Typically, Iím the guy who plays and reviews the more intimate squad-based FPS games. My roots dig deep into the original Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon franchises, but those games tend to only work when you have a core group of like-minded gamers and good communication channels, either within the game or something on the side. But I also have a soft spot for online games like Unreal Tournament; games where you can just go in and, through pure skill, dominate without the need for elaborate tactics.
One such game is Tribes, a cult PC favorite from the days before online consoles; the days of Unreal Tournament, Quake, and Team Fortress. Hi-Rez Studios has recently resurrected this classic franchise with Tribes: Ascend, a game that delivers that great old-school online-shooter vibe while making the most of class-based characters and team gameplay. Itís a uniquely different feel compared to most online FPS games today where gamers live to brag about their KD ratio and leaderboard rankings. In Tribes: Ascend you might not log a single kill, and depending on your chosen class, thatís not necessarily a bad thing.
Tribes: Ascend keeps several staples of the original game intact including great modes like DM, CTF, Arena, and Rabbit, as well as support for up to 32 players creating some of the largest matches, and surprisingly most stable large-scale shooters Iíve ever played on the PC. To accommodate this scale of gameplay the game has sprawling levels that are almost entirely outdoors with a few indoor exceptions around team bases, spaceships, etc. While this can make things look a bit barren, the detailed textures and natural color selections still make the game quite pleasing to look at, and the framerate is flawless, even in a full match, with suitable PC hardware.
Landscapes are massive and spawn points require a lot of backtracking should you make it all the way to the enemy base and die. While you can always purchase a tank or a hover bike and drive to your target the primary means of travel is the unique locomotion system that has been a part of Tribes since the original game. Your character is equipped with a jetpack that allows him temporary boosting abilities to jump higher than humanly possible, and when you combine this will your frictionless ďskiĒ ability, moving around these landscapes turns into an art form.
By skiing on down slopes and using your jetpack on upward slopes you can start to find this rhythm in the game that allows you to achieve fantastic speeds and cover vast distances in record times. It also makes you impossibly hard to hit by distant enemies. This mode of travel is such an important part of the game there is even a standalone lesson in the tutorial to help you grasp the concept. And believe me, there is nothing more satisfying than nailing 3-4 of these jump and glides in a row, shooting the guy guarding the flag as you drop in from above, snatch the flag, and then jump-ski back to your home base.
Tribes: Ascend is a class-based game so you are going to have fast and mobile guys running around shooting things and trying to capture the flag or dominate control points while other characters are made for endurance and power, perfect for standing guard to protect your base and other valued assets. While these larger and slower characters are easy to hit in a traditional sense, most anyone out in the battlefield is moving as such speeds you either have to be a master of anticipation and leading your target or resort to explosive rounds, or both. Again, it is quite satisfying to see an enemy arcing through the air, predicting his landing spot, and having an explosive-tip crossbow bolt waiting for him when he lands.
With movement so fast and targeting so difficult many of my non-DM games merely consisted of people going for the objectives and hastily firing at enemies as they passed by on the way to each otherísí base, although a few people, usually snipers, would take up a tactical position on the battlefield and work their magic. There are also vehicles in the game depending on the match and any rules or limitations set by the host. Large tanks will glide around the levels and two-seat speeder bikes are a great way to zip your flag carrier back to home base, but these vehicle are also larger and more predicatable targets and usually don't last long on the battlefield.
I realize Iím talking mostly about CTF and while there are several game modes, CTF seems to be the style of game best suited for both the level design and the multi-class gameplay. You are free to take any of the classes into any game mode, but CTF makes the most out of engineers who can place and repair turrets around your base or stealth characters who can cloak and sneak into bases for their own covert objectives.
Another very important feature of Tribes: Ascend is it is FREE! Yes, while youíve been reading this review you could have been downloading the game and getting ready to play. Hi-Rez studios is doing something rather creative with micro-transactions; a financial model that is growing in mobile gaming and MMOís. First-time downloaders can jump right in with three popular classes; more than enough to experience a wide range of what Tribes: Ascend has to offer, and more than enough to start building up valuable XP that serves the same function as credits.
When it comes time to unlock new playable classes, armor upgrades, secondary weapons, belt attachments, or weapons upgrades, you can then either spend your XP or use in-game currency that can be purchased in various bundles with real cash. For about $30 you can purchase enough in-game credits to unlock all classes with money to spare for upgrades, or you can unlock your favorite class and really deck him out. The pricing structure is more than fair, and you can always opt to use XP, although you may have to put in a lot of time before you can afford some of the more righteous gear. And for a game that would seem to favor the "rich", matchmaking seems spot-on as far as finding matches and leveling out the teams.
There is a great in-game reward system that gives you XP for all sorts of gameplay actions, both individual and in support of your team. You will also get bonus XP for winning a match, and there are a variety of medals ready to reward you for various milestone achievements. Plus, if you do end up spending any money to purchase in-game currency, your account is upgraded to VIP status, which will earn you extra XP with every match.
Despite the simple landscapes, I couldnít help but marvel at the wonderful maps that made great use of rolling hillsides, cliffs, ravines, water, snow, fire, and all sorts of fantastic lighting, shadows, and special effects, all set against some impressive skyboxes with clouds and planets and even asteroid belts. The various classes all look great and are loaded with detailed armor designs; very Warhammer 40K, although you only get to appreciate these details in the menus screens and the kill cams. The weapons are futuristic and also feature subtle details with ammo displays and various bits of lighting and complex modeling.
Tribes: Ascend has some good music, mostly in the menus, and there is minimal voice work and vocalization, most of which is drowned out by the hiss of your jetpack and the random barrage of gunfire and explosions. Currently, there is no in-game chat system so you will have to make do with a third-party solution like Ventrilo or Skype. While tactical team play isnít really required in this game, those who do coordinate their efforts will dominate those who donít.
Again, Tribes: Ascend is free to play so you can go sign-up, download, and start playing right now Ė no need to take my word for it. Those with the system capable of running this game will find an online FPS experience that is wholly unique, very rewarding, and completely addictive. Check it out NOW!