Blue Plate Special: A Tribes: Ascend discussion

Shazbot! Tribes: Ascend has been taking up quite a bit of my time over the past few weeks. It’s currently in its open-beta phase, with a released date of April 12th. It’s a free-to-play FPS for PC and many of you may already be familiar with the series. Tribes 2 was kind of a big deal.

You can head over to the official site and give it a go if you wish and hey, while it downloads, why not read this here discussion? Join me, my amazing segue abilities, and my discussion buddy Sterling “Aiayla” Lyons for our thoughts on the beta! Spoiler: we like it.

Patrick Hancock: So, if you had to describe Tribes: Ascend in ONE WORD, what would it be? I’m going with lovely.

Aiayla: I’d say … extreme! And if I could use two more words: holy shit! or fuck yeah!

PH: Damn, now you’ve got me PUMPED! So I guess it’s pretty obvious out of the gate that we’re both fans of Tribes: Ascend. Have you played any of the previous Tribes games?

A: I actually have not. Tribes: Ascend is my first foray into the series, honestly. I remember hearing that jetpacks, vehicles, and large-scale battles were what the games were about, and that piqued my interest. Also the whole … Tribes: Ascend-being-free thing. But yeah, I became a pretty instant fan when I first jumped in. It really is extreme, and awesome at the same time.

PH: Me neither! I’ve always known about it but I was always playing either Counter-Strike or Team Fortress Classic back then. You can imagine my confusion when I jumped into Tribes:Ascend and tried to zoom in and started using my JETPACK. The game is definitely unique, which brings us to our first topic.

Why is Tribes unique?
PH: I wanted to include this short section to set up some of the game’s mechanics for those who don’t know. First off: this is a first-person shooter game in which you ski. Think SkiiFree with guns. Basically, you hover across the ground with the spacebar and use momentum to get up to incredible speeds. How long would you say it took you to comprehend the skiing mechanic?

A: Not too long, actually. I thought that the game had a really good tutorial on how to ski, as well as a nicely laid out obstacle training course. Aiming while skiing — that’s another story. I think it’s really cool how the skiing and the jetpacks complement each other though, and found that it really helps add some level of dynamic pathing to each of the maps I played on, whereas other games you’d usually stick to following a few rather laid out routes. Here, you could run, jetpack jump, land into a ski, and jump again to make it across areas in no time flat.

A: Oh yeah, I completely forgot about that tutorial. I jumped right into the game and eventually just figured it out. I saw people zooming across the level and just thought “I GOTTA GO FAST!” I’m still pretty awful at it, actually, as evidenced from the skiing mini-game included in the game where you build up speed to go for a huge jump off of a hill. This is why I stick to mostly defensive classes. Speaking of which …

Class gameplay
PH: There are currently nine classes in the game, each with their own properties and weapons. There were more classes, but a somewhat-recent large patch merged some together in favor of fewer and more customizable classes. As I mentioned, I spent just about all of my playtime on defense so I unlocked the “Technician” class, capable of deploying a turret and fixing structures (more on that in a bit) better. I was really excited that this in no way hurt my spot on the scoreboard. Sure, I wasn’t first, but doing defensive actions rewards you with plenty of points to feel as if you’re progressing in the game.

What kind of classes did you play, Aiayla?

A: I stuck to the fast type of classes, like the “Soldier,” and the “Pathfinder.” I couldn’t really stand how slow the bigger classes were, even when skiing. How am I supposed to become world SkiiFree champion … wait, wrong game. Yeah, I liked having all that mobility at my disposal. I did end up choosing one of the bigger classes in a match where I just outright needed the more powerful weapons and the armor just to survive. I also unlocked the Technician as well to use in one of the capture the flag modes.

PH: Did you tinker with any of the class upgrades that were available?

A: Nah. I didn’t really earn enough points to mess with much of that (especially after saving for a class), but I did do a bit of upgrading on one gun. It seems like upgrading might be fairly linear per each item, with things like magazine sizes, rate of fire, and a few other things. It looks like there are quite a few items for each class to swap around and interchange to make each class your own, so to say.

PH: Yeah, upgrading a weapon is linear and makes it clearly better, which might annoy some new players. However, upgrading a single weapon doesn’t take very many points so it won’t take long to max out any one of the early weapons. The real points are spent on new classes or different weapons. Some of them are a ton of points!


Pricing model
PH: Since this is a free-to-play game, unlocking certain things will definitely take some time. You gain points on a match-to-match basis, depending on how well you do. The most recent big patch made it that so classes don’t take weeks to unlock, which is GREAT. Oh, and you can totally just buy golden points with real money if you wish to speed up the process. Personally, I never felt as if people who played more had a direct advantage because they had more points. Did you ever get that underpowered feeling while playing?

A: Yes. Then I switched to the one heavy class that was unlocked and, well, I guess not, actually. I don’t think that buying anything really allots any kind of special unbeatable advantages, though. I really like how everything that can be bought can also be unlocked just by playing. I remember that Blacklight: Retribution ended up doing a very similar thing once it went into open beta, where all non-cosmetic upgrades could be permanently unlocked with in-game points. I think I like how it’s handled in Ascend more because it cuts out the middle stages of cheap “temporary rentals” before you can hit that permanent unlock on all the things. Even still, I thought that the first three classes that come with the base package provided more than enough ways to handle all the situations I came across.

A: Yeah, they do give you a variety of classes to start with and as I mentioned before, it won’t take you too long to unlock another one of your choosing.


Game modes
PH: I spent just about one-hundred percent of my time in the Capture the Flag (CTF) mode. I liked it a lot more than Team Deathmatch (TDM), even if TDM still has a flag. You see, if your team is holding the flag in TDM, you get double points for kills. It adds a nice layer on top of the tried-and-true method that is in every other FPS in the world and is much appreciated.

CTF, on the other hand, has a few more layers. There’s a generator for each team that powers certain structures around the base: Radar, Turrets, Inventory Stations, and the Vehicle Stations. Having your generator taken out will severely cripple your base so it’s best to make sure it’s up and running at all times. You can upgrade most structures with the points you earn in-game, making them better overall. CTF is where I was able to play a lot of defense and still get rewarded for it. Making sure the generator and the other structures were up and running was my goal in each game.

Oh and there’s a new Arena Deathmatch mode, but I haven’t touched that at all. What mode did you play most?

A: I felt the same way about the Team Deathmatch mode. I actually spent most of my time in Arena Deathmatch. I dunno — I guess I liked it because of the interesting structures that you fought on. You really have to watch your footing a whole bunch as there is very little to stand on, and falling off leads to a host of suicide deaths. Kills rolled in a lot faster there, and it was significantly more fun to me. I also spent a good chunk of time in the Capture the Flag mode as well. I like how the bases are established, with points that can be sabotaged to make it easier to make off with the enemy flag. It was a good mix of things to make it all interesting.

PH: Were the maps in Arena Deathmatch really big? Were there a lot of skiing opportunities?

A: There were less for sure, but there were a lot of straightaways. It felt more like the skiing was used to keep up momentum when clearing one side of the map to the other in a short amount of time. It felt like the jetpack was more emphasized here. I felt like I was being more tricky and skillful with my use of the combination of both abilities. A simple misjudgment on when to let go of skiing, or losing track of the platform when in the air is pretty much an instant death.

PH: Hmm, that’s interesting, but I love that the various modes are so different that you’ll never experience that feeling of deja vu. Oh and vehicles! There’s vehicles you can buy with the points you earn on a per-round basis in CTF. I think there are three tiers? Light, medium, and heavy vehicles? I’ve jumped in some of them to fire weapons but never actually bought any myself. They seem to be taken out really fast with an air strike and make it seems not very worth it. Did you drive them? How do they handle?

A: You can’t ski when in them, so I didn’t really experience much in the way of vehicles. The few times I bought one, I died pretty quickly, and I didn’t notice many other people using them. I mean, I saw people using them, but I never really saw it firsthand. Plus, then I went with the engineer class, and stayed in base pretty much all match long to stop spies from sappin’ mah sentry generator.

PH: Yeah, I can’t say that vehicles look that great. I think those points are better spend on other things. I saw teams try to use vehicles in a competitive setting only to have them blown up about 30 seconds later. Which brings me to …

Tribes: Ascend ShowMatch on NASL

Future as an “esport”
PH: I’m not sure I would have even thought of this topic if it weren’t for the North American Star League (NASL) streaming Tribes: Ascend showmatches a couple of weeks ago. I saw people who really knew how to ski and tactics I would have never thought of otherwise. For example, sometimes teams will not return their flag immediately and instead keep it where it was last dropped. They do this because most people have an optimal route to capture the flag that allows them to zoom by at max speed and take the flag without losing any speed. However, if the flag is somewhere ELSE, the flag cappers have to make up a route on the spot, which will be a testament to their skill and knowledge of the map. Blew. My. Mind.

Do you think it’ll be able to hold up as well as say, StarCraft II or Counter-Strike?

A: I dunno, but I always love welcoming new games into the foray of competitive gaming. I certainly think that it has a certain … I guess the best way to put it is “extreme” factor. The whole thing reminds me of that “X-Games” atmosphere where you feel like you need to be over the top in everything you do. I suppose that fits in with how people have “optimal” routes where they can straight shoot the flag and back quickly. Plus the whole skiiing thing. It almost feels more like it IS trying to be a sports game, plus guns and shooting. If it doesn’t take off like StarCraft of League of Legends, then I certainly think it will make its own niche in the limelight.

PH: Oh yeah, you saying “shoot the flag” reminds me of another advanced tactic: Flag Punting. Basically, you drop and shoot the flag with an explosive weapon all at once, usually when you’re low on HP, and it goes incredibly far in one direction and usually results in you dying (since you would have anyway). I love that people are finding these neat little quirks to the game!

And yes, it’s definitely the most sport-like of games. The flag is basically the football: there’s passing, a “midfield,” scoring, teams, and it’s a constant back and forth. I think the simplistic rules will make it a better spectator esport, drawing more viewers in who might not watch more complicated games. At least, I really hope so.

Closing Comments
PH: Tribes: Ascend is free-to-play, but it doesn’t always feel like it. I’ll be keeping it installed on my computer for a very long time and I’ll likely throw some real money their way soon enough. I really enjoy playing it every so often, and I believe the developers deserve some money for their great product. Just because a game is free-to-play doesn’t mean you can’t give them money if you enjoy their product. I don’t know what the future holds for Tribes: Ascend, but I will definitely be skiing alongside for the ride. GOTTA GO FAST!

A: I personally don’t really see myself spending any money on anything, unless they start putting out some pretty cool-looking skins for the character classes, or maybe even some additional maps in a package, ala Halo or Call of Duty. I think it’s wonderful that they made all the core game-changing stuff earnable through play, and I definitely see myself sinking a good chunk of time in it over the foreseeable future. Besides, gonna need all that time training to be the best SkiiFree champion ever! GOTTA GO FAST!

Patrick Hancock
During the day, he teaches high school kids about history. At night he kicks their butts in competitive games like Rocket League, Dota 2, Overwatch, and Counter-Strike. Disclosure: I've personally backed Double Fine Adventure, Wasteland 2, Dead State, SPORTSFRIENDS, Torment: Tides of Numera, STRAFE, and The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls. I have previously written for and continue to support them whenever possible (like HumbleBundle).