Tribes: Ascend brings the freemium model to a whole new level
It’s considered games journalism taboo to openly admit this in your work, but I think it’s an important fact to note: I’m not crazy about most modern first-person shooters. I hate getting picked off by snipers from the other side of the screen in a matter of seconds. I hate the infantile wailing of prepubescent children talking smack over a headset. I hate having to invest $60+ every year keeping up with yearly releases.
Tribes: Ascend is none of these things.
Hi-Rez Studios’ Tribes series, like your usual cult following film, is both beloved and overlooked. Dating as far back as 1998’s Starsiege: Tribes, the series is best known for its Team Fortress-esque squad-based multiplayer. Jumping on and off the radar over the next few releases, Hi-Rez finally has a compelling reason for everyone to experience the series for itself: it’s free.
You’ll find the moniker of Ascend is highly appropriate: every soldier, regardless of class, is equipped with a set of retractable skis and a jetpack. The unique ski system allows players to reach unbelievable speeds by riding downhill slopes. Combined with the jetpack, it’s possible to clear thousands of feet in a single high-velocity jump.
Gameplay is composed entirely of multiplayer modes, with the main modes (deathmatch and capture the flag) focused around large team-based warfare. Instead of discovering new weapons lying about the battlefield, each player is pre-set with equipment specific to one of ten different classes. Three of these classes are available from the start, while the other seven can be unlocked with in-game currency.
Purchases can be made through one of two ways: through experience points earned as you play, or through microtransaction-based gold. Real-money purchases begin at the fairly steep entry price of $10, and cap off at $50. It’s hard to deny that a purchase is attractive: a single gold transaction earns you VIP status, which awards a 50% bonus to all future experience points accumulated.
Players with empty pockets can still grab 250 gold for free by liking Tribe: Ascend‘s page on Facebook. Whether or not you ever plan on spending real money of your own, you get a free class or perk while Hi-Rez gets free exposure. Everybody wins.
The shop is full of all kinds of gameplay add-ons, including classes, weapons, perks, and skins. Luckily, nothing available breaks the balance of the game. No amount of weaponry or armor can turn a Tribes: Ascend player into a hero on its own.
In fact, most of the best players that I found over the course of the game were using the same weapons available from the very start. The high-speed shooting mechanic requires players to lead their shots, aiming at where their opponent will be rather than where they currently are. It takes time to learn, but it’ll eventually become second nature.
For players that never seem to get the hang of mid-air combat (myself included), there are a plethora of other rewarding activities. Like skiing and flying but hate combat? Perfect a fast class and become your team’s main flag capper. Want to remain helpful without constantly throwing yourself in the fray? Grab the technician class and repair damages to the base. There’s a gameplay class for everyone, and that’s where Tribes: Ascend truly shines.
The biggest tragedy of Tribes: Ascend is that, despite its extremely welcoming free-to-play system, it’s extremely hard to learn. The tutorials available do a great job of explaining movement via skis and jetpacks, but do little else to educate on its more complicated gameplay mechanics (such as different classes, game modes, healing, and more).
There are a handful of in-game popups that attempt to teach you the game on-the-fly, but inexperienced players will find themselves completely lost without the help of a knowledgeable friend. (I highly recommend that new players check out this wiki page before jumping online. It will help you more than the game itself does at getting adjusted).
This lack of explanation leads into this, but Tribes: Ascend is also a difficult game to master. While this is ultimately what makes its skill-based system so prevalent, it’s easy to see how it could damage a player’s motivation very early in. Case in point: I went my first three 15-minute matches scoring just two total kills. Proper skills came to me in time, but was still pretty demoralizing feeling so helpless early in.
Despite being a little difficult to get the hang of, Tribes: Ascend is hands down one of the best first person shooters on the market, paid or unpaid. It looks and plays like a major console release, without the inconvenience of a $60 price tag. Even if you’re not into FPS titles, I highly encourage that you try it out.