Tribes: Ascend review

Evan Lahti at

tribes is so good dude

Wonderful, breath-clutching games of chicken happen along the z-axis in Tribes: Ascend. You’re hovering, the guy you want to kill is hovering, and you each have a few sips of battery juice left in your jetpack. Gravity is death: drop first, and you become an instant candidate for one of Tribes’ splash-damage weapons: a grenade, Spinfusor disc, or gamma-ray-green mortar shell.

In these shared seconds of airtime, your brain crunches weapon trajectory paths, shot velocity, topography and damage radii—and there’s a layer of deception happening atop that. Maybe I’ll feint a fall, then right-click to lift at the last second. Maybe he’ll whip out his secondary weapon to harass me out of the air with pistol shots. Maybe I’ll put a grenade under him to force him to spend all his flight energy.

This is a lot of good nuance. Plenty of FPS games demand finesse, but Tribes: Ascend is one of the few I’ve played that supports this brand of mental-physical ballet (Quake III is another). In open beta since February, it still isn’t without issues. Teamwork is suspiciously inconsistent, VOIP is absent, dedicated server support is slowly making its way in, some weapons have a high learning curve, vehicles don’t influence matches as much as I wish they did.

Tribes Ascend review

Few games make most of your shots feel like skill shots.

But mostly, it’s a minor miracle that a young, independent studio has preserved so much of what made Tribes (Tribes 2, moreso) special, while turning it into a pretty affordable microtransaction-supported game in a new engine.

If high speed movement is your only point of reference for Tribes, know that it’s as easy as it has ever been. Skiing is simple: hit the spacebar when you’re facing down a hill, and you’ll slide frictionlessly. It’s like having bowling balls for feet. You maintain any momentum until you reach an upward slope, then right-click to jetpack up another hill.

That seesaw repetition between your thumb and the right mouse button is simple work. The hard and satisfying part comes in orienting yourself in the air to a trajectory that lets you land gently and without losing any momentum. Hi-Rez’s smart addition of a speedometer to Tribes provides welcome feedback. If I flub a landing, I can see the dent it makes in my velocity immediately.

Après ski

For learning the basics, however, I wish Ascend’s skiing tutorial was built in a way that provided real moment-to-moment feedback. The lone walkthrough talks you through it, but there’s no dynamic, evaluative system in place to tell you if you should’ve jetpacked a half-second earlier or landed a bit more to the left of where you did. Right now, your best tutor is probably YouTube or loading a local server to drill by yourself or (when dedicated servers are available) with an experienced friend.

Overall, though, I admire the way Hi-Rez hasn’t allowed Tribes’ free to play accessibility to translate into dumbed-down mechanics; it’s a damn pleasure to play an FPS that reveres movement again. The entry point for skiing is relatively low for anyone who plays shooters, but the skill ceiling is appropriately high. Masters of fast-movement throw explosives at their own feet to achieve max momentum. Expert flag-runners drill to find good routes. It all lends Tribes an aspirational quality I love: when you see someone moving fluidly, you want to get better.

Tribes Ascend review

There are plenty of maps across Tribes' four main modes.

Movement isn’t the only fun thing to do on Tribes’ busty topography, thank goodness. Ascend is the first time Tribes has had classes, and I don’t think their addition hampers the joy of finding a job on the battlefield and making it yours.

Sometimes I dedicate an entire round just to bringing down the enemy’s generator (there’s a stat in your profile that tracks generators killed per hour, my new favorite measurement), which powers their turrets, inventory stations and sensors. Even if I die, I’m happy knowing I held the attention of three or four enemies in the process.

Sometimes I focus on taking speed away from enemies in the midfield—filling skiing lines with chaingun munition and throwing flag-runners off their stride. A more direct—and totally viable—job is playing a Juggernaut with the Super Heavy perk, standing right on the flag to block banner thieves. It’s wonderful that players who don’t want to be athletic still have a dozen ways to be heroes. And that I can migrate between these positions depending on map and mood.

With role variety as a strength, though, it’s puzzling that Tribes’ incentives for teamwork are so thin. Kill assists and flag passing are the only game mechanics in place that directly encourage players to work together. It’s frustrating when a public match devolves into a bunch of individuals doing their own thing. It happens much more than I’d like, and I don’t think it’s simply the fault of players.

Tribes Ascend review

Tribes' skyboxes are detailed and generously animated.

Radio silence

Tribes’ teamwork-sapper is the absence of voice communication. This is its most serious flaw. The voice hotkey system that exists in its place is as efficient as something of its kind can be: it abbreviates your input for common phrases (tap “VDG” to broadcast “Defend our generator!”; “VSRB” for “I’ll repair our base”) but provides no room for real strategic planning. When all players are drawing from the same pool of voice files, too, it gives your teammates this facelessness that lessens your connection to them. Every once in awhile, it’ll feel like you’re playing with parrots, especially if a teammate spams random chatter ("Shazbot!" "Shazbot!" "Shazbot!" isn't uncommon) to drown out other allies’ good commands.

The irregularity of teamwork has made me start favoring Tribes’ team deathmatch mode, which operates really well as a break from the responsibility of base-guarding. It’s more mindless than CTF: a swirling hive of players spend lives from a shared pool of a hundred per team, chasing a single flag (owning it makes your team’s kills worth double). I like the circular shape of these maps—a NASCAR-like train of players tends to form behind the flag carrier, jousting and trading fire. It’s a great sight.

Hi-Rez’s other mode experiments are a five-on-five TDM arena mode and a “capture and hold” point control mode. The former bores and frustrates me compared to CTF; arena’s maps are flat, rigid ledges floating in the sky that make skiing impractical. But I like the way capture and hold gets players out of their comfort zones and makes different tactics more viable than in CTF. I tried rolling Juggernaut, a class I never play, to flood capture points with mortar rounds, and was rewarded with a game-leading 41 kills. That experience made mortaring more attractive to me, and I’m more likely now to give heavy classes a shot in CTF and other modes.