I have played Tribes: Ascend. If that statement doesn’t make you jealous, provoke salivating, or awaken tense memories of last-minute flag captures that you can physically feel in your shoulders and mousing hand, this probably isn’t going to be the article for you.
Tribes is my all-time favourite game series of all time. Tribes and Tribes 2 are my number two and number three favourite games of all time. (Number one is “Tribes and Tribes 2 together”.) And while I don’t actually believe in ranking “best” — even “favourite” is borderline facile, ranking-wise — I’ve never in my life spent as much time playing and caring about a game as I have Tribes.
And it’s been more-or-less gone for a decade.
Irrational’s 2004 entry to the series, Tribes: Vengeance, actually had a lot to offer. (I liked the grappling hook!) But it lacked the sweeping playfield and delicate physics that made the first two titles among the most challenging and graceful experiences in all of multiplayer gaming.
Despite its silly quasi-fantasy science fiction trappings, Tribes is, well, elegant. If that seems like a weird way to describe a game with jet packs and exploding disc guns, all I can say is that you haven’t played it. If Call of Duty is modern dancing, Tribes is Fred Astaire.
There’s a new Tribes game coming down the pipe from Hi-Rez Studios: Tribes: Ascend a free-to-play variant that’s multiplayer only. (Tribes pioneered, along with so many other things, the multiplayer-only team game.)
A new Tribes game makes an old triber nervous. We’ve been burnt before. I’ve not let myself dip into the nest of venom that is TribalWar.com; I just don’t have it in me to watch my fellow tribers tear Tribes: Ascend apart — or worse, to find myself joining in the pessimism.
It’s the strangest thing, to love an old game that’s being remade. Part of you wants it to just be a perfect recreation of your old love. They don’t change the rules of baseball every year, do they? Another part of you knows the game has to be updated at least a little. How else are they going to draw in players from outside the dwindling fan base?
I’m happy to report that on this front, I think Hi-Rez has struck a fair balance: Tribes: Ascend feels like Tribes. The maps are more or less right. The aesthetic is there. The emphasis on the Capture the Flag game mode is there. There are tons of weapons and vehicles, just like T1 and T2.
The developers are working hard to teach new players about the importance of playing as a team — and more than that, to play like gentlemen. At QuakeCon, the live announcer often reminded attendees waiting in line for a chance to play the alpha build on display to be courteous and respectful of others in line, “like a good Triber”.
It’s too slow. This was one of the first things I mentioned to Hi-Rez’s COO Todd Harris after my first 20-minute-or-so match. (Out of six.) He laughed and said, “Everyone else has been complaining it’s too fast!” He was talking about random show attendees, not tribers.
It’s a challenge for Tribes: Ascend, certainly. The tremendous speed that could be built up with proper skiing runs and disc jumps in the first two games did make it challenging for new players to literally keep up with veterans. But to make T:A a slower game to make it more approachable for new players robs it of much of its beauty and character. Tribes is in some ways a flight simulator — actually, call it a flying superhero simulator — than it is a standard on-the-ground mensch simulator.
Skiing doesn’t built enough speed, nor are there enough big hills. Speed is the backbone of the Tribes gameplay experience, especially for light offence players (like flag cappers) or light defence players who often have to go from zero to rabbit chasing in the space of a couple of seconds.
I’m a light D player by preference, although I’ve been known to throw together an impromptu run for the flag here and there. I spent several minutes trying to set up a maximal speed run toward a flag, even going so far as climbing the tallest hill I could find then disc jumping up to get as much gravity rate-of-fall into my skiing as I could. Didn’t matter — I just couldn’t build up enough speed to make a proper Holy-Shit-did-you-just-see-that flag pick-up.
Even worse, disc jumping didn’t help. In T1 and T2, you could, while facing forward, push your disc launcher down towards the ground and fire an explosive disc at your feet, which would shoot you both forward and — depending on your angle — up. You could also turn around and shoot a disc at your feet while facing backwards for a more lateral arc — perfect for speeding from a stop towards an escaping flag carrier, for instance.
Tribes: Ascend encourages you to use the turn-around-and-shoot model of disc jumping — and it doesn’t really make you go that much faster. I watched one Hi-Rez employee make a flag run in a medium-class load out that had three disc jumps. That sounds amazing, except he was using the discs like little pulse engines to push him slightly forward as he puttered toward the flag, not unlike those old NASA mockups of the interstellar ships that would work by igniting nuclear bombs behind the impenetrable rear of a spaceship.
In fact, none of the explosions add enough momentum to players. Put a disc at someone’s feet? They take damage, but they aren’t knocked one way or the other. Mortars don’t see to be sending bodies as far over the map as they should. (How are we supposed to play Tribes Golf using light players as golf balls and heavy mortars as drivers?)
The lack of momentum in the explosion modelling has its greatest effect in movement, but it plays into how duels between players work as well, becoming more about landing individual shots than juggling opponents from explosion to explosion.
With the lack of good disc jumping, the slightly too weak jetpacks become even more apparent. Playing as the lightest class, which even includes an pack that recharges his energy faster than the normal rate, I often found myself unable to ski-then-jet into relatively low areas like the fronts of bases. I was having to use floating step platforms to gain entry. Do you know how embarrassing that is for an old man?
And on heavier classes, the regeneration rate of the jetpack is too slow. The jetpack in Tribes is supposed to set up a rhythm in movement like the energy bar in Halo. You want players to have to manage it — and to have to guess how well their opponent is managing theirs — but you don’t want to keep them on the ground.
Speaking of Halo, the regenerating health for all players? Totally fine. The only real gameplay change I could see was on the defence side — you better make sure those attackers are really dead, because if not they’ll be coming back for your flag or generators with full health.
Finally — and maybe this is super nitpicky — but I think the disc launcher reloads too slowly. Just a hair! But there’s a rhythm in my brain that I know all-too-well from shooting thousands upon thousands of spinfuser discs. I know when the reload feels to slow. And unless someone boots up Tribes or Tribes 2 and measures them against Ascend‘s and proves me wrong, I’m trusting my gut.
There is so much that Hi-Rez is doing right with Tribes: Ascend. Bright, simple art. A focus on multiplayer. Tons of weapons, grenades and deployables. (Maybe even a few too many, but we’ll see how they match up.)
I don’t even mind their free-to-play model: they’re planning on selling load out variations, so if you want to play with a certain combination of weapons, armour, and deployables, you’ll have to buy that particular “class”. Would I prefer to customise my load out? I guess. But it doesn’t feel as frustrating as I thought it would. (When we know actual prices it’ll be easier to gauge how it’ll shake out in real play.)
And it would make me beyond happy if Tribes: Ascend finds real success in the marketplace. I want the younger generation to know what a beautiful game it can be. But it needs a little work before its release, and while I hate games writers playing armchair designer as much as the next guy, I just can’t help myself from giving a little physics critique.
Don’t take that as an insult, Hi-Rez. It’s a compliment. You’re so close to nailing this one. And you’ve got a few thousand passionate tribers hoping you get it right.
Because if you do and there are tens or hundreds of thousands of new players finally appreciating a Tribes game, we old veterans will finally be able to bring up the newblood — the kids who walked up behind me and said to me that “this new Halo game looks amazing” — how to properly play one of gaming’s most graceful, beautiful games.