Tribes: Ascend Review

(The game was reviewed using Version 1.0.1185.0)

Tribes: Ascend is the latest successor to the long-running Tribes series, whose relative obscurity means that most people (including myself) will not be even remotely familiar with it. Nonetheless, this free-to-play game, and the radical innovations which differentiate it from its competition in the conventional multiplayer shooter market, will absolutely make you sit up and take notice of what it’s doing and the fascinating precedent its daring deviation may set.

The most inventive aspect of Tribe: Ascend’s gameplay is, without question, its uniquely novel methodology of player movement –  amazingly, an idea sourced from the then much lauded first entry in the game’s series, 1998’s Starsiege: Tribes – and this mechanic is very appropriately known as ‘skiing’. The technique behind the act of in-game ‘skiing’ is actually remarkably simple: it utilizes the player’s complementary abilities to become frictionless and to jetpack, and so involves gliding down declines in the landscape and then hovering up inclines in order to quickly build and conserve considerable momentum. When ‘skiing’ the impression of controlled flight is conveyed so admirably well, from the (thankfully unobtrusive) peripheral motion blur to the engrossing sound effects of whooshing air passing your ears; this element of gameplay is clearly built around portraying movement in a very viscerally exhilarating way, and this effect persists throughout as extremely engaging.

Comprehending this concept is key to understanding the game.

I began by undergoing the brief tutorial on ‘skiing’, which is so deceptively short and easy that it makes the mechanic seem reassuringly simple and intuitive. Beforehand, the idea behind ‘skiing’ seemed to portend the daunting necessities of exactness in your movements and a constant understanding of your momentum relative to the topography of the land you’re traversing. After blazing through the tutorial though, it seemed that the mechanic was perhaps a tad overly simplistic, and, though wowed by its novelty, I even arrogantly worried that this might render its implementation into the game’s combat rather disappointing. So, confidently complacent as to the level of complexity involved in using this newly acquired skill to full effect, I dove right into playing actual multiplayer games, and was confronted by a rude awakening! I was repeatedly confounded over and over and over again by the crucial additional layer of difficulty inherent in trying to simultaneously ‘ski’ and shoot (with any semblance of accuracy anyway). During this lengthy and tumultuous learning period – or rather trial by fire – I was getting completely dominated by the other experienced players, racking up death after death. Still, I, increasingly frustrated and wanting to give up, soldiered on, largely fruitlessly trying to grapple with the steep learning curve. This sort of disheartening disparity in skill is of course a very frustrating way to be introduced to a multiplayer game. That being said, I knew it wasn’t the game’s fault that I was entering its online arena almost a year into its lifespan and so being greeted by its resident veterans whose discouragingly intimidating mastery of the game’s key mechanic meant my constant and merciless annihilation as I got to grips with things.

The way that combat and ‘skiing’ combine together is what threw me for a loop most. ‘Skiing’ about whilst tracking and shooting enemy players who are sliding all around you requires considerable mental coordination from the player. In fact, it felt like I needed to to rewire my brain in order to fundamentally change the way I think and go about playing a competitive FPS. Furthermore, an additional dimension of strategic complexity exists when using explosive projectiles because it then becomes necessary to predict enemy movements in order to effectively time and position the splash damage of your shots. All in all, the system of ‘skiing’ is tantalizingly easy to learn the basics of but it has such considerable depth when used during combat that it presents a truly formidable challenge to truly master.

After a long period of practice you will finally feel thoroughly comfortable and perhaps even somewhat confident with your skill in using the ‘skiing’ mechanic, and you’ll be able to exercise both exact precision and deft nimbleness in your prancing and hopping about. When you reach this point of journeymanship, the game begins to shine, and the capacity for fun to be had during gameplay becomes remarkably copious. When you’re able to effortlessly pull off a sensational drive-by glide-by on someone – whipping past them at breakneck speed whilst peppering them with a swarm of projectiles and then zooming away just as fast until you’re quickly out of range of their retaliation – it’s hard to describe just how much satisfaction is to be gleaned from the sense of control and power inherent in such a feat. Similarly, the ‘skiing’ mechanic alters the player’s capabilities in the objective orientated gametypes in a number of a unique and interesting ways, and the most obvious being the way which flags are uniformly captured in this game’s CTF matches: players soar towards the flag and angle their flight as to pass through the flagstand, thus snatching the flag, and then continue onwards – all in one dramatic unbroken motion of flight.

Peculiarly, combat gameplay quickly reveals itself to often resolve around the fact that if you’re too awkwardly slow in your acrobatics or if you remain on the ground too long, you will be punitively taught that you ought to avoid such things by having an opponent facilitate you revisiting the respawn screen rather abruptly. It definitely quickly becomes obvious that you are immensely vulnerable, and almost certainly going to be dispatched within moments, if you, God forbid, linger on the ground for too long; so, despite what countless FPS games may have instilled into you, instinctively planting your feet or strafing in order to take better aim at passing players is generally a terrible tactic. You absolutely need to be skyward bound as much as feasibly possible. However, even ‘skiing’ around at rapid speed doesn’t fully preclude any moments of particular vulnerability: you glide majestically above the ground, but at some point your jetpack’s limited power and the game’s gravity will dictate that you must return to the surface, if only momentarily, and it is in that moment when you’re actually back on the ground that you’re vulnerable to the splash damage devastation of the many explosive weapons. So you soon learn that you need to time and position your frequent returns to solid ground with great care, lest you be greeted by an eruption of explosions which unceremoniously fling your limp ragdoll skyhigh.

Something which never grew old was witnessing whole teams (which can be up to sixteen players each) of opposing players leaping and gliding around in unspoken concord and expert concert, all simultaneously confronting one another in mid-air exchanges; these frantic large-scale firefights are genuinely marvelous spectacles and remain astounding to behold throughout. Regardless of the composition of the havoc and carnage though, there is likely to be glorious aerial pandemonium exhibited throughout the map, as small-scale battles chaotically pit a few players against one another or individual encounters play out in a secluded corner – these graceful dances often bespeak gruellingly intense duels between equally determined competitors. Basically, with a full player count the map’s landscape is nonetheless always littered with pockets of explosions and gunfire which convey a compelling sense that a war, sometimes entirely removed from your own exploits, is taking place throughout it, and this makes you feel like you’re taking part in something bigger than yourself rather than merely operating alone amongst others who are doing the same – of course, this is not quite on the same grand scale as something like Planetside 2, but the psychological effect persists even so.

The various classes are distinguished well, and offer an interesting spectrum of ways to play the game. However, the variety in weapons often seems rather superficial as you’re generally either getting shot at by bullets or differingly explosive projectiles regardless of which gun they originate from.

Overall, I really didn’t care all that much for the element of vehicle play (which can only be found in certain gametypes and maps). The three types of vehicles, comprised of variations on a motorbike, a tank and a light aircraft, are all balanced remarkably well whilst stilling possessing potent offensive capabilities. Unfortunately, controlling these vehicles is often a clumsy and unwieldy experience. On the other hand, like any game where you and your opponents primarily play as foot soldiers and you’re occasionally able to commandeer a vehicle which greatly enhances your mobility and destructive capabilities, utilizing the vehicles to great effect provides a sizable measure of satisfying enjoyment. Despite this, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that they seemed poorly implemented, and, ultimately, like largely unnecessary additions to the overarching structure of the gameplay.

In terms of the six available game modes, I have to say that the classic, unsophisticated allure of Team Deathmatch makes it firmly my favorite, and I believe that Tribe: Ascend’s winning charm shines through best in this gametype’s fast-paced large team combat, shirking of vehicle play, and its entirely pleasant addition of a point-boosting flag carrier mechanic which often directs the action into a frenzied chase of its current owner or a heated standoff over regaining possession of it. CTF undoubtedly offers speedy flag capturing fun too though, and the defensive base upgrading is a great supplemental strategic element. The control points esque Capture and Hold game mode works well because it preserves the trademark fast-paced action by imbuing the capturing of territories with the same instantaneous blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speediness as CTF. Besides these commonplace staples, it’s hard to see any of the other gametypes warranting more than a limited allure as occasional distractions. I really did not like the focus on smaller maps, quicker gamers and lessened mobility of the Arena game mode as it more clearly reveals the relative mediocrity of the game’s shooting mechanics when they become the biggest factor in play. The Blitz CTF mode is really only a fairly negligible variant of its base namesake. The Rabbit game mode was literally impossible to play as very few servers even host it and they were all empty every time I checked; this absolute unpopularity is a shame because it sounds like a potentially fun gametype, combining simplified CTF gameplay with an element of racing.

Tribe: Ascend’s graphics can sometimes be really quite nice, but also blatantly possesses that clearly very scalable look which so many free-to-play games exhibit. Some of the maps are very visually impressive whereas others are sparse and uninspired. A few of the maps have remarkably pretty skyboxes or other graphical quirks which make them especially visually appealing. When I was first playing the game, most of the maps initially struck me as essentially largely homogeneous in their actual design philosophy (e.g. varyingly bumpy terrain coupled with buildings or architectural elements to mix things up a bit) but I soon came to realize that they generally have unique aspects in their design which help to distinguish them well during gameplay. They landscapes you’ll battle it out in also largely succeed in providing a grandiose sense of scale. However, the bigger maps can sometimes feel a tad too large if vehicles aren’t in play at the time, as you sometimes have to ‘ski’ for around thirty seconds or so just in order to engage the enemies on their side of the map. I played the game on a middling gaming PC with decent specs, and I could easily crank up the graphical options to their absolute maximum, and even so the game ran enormously smoothly and never displayed any framerate stuttering – of course, nobody would expect this game to be overly or even especially graphically intensive.

You almost forget this game’s intrinsic free-to-play nature until you’re repeatedly given cause to consider its pretty extensive and more than a little egregious freemium duality. In terms of value, I couldn’t help but scan the game’s store of virtual wares and its offers to hasten certain in-game processes and instinctively scoff at how exorbitantly expensive most things end up being in real world currency. I think that the value proposition to be found in terms of the paid content is going to vary wildly depending on your tolerance for this necessary evil of free-to-play games and your particular inclination towards paying for such items. I can definitely understand why these high prices and this extensively integrated element of paid content needs to exist, but that doesn’t make it any less bitter of a pill to choke down. If you don’t want to pony up at all, like I didn’t, it can certainly feel like you’re the poor kid with his nose up against the glass as the other kids play with their fancy toys. The problem of course is that these toys can be, and often are, unashamedly utilizable for a decisive advantage in gameplay. Getting killed by someone with little actual demonstrative skill but whose effectiveness in combat has been greatened purely because they have purchased extensive upgrades for their character is very nearly unspeakable infuriating. In point of fact, being beaten in a multiplayer game for ANY other reason than having been outplayed by the opposing team is always going to be very frustrating and disheartening, but when the unfair advantage at stake here is so decidedly, unmistakably artificial and the exact nature of that advantage is so often quickly identifiable, this discouraging effect is amplified tremendously. The game is certainly not even close to pay-to-win, which would represent an enormously reprehensible cardinal sin, but it is still pay-to-be-better, which is irritating nonetheless.

To this end, leveling up and earning XP in order to unlock things is excessively, excruciatingly slow. The amount of financially unaided playtime required to level up even enough to purchase new weapons is pretty absurd. Cynically, it seems pretty blatant that the developers have severely hobbled player upgrade progression in order to encourage the use of the various paid resources frequently. I’m sure that most, if not all, of the items which can be bought can also be earned via bewilderingly large investments of time from the player, but this feels like a incredibly miserly ploy to coerce players into paying for them. Of course, on the flip side, if you really fall in love with this game, and still remain steadfastly opposed to spending a single penny, the horribly slow trickle of unlocks could keep you busy for a long time indeed.

The way that Tribes: Ascend revolutionizes the idea of player mobility and map traversal is exceptionally admirable and it makes for a refreshing multiplayer FPS experience. How long this novelty can persist will thoroughly depend on how greatly you appreciate the ‘skiing’ mechanic. Regardless, what the game does is exactly the sort of bold creative innovation that the multiplayer FPS market desperately needs. In all honesty, beside the ‘skiing’ mechanic, the game doesn’t really do much else especially new, but it doesn’t really need to as these other aspects, like its underlying shooting mechanic, are mostly solid and gratifying. There is definitely a lot of enormously satisfying fun to be had in this game, it just requires a fair amount of patient practice to unlock, which may be too steep a cost for some gamers with expectations of speedily earned accessibility. Tribe: Ascend sets new standards in terms of FPS multiplayer games, but unfortunately only sustains detractions in terms of some of its free-to-play design choices. If you can appreciate the game solely for its excellent core gameplay, it undoubtedly has a whole lot of enjoyment to offer you.


  • The ‘skiing’ gameplay is extremely satisfying when you get the hang of it, has enough depth to encourage the pursuit of its mastery, and changes how you must approach the game’s FPS combat in awesome ways
  • Graphically, the game has a few moments of noteworthy prettiness
  • Large-scale battles are a sight to behold, and very exciting to take part in
  • The core gametypes are very fun, and their refinements are extremely welcome enhancements


  • The learning curve is undoubtedly steep and the unrelenting punishment doled out as you tackle it could deter even the most intrepid novice
  • As a player unwilling to cough up for paid items, you can feel at a definitive disadvantage
  • The more redundant and superfluous gametypes are largely unworthy distractions which dilute the gameplay’s charm

[xrr rating=7.5/10]


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