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Nearly every battle in Tribes: Ascend begins with a downhill rush. This act alone tells you roughly half as much as you need to know about Hi-Rez Studios’ free-to-play team shooter. Fire your anti-friction boots as those first smooth mountain slopes rise to greet you and gravity will do the rest, whipping your armour-encased future warrior up to giddy speeds. The other bit you learn a fraction of a second later when you crest the next hill and soar into the air, jetpack flaring to adjust your parabola. Ski down and jet up: this is almost everything in Ascend, tracing a series of arcs across each arena’s undulating terrain to form one big arc from friendly flag stand to enemy flag and back.
Most shooters are about shooting – and, of course, Tribes has its fair share – but by far the most deadly weapon here is momentum. In fact, even the shooting is about momentum: this is a game where timing your slow-moving projectile blasts to land at the feet of a descending player or catch foes mid-flight is crucial. In a round of Capture The Flag, Ascend’s mainstay activity, swift players can zip across the map and back in under 30 seconds, their flight paths weaving easily amid the sizzling plasma of automated sentry guns. It’s a beautiful, exhilarating dance, and one faltering move gives defenders time to secure their flag stand with an array of turrets, deadly forcefields and mines. Snatching a flag from a standing start, meanwhile, is only ever a distraction tactic or suicide.
It takes some time to attune yourself to Ascend’s unique mode of transportation, though. High-end flag snatching demands a learning curve that is both as smooth and as steep as the game’s own slopes, and we still occasionally find ourselves launching off on a sputtering trajectory that lands us two feet short of the platform we’d hoped to gracefully alight upon, sending us sliding dismally down its side.
Tribes is a class-based game, and offers many malleable roles – all vital, deep, subtle and brilliantly interwoven. While the nimble pathfinders course through the skies as they close in on the flag, juggernauts coordinate to lay down a barrage of neon green ordnance, clearing the flag stand of defences. Soldiers are there to harry the midfield and pursue flag thieves, doombringers are equipped to lock down your home turf with mines and forcefields, and technicians repair your defences, setting up sentry turrets of their own. Be it capping or killing, everything requires skilful cooperation among the classes to achieve.
Fancy flying skills won’t help you in the generator room, however. But splash damage certainly does, and defending juggernauts can clear the room with the clustered explosions of the MIRV launcher. Discretion is therefore the saboteur’s friend, and the infiltrator class can cloak to sneak in. Equally, a brazen approach can lure vital defences away from the flag stand.
Gear loadouts have been carefully considered to encourage specialisation. There are only two weapon slots for each class, and only certain weapons can go in each one, preventing a single class from dominating both long and short range. Even Tribes’ progression of unlocks – new weapons, deployable kit items and perks – mostly shifts roles sideways, rather than unfairly expand a single loadout’s breadth of purpose.
You unlock new equipment with XP or Gold, the latter bought with real-world money. However, deep pockets won’t get you everything: upgrades that give you a clear advantage can only be acquired with hard-earned XP, presumably in an effort to deflect any accusations that the game lets you pay to win. Hi-Rez also says its purchasable items are ‘sidegrades’, enabling alternative styles of play but not battlefield supremacy. Both these things are true, but a more versatile player is undoubtedly at an advantage, and you can still buy an XP booster that will allow you to snap up XP-locked items much more quickly. The prices are also cannily set so that some items represent a bargain Gold price compared to the number of hours you’d have to spend unlocking them through play alone.
Such things deserve cynical scrutiny – there is always peril that Hi-Rez may unbalance the game with an obfuscatory microtransaction somewhere down the line, and it’s good that players remain wary and vocal. As it stands, Ascend does not feel exploitative, but nor is it truly a level playing field – making monetary investment, if not strictly necessary, a definite pressure constructed by the game’s unequal powers. It’s unlikely to punch a hole through your wallet, however: £19’s worth of Gold will enable you to burrow all the way down into a couple of classes, and by the time you’ve finished exploring them, you should have enough XP to crack open a few more.
As always, the perception of good value lies with you, but even without a penny paid this is still one of the most fluid, elegant, and strategically rich online shooters available. It’s a beautiful game to play – in the elaborate motion of its tactics as much as its bright, crisp worlds. With a microtransaction economy to fuel, many unlocks and features will follow this release and transform the game for good or ill. But at least for the moment, Tribes: Ascend is on its way up.