Tribes: Ascend alpha at Quakecon

A take on the new Tribes: Ascend. Lots of info after the break!

Starseige: Tribes is the game that got me into competitive gaming. I hadn’t ever experienced a game that had a mandatory (if you wanted to win) teamwork component. It wasn’t particularly complex as far as a FPS is concerned, but once you throw in the fact that everyone in the game is equipped with a jetpack and every map has intricate bases that contain the enemy flag, things got interesting. People figured out that through a glitch with the physics engine they could “ski” down hills and build up momentum to help them get away with the enemy flag, or just to go fast. Things became hectic when they put in vehicles on the capture the flag and the capture & hold maps. There were three air vehicles - a light attack fighter, a light personnel carrier that housed a pilot and two passengers that were able to fire out of the vehicle, and a heavy personnel carrier that carried four passengers that were capable of firing out as it flew. My personal favorite strategy was to load up a HPC with four heavies with mortars and turn it into a heavy bomber. What made the game challenging was that you and your team had to be good at setting up base defenses in the form of turrets and mines and other deployable items and periodically maintaining your base fixtures (automated turrets, generators, radar dishes, etc.) in the event they become damaged from enemy fire. But at the same time you had to maintain the capacity to strike the enemy base, find a way through their defenses into their spawn building, and grab their flag and somehow make it back out. Tribes *had* traditional deathmatch and team deathmatch, but the two staple game modes were capture the flag and capture-and-hold. CTF was what made tribes- games got intense and people became creative with breaking stalemates. C&H was a nice change of pace- it had base defense elements from CTF but it was about maintaining satellite bases and therefore had at least what felt like a much more relaxed gameplay pace.

Tribes 2 was pretty much the same game with a few minor changes. They built a new game engine that sported excellent graphics, had great sound design (with an overpoweringly loud fantastic soundtrack,) and different environments. While they did succeed at making it better, on release the game was buggy and only those who had shelled out for the very best video cards could run the game at an OK framerate. The game had a ton of finer details that made it look fantastic but (in my opinion) unfortunately were completely removed to make it run- there wasn’t an option added to disable them, they simply took them out. The game browser interface had a system to create and manage gaming clans which was nice to have as previously it was done with a pencil and paper or through then-rare internet forums. Additionally the game engine was designed to be capable of being heavily modified by the community. Tribes 1 had this ability but it was vastly more difficult to produce a different feel to the game. As far as game reception was concerned. the game was picked up by a ton of its fan base but was poorly advertised. To say it wasn’t well-received would be a lie because it was more like the game wasn’t received by anyone. Plus the game never really had much support because Dynamix, the development team, was shut down 5 months later due to restructuring within Sierra Entertainment as they were absorbed by publisher Vivendi Universal Games, and a little over a year later Sierra released a patch for the game that adressed the framerate-crippling issues.

Then came Tribes: Vengeance (Tribes 3) with a full singleplayer experience and using Unreal Engine 2.5 to give a look and feel that was Tribes but different. Vengeance looked fantastic and had underground environments that previously were impossible to produce on the Tribes 1 game engine, and difficult to to with the Tribes 2 engine. They made some changes to the game’s vehicles and made base designs less intricate with the flag typically outside, and more importantly they made “skiing” an official game mechanic. Instead of relying on an elaborate pattern of mashing the space bar to build up momentum as you descended a hill they made it so you simply hold a button and every surface becomes frictionless, making it incredibly easy to perform the skiing maneuver (though it was still difficult to master.) Also important was the addition of a grappling hook. When in the right hands the grappling hook was a game-changer because you could use it to swing your weight around while keeping momentum and effectively change direction almost instantly. You could also use it to perform aerial maneuvers where you grapple onto a fighter jet and use it to fly you into enemy territory, or have it ferry you towards your own base when carrying the enemy flag. Basically this game should have been a huge success, but it suffered from the same problem Tribes 2 had and that was zero publicity. Reviews of the game were favorable but only the hardcore players knew about its existence. It didn’t sell particularly well and publisher Vivendi Universal canned all support for the game 5 months later and in may 2009 they shut down all master servers for the Tribes series and ceased all support for the series.

Tribes: Ascend
Enter early 2010 when Hi-Rez Studios, the development team for the somewhat-successful MMO-Shooter Global Agenda announced that they had acquired the intellectual property rights for the Tribes series. They announced that they were making a Tribes MMO-type game that was designed for massive battles of over 100 players at a time. A few months later Hi-Rez announced Tribes: Ascend as a new entry into the Tribes series and a sort of interim game until they release their Tribes MMO. So when they set it up at Quakecon I had to give it a shot. I played it a few times to re-acclimate myself to Tribes and after that I started messing around to see what’s new. The first things I noticed were that the game sports a fantastic visuals and has a much more believable feel to it.

By “more believable” I mean that instead of the old bottomless weapon magazines, weapons require reloading before they’re ready to fire again and you don’t carry an armory full of ammunition. Each player carries a loadout of two primary weapons, grenades, a backpack item, and a melee weapon. What had me puzzled is that with at least two weapons there are a light, medium, and heavy version of them with varying amounts of damage and a different look to each. I’m not sure why they decided to do this but personally I’m not too fond of it. I’m partial to the old Tribes 1 and 2 setup where there was a set list of weapons and heavier armors could carry more firepower. The Spinfusor AKA “Disc Launcher” is the iconic Tribes weapon that launches a (traditionally) blue high-explosive disc that explodes on contact. They split it into three tiers, each functioning in the same way but with varying damage output. The weapon list has been pretty dramatically expanded as a result of this and in the very least it provides some more variation on the battlefield.

The demo showcased two maps, one of which bears a striking resemblance to a Tribes 1 map called Broadside with both teams based out of two ships parked hovering above the planet’s surface, and the other has both teams in permanent structures with a rocky hill running down the middle of the map. Both maps are wide-open environments and have plenty of hills where you can practice your skiing maneuvers. Each map features three vehicles: a ground hoverbike armed with a grenade launcher weapon, a light attack fighter plane with missiles, and a heavy tank with a tank cannon and a swivel turret for a second player; these are purchased with credits earned through completing objectives or repairing your base or taking out players on the enemy team. On release, Ascend will feature more urban environments with buildings and streets to give variety on the typical wide-open hilly environments.

After grilling the developers hanging around the booth for information, I learned that the game will be released as free to play but with a “mini mall” where players can buy loadouts instead of unlocking them after playing the game for a time, and other premium items that will not cause game imbalance but offer further customization of one’s playstyle.

Final Thoughts
Overall the game looks fantastic and plays just like Vengeance, but I couldn’t help but think that the game is pretty much a re-release of Tribes: Vengenace with a few changes. Strangely though I was okay with this. I just wish they’d kept the grappling hook from Vengeance. I plan on going back tomorrow to play some more and will update this with any further thoughts.

-Colin “UncleSlam” Logan

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