You may recall that precisely 104 days ago, I talked a bit about a first-person shooter called Section 8: Prejudice. While I still stand by what I said in that first impressions piece, especially when it comes to those who say the genre is ‘stagnating’ due to FPS games, I must also say I’ve stopped playing the game. Part of this is due to the growing realization that, as much as the loadouts lend themselves to customization coupled with the tantalizing promise of unlockable weapons, the visual style of the player avatars leaves one with the impression that every player is basically a Spartan from Halo in all but name and ability to jetpack around the map. There’s also the fact that in just about every way, the free-to-play title Tribes: Ascend leaves it completely in the dust.

Courtesy Hi-Rez Studios
Soldier on Katabatic

As a newcomer to the Tribes franchise I cannot speak to the backstory or experience of previous games. The lore and fluff of the universe is intimidatingly huge, and I will relate what I’ve managed to glean so far. In the semi-distant future a variety of human colonies have seceded from the human Empire and formed what are called Tribes in the void beyond Imperial borders, also called ‘Wildspace’ or ‘the Wilderzone’. There was, from what I understand, a truce between two of the largest tribes: Blood Eagle, descendants of Imperial Knights sent to beat the tribes into line with the Legate; and Diamond Sword, warrior-philosophers who petitioned the Emperor to enter the Wilderzone in order to defend the Empire from some unknown future threat. Something happened to that truce; I’m unclear as to what it was, being nothing more than a soldier, but now the Eagles are called ‘butchers’ by the Diamond Sword, while they are in turn called ‘betrayers’ or ‘sandrakers’, a derogatory reference by Blood Eagle to the Diamond Sword practice of maintaining Zen gardens.

The most important things about Tribes: Ascend are its speed and its weapons. Like Section 8, everybody has a jetpack. However, there also is a universal piece of equipment, strapped to the back of your shins, that basically cancels your friction on a surface and allows you to ‘ski’ across terrain, maintaining whatever momentum you’ve built up. This means that games of Tribes: Ascend often happen on the move and at a much faster pace than your traditional FPS. It’s one thing to sprint a bit across part of a relatively small map. It’s quite another to zip along at 130 kilometers per hour (on average) across maps with genuine terrain and frankly astounding skyboxes.

Courtesy Hi-Rez Studios
Pathfinder on Raindance

The other thing about Tribes: Ascend worth noting is that with three exceptions, none of the weapons are ‘hitscan’. In normal shooting games, your bullet goes right where your reticule is aiming instantly. “Point-and-click” you might say. Tribes weapons are projectile-based, and those projectiles obey the sames laws of physics you do. They inherit your speed, drop-off, arc when fired in the air, and so on. This leads to players needing to be a bit more skilled to pull off proper kills in some of the trickier classes, and makes getting awards like “Blue Plate Special,” given to those who blast an opponent out of the air with a spinfusor, extremely satisfying.

Ah, yes, the spinfusor. It wouldn’t be a Tribes game without one. The spinfusor is a weapon that fires a magnetically-accelerated disc at extremely high speed, which explodes on impact. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but when you start up the game for the first time, you may notice most of the variations on the crafty death-dealing device are locked. You are also, at first, somewhat limited in your choices for perks and other goodies, and you start with only three classes. This is the unfortunate drawback to Tribes: Ascend being free to play. You must unlock the other classes and weapons with either XP (earned by playing the game) or Tribes gold (for which you pay cash money).

Courtesy Hi-Rez Studios
Brute on Katabatic

Let me do a quick run-down of the classes themselves before I rake up any more muck. There are three light classes, most of whom look like they’ve strapped their jetpack and anti-grav boots on over your basic military fatigues. I really like this; not only does it make them visually distinct, it speaks to practicality in design. Anyway, you start with the Pathfinder, a speedy class best suited for grabbing flags, chasing down other light classes, or doing general harassment. You can unlock the Sentinel, a defensive sniping class, and Infiltrator, a sneaky S.O.B. with equipment to disrupt enemy defenses, destroy base assets like generators and turrets, and assassinate defenders. For the medium types you begin with the Soldier, a jack-of-all-trades that curiously starts with the lackluster assault rifle unlocked instead of the fun and more effective spinfusor. Anyway, the other two mediums are the Technician, which deploys turrets and makes repairs extremely quickly, and the Raider, a grenade-tossing offensive class dedicated to enemy base harassment and destruction. Last but not least, there are three heavy types, starting with the Juggernaut, which bombards the enemy with mortars and missile launchers. The Doombringer, a chain-gun toting defensive class, and the Brute, a hard-hitting indoors engine of destruction, can be unlocked. The classes offer a great deal of variety even within their weight classes, mean that there’s something for everyone, provided you stick with the basics long enough to unlock what you might like the most.

There are some reservations I have towards Tribes both as a current player and as someone singing its praises. I am looking forward to private servers quite a bit, as public servers can be hit-and-miss in terms of the quality and attitude of players. For the most part, it’s certainly more welcoming and less caustic an experience to play Tribes than anything on X-Box Live, but there’s still the occasional jerk or that string of games with a team that just can’t get its act together. The system for unlocks and the rate of XP feels relatively balanced, but as new weapons and skins are added, I can see this becoming a victim of Team Fortress 2 syndrome. I hope Hi-Rez Studios does not augment one class at a time. The first update, Cloak and Dagger, only updated the Infiltrator, and guess what was played almost exclusively for the next couple weeks. Finally, the learning curve for the skiing and projectiles can be a little steep for new players. It doesn’t handle quite the same as any other FPS and that can lead to a lot of initial deaths, even accidental ones when you misjudge where you’re putting a spinfusor disc or a grenade.

Courtesy Hi-Rez Studios
Juggernaut on Sunstar

All that said, however, once you get the hang of the momentum of the game, it’s an absolute blast to play. There are Arena, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Capture and Hold modes. Again, you’re bound to find something to suit your playstyle and your needs. I’ve definitely found it worth my time and more than fun enough to justify picking up some Tribes gold, which also incidentally gives you an XP boost and VIP status. If you’re interested in playing, click here, and I’ll see you in the Wilderzone.