The diary of a murderous skier: My first two weeks with Tribes: Ascend

As free-to-play games are constantly changing, traditional reviews can't really do them justice, so Joystiq relies on a series of unscored review diaries to record our experiences with them.

It's been over a decade since I last played PC games with any regularity. Outside of Word Munchers, The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary and The Oregon Trail, I grew up with a controller instead of a keyboard and mouse. There were brief flirtations with Duke Nukem 3D and Doom, but I was busy playing GoldenEye over Quake.

Starsiege: Tribes changed that. It barely ran on my father's computer, and our little 28.8Kbps modem could hardly handle the data stream necessary for online play, but I spent hours tying up our phone line regardless. Its fast pace, enormous outdoor environments, and central gameplay twist – "skiing" down hills and jetpacking up the other side, making for constant air battles with other players – entranced my adolescent brain. It seemed so vastly ahead of anything else available and, in many ways, still does.

By the time Tribes 2 came out three years later, I had moved on, back to console games and away from games in general. When Tribes: Vengeance came out in 2004, it barely registered on my radar (despite a renewed interest in games, I didn't have a suitable PC at the time).

I still don't have a suitable PC for playing games. I don't actually own any PCs. I do, however, have a MacBook Air with a Windows 7 partition. And I'm happy to say that the latest Tribes – Tribes: Ascend – not only runs beautifully on there, but is also a fantastic game. Did I mention it's free? 'Cause it's totally free.

Playing Tribes is a lot like riding a bike or driving a manual car: it instills and requires a very particular set of muscle memories. My first five minutes in Tribes: Ascend made this abundantly clear, as I deftly skied down enormous hillsides, firing my "spinfusor" (Tribes' iconic disc gun) ahead of aggressors to knock them off their skiing rhythm.


I immediately jumped into capture the flag, and was glad to find the formula hasn't changed too much from the original. Beyond the basic "we want the enemy's flag" (and vice versa) objective, Ascend adds another layer of complexity to each team's base via turrets, inventory stations, and generators.

Your base is a crucial last line of defense for the flag. If your generators are taken out, all your power goes down (including turrets) and it becomes easier for enemies to snatch up your flag. Thankfully, an enormous list of classes is available for customization. You could play as a heavy engineer and never leave your base for a match, all the while earning just as much XP – and having just as much fun – as the dude capping the flag, or you could be the guy piloting a tank across the map, crushing everyone in his path.

Base maintenance isn't quite as rigorous in Ascend as it was in the original, where even inventory stations and ammo resupply points could be destroyed. This careful streamlining – along with the gorgeous graphical update, even on low settings – is one of the few alterations made in Ascend. Thankfully, they feel like a natural progression for the series rather than change just for the sake of it.

As Ascend is the first free-to-play entry in the series, I decided to begin by not paying a damn thing. That's how it's supposed to be played, right? Apparently the devs at Hi-Rez Studios agree, as the majority of the game is accessible right from the jump. One of each of the game's three armor classes is available (the "Pathfinder," the "Soldier," and the "Juggernaut"), and both Deathmatch and CTF are open ("Arena" and "Capture and Hold" unlock after your character reaches level eight).


After two weeks of playing, I've still yet to pay anything and I'm still thoroughly enjoying the game. A tiered pricing structure allows players to purchase time-based XP boosts, as well as varying amounts of virtual currency towards weapons, upgrades, and loadouts. It could just be that I'm super nasty at Tribes (highly unlikely), but I've had no problem holding my own against other players, which tells me that either no one is paying for anything or that there's enough content for free players not to get decimated by paying ones.

But will that trend continue? Tune in next week to find out! Also, I'll have reached level eight by then, which means I can speak to the game's two new modes: Arena (5 v 5 team deathmatch) and Capture and Hold (wherein teams ... capture and hold five points, much like Battlefield's Conquest mode).

Sound fun? Try it yourself at the Tribes: Ascend website.