IF THEY HAVE first-person shooters in martial arts Valhalla, we’re pretty sure Tribes: Ascend is the one Bruce Lee plays. First and foremost, it’s a game about movement. In a split second, you have to judge where your jetpack-propelled, lightning-quick opponent is, where they’re going to be, and what you should do about it. You have to instinctively go with the flow, all the while never missing a beat. You must, well, be as water. Water with a jetpack. As a result, Tribes simply feels wonderful—not to mention unlike anything else on the market. Sure, it’s basically a shinier Tribes 2, but you won’t hear any dismayed cries of “Shazbot” coming from us.
What worked in previous Tribes games is in top form here. Footing it from place to place is—as you’d expect in a game subtitled “Ascend”—suicidal, so forward motion is all about deftly mixing aerial acrobatics and inertia-based “skiing.” In short, your jetpack can only play little-engine-that-could-defy-physics for a few seconds, at which point gravity rudely yanks you into free fall. Combined with Tribes’ trademark hilly terrain, however, that velocity can be transformed into your best friend instead of transforming you into paste. Simply hold the space bar to ski—typically at speeds in excess of 100 mph—in whatever direction you were headed. Shouting “wheeeeee” while going down ultra-steep inclines is optional, but encouraged.
Staying airborne increases your chances of living.
Granted, those geographical curves create a steep learning curve for first-timers, and the tutorial could be better. But once you get the hang of skiing, the simple act of movement becomes addictively compulsive—not to mention a key part of combat strategy. Battles are essentially explosive airborne jousting matches, with players circling, swooping, and chipping away at each other’s health—again, for emphasis, typically at speeds in excess of 100 mph. As a result, predicting where your target’s going to be and drilling them with a perfectly placed shot is like scoring a hole-in-one in golf. Sure, a high degree of skill is required, but the resultant blend of adrenaline, relief, and sheer satisfaction more than justifies it.
Colossal, open maps, meanwhile, allow each of the game’s nine classes to assume all sorts of roles on-the-fly and also while flying. A speedy Pathfinder, for instance, might find themselves swiping flags, chasing enemy flag carriers, or destroying enemy defense turrets depending on the situation. And while CTF is definitely the main event, Capture and Hold mode’s spread-out nature forces many classes—for instance, indoor-friendly heavy types—to adopt entirely different strategies. By comparison, other modes (TDM and Arena) fall a bit flat, but they’re hardly boring.
Ascend’s real problems, then, stem from both the presence of more modern shooter standbys and a lack thereof. Foremost, Ascend is free-to-play, and while every class and upgrade can be unlocked with the congealed elbow grease that is XP, it’s a painfully slow process. Admittedly, buying all the classes and upgrading a couple will only clip your piggy bank’s wings to the tune of $30 or so, but there’s something wrong about putting the world’s slowest‑level treadmill in its fastest multiplayer shooter. Moreover, while the rank system generally provides options—not extra pay-to-win power—a couple of classes (like the Spinfusor-less Soldier) are basically useless without their unlockable firearms.
Ascend also falls disappointingly short in the teamwork department, with only a tiny handful of team-centric incentives and no voice chat. On top of that, team-oriented classes like the base-defending Technician are locked by default, so most players tend to go Rambo McLoneWolferson, which seems like a huge waste in a game rife with as many potential tactics as Tribes.
It’s encouraging, however, to see such an otherwise strong start from a game that’ll probably continue buzzing around the public eye for quite some time. Hi-Rez has shown tremendous dedication thus far, and we look forward to watching Ascend evolve. Even as is, however, it’s likely the best shooter on the free-to-play block. Our thumbs are definitely in the direction jetpacks go. (That’s up, in case you were wondering.)
Fast, high-flying shooting that requires real skill; open levels that allow all sorts of tactics; varied classes that fit pretty much any playstyle.
Glacial XP gain if you’re not paying; ranks rob a couple of classes of essential weapons; lacking teamwork tools.