First, all items excluding vanity skins are unlockable through either Gold (purchased) or XP (accrued in matches). Each of the 9 character classes (3 are unlocked from the start, with the rest being a few hours of grind each) are competent enough in the right hands with their default weapon loadouts, with most alternate weapons featuring lateral adjustments (say increasing the splash area, but reducing total damage). All active items in your loadout (weapons, armor, belt items, packs, and perks) gain XP towards their mastery and added benefits each match without requiring additional purchases. XP bonuses are also given outside of standard play to help boost you up, with medal achievements, your first team win of the day, and even “Double XP Weekends” (of which there’s been only one so far). There really is a lot you can do for free, and while there are benefits to the pay model (unlocking a weapon of choice quickly, and gaining VIP status that gives a permanent XP boost per match), how you play, and how you win is a direct result of understanding the mechanics of the game, and your ever-flowing presence on the field. As a bit of a disclaimer here, I did eventually buy up some gold myself, however that was after quite a few hours clocked in to the game and several purchases with XP alone – to give you an idea of my investment, I had already unlocked two additional classes, three additional perks, and one alternate weapon by the time I forked over any dough. I never once felt like I was on a consistent grind for XP. Why? Because the game is just that fun.

With pricing out of the way, let me tell you just how much of a joy this game is to play match after match. While I’ve seen many write off the game as a Halo clone (learn your history, guys – the original Starsiege: Tribes was out years before we ever heard of Master Chief), this game has a lot more in common with the fast paced arena shooters of yore; games like Quake III: Arena, or Unreal Tournament, where camping and cover-based fighting is prioritized far behind freedom of movement, aiming competency, and teamwork. Where the Tribes series finds its niche is the addition of player momentum with it’s definitive “Skiing” mechanic, where sliding down hills will accelerate your move speed. This mechanic, coupled with your character’s rocket pack and level maps made to highlight both, makes for a very different type of shooter; one where players are constantly in motion throughout an X, Y, and Z axis, requiring an understanding of drop physics, timing, anticipation, and strategy to get anywhere towards your goal. In most cases players are required to target where the enemy will be, rather than where they currently are ( a handful of hitscan weapons excluded, obviously). As a result of this, kills are more infrequent in Tribes: Ascend than most other FPS games on the market, but the ones your do receive are far more rewarding.

Panoramic views and a clean HUD; who could ask for more?

Where Tribes really finds its footing is in its high-flying take on “Capture the Flag,” and Tribes: Ascend is no different. While the game features several other standard modes of team play (deathmatch, arena, capture and hold), it’s Capture the Flag that allows for each available class to come into their own, taking on beneficial roles on the field while never fully being required to adhere to them. Infiltrators, with their stealth packs and sticky mines are best suited for sneaking into bases and destroying generators (which power things like radar, turrets, and deployable belt items), yet they also can prove annoying enough on the field to lure away flag defenses. Pathfinders are best suited for flag cappers, but their speed is well suited for chasing down enemy cappers as well. Doombringers may offer the best line of flag defense, but can also defend generators or wreak general havok most anywhere. In finding a class of choice, it is always beneficial to understand your role on the field, but you should not feel bound to it, and should prioritize your actions accordingly depending on how the match is proceeding.

The ultimate goal of each round is obtaining 5 flag captures, however there will (or rather, there should) always be a variety of actions taking place at any given moment. There will be fighting inside and outside both bases, 1-on-1 dueling taking place in the midfield, people destroying and repairing base structures, people setting up for high-speed flag runs, and many people typing in various preset field commands (to be honest, I find this less annoying than voice chat). Each of these actions are being completed with constant eyes on the terrain, focusing on where to ski, where to jet, and where to aim, with perfection and glory coming in the form of grace, artistry, and of course speed. It’s a thing of beauty and personal accomplishment to successfully complete a 360 km/h flag grab, or to turn around mid-air, chuck a grenade, and keep going only to see your kill credit show up seconds later. Some feats achieved during the game can be so incredible that you end up appreciating when they are completed on either side of the field, and being a part of it only inspires you to push even harder for the good of your team, not just for yourself. I once got dropped in a flag run by a Juggernaut who seemed like he was nearly halfway across the field, and honestly, I couldn’t help but be impressed. Not impressed enough to unfulfill my revenge by switching to an infiltrator to playfully launch him in the air with a sticky grenade in tow right after it, but still, I was impressed!

I find it’s these little extra moments of complex perfection that summarize the game’s quality the best. Tribes: Ascend is a game of skill and understanding, and in appreciating that, higher-level matches often unfold with a fair amount of respect along with subtle humiliation, almost as though an unwritten code of ethics is at play (almost!!!). If you see a pair of players dueling over the hill, let them be.  Try to avoid llama grabs. Spawn camping is a waste of time that would be better spent elsewhere. If your team is up 4-0, send in a heavy for “fatfinding” the last flag run for the prestige. If you encounter a static player, it is your imperative to melee that noob until he/she learns to keep moving (side note: there should be an accolade for calling in a supply drop on top of them… it’s hilarious).

Shhh, There’s a sniper in that tree. He’s about to catch a spinfusor disk the hard way.

The game is fun, and a giant leap back in the right direction for the Tribes series, the previous installment (Tribes: Vengeance) falling flat. It’s also one of the fastest FPS games on the market, offering a very differently focused take on the genre in relation to the popular mainstays. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge a few of the differences between this game and Tribes 2, which many Tribers still look to as the pinnacle of the series (rightfully so). There are a few things that feel like missed opportunities for Tribes: Ascend that exist beyond the frustrations of the free-to-play business model. Weapon loadouts are no longer completely customizable across the board, with only a few weapon types dedicated to each class. Random matches can be frustrating at times with imbalanced teams, as being on the losing side of a pathetic 3-minute slaughter match is insufferable. Also perhaps a victim of new audience types in random matches, automatic weapons are more frequently found in place of projectile weapons like the series trademark spinfusers. Vehicles are also somewhat of an afterthought, I suppose; some people seem to like them, but they often come off more as targets than weapons. And this may just be the meters rather than anything else, but I swear top-speeds in Tribes 2 were faster. Despite these gripes, I can’t help but think I haven’t had as much fun playing a FPS in years, and with thanks to some tweaks from Hi-Rez in balancing out a few weapons over the past few months, it’s worth noting to beta players that the game is now better than ever.

Tribes: Ascend is worth a go for anyone wanting a bit more movement in your FPS, and even worth a try if FPS games aren’t really your thing. If you don’t wish to take part in the fairly steep learning curve of acclimatizing to the projectile weapons, you may end up finding just as much enjoyment being a flag capper, a gener-hater, or an on-call defender and repairman. With a bit of research, you can choose to invest your XP smartly to build a competent loadout (I recommend focusing on classes and perks moreso than weapons at first, as they can really determine your style) for a certain role or two on the field while keeping the game free of charge. It’s really only if you want to max out your class’s abilities or if you wish to play competently as several classes that you really need to consider dropping some cash (moreso for the VIP bonus than the gold itself, I’d add). Just remember, it doesn’t necessarily matter how much money you invest in the game; if you don’t put in the time to follow the game’s rather steep learning curve, you’ll still be coming up short against the more frequent Tribers out there.

Shazbot!

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