So what will we be talking about in The Firing Line? Well, this is the part where I rub my hands together in anticipation! Naturally we'll spend a lot of time with the genre's big guns (sorry, I had to use that at least once), so I'll be playing huge amounts of PlanetSide 2, DUST 514, Firefall, Global Agenda, and the semi-obscure free-to-play titles crowding the market -- all in an effort to bring you the very best news and views from the world of pew pew.
Hi-Rez Studios in Atlanta and met with the gang responsible for both Global Agenda and the upcoming Tribes: Ascend title. Most of you are already familiar with Global Agenda, and as it's one of my favorite MMOs, it'll be getting plenty of play in future columns. I'd like to focus the remainder of today's piece on Hi-Rez's vision for the Tribes franchise.
Hi-Rez is looking to tap into the lingering love for the old girl as well as update the IP for a modern audience. If you've never played a Tribes game, you'll nonetheless find the trappings somewhat familiar. There's some blah blah backstory about the 40th century, which serves as a flimsy excuse for badass power armor, spinfusers, and of course, jetpacks.
We're not talking about Global Agenda-type jetpacks with which you can hit your head on a relatively low invisible map ceiling, though. No, Tribes jetpacks add a real vertical dimension to shooter combat, and when combined with the fast-paced skiing element that the franchise is famous for, they make for a unique and memorable experience full of jaw-dropping aerial kills and impossibly awesome feats of sniperly derring-do.
What's this about skiing, you say? Well, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth a million, amirite?
To qualify my opinions here, I'm not a Tribes expert. I played both Starsiege and Tribes 2 circa 2004, but I was firmly entrenched in both Star Wars Galaxies and Anarchy Online at the time, and shooters weren't a huge part of my gaming diet.
That said, I've always enjoyed them and am quite excited for Tribes' beta because it is unlike any shooter I've ever played, online or otherwise. The speed (with apologies to the purists on the beta forums) is exhilarating, and the one-two punch of skiing and jetpacking is tons of fun in and of itself, to say nothing of when they're married to the flag-capping, generator-destroying, grav cycle-riding mechanics.
And the maps, ahh the maps. Huge would be one word. Gorgeous would be another. Due to the speed at which your avatar travels, big maps are a necessity, and Hi-Rez doesn't disappoint here. There are also more than a few nods to the classic maps lurking under the layers of current-gen visual pizazz.
Tribes: Ascend is a class-based shooter in that there are various loadout pre-sets that you can select. Each is intended to serve a particular purpose during squad-based combat, and each is differentiated by weapon types, armor types, and offhands similar to those in Global Agenda. Hi-Rez is tying the loadout system to its free-to-play business model by offering two classes for free at the outset and putting the rest behind the paywall (preliminary pricing and point experiments place the cost in the neighborhood of $7.50 per loadout, but this could change, as the game is still early in closed beta). The devs also assured me that there are planned discounts for players wanting to purchase larger bundles, which will result in a significantly cheaper loadout cost.
Crucially, though, all of the loadouts can be obtained for free by simply playing the game (and again, it's early, so we don't rightly know what sort of grind is involved). While some F2P developers are embracing fluff and cosmetics as their primary source of income, Hi-Rez is taking a bit of a risk by tying core class-based gameplay together with its payment model. COO Todd Harris told me that the trick is to respect the hardcore FPS base and the competitive gamers who feel that in-game power shouldn't be bought and sold. Hi-Rez is also betting its success on its ability to please long-time shooter fans and maintain a layer of accessibility for the much larger pick-up-and-play-casually audience.
Speaking of competitive gamers, I learned that Harris and Hi-Rez also have designs on turning Tribes: Ascend into a bonafide e-sport. While games like StarCraft and League of Legends get the lion's share of the competitive press these days, Harris says that none of the current darlings can stand up to Tribes when it comes to kinetically charged combat and oh-wow moments that look great on YouTube.
SMITE (the company's upcoming entry into the MOBA market), Tribes: Universe has been relegated to the proverbial back burner.
What the heck is Tribes: Universe?
Well, Hi-Rez is technically developing two Tribes titles, and Universe was actually the first of the pair to see the light of day when Massively broke the news about the acquisition of the Tribes IP back in 2010. In contrast to Tribes: Ascend's 16-player battles, Tribes: Universe's set-up is theoretically akin to PlanetSide's, with hundreds of simultaneous players and elements of persistence that place it firmly into the MMOFPS category (by contrast, Harris says that Ascend is "absolutely not an MMO," though it does feature character progression and is played exclusively online).
For now, Ascend is what Tribers both new and old have to look forward to, and Harris says that while development on Universe may resume at some point, right now all of the company's effort is aimed at its three main titles.
The Firing Line's Jef Reahard has a twitchy trigger finger, a love of online shooters, and an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm Reynolds. OK, maybe not, but at least if he ever kills you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing him, and you'll be armed.