The realm of free-to-play games is a treacherous one: there is always a somewhat overbearing sense of curiosity as to why the game is free-to-play. People tend not to see things that are free at the point of service as worthwhile or, if they do, treat them with some sense of caution, as if the “free” product advertised will somehow cost them money somewhere down the line: the inevitable sting in the tail of the promise of “free.” To take obvious examples from the field, the promise of free-to-play in video games has been misleading in the cases of World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, with the former only being free until a certain arbitrary point, and the latter essentially crippling the player in terms of items available at a certain point. In both of these cases, there is a case of the player effectively having to pay-to-win having had their teaser. Tribes: Ascend, however, it not a game in this mould and is truly a free-to-play game.
This, of course, is not to say that Hi-Rez Studios have not monetised the game in any way: there is an in-game currency, simply titled “Tribes Gold”, which can be used to purchase new classes of player character, new items and weapons for these classes and new loadouts for the classes that allow the player to store several pre-set selections of items in order to quicker select what one wants for a match. In an act of incredible fairness, however, Hi-Rez have also made is possible for any player to unlock any item merely by virtue of spending time playing the game: as well as through the use of Tribes Gold, players are also able to exchange experience points (XP) for these unlockables, with the amount of XP awarded at the end of a match being directly proportional to the amount of time expended by the player in that match. This is a system that results in no player sufficiently invested in the game being left out. For those who play the game more casually, however, this dual method of payment for locked items may do little good: the amount of experience required to unlock any new item seems significantly more than its Gold equivalent with little experience being awarded from each match, and thus players more willing to spend on the game will unlock weaponry much faster. Further to this, those who purchase particular packs of items from the game’s store, such as the Steam Starter Pack, appear to have their cake and be able to eat it: they are treated by the game as “VIP members” and thus receive a fifty per cent bonus to their experience income for the life of their account.
On the face of it, this seems a little unfair: the motivation behind unlocking new weapons in multiplayer first-person shooters is traditionally that the later weapons are better. Taking the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series as the archetypal example of the multiplayer first-person shooter, level progression unlocks progressively better weapons that provide a genuine competitive advantage over other players. In the case of Tribes: Ascend, however, further weapons act as seemingly balanced variations on certain weapon types. Within the soldier class, the change from the secondary weapon Thumper D to the unlockable Thumper DX brings with it greater explosive damage, but with a smaller explosive range. This is the case with most of the unlockable weapons in the game and creates a sense of fairness in weapon selection not replicated elsewhere in the genre.
Fortunately, this aspect of systematic fairness is not the only thing that sets Tribes: Ascend apart from its genre peers: the game plays in a particularly unique way in that it makes effective use of all three dimensions available to it: while in other first-person shooters, the player may be able to jump to make use of the Z-axis, this use is typically limited to short distances. Tribes: Ascend, however, makes full use of the dimension by incorporating a jetpack to allow players to ascend to whatever heights their available energy (shown by the bottom bar in the bottom-left of the HUD) will permit. The jetpack’s utility is further bolstered by the “skiing” mechanic employed by the game: pressing the spacebar will cause the player to start to “ski” meaning that if the current motion is downhill, the player’s speed will increase (as shown by bars that appear on the left and right of the screen), providing an evasive benefit particularly useful in the game’s Capture the Flag mode. When this is combined with the jetpack, it allows the player to maintain speed then travelling uphill as well as down.
This focus on speed feeds into the gunplay of the game as well: all weapons fire is treated as a projectile and, as the laws of physics command, the speed at which the projectile is issued is partly contingent on the speed at which the player is moving. The challenge of keeping the player’s speed up in order that weapons fire arrive at its destination more quickly, and then adjusting the lead-time required for shots to hit their target, while attempting to change altitudes to yourself avoid the fire of other players makes for some refreshingly complex and engrossing gameplay. This is not a game that rewards sneakily hiding around corners to catch opponents unaware: this game requires quick thinking and quick reactions.
A nice little feature of gameplay is that it does its best to reward all actions: credits are accrued within each match for killing enemies, assisting teammates in killing enemies, the capturing of flags and, essentially, any other action that furthers the aim of one’s team. These credits can then be exchanged for vehicles, weapon strikes or supply drops, and in so doing makes the game less frustrating for the types of player that can wear down an enemy but then have another teammate complete the kill: such thought has clearly gone into making the game less frustrating for less capable or less fortunate players.
The classes which can be played are divided into three types: light, medium and heavy. Predictably, these groupings correlate with characters that are speedy but can neither give nor take much damage; balanced characters who are neither slow nor incredibly damaging; and slow-but-tough characters that are useful for meting out damage. Given the importance of the skiing and jetpacking of the game mentioned earlier, the classes chosen can really affect how one plays the game. If a gripe has to be made, it is that within the three sub-types of classes, there is little variety: playing as a Pathfinder is much the same as playing as a Sentinel or Infiltrator if not for a couple of quirk unique to each of these three lighter classes. That said, the three types of class identified provide sufficient deviation from each other for any player to be able to find one that fits their play style.
Tribes: Ascend is an incredibly solid free-to-play title in a field where most gems will drown under the shit-tide that is shovelware designed to turn a quick profit. It is, in stark contrast to such titles, an incredibly well-balanced, well-designed, pretty example of what competitive multiplayer games can be and, while still having a profit-motive in making its very appealing for the impatient to spend money to unlock more content, rewards those who love the game by allowing them to play to their heart’s content to receive everything that the game has to offer. It is truly exemplary and puts many paid first-person shooters to shame.