The Firing Line: Tribes impressions and a visit to Hi-Rez

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|11.04.11

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The Firing Line: Tribes impressions and a visit to Hi-Rez
The Firing Line - Header with various shooter characters
What's up folks, and welcome to The Firing Line. We've been branching out our coverage lately, first with MMO-specific columns and then with Not So Massively and MOBAs. Now we're doing something similar with online shooters. This genre is positively huge, and while there's a lot of room for debate in terms of what constitutes an MMO shooter, there's also no denying that all of the games hovering around the periphery of that designation are a lot of fun.

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.

Tribes: Ascend - Blood Eagle wallpaper
I can't think of a better way to kick things off than by visiting a firm that is making a couple of the more noteworthy online shooters, so I recently traveled to 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.

Hardcore shooter aficionados are no strangers to the Tribes series that stretches all the way back to 1998, and 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?

I had the good fortune to play in the final two alpha test events (closed beta officially starts today), and I also got to sit in on an internal Hi-Rez playtest during one of the team's lunchtime jam sessions. I came away convinced that the game will be one of my mainstays over the next several months, and it may even give Global Agenda a run for its money as my go-to game when I've got random 20-minute chunks of playtime.

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.

Mechanically, 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.

Private shards
The game also lends itself to customizability in a way that may surprise gamers used to draconian online restrictions. Tribes: Ascend will feature custom server functionality at launch, and players will be able to create their own walled gardens for both play and practice, complete with controls that allow for customized game types and loadout permissions. Harris was quick to point out that these are not traditional dedicated servers per se, mainly because they still require users to authenticate through a legal copy of Hi-Rez's client software.

Tribes: Universe?
While all that sounds quite awesome, I did have one minor disappointment during my visit to Hi-Rez. It seems that with all the focus on Tribes: Ascend, Global Agenda, and 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.

Next issue
And that, as the saying goes, is how we do that. The inaugural edition of The Firing Line is in the books, and I hope you're as excited as I am about the column (and all the upcoming games). Feel free to share your comments, suggestions, and coverage requests, and I look forward to fragging with you in the very near future.

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.
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