Tribes: Ascend Preview
It's been nearly fifteen years since now defunct developer Dynamix released Starsiege: Tribes, a multiplayer-oriented first person shooter that is held in high regards by those who remember the early days of online PC gaming. There have been a few attempts to recreate the original's action - some, like Dynamix' direct sequel, Tribes 2, were successful - but most have failed. When Hi-Rez Studios, the independent developer of another online shooter (Global Agenda) announced that they'd acquired the rights to the Tribes franchise, people were skeptical. And that skepticism was at least somewhat justified, as Hi-Rez had only made one game so far and it was good, but not exactly legendary like Tribes was. If Irrational Games couldn't make a new Tribes game work, how would these guys? (Of course, Irrational followed up their disaster with BioShock, so they've since cemented themselves in gaming history.)
But after playing hours and hours of Tribes: Ascend's beta, I've come to the conclusion that with a full range of new content and more to come before beta ends, the experience here is entirely unique, and that could be good or bad depending on where you're coming from. It's bad if you just want to play old-school Tribes again in a completely unchanged format, but Hi-Rez's end product is still stands apart from the usual war games that we're now seeing flood the free-to-play FPS space. You won't get a pristine classic experience, but the freedom of movement, large maps, and the solid gunplay - admittedly with a few issues - that we expect from the originals have all been recreated here fairly well. Combine it with solid sound and decent graphics (admittedly with some system requirements that are more demanding than most F2P games), and this is certainly one of the better action games I've seen in the recent free-to-play online gaming movement.
One thing to point out early on is that Ascend will be a free-to-play game with optional premium elements that cost real cash. Here, all players start with a couple of pre-set loadouts of armor, weapons and gadgets, and unlike the originals, here you will not get to custom-build your own with hand-picked weapons and gadgets. Instead, as you get silver pieces by simply playing the game, you can eventually unlock new loadouts, or you can spend your real-life money to get gold pieces and instantly buy those same loadouts with that instead. There's still some sense of customization here, however, as each loadout has something like a talent tree, and a separate set of experience points you gain fuels your choices to improve and customize a particular loadout. (Update: We've just gotten word from Hi-Rez that due to user feedback, they'll be opening up full loadout customization in the future. Cheers, Hi-Rez!) I should also point out that players now start with Medium armors, and then it's up to them to buy light or heavy loadouts. In general, the health and speed properties of the three armor sets seem to be a little closer to each other than veterans of past games might be used to, but if you get really good, you'll find that the extra durability of the heavy and the speed and floatiness of the light still do well.
Hi-Rez has ensured that paying customers only get more flexibility on the class selection screen, and have no persistent combat advantage. If you want to play the free way, it's not like you'll be waiting for weeks for your first loadout unlock; you'll be able to pick up your first light or heavy loadouts after only one decently-long session of playing, although it helps if you have some past Tribes experience.
With all that said, the movement is damn-near perfect here. Running around on the ground at a snail's pace will get you killed very quickly, and you are quickly forced to learn how to use your jetpack and "ski" functions to pick up speed and travel around the map quickly, often in the air where you're more difficult to hit. I was never a high-level flag runner or anything in the old days, so I can't speak to exactly how good skiing and movement is for expert players, but it certainly feels better than any game since at least Tribes 2 back over a decade ago.
One issue I have is in Tribes: Ascend's proliferation of hit-scan weapons like sub-machine guns and assault rifles that have a perfectly-accurate crosshair that always enables pinpoint precision if the player can maintain that crosshair on an opponent. Frankly, I'm just not happy with these guns serving as primary weapons for any loadout in any Tribes game, as even the chaingun in Tribes 2, the closest thing to a hit-scan primarly weapon, still fired fast-moving projectiles and so players had to lead their targets. That meant that in your mind, you had to calculate your movement as well as your enemy's in order to land bullets - just like you do with the game's signature weapon, the rocket-launcher-like Spinfusor disc launcher. (As an aside, I have zero problems with the Spinfusor itself, and it's by far my favorite weapon in the game, just like it was oh so many years ago.)
The inclusion of several, and quite powerful, true hit-scan weapons that are perfectly accurate gives veterans of other games like Counter-Strike or Call of Duty a big head start, and I'm simply not happy with it because I feel like those games are better over there while I play this other one over here with it's own, unique feel. I think it's pretty obvious that Hi-Rez themselves have had this same debate in their offices and decided to pull in players of other games with these guns, but I don't think it's right for the game long-term. And while this is a bigger issue in Team DM and Rabbit modes and not such a big deal in CTF, it's still worth pointing out.
There are three main modes that people are playing in Ascend right now, but the most prominent one is Capture the Flag, with its bases, generators, inventory stations, flags in each base, vehicles, and generally everything you expect. One change you'll see here, compared to the originals, is that you have to get some score with kills, defense, or offense in that current match and use it to "buy" vehicles (not with real money, and your score does not translate into loadout customization or the purchase of new loadouts). Additionally, inventory stations will refill your shields and ammo, but they do not allow loadout switching on the fly; you must die in order to pick another loadout that you've unlocked. This makes for a slightly less dynamic game, one that's more easily controlled and more balanced. It also means there's less opportunity for the crazy vehicle or base-destroying antics of Tribes 2, although I should point out that I was still very able to get into enemy bases as a Heavy, destroy their sensors, turrets, and generators down in the basements, and maintain a hold until the enemy overwhelmed me. All of that feels good and right, but up top, very few vehicles were moving around in most games - even when generators were running on both sides.
What has wound up being more popular than I expected was the Team Deathmatch mode, where the first person who dies spawns a flag on their corpse, and then either team tries to capture and hold that flag, flying around and dodging ordnance as long as possible. Each team has a limited number of lives, and the team that's holding the flag causes the other to "bleed" lives. What it amounts to is a game where sometimes going after the flag carrier is the right idea, but if you've got a few really skilled players, it might be best to deploy them to kill as many people as possible and drop the enemy's lives count than the opponents' flag carrier is draining your own.
Similar to this is a Rabbit mode which is free-for-all, and the first death again causes a flag to spawn. The one to carry the flag gains points and everyone else is trying to kill him (to the point that everyone who's not carrying the flag cannot hurt or kill each other). I found that in this mode, a good flag carrier that doesn't want to be caught is nigh-untouchable, and that the mode is actually more fun if everyone agrees to stop running and put up a fight if they get the flag. To that end, Hi-Rez might want to change up the rules of this mode to make sure that there's more fighting and less fruitless chasing of one guy that has simply mastered the movement better than everyone else.
One tip I will try to give players that are thinking of giving this game a try: whether you're new to Tribes or just getting into Ascend, you might go into Team DM in your first session, and hold off of playing CTF until you're comfortable. You'll be playing a simpler game that gets you used to moving around and hitting people in a more controlled environment without the higher-level players, vehicles, and sprawling bases of CTF.
For better or worse, Hi-Rez is forging a new Tribes experience that, at this point, doesn't seem to be making many veteran fans too happy. But could it possibly ever do that without just directly copying the old games point-for-point? Much like the original Fallout fanbase that continues on from a decade ago (or longer), new games in this series are going to have to change things up just to keep today's players interested, and that's always going to be a no-no for the curmudgeons. That said, I quite enjoyed my time spent playing the Tribes: Ascend beta, even if I found myself quickly outmatched by seasoned players in CTF and wound up enjoying the simple, kinetic feel of the other modes much more. The game's still in beta as of this writing, but you can get an invite over on the official Facebook page.