The trajectory of the status of first person shooters in the industry is a telling one. The genre has always been inordinately popular, thanks in no small part because of its focus on killing and shooting, one of the most primal and viscerally satisfying acts ingrained within human nature, and because of its perspective, that leads to greater immersion and atmosphere. However, first person shooters have also changed dramatically in terms of their structure and focus: where earlier they were all about single player campaigns married to a separate arena shooting multiplayer mode that was like a game within itself, modern shooters have increasingly begun to neglect any true value within the single player mode by shortening their length entirely, and focusing more on cinematic exposition than actual shooting. Single player campaigns in first person shooters these days have degenerated into little more than tutorials for their multiplayer modes, which, too, are nothing like the arena based shooters of the mid 90s, and instead are more twitch based.
Tribes: Ascend does not address most of these issues. For instance, it does nothing about the multiplayer heavy focus of modern shooters (although one could argue that that has been a characteristic of the genre ever since the proliferation of LAN and the internet in the late ’90s), for instance. It is entirely a multiplayer game, with no singleplayer mode whatsoever to speak of. And it can be argued that Tribes: Ascend falls prey to the modern convention of reusing the same few tired modes for the multiplayer as well. Capture the Flag and Deathmatch both make an unsurprising appearance here, as do some classic Tribes modes, such as Control Point.Even elements from the previous games, such as jetpacks, are present in the game, meaning that it can’t exactly be pointed at as a shining beacon of creativity or originality.
What Tribes does do, however, is return triumphantly to its original design that made the original game such a cult classic back when it was released, and it manages to be fresh in all the ways that matter. In the present day market that is dominated by drab military shooters with the same set of physics, controls, modes, and hell, even similar settings and maps, Tribes: Ascend comes off as a bit of a breath of fresh air.
Tribes puts the focus first and foremost, squarely and entirely, on the shooting. The gunplay is all Tribes is about. There is no needless exposition, no ‘cinematic’ storytelling via garish cutscenes, no explosions, and no plot about a modern day conspiracy involving North Korea, the Middle East, Russia, and terrorists. Tribes is all about the shooting, and it is about making the shooting fun and an experience to be relished every single time, and boy, does it do a great job of that. Playing entirely differently from every other shooter on the market, Tribes is blazing fast. Over time, shooters have changed pace from the slower, much more deliberate arena shooters that dominated PC gaming at the end of the last century to the much more twitch based action shooters that dominate console gaming today, but Tribes is an entirely different beast, that makes every other game on the market feel sluggish by comparison.
It’s ironic, really, how the game goes about it, because the actual shooting itself is actually slower than what you’d expect. Your bullets and weapons usually explode after a slight delay, meaning you can’t expect to just point, aim, and shoot at your enemy. Instead, Tribes requires you to stop, look at your enemy’s trajectory, project where he’s going to be a split second from now, and shoot there, all in the matter of a fraction of a second. Therefore, even though it’s a much slower and deliberate pace than other shooters, it happens blazing fast, and it adds an unexpected element of tactical depth to the game, while also retaining spontaneity and favoring fast reflexes. It is really quite like nothing else on the market, and it is impossible to overstate just how much of a difference this can make on the gameplay. It might seem to be an unnecessary added wrinkle to the tried and tested shooting mechanics that you are familiar with at first, but it really elevates the experience to an altogether new level.
Of course, it is hard to anticipate where your opponent will be at all, and hard to get an aim at him, because of how Tribes handles movement. You can walk and run through an entire Tribes arena, but that is missing the point entirely, and besides, you’ll be riddled with bullets before you know what hit you. No, movement in Tribes is a different beast entirely, one that it might take you some time getting used to, and one that will definitely change how you approach the game entirely.
You see, I mentioned earlier in the review that Ascend brings back the series’ traditional jetpacks; this changes things entirely. The jetpacks let you glide uphill for a limited period of time, and you can ‘ski’ down slopes downhill. All of this results in some crazy movement speeds, and some on the fly planning and rerouting of your character, as you try to dodge the incoming enemy interception en route to the enemy flag.
These crazy movement speeds mean that you have to take your enemies’ movement into account at all times when aiming and shooting, and also your own. It also means that you have to move in such a way while shooting that you yourself never become a stationary target, and hence remain hard to hit. It’s a beautiful game, more psychological than anything else, and it results in Tribes being more satisfying than any other shooter in recent memory.
That Tribes is so incredible is further augmented by the fact that it is a free to play game. Let that be no mark or indictment against the game’s merits. It is probably the single greatest F2P game ever made, and it can go toe to toe with most pay to play games on the market.
The biggest fallacy a free to play game can make is gimping the game entirely too much for the people who don’t play and favoring the people that do, thereby breaking the balance of the game. Tribes walks the line finely, but it often falls on the wrong side. The player who starts playing for free gets access to only three classes and the default weapons, and theoretically, every other class and weapon is within his reach without spending a single penny by devoting (a lot of) time to the game, and earning unlocks. However, unlocking things requires an inordinate amount of time, to the extent that it often feels like the game is taunting you, dangling so many extra weapons and classes right before you, but keeping them just out of your reach unless you pony up and pay.
That, however, is a characteristic of all free to play games, and let’s face it, it’s probably even a necessary evil. A game like Tribes, looking as good as it does, and being as well made as it is, requires not just money to compensate for its production, but also upkeep. Therefore, trying to get some degree of payment from every user seems to be fair, as there really is no such thing as a free lunch after all.
The problem is when Tribes begins to inordinately favor its paying populace. For instance, the first time you pay to unlock any weapon or class, your account immediately gets promoted to VIP status for life, meaning, for instance, you get double experience in every game you play. This puts you at a distinctly unfair advantage if you’re a free user, since the paying players, already having earlier access to all the better weapons and classes, will also get naturally better at the game at a much faster rate. Of course, the argument can be made that the more serious Tribes player will probably be willing to plonk some cash down for it anyway, and it is a fair point, but it is still a generalization, and the fact remains that there will be some portion of its audience, no matter how major or minor, that will feel slighted unless it pays up. At the very least, all the weapons and classes are priced incredibly reasonably, so it’s clear that the developers aren’t trying to unfairly gouge you.
But don’t let my whining about what, as I’ve argued, is a necessary evil for all free to play games distract you from the crux of the matter, which is that Tribes: Ascend remains an incredibly fun game to play. From the extremely balanced out class based gameplay to its high octane, high speed shooting, from the gorgeous visuals to the return to what made Tribes so good in the first place, even some oddities such as the free to play design favoring paying players, or the complete lack of any single player mode or exposition (which might come as a bit of a shock to modern players, ironically enough) can be glanced over. If you’ve been bemoaning the stagnancy that pervades the FPS genre, now is the time to stop. Tribes: Ascend is the game that you have been waiting for.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Incredible shooting mechanics; genius movement system; gorgeous visual design and glorious vistas; balanced classes, and F2P gameplay done right for the most part; balanced class based gameplay
The game sometimes unfairly favors paying players; the shooting and movement mechanics have a learning curve; no single player mode or any exposition might come as a bit off a shock to players more used to modern shooters
Tribes Ascend reminds us why shooters are so much fun in the first place.