The Firing Line: Why you should be playing Tribes: Ascend

The Firing Line - Tribes open beta edition

Skiing! Jetpacks! Pew pew!

Yes, kids, Tribes: Ascend is officially in open beta, and that means you no longer have an excuse. Hi-Rez Studios threw open the doors this morning, and despite the fact that the game's closed beta exceeded all expectations and hosted over 300,000 players since its November kickoff, there's always room for more.

Tribes: Ascend - Blood Eagle skiing
Bullet time

If you're a Tribes newb, suffice it to say that the franchise is very different from your average multiplayer shooter. Call of Duty and Battlefield may get all the press (and all the box sales), but few titles can match Tribes when it comes to both longevity and originality.

Ascend is the latest offering in a series that began in 1998, and even though Hi-Rez is a newcomer to the IP, the firm has managed to capture the essence of the franchise well enough to please hardcore vets and casual newcomers alike. That essence is best summed up by the word speed, and whether you're a Pathfinder zipping down a snowy slope with the enemy flag in tow or you're a Sentinel drawing a long-distance bead on that wannabe capper, Tribes very quickly separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to reaction time and deflection shooting.

The crazy part is that even if you're the chaff, it's way more fun than any online shooter has a right to be.

Tribes: Ascend - Diamond Sword skiing

For starters, the game looks like a million bucks, and Hi-Rez's artists and animators ought to get raises across the board. The starting point is the Unreal 3 engine; wringing breakneck gameplay pacing, huge map layouts, and slick-looking animations out of it -- without crippling performance -- is no small feat.

While we're talking gameplay, Tribes: Ascend has it in spades, and I'm only partially referring to the fact that it features the expected multiplayer shooter modes and generous (if very recent) class customization options. Yes, the heart of every Tribes match -- whether it's team deathmatch, capture-the-flag, or the hyperactive rabbit mode -- boils down to killing other players. But Tribes: Ascend separates itself from mundane shooters (and even other jetpack games like Hi-Rez's own Global Agenda) thanks to an extreme blending of speed, scale, and physics.

Tribes: Ascend - Pathfinder

You can go a full match without a kill and still have a ball just navigating the maps. Getting from A to B is highly entertaining, and mastering the intricacies of skiing and good route selection will take some time. Did I mention that vehicles like the grav bike and the shrike are available as well? Hi-Rez is also tweaking base-related gameplay; managing generators and coordinating strategic attack and defend sorties adds a fair bit of depth to go along with the endless pew pew.

There are also plenty of reasons to stick with what is ultimately a variation on the pick-up-and-play-for-15-minutes shooter. Ascend features nine distinct classes, each with a variety of customization options including primary and secondary weapons, offhands, and stat-boosting perks. Hi-Rez has taken a page out of its Global Agenda playbook here, and while no one will ever mistake Tribes: Ascend for an MMO shooter (it's a 16v16 lobby game, after all), it very definitely features class and gear progression.

If you're allergic to grinding, you can basically bypass it entirely thanks to Hi-Rez's business model. The game is 100% free-to-play, but you can opt to unlock classes, class perks, and gear via the cash shop. If you play Ascend in small chunks amounting to a couple of 20-minute matches per day like I do, then it will take you a good long while to max out every class.

If instead you play Tribes all day every day, you'll still have a few weeks of grinding in front of you if your goal is to see it all without spending a dime. I hesitate to use the word grind, though, because Hi-Rez has made such an engaging/addictive game that it's hard to feel the effects of the tedium that reigns supreme in your average online multiplayer title.

It's also worth noting that any progress you make in the beta phase will carry over to release, since Hi-Rez has no plans to wipe characters when it officially rolls out the welcome mat.

Tribes: Ascend - Diamond Sword grav bike
Why we fight

Playing Tribes is like starring in your own sci-fi John Woo bullet ballet, and while I'm one of those old-school types who rolls his eyes at the thought of watching someone livestream an MMO (I can just go play it myself, yo), I would watch people play Ascend for hours at a time if my schedule allowed for it.

This game's action is frenetic and operatic all at once, and after spending a couple of months both viewing and playing the closed beta, I'm in complete agreement with Hi-Rez COO Todd Harris when he says that none of the current e-sport juggernauts can compare with Tribes in terms of compelling action and YouTube-friendly moments. Lots of shooters have hyper-stylized gunplay, but Tribes' version of it happens in real time, and seeing someone pull off an aerial kill or a ludicrous-speed flag-grab is almost as much fun as doing it yourself.

The compulsion to play "just one more" is quite strong, too, and I imagine it only gets stronger if you're running with a group of regulars (thus far I've been going it solo and partaking of the public match queues, whereas the game's full-fledged release will feature ranked matches, private clan servers, etc.).

In addition to the newly open beta, Hi-Rez is also dropping a load of fresh content into the game this week. First and foremost is the new arena deathmatch gametype, which comes complete with two brand-spanking-new maps (Lava Arena and Air Arena). Next up is the new Temple Ruins map for capture-the-flag games, followed by the Inferno map for team deathmatch.

The Soldier class is getting some love in the form of new unlockable items (a proximity grenade and utility pack), and the Doombringer and Brute classes will feature the latest in 33rd century battlefield fashion (i.e., new default armor suits). There's more in the patch roundup, and Hi-Rez also notes that it is expanding server capacity to support booming communities in both Brazil and Asia.

Normally in these impression pieces I'll find something to harp on, whether it's a major problem with the game or it's more of a nit-picky thing that helps balance out my overall opinion. With Tribes, though, the unavoidable truth is that I enjoy everything about it. It could use some tweaks here or there (especially in relation to flag placement and base utilization), but when it comes to team shooters, I'm hard-pressed to think of one I'd rather play.

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.