Tribes: Ascend hands-on preview

Bringing back the sci-fi ski-jump in glorious HD

When was the last time you went skiing in a multiplayer shooter? Sadly the answer is either never or seven years ago, because that’s the last time anyone saw the Tribes franchise. Skiing the Tribes way is so much more fun than how it’s done in the real world. First, a quick (interesting, I swear) history lesson: in the original Starsiege: Tribes, players figured out an exploit where if you tapped the jump key while running downhill, it broke a loophole in the physics engine and allowed you to accumulate momentum. Thus, skiing as an exploit was born and all the players adopted it. The developers realized hey, instead of taking away something the players liked, even if it wasn’t what they originally intended, why not design it into the next game? Now skiing is the core component of the series, and has returned in all its speedy glory in Tribes: Ascend.

I played Tribes: Ascend recently at QuakeCon and for those wondering if the old Tribes has come back, I can say that yes, it definitely has. So much so, that I didn’t see anything new that stood out, so really it feels like Tribes 2 HD, which will probably make Tribes veterans happy. The main difference is that it will be a free-to-play game where you can buy loadouts if you wish. For those who don’t know what the heck Tribes even is, imagine a sci-fi shooter that looks a bit Halo-ish (but its aesthetic precedes Halo), but what sets it apart from most other shooters, other than the skiing and jumping, is the wide-open outdoor environments. Instead of corridors or alleyways, the Tribes maps are mostly a series of rolling hills.

Everybody in Tribes has a jetpack with limited fuel. This means you can do one big jump before you fall back to earth. With skiing, however, it becomes an endlessly fun and useful mode of transport. As we mentioned, when skiing was a glitch it allowed players to go faster than they were supposed to and created cumulative momentum. Now that it’s a feature built into the series, it works like this: when you’re on a downward slope you hold down the spacebar to start skiing. You’ll go faster and faster, easily building enough momentum to slide right up the upward slope of the next hill. When you reach the next hilltop, you right-click to turn on your jetpack, sending you careening into the air at great velocity. The hills on the maps are spaced specifically so that you can then land in the next downward slope and continue skiing, building up even more speed. It’s a simple mechanic that takes only a bit of time to get the basic hang of, but then only a Tribes master can take full advantage of it.

Now you may be thinking: doesn’t flying through the air make you an easy target? Tribes doesn’t want to discourage huge momentum-powered leaps (because they’re fun!) so the weapons are designed around carefully placed shots – while you can have a standard SMG and plink away at a jumping enemy, it takes quite a few shots to take them out. The real powerhouse weapons, like the Spinfusor, which shoots out explosive Frisbees, are slow-firing with splash damage. This means you either track your foe’s arc and predict where he’s going to land so you can hit him with splash damage on the ground, or you are a total badass and can hit a flying target with a single shot.

If Tribes was just about jumping around like a monkey and shooting other players, it would get old quickly (at least for players like me). That’s why there’s much more to it: there are vehicles like mini-fighter craft and hover-bikes, there are objective-based modes like capture-the-flag (which takes on a hilarious flavor when the flag runner is jumping and skiing across the map with a swarm of bouncing chasers in tow), there are deployables like turrets, and there are giant airships that act as bases for each team.

Playing Tribes feels refreshing after so many Call of Duty and Battlefield games, as the combat is very different. The series has inspired at least a couple of other shooter franchises, including my personal favorite, PlanetSide (which some Tribes devs worked on), and Section 8. The big, open maps lead to different tactics from the typically cramped boxes most modern shooters employ, so instead of carefully creeping along in order to get the jump on some guy where one of you will die in less than a second, you get to strafe and dodge and duke it out for a few seconds like in many old-school shooters. If you’re tired of the same-old same-old in your shooters, or you remember Tribes fondly, Tribes: Ascend may just be the slidey, jumpy reprieve from shooter fatigue when it releases later this year on PC and some point further down the line on 360 (Microsoft is still deciding if the game can be free-to-play).

Aug 12, 2011

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