It’s 2002 – A lone solider hurries across a barren wasteland dotted with hills and mountaintops. In the distance he spies the base he’s been ordered to reinforce. As he soars over the top of a hill, he activates his skis, and starts to gain momentum as he slides down the hill. Now he’s moving – 60, 70, 80 miles per hour, and as he rushes forward he spots an enemy Juggernaut launching mortar rounds into the base. The soldier quickly activates his jet-pack, flying through the air until he’s found the perfect angle to fire off a spinfusor disc into the enemies mid-riff, which explodes, blowing the Juggernaut to pieces.
This was my typical experience of a game of Tribes 2, nearly 10 years ago (Christ, that makes me feel old!) and today, after a ten-year hiatus, (ignoring the woefully average Tribes Vengeance in 2004), the series makes its glorious return courtesy of Hi-Rez Studios with Tribes: Ascend and best of all, it’s Free-to-Play.
The online FPS market is one of the most over-saturated gaming genres out there, with the twin behemoths of Battlefield and Call of Duty dominating the online time of most casual gamers. But what neither of those more illustrious titles can compete, and where Tribes (literally) soars, is the pure satisfaction that getting a kill in Ascend can bring, and the mind-boggling speed at which matches are run. Using a combination of your jet-pack, and the ‘skiing’ ability, duels are often conducted at an incredible pace, with both you and your enemy zooming across the expansive terrain, trying to perfectly time the shot that will blow the other into smithereens. You’ll need experience to ensure you land perfectly on slopes and take off at the right time with your jet-pack to keep your momentum going, combined with knowing exactly where your pursuer is keeps the tension and adrenaline levels high at all times.
The key to being successful at Tribes is timing. While the standard array of Assault Rifles and Chain Guns are present, most weapons use slower moving projectiles to deal damage, and trying to outwit the enemy and predict their movements is critical if you want to survive. The tactical advantage comes from activating your jet-pack when your opponent is grounded, giving you the greatest chance to score a hit on the enemy. The jet-pack has limited energy reserves, so when and where you activate it is vital – Do you gamble and stay grounded now, attempting to evade your opponents fire, and retaliate when you have enough energy to rise above him? Or do you fly up at the same time, and try to score a much more difficult mid air hit to finish him off quickly? This tactical flexibility ensures that when you get a kill in Tribes, although a less frequent occurrence than in other online FPS games, it’s an extremely satisfying and rewarding experience, as it feels like your skill and patience earned you that kill. Combine that sense of achievement whilst zipping down a hilltop at 100 mph, and you begin to see how, when at it’s best, what an intoxicating and rewarding an experience Tribes: Ascend can be.
A big part in ensuring the speed remains high is the level design, and Hi-Rez have done an excellent job in filling levels with dozens of slopes and inclines to ski off, leaving surfaces relatively free of clutter to ensure you don’t lose momentum while skiing along. There’s a broad range of locales to visit as well from the magma encrusted volcanic surfaces of Inferno, to the snowy, jagged mountainous peaks of Katabatic, which all look fantastic thanks to the Unreal Engine 3 powering the game: displaying incredible long distance views with sunlight streaming over plains, and water ripples cascading across lakes, it’s just a shame that often the action is run at such a breakneck speed, you don’t much chance to enjoy these sights.
The standard online shooter game modes are all here; Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Capture and Hold and Arena (5 vs 5 firefights), as well as broad variety of classes to play from. You start off with just the ‘Pathfinder‘ (light), ‘Soldier‘ (medium), and Juggernaut (heavy) available to use, but you can unlock deeper variations of each of these classes using experience points accrued in game, or by making a real-money purchase. Ascend does an excellent job in ensuring that those who do decide to dip into their wallets are not too overpowered, and however you like to play, there’s a style and strategy to suit you – from Technicians who can lay portable turrets and augment base defences, Doombringers, who sport a colossal chain cannon and have excellent anti-air capabilities, or Sentinels for sniping the enemy out of the air from a distance. Weapons and Armor level up as you use them, but regardless of your experience level, it’s very rare where you feel you simply have no chance of competing with an enemy due to their superior equipment – when you die, it’s usually because you made a mistake, or were just out-foxed by an opponent’s tactics.
The fact that all of the above comes packaged in a thoughtfully implemented Free-to-Play model is astonishing, and anyone with even a remote interest in First Person Shooters owes it to themselves to sample the delights of what Tribes has to offer. There is the odd mis-step along the way, with some of the in-game perks, like vehicles and air-strikes feeling cumbersome and unwieldy, as well as the clunky and awkward menu system and in-game chat, but this minor complaints are swept aside by the relentlessly fast paced action, and the thrill and satisfaction of landing that perfect Spinfusor shot from over 200 meters away while speeding at 100 miles per hour is an experience that will keep you coming back for more.