Tribes: Ascend has a particularly apt subtitle. It’s been seven years since we last skiied and soared our way through the shooter series that was once a fierce competitor for the likes of Quake and Unreal, and now Hi-Rez Studios is breathing new life into the franchise. Ascend also marks a shift into the free-to-play space the developer began to explore with their last title, Global Agenda; however, unlike many other free titles supported by microtransactions, paid players here aren’t afforded any real advantage and all content can be unlocked for free with enough time invested.
At its heart, Ascend plays much like the Tribes of old – Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Rabbit Chase modes are all available in the Beta – but it evolves the classic concepts by giving players a choice of twelve different character classes (with more on the way) that offer different abilities and equipment loadouts. Each class is rated on mobility, durability, anti-armour and range, with points distributed so that most classes have roughly the same amount of power on average. Along with the familiar options of light, medium or heavy armour, the classes offer two main firearms, a power-up pack, and an offhand weapon like grenades or claymores. Two classes are available to start with – the Ranger and the Soldier. The Ranger, as the name suggests, has above-average range with the assault rifle, but it also packs the Thumper DX for close-range grenade fire. The Soldier’s middling in every stat except for his slightly low anti-armour, but he wields one of Tribes’ most iconic weapons: the splash-damaging Spinfusor.
Other classes can be opened up with the tokens awarded at the end of each match, but it’s a long, slow road: you’d be lucky to unlock one with a week of heavy play. Less patient players will be happy to hear that classes can be unlocked for a price, but you’d better have deep pockets – twenty dollars will only give you enough gold to unlock three or four classes. Taking a leaf out of Xbox Live’s book, the pricing is set so you’ll always have a little gold left over. Right now, it encourages you to buy more so you can use it all up, but in the future those leftovers will likely be mopped up by the planned addition of buyable character skins. If you balk at the idea of spending money on a Beta, it’s worth noting that all player progress will carry over to the final release; jump in now and you’ll have a hefty headstart on launch day.
Though there’s only a handful of maps and game types in the Beta so far, the classes on offer are diverse enough to maintain interest. For players who favour defence, the heavy armour classes – the cheerfully named Doombringer, Juggernaut and Brute – are supplemented by a support class, the Technician, that shines in Capture the Flag matches. It sports the lowest stats in the game and a pretty puny SMG, but the improved repair tool ensures you’ll bring your base’s defences back online faster than ever, giving you a crucial edge. The Technician also has the ability to deploy light turrets which, when used strategically, can help keep your flag covered at all times. There really is a class to suit every play style – stealth fans even get a look in with the Infiltrator, a light-armoured class whose sneaky backstabs and sticky grenades make him formidable for offence in the right hands. Classes also gain experience as you use them, unlocking enhancements in a skill tree that culminates in perks that can be used with any class, which adds an extra layer of customisation for dedicated players.
Longtime Tribes fans will immediately feel at home, with classic maps like Tribes 2′s Katabatic making a reappearance – its steep slopes and exposed capture points make for some of the most frenetic Capture the Flag play around. Ascend’s more than just a high-definition facelift, though. Capture the Flag is more nuanced and dynamic here, with the added ability to earn credits for your in-game achievements which can be spent during that match on upgrading different aspects of your base, buying vehicles, or calling in a range of airstrikes. It’s a system that brings the series in line with more modern titles, escalating the chaos of a game that’s already more fast-paced than most.
For a Beta, Ascend is an immensely playable game: it’s incredibly stable, and regular patches add more polish and content all the time. It’s already an experience that’s at once a massive nostalgia bomb and a breath of fresh air in the modern shooter landscape, and given the asking price, we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the game’s evolution. Ahead of its expected launch in the first quarter of this year, we chatted to Hi-Rez Studios’ Chief Operating Officer, Todd Harris, about his plans for Ascend and the future of the franchise.