(Note: This review has been made using version 1.0.1121.0 of the game.)
Firstly, it has to be mentioned here that, for better or worse, the majority of the followers of the Tribes franchise follow it for its highly competitive gameplay and emphasis on speed, and not for its canon. The franchise's origin as a spin-off of a knock-off of BattleTech (or vice versa, depending on an individual's view) is often overlooked.
Hi-Rez perhaps has this thought in mind when it acquired the rights to the franchise. Tribes: Ascend is a free-to-play game, thus typically requiring the player to have an account and rely on Hi-Rez's services in order to play the game.
This means that there are no LAN options to be had with this game, which in itself would have turned off people who prefer to play with friends but without having to rely on fickle Internet connections to proprietary servers. There are options for private servers, but these are premium rental services.
Players can also expect Hi-Rez to lock away content in the game behind a wall of virtual fees, which are either paid for with virtual currencies that are earned over time or paid with premium virtual currencies. Therefore, the free-loading player has to grind through many matches in order to unlock them for use. Tribes fans who happen to despise the "freemium" model may well be turned away from the game upon knowing of it.
For those who put up with this game though, they will find that the Tribes franchise's gameplay has not diminished in form as much as it has in spirit.
The player character is still a very fast fighter in body armor that is equipped with jetpacks and "skiing" hover-boots, which are the trademark of the franchise. Skiing, as in previous Tribes games, allows the player character – who is called a "tribal" in-universe – to hover across terrain without slowing down (with the exception of going uphill, upon which gravity goes against the tribal).
With these features, the player can maintain the momentum of his/her tribal with clever application of jetpacks to avoid obstacles that would otherwise stop or slow down the tribal. The player can also increase and preserve the speed of the tribal, possibly allowing the tribal to achieve fantastic speeds. It is with fantastic speeds that the player can achieve feats like hurtling past enemy defences and/or make away with objectives, like flags. Speed is also needed to evade enemy fire, chase down enemies that are making away with flags or make hit-and-run attacks
This is the onus of the gameplay in any Tribes game, so it is fortunate that Tribes: Ascend preserved this aspect of the franchise.
What is not completely preserved though is the Tribes games' emphasis on class-based gameplay and customizable load-outs. These have been subsumed by the freemium model of the game, and can limit the fun that a newcomer to the game can immediately have.
Furthermore, a system of upgrades has been implemented on the gear that a tribal can use. This may seem interesting at first glance, but it may cause some gameplay imbalance between long-time players of the game and newcomers.
Every piece of gear comes with a set of upgrades that have to be obtained by gaining experience points (called "XP" in-game) through simply playing the game. These upgrades confer small benefits onto the gear; most of these benefits are subtle in impact, though some can be more substantial, such as having increased magazine capacity. Either way, a veteran of the game that have played the game for a while and thus garnered more XP may have a statistical advantage (no matter how small) over a newcomer, on top of any advantage in skill that the former may have already. In other words, this system of upgrades may have contributed to a barrier of entry, as the game does not appear to segregate veterans from newcomers.
In a previous build of the game, these upgrades have to be manually purchased with XP; the lowlier upgrades are cheap, but the advanced ones can be very expensive – perhaps too expensive, as the benefits that they provide tend to be no greater in magnitude than those provided by the previous ones. This would not have been a problem, except that XP is also used to unlock new pieces of gear. This had players facing tough choices on whether to spend XP on new pieces of gear or upgrading existing ones.
Fortunately, this issue has been addressed with the introduction of an automatic gaining of XP for gear that has been used in a match. However, this change came many weeks after the release of the game, and there was little consolation for players that had put up with the previous system.
Moreover, this does not address the issue of paying players (also known as "V.I.P.s") being able to unlock upgrades faster. Paying players, who purchased the game's virtual currency of "Gold", automatically gains "V.I.P." status, which confers a bonus to XP gained. V.I.P.s who go further by purchasing boosters gain experience points even further, and due to a system that stacks XP bonuses one of top of another, V.I.P. players on boosters gain XP approximately three times as fast as freeloaders.
This issue is not a problem when different pieces of gear are considered, of course, as each of them appears to be quite balanced gameplay-wise compared to the rest. However, these bonuses apply to the automatic gaining of XP for pieces of gear as well, meaning that a V.I.P. on boost can fully upgrade a weapon earlier than a free-loader. The free-loader can bridge this gap sooner or later, but until then, the other player has a non-skill-based advantage, no matter how small, if these two players happen to come to blows with the same character type and gear.
Another game design further strengthens the impression that the game is very partial to paying players is that there are daily discounts for the prices of pieces of gear in gold; there have not been any offers of discounts for prices in XP at this time of writing. Furthermore, these daily discounts are always displayed whenever the player launches the game and visits the main menu.
If the player can put up with the game's freemium model, then he/she will find that the gear and character types that the player can use are quite balanced against each other – if Hi-Rez does not make mistakes in their designs, and they appear to have.
One of these mistakes involves the introduction of a weapon for the Raider class that was considered overpowered by many players, apparently for having had huge hitboxes for its fast-moving projectiles. The weapon was later nerfed, but not before leaving many players with impressions that Hi-Rez had not play-tested this weapon enough.
There are still tweaks being introduced to existing gear, such as the rate of fire of weapons, their damage output and even momentum imparted by the player character's own speed onto weapon projectiles. This suggests that the game has yet to achieve ideal balancing of gear. Unfortunately, it probably never will, as Hi-Rez's plans for maintaining the freemium model of this game is to keep introducing new gear, each piece of which is virtually guaranteed to be locked by default.
Fortunately, there is a practice mode in the game that can be used to try out any piece of gear, or character type, that has yet to be unlocked, though this practice mode only offers a bunch of computer-controlled dummies to shoot at, and not actual fighters. Therefore, it will never be able to provide a fully comprehensible simulation of the piece of gear that the player wants to try out. On the other hand, the practice mode is adequate enough to make estimates on the statistics of the pieces of gear.
Hi-Rez has had promotional activities in the past, which allow players to unlock gear without having to pay or grind for them, but these ultimately come with strings attached, which are, of course, generally the promotion of the game.
The game has up to nine character types, each representing an archetype of a tribal (and an emphasis on the tribes' martial lifestyles, if one is concerned over the portrayal of Tribes canon). By default, three of them are unlocked, each being quintessential to the gameplay in almost all game modes, but especially so in Capture-The-Flag. (There will be more on game modes later.)
The nine types of tribals are further categorized according to their bulk: Lights, Mediums and Heavies. At best, these are general descriptions of their durability and mobility, e.g. Lights are the most mobile but least durable.
The Pathfinder is the fastest of the default tribals, and is perhaps also the fastest of them all. More often than not, the Pathfinder has the role of flag-running or flag-chasing in Capture-The-Flag. Their potential for great speed is somewhat wasted in other game modes, but they are still undeniably one of the most nimble tribals and this compensates for their lack of durability.
The Juggernaut is the only tribal that has explosive weapons with range that is not artificially limited; all other weapons that launch explosives have these exploding after having being out for certain distances or time (whichever applicable). This is perhaps a wise game-balancing design as the Juggernaut's prowess at bombardment would not have been as useful otherwise. As of this time of writing, the Juggernaut is very effective at clearing flag stands or flushing out small rooms.
The Soldier is one of the most versatile tribals, and so it is fitting that he is available by default. He has the greatest amount of general-purpose gear; this includes the regular Spinfusor, which is one of the most favoured weapons among veterans of earlier Tribes games. However, most of these pieces of gear are typically locked away, initially.
The other six types of tribals are not necessarily more complicated than these three to use, so it may puzzle some players that they are locked away by default. In fact, some players may prefer one or more of these to the default three, depending on their preferred playstyles. Therefore, having to make do with the default ones before having obtained the necessary XP to unlock the others may turn off free-loading players.
Anyway, the other six tribals have different roles in a battle, which help cover any gap in a team's strategy, if any.
The Sentinel is the sniper of the team (which is a role that is so prominent that the Sentinel is sometimes simply referred to as the Sniper – as the developers themselves have done in a certain video concerning an update for this character type).
The Sentinel often suffers from tunnel-vision when looking down the scopes of all of his primary weapons, but any enemy that did not manage to take advantage of that would discover (or be reminded) that he has some of the most powerful sidearms in the game. He also has access to claymore mines, which are often fatal to those that fail to notice them (as they deserve, because the mines have visual flaws that make them somewhat easy to spot if improperly placed).
The Technician is a tribal that is dedicated to the maintenance of base buildings, which are very important to most defensive strategies. He can also deploy small turrets that are useful for delaying enemies or killing any flag-runners that made the mistake of sacrificing too much of their health for momentum (via explosive-jumping). Alternatively, players can unlock weapons to replace his repair tool, turning him into a pseudo-Soldier with an ability to lay down turrets.
The Brute is best suited for players who prefer straightforward solutions to problems, preferably with simple-to-use but very big guns involved. Most of the Brute's gear would have made him one of the most predictable combatants in the game, but fortunately, he has a few tricky weapons that cunning players can make use of, the most prominent being his fractal grenades, which are very good for area-denial purposes.
The remaining three tribal archetypes are perhaps the most difficult to play, but they also happen to be the most contentious, as they reward skill, finesse and cunning on the part of the player exceedingly more so than other tribals.
The Infiltrator can be considered one of the most troublesome tribals, as he can be a handful to deal with if the player that is controlling him is particularly adapt at making use of his cloaking capabilities. His weapons also benefit from careful thought on the part of the player, and among all tribals, he has the highest capacity for belt items.
The Raider, like the Soldier, has a versatile selection of gear, though it can be argued that his selection of pack items (more on these later) may make him even more versatile. However, his gear is some of the most complicated in the game, and requires a lot of finesse to use properly. A good example is his default primary weapon, the Arx Buster, which fires sticky explosives that automatically explode after sticking onto something for slightly more than a second.
The Doombringer has (and still only has) a Force Field pack that he can deploy to create a fence that can be passed through by enemies, but not without inflicting damage on them, depending on their speed when they passed through it. Enemies that are strolling through it would take little damage, but anyone hurtling through it, either due to carelessness or the cunning of a devious enemy, would take substantial damage; flag-runners are especially foiled by them.
Like the other heavy tribals, the Doombringer wields heavy weapons. His primary weapon is by default a rotary autocannon, though he can switch it out for a Heavy Bolt Launcher, which rewards finesse more but removes the convenience of putting a lot of lead into the air. His secondary weapon is an anti-air, anti-vehicle missile launcher that is difficult to use against actual player characters, but he can switch it out for a more traditional rocket launcher, though this one has very limited reach.
All player characters have a system of health and energy that governs their survivability and durability on the battlefield, not unlike those in previous Tribes games. Health is as typical as health in shooters can be, because Tribes: Ascend uses more modern conventions than those used for earlier Tribes games. For instance, there are few ways to heal other than to just duck out of combat and wait for health to regenerate. However, energy, unlike health, recharges all the time; it is expended whenever the tribal uses jetpacks or other energy-consuming gear.
Although Tribes: Ascend emphasizes speed, it does make some simplifications to the physics system of the game. Of course, Tribes: Ascend has the excuse of being sci-fi, so this should be somewhat acceptable. One of these simplifications is that player characters that are moving at high speeds can decelerate very quickly, even via hitting inanimate obstacles head-on, without any harmful consequences.
This is handy, yet it is worth noting here that this convenience does not extend to vehicles; if they hit obstacles while they are at high speeds, they take damage. This is especially the case for the Shrike, which immediately crashes if it hits anything other than enemy player characters.
However, gravity still applies to everything, so player characters that are falling from great heights are more than likely to die from the fall, unless they fire their jetpacks to slow down their descent. (It is also worth noting here that there is a dubious achievement that is associated with deaths from falls.)
The gear pieces that the tribals use are split into several categories: primary weapons, secondary weapons, belt items, pack items, armor and perks. They may affect the aforementioned trade-offs between durability and mobility that define the categories of tribals. For example, the Brute's Survival Pack, if fully upgraded, grants him both increased durability and mobility, enough for him to outmaneuver an unsuspecting Medium.
A specific combination of gear may even alter the tribal's role from his default one. For example, the Technician is mainly a repairman in Capture-the-Flag, so he would generally have one of the repair devices equipped. In Team Deathmatch, he can swap to a different combination that turns him into a full combatant (albeit with the ability to deploy annoying turrets).
Armor will be described first, as it is the simplest category of gear at this time of writing. Armor concerns upgrades for the tribal's health rating, movement speed and energy capacity, among a few other things associated with a player character's durability and mobility. For now, all character types have only one set of armor upgrades.
Primary weapons tend to be the main firearms that a player would use, understandably enough. This is especially so for the default primary weapons that the character types have, because these generally define their roles in combat. For example, the Juggernaut's primary weapons are hand-held artillery that can be used to clear places where the enemy has dug in into, especially flag-stands, which tend to be riddled with Technicians' deployable turrets and many mines. Another example is the Infiltrator's primary weapons, which tend to be silenced or suppressed weapons and require cunning to use effectively.
Secondary weapons tend to be sidearms, though many of them are weapons for situations where the primary weapons are not suitable. Turning to the Juggernaut again as an example, his secondary weapon tends to be a general-purpose weapon, like a Spinfusor or a light machinegun. Some of them are so versatile that they are used in lieu of primary weapons, such as the Brute's Plasma Cannon, which is effective in medium- and close-ranges. Some of them actually define the character type, such as the Technician's repair tools.
Speaking of repair tools, all maps have nodes where basic repair tools are dispensed, often near critical base buildings, like the generator. These nodes are handy, as there may not be players who have unlocked the Technician character type (which is not unlocked by default) but some base buildings need to be urgently repaired to restore the base's defences.
However, these nodes permanently replace one of the player character's two weapons (e.g. the one currently wielded when the repair tool is received); the nodes will not return the player character's weapon if the player wants it back. The player will have to return to inventory stations to restore his/her weapon, but inventory stations, with the exception of those that are called in, have to be powered by the generator in order to work. It would have been a lot more convenient if the game allows the same nodes to return the player's discarded weapon.
Belt items are generally grenades, mines or sensors that the tribals can drop or throw onto the battlefield.
Grenades are expectedly thrown explosives, though they are further categorized into anti-personnel, EMP or regular grenades, and their variants. Anti-personnel grenades do not inflict any damage onto vehicles or buildings, but are more devastating against player characters than other grenades. Regular grenades inflict damage against any enemy, metal or flesh.
EMP grenades were originally quite overpowered, as they were practically regular grenades with bonus damage against inorganic targets. They have been balanced, fortunately, and are now only mainly effective on buildings and vehicles. It is also worth noting here that their ability to drain energy from enemies that have energy reservoirs have been retained.
The variants of these three main types of grenades may not be so balanced though. Of these, the most notorious are the quick-fuse grenades, which explode within one and a half seconds of being thrown. These means that players can use them in close combat in lethal, albeit double-edged, manners, far more effectively than they can with other grenades.
The mines may seem quite useless in a game where environments tend to be so wide-open that there is little chance that an enemy might stumble onto them, but there are segments within maps where there are narrow corridors and tunnels. These stretches of the maps do not have so many corners – if any at all – so as not to prevent skiing through them, but they make the use of mines feasible.
However, it has to be mentioned here that only the Sentinel has mines by default; the other kinds of mines have to be unlocked.
As of this time of writing, there are four types of mines, each with different methods of triggering, visibility on the map and effects after having been triggered. It is worth noting here that the Motion Sensor is the only "mine" that is not expended when triggered, though it is the most obvious-looking and does not inflict any damage on enemies (though it does drain their energy if they make the mistake of staying too close to it for too long).
All mines can be destroyed by shooting at them or damaging them with explosives; they immediately detonate when this happens. This can be harmful to their owner, if the player does not have the time – or sense – to get away from them.
One of the mines, which is the Doombringer's simply-named "Mine", can be a bit overpowered. Compared to the Sentinel's claymore mines, the Doombringer's mines deal slightly less damage, but is more easily triggered by enemies due to its all-around proximity trigger and its relatively low visual contrast with the environment. Experienced Doombringers often place mines in devious locations close to flag stands, or in the corridors that lead to the generator room.
Not too long ago from this time of writing, the Technician received the Repair Kit belt item in an update that I associated with him. The Repair Kit allows the automated repair of buildings, albeit at about the same rate as a basic repair tool. The initial version of this piece of gear worked as expected, but it had a design oversight that can be exploited to have it repair buildings through walls and floors. A fix addressed this, but it rendered the Repair Kit easily blocked by geometric and terrain irregularities. Although Hi-Rez may well address this issue sooner or later, it points to Hi-Rez's lack of playtesting for fixes and patches, if the debacle with the Raider's Plasma Gun does not suggest so already.
Returning to the matter of categories of gear, pack items are either devices that augment the player character's statistics, or devices that can be deployed onto the battlefield, usually for purposes of defence.
Examples of augmentative devices include the Energy Pack, which is available to many of the tribals. As its mundane name suggests, it increases the energy capacity of the tribal that has it. Although it is a simply straightforward benefit, it is still highly desirable for many practical reasons, one of which is that the energy recharge rate of a player character is percentage-based. Another example is the Shield Pack, which converts the player character's energy reserves into shields. Some packs are unique to specific tribals, such as the Jammer Pack for the Raider and Cloaking Pack for the Infiltrator.
The other kind of pack items, the deployables, is a lot more interesting, though only the more defense-oriented character types have them, namely the Sentinel, Technician and Doombringer. These devices, once deployed onto the map, confer very specific but practical benefits.
The Sentinel can deploy Radar Jammers, which obscure the models of friendlies that are within its effective zone with static. It also disables the display of icons above them, from the perspective of enemies that are looking in their general direction (more on these icons later). Jammers also reveal cloaked Infiltrators, thus making them hard counters against these tribals.
The Technician can deploy a small turret that automatically attacks the nearest enemy in range. Its utility is limited by its short detection range (when compared to the much bigger Base Turrets) however, thus making it less useful in wide-open areas (though one of them is somewhat better than the other at detection range).
The Doombringer can erect a force field that damages enemies that pass through it, as mentioned earlier. However, it has not been mentioned that the force field tends to have significant visual contrast with its surroundings, so it is at best just a deterrent against reckless skiing (though it has to be mentioned here that it punishes recklessness very severely).
Like base buildings, deployable devices require power to run. This makes them more difficult to utilize in maps that have generators, as the enemy only needs to knock out the generator to render them useless
Perks are the most entertaining "gear" that a tribal can have, but they also happen to be the most potentially imbalanced. As an example, the Superheavy perk increases the mass of a tribal; this is still a gameplay-balanced benefit, but the highest upgrade of this perk may not be so. The highest upgrade grants the player character the ability to inflict damage on enemies that collide against him, the damage of which is proportional to the speed at which the victim was travelling.
Before elaborating further, it has to be mentioned beforehand that it is not immediately apparent which perks are being used by a player, not until his/her victim sees what he/she has equipped on his/her tribal via the death-camera. Therefore, a player would not know which perks that other players have at the start of a match, unless he/she has been informed by the other players already.
Returning to the example of the Superheavy perk, the highest upgrade would not be a problem if a player knows who has it and can spot the tribal that happens to have it, but it would be one if the player cannot even see the player character that has the perk at all – namely the Infiltrator. A dastardly opportunistic player can use this perk for some very silly and infuriating tactics, such as having a Superheavy-equipped and cloaked Infiltrator standing close to the enemy flag to intercept an enemy flag-runner returning with his/her team's flag.
Other examples include Potential Energy, which greatly benefits players who make use of Shield packs. As there is no delay time between turning Shields on or off, they can alternate between taking damage on their health counter (which will grant them additional energy in return, which is a benefit of the perk) and their energy counter. Assuming that they can quickly switch Shields on or off as when tactically convenient, player characters with Shields and Potential Energy can endure a lot of punishment for quite a while.
Fortunately, Hi-Rez has given some thought to prevent devastating combinations of Perks, by splitting perks into two categories which are mainly intended to prevent this from occurring. For example, the Survivalist perk would have been overpowered if paired with the Potential Energy perk, as it would have made Shield-using tribals even harder to kill, so both of them have been lumped under the same category such that players can only pick one of either but not both. Another example of an overpowered combination of perks that has been prevented by this wise design is the pairing of Pilot (which increases the durability of vehicles) with Mechanic (which increase repair speed, which also affects repairs of vehicles).
The other customization options for player characters are mainly cosmetic, such as re-skins and sets of voice-overs that are different from the default ones. Unfortunately, as is typical of a game with freemium models, these aesthetic options are premium-only. Furthermore, consequently, they mark out players with these options as players that have bought into the game's model or have been co-opted into its promotion schemes (which reward players who managed to get the game new players).
Assuming that the player is patient – or spend-thrift – enough to unlock the customization options for tribals, he/she will discover that they are further limited by the meta-game mechanism of load-out slots. By default, the player only has one for each character type; he/she has to expend XP or gold to unlock more. This can hamper a player's ability to quickly adapt during a match, as switching gear piece-by-piece takes a lot longer than switching to a pre-determined load-out.
It has to be mentioned here that in an old beta build of the game, all bullet-shooting weapons were hit-scan; this frustrated player's attempts to use speed to evade fire. Unfortunately, the solution that addressed this problem only introduced another.
The solution converted these weapons over to guns that fire projectiles that have to move across the map to hit whatever the player intends to hurt in real-time. Although this made evasion of enemy fire through speed more viable, the projectiles are server-governed. Therefore, lag between the servers and the player is a major problem when the player is attempting to lead the target. The lag also causes a visual disconnect between the display of projectiles and the graphical effects of the player character's muzzle-fire. The only work-around is to play the game on a server that is geographically closest to the player to reduce lag, assuming that the player still wants to use bullet-firing weapons.
The same issue affects explosive-launching weapons too, but at least these have the benefit of splash damage, though the player has little hope of making direct hits when playing on a server with significant lag.
The only remaining hit-scan weapons are certain pistols and sniper rifles, neither of which are particularly powerful at terminating enemies quickly. This is especially odd for the sniper rifles, which are some of the weakest to be found in the sci-fi shooter subgenre. (On the other hand, their meek damage output and hassle of use – they have to be charged to deal enough damage – may have balanced their advantage of having unlimited range and hit-scan capabilities but no dispersion whatsoever.)
All tribals have the ability to perform a melee attack. Although this feature may seem out of place in a game with an emphasis on speed and mobility – it is indeed difficult to hit someone in mid-air with a melee attack – it is still an amusing feature as managing to score a kill via a melee attack tends to be a humiliating setback for the victim. Otherwise, melee attacks have very little utility beyond killing enemies that are unaware of their surroundings, namely tribals that are using their scope functions for sniping or bombarding.
Prior to describing the modes of gameplay in Tribes: Ascend, the mechanism of credits and scores has to be described first. In almost all game modes, players can rack up scores by doing the usual harming and killing of enemies, though some game modes offer other ways to garner points. These points do not only have meta-game consequences, but also factor into gameplay as well. Each point is converted into a credit, which goes into a counter at a convenient corner of the screen.
Certain actions and feats by the player offer more rewards than the rest. These are awarded "Accolades", which are digital medals of sorts that appear on-screen together with a harsh clanging noise whenever the player achieves these feats. These accolades, depending on the difficulty and rarity of the feat, offer more credits to the player than those awarded for more mundane actions. To cite some examples, two of the most infamous Accolades are Blue Plate Special and Air Mail, which are given when players hit and kill enemies in mid-air with explosive weapons, which are easier said than done; in contrast, the Repair accolade, which is obtained by repairing base buildings, is a lot less rewarding (though no less lucrative as it is easy to accumulate).
These extra credits make Accolades very rewarding to players who like finesse to be recognized. Otherwise, it would appear that Accolades merely serve meta-game purposes, each virtual medal going into the player's record as a testament to his/her awesomeness. However, there does not seem to be any way for other players to examine a player's record of accolades, which would have been useful for people who are recruiting for clans.
These accolades, and some other in-game activities, count towards the accumulation of conditions that are needed to unlock meta-game rewards known as "Badges". Some of these are awarded simply for playing the game, while some requires the accumulation of specific accolades. For example, the On-Call badge is awarded to players who consistently repair buildings whenever they can.
Each of these badges have up to four ranks, each with increasingly higher thresholds. Achieving a rank grants the player experience points; this is in addition to experience points that are gained from simply playing the game. These amounts are substantial, but there are not enough of them to reward the free-loading player for free-loading, unfortunately.
Credits that have been obtained during a match can be spent on upgrades for base buildings, if the game mode allows it, or spent on call-ins. Base buildings will be described later.
At this time of writing, call-ins are off-map tactical support that either offer area-denial options or summon down a pod that deploys an inventory station. Call-ins have to be deployed by selecting the right laser-emitting tool and pointing it at the location where the player wants call-ins to be deployed.
The player can call down a tactical strike, which comes down after a couple of moments and devastates its small area of effect (often killing player characters outright). The orbital strike is a lot more devastating, but has a substantially longer delay.
It has to be mentioned here that both kinds of off-map strikes have visual and aural clues that signify their coming, especially orbital strikes, which look and sound especially ominous. Tactical strikes are more subtle, such that a less-than-careful player would only know that they have come after his/her player character have been reduced to smoking detritus. These are understandable drawbacks, as these strikes are very powerful.
What is less understandable is that enemies can see the laser beams that the aforementioned tools emit. These often provide very early warning to enemies that the player is attempting to bombard their positions, as well as give away the location of the player's tribal, especially to snipers, who may well know that these tools require clear of sight to be used.
The last, but not least, of the call-ins is a summoning of a pod that contains an inventory station. This station is much like those in bases and other locations of the map, but they have slightly different visuals and more importantly lack of invulnerability, i.e. they can be destroyed by enemy fire. They also do not initiate regeneration of health, though they do recharge energy completely.
Unlike the gear selection, the game modes in Tribes: Ascend are not as affected by the imposition of the freemium model, which is fortunate. There are currently five modes: Capture-The-Flag, Blitz, Take-And-Hold, Team Deathmatch, and Arena.
Capture-The-Flag is perhaps the most-played mode, due to it being the most manageably predictable. Either of the two teams of tribals has to capture the other team's flag while preventing their own from being snagged. Returning a flag that has been displaced from its stand is as simple as having a team member touch it, so getting away with the enemy flag is easier said than done and certainly requires some teamwork.
The two teams also have bases that are generally mirror images of each other (for reasons that have more to do with gameplay balance than canonical sense). In addition to the flag stands, they are populated with buildings that serve to assist players in their defence.
Most maps have both bases being mirror images of each other, but there are some differences in the layouts of these bases, the most common difference being the placement of the base turrets. In some maps, these turrets may be placed in locations where their limited detection range puts them at the mercy of Spinfusors fired at long ranges, or Juggernauts dropping munitions on them. In other maps, they are well obscured by terrain and can easily catch any enemy that hurtles over them.
In Capture-the-Flag, Bases also have sensors that highlight enemies that are approaching the base with icons above their heads, even through walls and terrain. This is handy, though the game could have done better by giving players a mini-map that tracks enemies that have been detected.
Sensors and base turrets are considered as "armored", meaning that only explosive weapons (discounting anti-personnel grenades) can damage them; bullet-shooting guns and melee attacks do not do much. Generators are not armored, meaning that any weapon can damage it. However, they generally have a lot more hitpoints than other buildings, especially when fully upgraded (more on upgrades shortly), and they are often located deep within a team's base such that enemies that are attempting to knock it out would have a hard time extricating themselves.
By default, the base buildings in Capture-the-Flag can be upgraded to be more powerful, up to three times. At the highest level, Level 4, all base buildings can take a tremendous amount of damage, though they can be brought down and disabled all the same. Once that happens, they have to be repaired before they become operational.
It has to be mentioned here that there are rewards for players who actually bother to spend time repairing buildings, though it can be argued that the time spent could have been better spent in fighting the enemy, which yield more credits (assuming that the player is a skilled fighter). Technicians with repair kits were better poised to reap these rewards, though the aforementioned update for the repair kits has made this a thing of the past.
In addition to base buildings, there are inventory stations and vehicle stations that can be interacted with for more direct benefits to a player character. Inventory stations in bases not only allow the player to switch gear or even character types, but also trigger the regeneration of the player character's health and fully recharge his energy reserves.
However, a person that is using an inventory station is rendered immobile for around a couple of seconds, so they are very vulnerable to any attacks during this brief period of time. His/her player character also practically "resets" his animations and status, e.g. a cloaked Infiltrator that is reloading a gun while standing on an Inventory station would be reset to the default pose and uncloaked.
Vehicle stations are used to create vehicles for players' use. As of this time of writing, there are only three vehicles: the Grav Cycle, the Shrike and the Beowulf. These vehicles provide immediate benefits, but player characters that are inside a vehicle that is being destroyed will die, unless they have a fully upgraded Pilot perk equipped. Furthermore, abandoned vehicles can be commandeered by the enemy, possibly up and over the limit of vehicles that a team can have.
One benefit that is common to all vehicles is that they have speed-boosting capabilities that allow them to have short bursts of speed, which makes them more convenient at transporting players and hit-and-runs.
The Grav Cycle is a very fast hover-bike that can quickly carry players across a map, including heavies. One of the players would be the driver and gunner (the bike is armed with plasma cannons), whereas another rides as a passenger that can freely shoot his/her weapon in a 180-degree arc on the side of the bike that he/she is facing. The passenger can even be a player that is holding the enemy flag, which allows for vehicular getaways when flag-running. However, the Grav Cycle is a very weak vehicle, though it is considered as armored and thus is immune to bullet-shooting weapons.
The Shrike is an aerial vehicle that is exceptionally useful in chasing down flag-runners, though the pilot has to be rather skilled in jinking and fly-bys in order to catch a flag-runner. Its plasma cannons are also quite difficult to use, and it is worth noting here that most experienced players are more likely to use the Shrike itself as a flying blade against enemies. The Shrike is also vulnerable to all weapons, much like the Generator.
The Beowulf is a hover-tank. Unlike its tank predecessors in previous games, the Beowulf appears to be a lot more maneuverable and thus less vulnerable than its clumsy forebearers. The inclusion of the aforementioned speed-boosting feature especially contributes to this improvement, as the armoured vehicles in previous games were quite susceptible to heavily-armed enemies on foot (or rather, jetpacks).
Every vehicle costs credits to purchase, and there is also a limit on every type of vehicle that further balances them gameplay-wise. These are understandable balancing designs, though the need to have the base generator online in order to use the vehicle station can be a little troublesome, especially when team members are divided over protecting the flag or generator. (It has to be mentioned here that the flag has a more direct influence on the outcome of a match.)
Considering the benefits of the base, players in Capture-The-Flag has to split their efforts in defending the base from sieges and infiltration and defending the flag stand. This is, of course, easier said than done. To Hi-Rez's credit, most of the currently available CTF maps make doing either just as difficult as the other, compared to earlier maps that have since been rescinded from the game in order to correct flaws in designs that made protecting one or the other too easy, or too difficult.
Blitz is a recently released variant of Capture-The-Flag. This mode is almost entirely the same, except that after a flag has been captured for the first time, its position within a team's base will change. This presents new challenges, such as rendering many flag-running routes quite useless or requiring a concerted assault to clear the flag-stand, which can even be located indoors (and thus making bombardment next to useless). Despite the use of the same maps in Capture-The-Flag, Blitz can be a great challenge to learn if one has come from the former match type.
Team Deathmatch would be typically familiar to veterans of sci-fi shooters. There appear to be no bases, which means that the two teams are focused on killing each other. Members of either team can respawn upon death, but depletes the number of respawns that is available to the team. Alternatively, one team can attempt to retrieve and hold onto a flag, which is spawned when the first kill of the match has occurred. The team that is holding the flag takes two points off the respawn counter of the other team each time it scores a kill. The team with the counter that dwindles down to zero first loses.
The design of the flag-based solution to ending matches has a nuance, which is that the winning team must still have players that are skilled and experienced at fighting; merely having a skilled flag-runner zooming around with the flag will not help much when the other team is a lot more experienced.
Take-and-Hold seems to be a variant of both Capture-The-Flag and Team Deathmatch; that they use the same maps makes this impression strong. However, these maps have alterations, namely a few locations (at least two) where either team can attempt to capture and hold onto. The respawn counter for the opposing team goes down if a team can hold onto at least one point, and it goes down faster if the team can take over more than one. Every location has a holographic beacon, which players have to approach to convert ownership of the location.
Every location has some facilities and buildings that somewhat help the owning team to defend it. However, all it takes to revert the location is just one member of the opposing team touching the beacon for the location. The location will immediately become neutral, thus disabling the facilities and buildings until the defending team gets someone to pass through the beacon again. The buildings also cannot be upgraded, unlike in Capture-The-Flag.
Consequently, it may be difficult for a player not to have an impression that the base buildings have only been included as an afterthought. However, upon further observation, it can be noticed that base buildings appear to have maximized power, e.g. base turrets have maximum damage output, i.e. at Level 4, but have minimum hitpoints, i.e. at Level 1. A more notable observation is that all base buildings are fully repaired when a location is captured, so the team that has captured it does not have to spend time repairing them.
Arena appears to be a scaled-down version of Team Deathmatch, with fewer players fighting in smaller maps, smaller respawn counters and no flag. However, depleting the counter of the other team only has one team winning the current round, and a few rounds have to be won in order for the team to win the match. Arena is perhaps more suitable for players who prefer to have more personal matches, though the automatic match-making does not make it easy for players to seek matches with other specific players, outside of renting servers.
It should be noted here that there was once the game mode of Rabbit, which was a free-for-all game mode where players have to vie with each other for a single flag. Holding onto this flag grants the owning player points; the first player to achieve a threshold of points wins. This was perhaps a contentious game mode, as there is an obvious lack of emphasis on team-work and more importantly, may grant specific character types, namely the Pathfinder, too much of an advantage. It was perhaps wise of Hi-Rez to retract this game mode, but apparently it was not wise enough to think things through in the first place.
Regardless of the game mode, the player character that is holding a flag is not able to regenerate; even visiting a base inventory station will not initiate the regeneration (though energy reserves are still refilled). Furthermore, the player's location will be visible to the enemy, as the game will always display the icon for the general location of the flag and changes the look of the icon when it is held by a player. This makes flag-running quite difficult, though it is perhaps a wise game design as otherwise, running away with the flag would not be much of a challenge.
The XP that is gained from matches are mainly dependent on the duration of the match; the longer it is, the more XP is gained. There is a 25% bonus to the winning team's XP rewards though, so the game still rewards winning. It is also worth noting that a player cannot exploit this by joining a match and then leaving the game to do something else; the player has to be doing something in the match.
As of version 1.0.1121.0, the game appears to be affected by occasional technical issues. For one, there is a short freeze when the game loads the main menu for the first time, as the game apparently has to connect to Hi-Rez's servers to fetch the discount offer for the player before it loads the rest of the main menu. Sometimes, the connection fails, and the game freezes indefinitely. The display of this discount offer cannot be disabled either (at this time of writing), which means that if a player finds this very annoying, he/she will have to put up with it.
Speaking of freezes, there may be freezes that rarely occur when a player joins a match; the game simply freezes in the loading screen.
If the player manages to join a match, another issue may occur if he/she joined a match when it has just ended. The player may be left in queuing limbo, as the game's servers may overlook the player when setting up the next match. The player can mend this by quitting the match and rejoining, but this does not work all the time; sometimes the player's connection to the servers appear to become faulty and the only way to solve this is to quit the game altogether and restart it.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the player would not come across these problems again.
The server connection problems do not just end there. The player may attempt to unlock an item, but the servers do not appear to register the player's request until several seconds later. Sometimes, the wait can even stretch into minutes. Attempting to send the unlock request again may cause the player's account to be charged twice, and nothing short of a customer complaint can fix this.
With Hi-Rez busying itself with updates for its other free-to-play games, it remains to be seen whether Hi-Rez would address these issues anytime soon.
In previous builds of the game, Tribes: Ascend has very limited options for the customization of its graphics. This was a frustrating peculiarity and an oddity in a computer game. As of this time of writing, there are now a lot more options, including an option to disable visual indicators of low health, which can be very intrusive. Of course, one can argue that these options should have been in the game much earlier in the first place.
(It should also be mentioned here that the game was slated to be developed for the console platforms, and this could have been a factor in the lack of graphics customization options. These plans have since gone quiet.)
The visual designs of the game may raise some eyebrows, as they are the results of Hi-Rez's attempts to accommodate the gameplay while including the latest pizzazz that present-day graphics technology can offer. This can be seen in the designs for maps and models in the game.
Most of the maps in Tribes: Ascend consist of rolling hills and plains with sporadic bumps and plateaus; this is not unlike previous Tribes games. However, they tend to be sparse and devoid of terrain objects. Bases and other indoor areas are even more simply shaped. They are often stretches of straight corridors that are connected to each other at various perpendicular junctions, which is a design that seems to be deliberate in order to allow players some room for speedy dashes. Rooms also tend to be quite spacious, which allows for some movement but diminishes the appearance of indoor areas as actual military bases.
Although these designs accommodate the game's emphasis on speed and prevents players from running into objects, it also means that the only difference between the maps is their color schemes and textures. In fact, they can seem boring to look at.
Hi-Rez does attempt to compensate by including special effects like fog, rain and ember, which can be quite impressive to look at. The generation of shadows across the rolling terrain is also pleasing to look at, and some maps have brilliant light sources, such as the sun and lens flare in the tropical-themed map of Crossfire. Bases have textures and extensive normal mapping to accommodate the circuitries, motifs and minor geometries that are needed to give the impression that they have been built by sentient civilizations.
Shadows are also well done, being generated in manners that are believable, e.g. they are oriented quite appropriately across terrain and with respect to the position of light sources, namely the suns in certain maps. The particle effects of weapons are also distinct enough to help players identify which weapons are being fired. For example, Spinfusors always fire discs of bright colors, with trails of light no less. Another example is the bright, gaseous particle effects for the very powerful Fusion Mortar.
Yet, as pretty as these effects are and as much as Hi-Rez attempts to implement the latest graphics technology for the computer platform, they cannot distract from the fact that almost all maps lack doodads and has unremarkable geometries. Of course, again, it can be argued that this is for the sake of gameplay, but this argument would only endear to players who are enamoured enough with the gameplay to overlook this unfortunate drawback.
The models of vehicles, tribals, weapons and base buildings in the game are more articulated than the maps, fortunately.
The tribals, or more precisely, the default skins of the player characters, are particular examples. Their armor suits have plenty of details, such as chinks, overlapping plates, chipping, fading of color and numerous scratches.
There are only two tribes that are featured in the game thus far, but the visual differences between them are still varied and impressive. The Blood Eagles expectedly have a lot of avian motifs and red in their armor designs, but otherwise they have many sharp edges which reflect their canonically aggressive (and often cruel) nature. The Diamond Swords have more graceful countenances like curves and gloss for their armor, but otherwise they look as severe as people who live harsh lives would look like.
The different character types also have visual differences between each other, but characters of the same weight category have the same model silhouette. The visual differences between characters of the same weight category are also too few and slight to be discernible over long distances anyway.
The alternate (and premium) skins for some characters are more interesting to look at, but these betray the lack of secondary animations for player characters. Although player characters are animated well enough such that every character type has postures and gaits that make them quite identifiable from afar (such as the Doombringer's waist-high hauling of his missile launchers and autocannons), they do not have any minor animations, such as facial animations.
This is not a problem for the default tribal skins, all of which are helmeted. However, for the premium skins, most of which have actual faces, the lack of facial animations is all too-apparent, which in turn would diminish the perceived worth of these among players who had been expecting more believable animations for these skins.
Vehicles, understandably, have less animations than character models. What animations there are for these vehicles appear to be adequate enough to portray their roles, such as changes in the orientation of small rudders on the Shrike when it banks and yaws. The Beowulf is also notable for having two independently rotating turrets (one for its main gun, which is controlled by its pilot, the other for its machinegun, which is controlled by the passenger), which also contribute to the appeal of using the Beowulf.
There are nuances with certain animations, such as those for reloading weapons. Reloading animations have to be performed up to a certain point before a weapon is considered reloaded; however, the full sequence of animations does not need to be achieved for this to happen. In addition, the game does not insist that these animations have to be performed in order to reload a weapon; after an update that occurred in the past, weapons with empty chambers or magazines that are switched out in favour of another will be automatically reloaded after six seconds, if the player does not switch back. It may seem unbelievable, but this design decision makes gameplay smoother and more convenient.
The last but not least visual design of the game is its camera design. Being a sci-fi shooter, Tribes: Ascend has by default a first-person camera for players to use. However, it also has a third-person camera, which is placed above and behind the player character. Even at the broadest field of value, the player character's model will obscure some of the player's view of whatever is in front of him, but the additional visual awareness can be very helpful when the player character is moving across the map. That the cameras can be toggled back and forth makes using them even more convenient.
However, it has to be mentioned here that the third-person camera may benefit the Infiltrator and Raider a bit too much. These two characters have pack items that render them invisible to base sensors, which means that they can hide around a corner in the enemy base while using the third-person camera to peek around the corner without exposing themselves.
Tribes: Ascend's audio is surprisingly good. The game makes a splendid first impression with its inspiring yet mournful track for its main menu. The game has several soundtracks to accompany matches with, and these do not sound too intrusive (at least at their default volume) to distract the player from the action. However, if the player does obtain possession of the enemy flag, the music switches to heart-pounding tracks, creating a sense of urgency that the player would be wise to heed.
The sound effects are expectedly sci-fi, as befitting a sci-fi shooter like Tribes: Ascend. The more outlandish of weaponry have sound effects that are appropriately out of this world, such as the signature, almost unique disc-launching noises of the various Spinfusors in the game. The more believable weapons are less impressive to listen to, but they should be adequately satisfactory in getting a player's adrenaline pumping or teeth rattling.
The three categories of character types have their own default voice-overs, all of whom are male. They are amusingly sadistic and sarcastic when taunting enemies, though when uttering orders to team-mates, they seem more serious and more importantly, these voice messages are only heard by the team, and not the enemy.
There are other voice-overs, but these are premium options. They are even more amusing than the default options, though they may seem to mismatch with the player character. An example of this is the Bioderm voice-over, which is meant for an inhuman genetically-engineered creature and not any of the models that are available to players thus far.
In conclusion, Tribes: Ascend has very competently designed and fun gameplay, as well as a lot of content at launch. Moreover, in hindsight, it has added quite a significant amount of new content since its launch. However, much of this new content is locked away behind tremendous XP walls, such that players that pay to unlock content or pay for boosters may be the only players who find every content update refreshing; free-loaders may well be put off by the grinding. Furthermore, technical issues with the game's infrastructure may detract from the appeal of the game.