Ever heard of a Skinner box? You must have at some point; it’s one of those behavioural experiments where an animal is taught to perform a certain action – usually very basic, like pressing a switch — in return for a simple reward such as food. I’ve drawn unflattering comparisons between Skinner boxes and the mechanics of several of the games I’ve reviewed this year, and nowhere is it more apt than in the case of Tribes Ascend. Nowhere is it more regrettable, either, because staggering beneath the weight of the enormous piles of equipment unlocks and the experience point grinds required to obtain them is an extremely competent multiplayer shooter that’s struggling to escape the shadow of its free-to-play genetics.
Exactly how much of Tribes’ unlock system is directly attributable to being free-to-play is a matter for some debate. Unlock systems are a staggeringly effective way of retaining a playerbase for your online game and so you’d have to look very, very hard to find a game that didn’t utilise them in some way; they’re even starting to bleed into strategy games such as Total War and Wargame. The defining line between a retail game and a free-to-play game isn’t whether or not it has an unlock system in the first place, therefore, but rather how obnoxious this unlock system is. How much time do you have to devote to unlocking something? Once unlocked, what sort of impact does it have on the game? If the answer to both these questions is “loads” then the chances are you’re playing some kind of free-to-play game that’s more interested in keeping you in thrall to its reward system than actually letting you have any fun.
Tribes Ascend is built around an incredibly solid core of skill-based gameplay so it’s taken a little while for the symptoms of its F2P heritage to show. I’ll be honest, the last game I had this much fun with online was the almost-totally-ignored Section 8: Prejudice, which itself took several pages out of the original Tribes’ book. Most of what you’d expect to find in an online shooter is here – vehicles, bases, flags, a variety of light, medium and heavy classes – but there are two unique elements that mark Tribes out as being very different from its peers. The first is that there are maybe four or five hitscan weapons in the entire game. Everything else fires a projectile which has some kind of travel time, from SMGs to machine guns to grenade launchers to the ubiquitous spinfusors (Tribes’ equivalent to a rocket launcher), and the blast radius on the vast majority of explosive munitions is very small. Tribes is a game that rewards precision over twitch-shooting, where the ability to accurately predict where an enemy is going and lead your shots accordingly is what makes the difference between success and failure.
This is a pleasant departure from the norm, but it wouldn’t have anywhere near as significant an effect on the gunplay if it wasn’t for Tribes’ unique selling point: skiing. Holding down the spacebar in Tribes will turn off friction for your avatar. If you’re on a slope you will begin to slide down it, gradually gathering speed. Eventually you’ll bottom out and go on to hit an upward slope which will rob you of your momentum, so at that point you trigger your jump jets to smoothly glide over the next hill. If you time it right and angle yourself just so, you can hit the downwards slope on the other side with little to no loss of speed from the original slope. Chain together several of these hills in a row and you can reach some truly ludicrous velocities; even heavy classes like the Doombringer can hit 140-150 kph if they do it right, and light classes built for speed hurtle around the map at speeds of up to 300kph. (Going faster is possible, but difficult to accomplish without spending a lot of time setting up the run.)
This is why I say Tribes is, at its core, very much a game of skill and precision over spraying bullets and explosives around willy-nilly. You’re trying to hit fast-moving targets that are constantly changing direction with projectile weapons that take a second or two to cover the intervening distance while you yourself are likely travelling at an appreciable fraction of the speed of sound. This is, in a nutshell, very tricky, and it’s something that can take an hour or two to get used to. Eventually it clicks, though, and you start to appreciate what a truly exhilarating game Tribes is. Since nobody in this game is standing still unless they’re on flag defence, duels with enemy players have more in common with aerial dogfights than they do ground-based firefights, with both players trying to retain their momentum while getting onto a movement trajectory that’ll make hitting their opponent relatively easy. And flag chases are an incredible sight, with the pursuers streaking across the landscape in a series of long, loping jumps frantically trying to take down the capper (and anyone with him; no friction means you can fire at pursuers while moving backwards with the only handicap being that you can’t see where you’re going) before he gets the flag back to his stand.
Classes and equipment are reasonably well thought out. My favourite class is the Technician, a utility character with a repair tool and deployable turrets who focuses on keeping the base facilities going. Most of my time is spent trying to keep enemy infiltrators and raiders out of my team’s generator room; if that goes down all base defences – not to mention a lot of deployables, like the aforementioned turrets – power down and won’t work until the generator is brought back online, so keeping it up is important. I also occasionally moonlight as the Doombringer, a big fat lump of armour with a chaingun and a set of forcefields that can be used to stop any would-be flag cappers dead in their tracks. More offensively-minded players get the Pathfinder, an incredibly fast class with a grenade that both boosts his own speed and forces enemy flag carriers to drop their flags, making him good for both capping and chasing. It’s good design which promotes teamplay; as the Doombringer I can keep most players off the flag, but I have no chance of catching a Pathfinder should he slip through and grab it. I need my teammates to do that. My forcefields will go down if Technicians do not keep the generators up; I could protect the generator myself but that would mean I wouldn’t be watching the flag, which is my job. Everyone has a well-defined role and the tools to help them do it. Except the Soldier. Screw that guy.
Anyway, it all makes for very entertaining back and forth gameplay in Capture the Flag mode, and if that were all Tribes Ascend was I’d be praising it to the heavens. Unfortunately we’ve gotten to the part of the review where the other shoe drops; the free-to-play shoe, which hurtles towards Tribes and smashes this core gameplay into itty-bitty pieces.
The free-to-play aspect of Tribes comes in two highly unattractive parts. First there is the experience grind; while you can in theory unlock everything in Tribes without paying a penny, in practice the prices for the most useful items are so exorbitant as to make them effectively prohibitive. For example, the Technician’s second unlockable weapon is a grenade launcher, the Thumper. I hear it’s very useful in precisely the sort of close-range fight I tend to engage in while trying to defend my generator, but it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever get to find out because unlocking it will cost me a whopping 100,000 experience. For reference, playing a twenty-minute round of CTF will net you about 1000 experience. Experience boosts and one-time bonuses help that along a little, but I’m still looking at something like 15 hours of play just to unlock one item. This is completely untenable, of course, which is why the developers of Tribes also give me the option to buy the Thumper immediately for the low low price of 780 gold, or about £7 in real world money.
Now, as it stands I cannot really complain about this. They’ve given me the game for free, and they’ve given me the option to acquire everything in the game without spending money. It might take a while but it’s definitely possible, and in the meantime the base weaponry is good enough to keep me competitive. This is what you sign up for when you accept the terms of the free-to-play package. It’s not my real problem with the game. My real problem with the game is the new weapons Hi-Rez periodically introduces as a way of continuing to generate revenue. The thinking behind them runs like this: if we release a gun that is worse than what players already have, nobody will buy it. If we release a gun that is only a sidegrade, or a slight upgrade, then only a very few people will buy it. If on the other hand we release a gun that is so sickeningly overpowered it gives the class that uses it an effective “I win” button, everyone will buy it.
This is how weapons that are completely at odds with the skill-based nature of Tribes – the Plasma Gun and the Jackal – have made their way into the game. The Plasma Gun is a spinfusor with a multi-shot clip, a high fire rate and an incredibly large hitbox that makes it child’s play to hit players in the air (in Tribes players spend 90% of their time in the air). The Jackal is a three-shot sticky grenade launcher that has inexplicably been given to the Infiltrator, a class that not only already has sticky grenades as his utility item but which can also fire all three grenades and detonate them before his cloak has fully dropped, effectively giving them carte blanche to one-shot anyone they see in the generator room. I have died more times to players wielding these two guns than every other weapon in the game put together. It doesn’t matter how smart I am, or what class I take; they’ll kill me five times for every death I manage to inflict on them. What makes it especially insulting is that Hi-Rez obviously spent a lot of time trying to avoid exactly this kind of pay-to-win bollocks in the design of the basic game. It’s like watching a horde of malevolent children attacking a work of art with a potato and a pot of acrylic paints; you can still see the original work peeking out from underneath the sticky handprints smeared across its surface, but for the most part it has been compromised and defiled.
That’s why I can’t really recommend Tribes Ascend. Or at least, it’s why I can’t really recommend you spend any money on Tribes Ascend. Free is free, after all, and what doesn’t cost you money can’t really hurt you. It’s certainly worth downloading and trying if you’re in any way inclined towards online shootery, but you do need to keep in mind that beneath the skiing and the duels and the desperate flag-chasing the basic reason for Tribes’ existence is to part you with as much of your hard-earned cash as possible, and it’s willing to compromise the fundamental nature of its game balance in order to do so. While it may be attractive to look at and undeniably fun to play, Tribes Ascend is a game with a rotten soul. You can try it, and you may even enjoy it, but I wouldn’t get too invested in it if I were you.