Tribes Ascend preview
Hello? Oh, hello The Past. How are you? What’s that, all of your games would like to come back, with reboots or sequels, only free? Alrighty then.
The Tribes series has had a ridiculously checkered history, but its best incarnation – as a fast, team-based multiplayer shooter – all but ended with Tribes 2 and the dissolution of its creators, Dynamix. So to play Tribes: Ascend is to take a wild ride back in time to 2001, shortly after Tribes 2 was released, to relive the game’s skiing, jetpacks, spinfusors, flags and huge battlefields. Only better, and with a free-to-play payment model.
The joy of Tribes: Ascend is that, like those previous games, it provides a toybox and then rewards player skill with those toys. You don’t ever win by having a better weapon, or by luckily firing first, but by becoming a master of your chosen class. Dedicated Tribes fans – each destined to be a professional player when the game inevitably becomes an e-sport – show an absurd amount of finesse. YouTube is already filling with Tribes: Ascend trick reels, like player Irreversible’s absurd flag captures.
Every part of Tribes allows for similar expert trickery. Even its basic weapon is the Spinfusor, which fires slow-moving projectile discs at enemies who normally soar through the air at 150kmph.
For those of us who lack supernatural skill, which includes everyone at PC Gamer except Chris – who is a ghost – there’s still great fun to be had pootling around in the shallows. That’s because the basic unit of fun in Tribes isn’t shooting or killing, it’s movement. Any Tribes class can hit [Space] to ski down hills, and right-click to jetpack on the up slopes. Do this well and you reach ridiculous arcs, vaulting the length of entire battlefields in a single bound. Do it badly and you’re still a kid sledding down a park slope, giggling. It’s never not fun. Why doesn’t every game make movement this pleasurable?
If you do fancy being useful, rather than just slipping about like Torvill and Dean, there’s still plenty of options for those inept with the Spinfusor. Where Tribes 2 gave players customisable loadouts based on three armour weights, Ascend solidifies the same options in to nine classes.
As the Soldier, you swap the Spinfusor for a machine gun. Pick the Juggernaut and you become a slow-moving tank with a long-distance mortar. Along with the light, fast Pathfinder, these three form the game’s freely available classes, and each is instantly effective even without megaskills.
The game’s other six classes are unlocked using XP earned by playing, or with gold bought using real money. Those classes aren’t tougher than those you start with, but they let you specialise. Unlock the Infiltrator and you can wield a submachine gun, sticky mines and the power to turn invisible. Or you could choose to be your team's sniper, the Sentinel, or a turret-dropping, base-repairing Technician.
Each of these has its charms but, played with strangers on public servers, it can be a challenge with the extra classes to find your place or feel useful. As a Technician, you can spend ten minutes repairing every item in your base, and upgrade your generator and turrets at the same time, only to discover you’re bottom of your team and no one has noticed your hard work. It definitely is helpful, but it’s not rewarding.
As the Brute and the Raider, meanwhile, you have powerful weaponry and shields, but it’s hard to know where you’re best placed on a battlefield, as there are better classes for both attacking and defending.
Where the game clearly shines, though, is in coordinated teamwork. Great players are capable of virtuoso displays of skill, but a lot of these toys are designed to work together. In one of my matches, an Infiltrator snuck in to the enemy base and blew up their generator, disabling the defensive turrets. Meanwhile a Juggernaut had positioned himself on a hill outside the base and was peppering it with artillery, killing defenders and destroying those turrets in case the generator was restored.
I moved across the map with a small group of Pathfinders and Soldiers, providing cover for one another in case of an ambush. We reached the base, I grabbed the flag, and I leapt from its platform just in time for a friend to pull up on a Gravcycle. We swapped places and I sped off, flag in hand, gunning it up a cliffside towards home. I didn’t make it in the end, and it was a complete fluke of timing, but moves like this are the tip of the possible iceberg with proper planning.
Those vehicles are the saddest absence from Ascend’s current closed beta. Shrikes, Gravcycles and Beowulf tanks can be bought using match credits from an in-game terminal, but they’re expensive, rare and easily destroyed. There’s also no map that’s large enough to make them essential yet. Tribes 2’s most sublime moments always involved a battlefield dense with Shrike fire, bombing runs, and mobile spawn points, and hopefully these will come to Ascend in time.
This article was originally published in Issue 238 of PC Gamer UK. Tribes: Ascend is now open to all.