Tribes: Ascend preview

Tribes Ascend preview thumb

Hi-Rez Studios seem to develop only games with jetpacks in, and I'm OK with that. I like to imagine they jetpack around the office while they're working. I picture them having jetpacked their way through jetpack MMO Global Agenda first, before jetpacking over to acquire the venerable Tribes licence and jetpacking home, before starting work on a sequel to the grandfather of jetpack shooters.

But it's been seven years since the last game in the Tribes series. Tribes: Vengeance was released when multiplayer shooters were condensing, leading to smaller and tighter sessions. I asked Todd Harris, Hi-Rez's COO, how Tribes fits with modern FPSes. “Today's shooter players are used to slower action, more cover, hide and seek. So I think the quick motion, the freedom of movement, the verticality of Tribes: Ascend will be refreshing.” Short answer: MORE JETPACKS. Tribes' particular brand of jetpacks allow players to 'ski' around the series' expansive outdoor environments. 'Skiing' here means utilising short bursts of fuel to slide down hillsides and gain the momentum to allow ridiculous feats of lethal skill – a concept that remains vital to Tribes: Ascend. But Hi-Rez don't want skiing to be the preserve of the super-skilled, as Todd explains. “It's still very easy for me to come in and within minutes get the hang of skiing, certainly easier than in Tribes 1 and Tribes 2. I think we've probably embraced skiing even more than previous titles, in terms of putting in some very obvious routes.” But Harris assures top-end skiiers that the slopes won't be full of horrible noobs blocking their slide lines: “there's still a huge differential between the new skier and the experienced player, with a satisfying learning curve in between.”

You'll have to scramble up that learning curve on your own, though. Todd promises tooltips and on-screen explanations for new players but very little assistance beond that. There's no superfluous singleplayer or bot support: you'll live and die in Ascend on servers as part of 16-man teams (a number subject to potential change). Todd hopes that Tribes talent that's lain dormant for half a decade will be re-awakened by Ascend, just as new players will find the mixture of vertical freedom and jetpacks exhilarating: “We expect lots of YouTube videos full of mid-air kills and a very high degree of co-ordinated team play.”

Old Tribes-ers will be heartened to see the return of the spinfusor. The weapon fires discs of energy, perfect for intercepting bouncing enemies and capturing them in splashes of plasma. Todd reels off a list of other weapons returning from the previous games: “the mortar launcher, grenade launcher, sniper rifle, they're all in. And then we're adding new weapons: there's one that fires three sequential grenades that then detonate with a little time delay.”

Vehicles, too, are a mix of old and new. A grav cycle returns, but Hi-Rez have added an extra seat. “It's actually a twoplayer vehicle, so your friend on the back can wield a weapon.” We'll also be seeing a tank and the Shrike scout fighter: a mainstay of the series, and harbinger of death for people who don't like looking up. Vehicles aren't an immediate right, though – they have to be earned “by doing good things in the match” to earn in-game currency, and then called in at vehicle stations. There's the issue of out-ofgame currency, too. Tribes: Ascend will be supported by micro-transactions, your cash purchasing you cosmetic items, new weapons, and extra loadout slots. Global Agenda has only recently adopted the same model, and experience will help shape their decisions, but Todd describes the scheme as “analogous to League of Legends” and “horizontal in design”. The application of cosmetic items is obvious, but loadouts require some explanation. “A loadout consists of armour, two in-hand weapons, a melee weapon, a grenade belt, and a pack that might hold something, such as a cloaking device.” Todd envisages that loadouts will be purchased wholesale, but “you could potentially get variations of items in your loadout as an additional micro-transaction.” Hi-Rez expect everything outside of specific vanity items to be achievable by simply playing the game. “Our philosophy is if they affect the game, they don't have to be purchased.”

Todd wants to lure both old fans and new meat to his wonderful world of jetpacks. The slow creep of the free-toplay model is gaining acceptance in the eyes of gamers, but balancing a multiplayer shooter – where slight balancing oversights can render the game totally wonky – is tough work. Hi-Rez are confident they can do it. “It's certainly something new for a shooter. We're going to be testing in beta, but we think for a team-based game like Tribes, where there are very specialist roles, all our loadouts will be viable – and fun.”