Tribes: Ascend gets my attention

Over the weekend I decided to give in and join the Tribes: Ascend open beta. Now, I saw and played the game last August at Quakecon 2011, and while I thought the game looked fantastic, the idea of being free-to-play left me running from this H-Rez Studios temptress. But those who know me know that I’m a huge fan of PC Gamer Magazine and the PCGM Podcast, and after hearing countless raves about T:A on their show I finally decided I’d better see what all the fuss is about.

My first impressions with the open beta client were pretty sour. I experienced a pretty nasty bug that left me downloading the ~3GB client multiple times, validating/repairing my install more than five times, and once the game was successfully installed, repeatedly crashing when entering the game from the launcher. Needless to say, so far, I’ve spent more time just trying to get into the game than I have actually playing. Granted I did my first client download three days ago, but I can assure you I’ve spent several hours dealing with the technical issues alone.

Technical issues aside, I entered the game and was taken to a MMO-esque main menu screen. I’m still unsure as to why Hi-Rez ditched the old UI for this particular layout. In my opinion, the new UI looks antiquated and the previous UI seemed more robust. Please take into account that my practical experience with the previous UI was limited to my time at Quakecon – I’m speaking mostly in terms of aesthetics. The new UI seems to follow a traditional MMO style character selection menu (vertical list of characters on the left side of the screen), with a Call of Duty design flavor for weapons, perks, etc. versus the use of skill trees as previously seen.

At this point I was ready to jump into the action. Surprisingly, while looking for a match I noticed some training options – something fairly uncommon in online multiplayer shooters. The main training mode offered a tutorial on how to ski, which is the pinnacle of gameplay in the Tribes franchise. There were other training modes for things like target practice and skiing challenges, but I spent the majority of my classroom time in the skiing tutorial. I had very little experience with Tribes: Ascend, but I’m familiar enough with the Tribes franchise to know that skiing is the heart of the game. And while it can be easy to learn, it’s difficult to master.

After a little bit of training I moved on to some rounds of team deathmatch. Only a few moments into my first real match I knew Hi-Rez had a good thing going with Tribes: Ascend. The gameplay is fast, fluid, and can be as tactical or skillful as you want it to be. In my opinion, this could allow casual folks to enjoy the pub games, but also allow the game to host a strong competitive scene, with longevity, if Hi-Rez sticks behind the competitive community. Honestly, T:A already has several competitive features that plenty of other competitively played games don’t have. I was very surprised to see a spectator mode with a robust set of controls. A spectator mode like this would have done wonders for Brink‘s competitive scene (which no longer exists simply because competitive features like this were omitted). From what I’ve seen so far, there’s a variety of classes, weapons, and perks that should accommodate most desired play styles. Most of the maps I’ve played were fun and if Hi-Rez will release a map editor into the hands of the community, I’m sure the community will fill any remaining gaps.

Tribes: Ascend isn’t perfect by any means. The game is definitely fun in open beta, but it’s hard to say what the launch will bring. I’m sure there are weapons, perks, and skins that will be released at launch that were not included in beta, and it will be interesting to see just how balanced they are out the door, since they’re not being used by the open beta testers. The game still has to overcome some technical issues too, soon. Graphically, the game isn’t bad, but it would be nice to see some DirectX 11 support. The INI files do call out both DX10 and DX11, though as of open beta T:A is a DX9 only game. I tried using the Nvidia FXAA Injector to help pretty up the game a bit, and while it did work to an extent, it also caused the game to crash repeatedly after today’s Cloak & Dagger Infiltrator update. In all honesty, T:A really needs coat of polish across the board to tighten things up a bit. On one hand I hope that Hi-Rez is just holding some things back for the launch like additional skins, weapons, perks, maps, DirectX 11, etc. But on the other hand, I fear the hell that could be the launch if they are holding some things back and those features have not been properly tested and/or optimized.

We’ll find out soon enough. Tribes: Ascend officially launches on April 12th and is free-to-play. If you’re like me and you normally keep your distance from F2P games, don’t be afraid to check this one out. As it stands today, Tribes: Ascend is not a pay-to-win game. Most weapon unlocks simply provide alternatives versus providing actual upgrades that would give a competitive edge (in most cases anyway). Some of the weapons you start with are arguably some of the best weapons in the game.

Hopefully, Hi-Rez will get behind the competitive community and offer the custom servers, custom maps, and push the esport side of this game just as much as the casual pub side. If done right, they could potentially have the same level of success and longevity as League of Legends. I’ll keep my fingers crossed until April 12th in hopes that Hi-Rez is watching companies like Valve and Riot very closely. If Hi-Rez follows a similar format of something like League of Legends – which they’ve said on multiple occasions it is one of the biggest influences in the T:A model – and back the competitive community, I could absolutely see myself shifting the majority of my game time from Battlefield 3 to this game. I won’t get in to the competitive woes of BF3, but Tribes: Ascend will at least have some solid groundwork at launch to build upon that many games never get at all.

Overall, it’s certainly exciting to see a new twist on a classic franchise. Between Tribes: Ascend and Planetside 2, it appears 2012 is the year of the classic, and he wants his crown back.

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