If you’ve been following North American E-Sports lately, there’s a new FPS on the scene that stands out from Call of Duty (a franchise that is fast becoming the new standard indie game makers measure themselves against, or better yet, away from). Tribes: Ascend is the latest release from Atlanta-based HiRez Games, the makers of 2009’s Global Agenda MMO. While both shooters are free to play and feature futuristic weaponry and jetpacks, Tribes: Ascend distinguishes itself from Global Agenda and other sci-fi fare such as Halo:Reach.
Tribes followed on the tail end of the ’90s mecha simulator wave. In an attempt to cash in on the success of Mechwarrior, Dynamix released Metaltech: Earthsiege and later, its Starsiege sequel. In 1998, Dynamix and Sierra teamed up to capitalize on the buzz created by Unreal and Quake. The result was Starsiege: Tribes, a well-balanced yet somewhat derivative product, an entirely different genre of game set in the Starsiege universe essentially for the sake of name recognition.
And, that’s when emergent gaming’s invisible hand took over.
Soon after release, the Tribes community discovered a bug in the physics engine. Any player that constantly tapped the jump key while walking down a slope would go into a frictionless slide, gaining momentum. This revolutionized competitive play and became so popular that scripts were released by modders to take aimbot hack-esque advantage of this bug. Teams would jetpack to the top of mountains and hurtle down towards the enemy, capturing flags and scoring kills like something out of a science fiction drive-by before zooming out of gun range.
Tribes 2 was the result of the franchise’s surprising staying power, and it formalized “skiing,” as the bug-feature was known amongst the community. Although it came with a daunting skill cliff, Tribes 2 offered serious potential for teamwork and jaw-dropping moments. In the eyes of hardcore gaming, Tribes could do no wrong. Until Sierra closed down the original Dynamix studio and killed the franchise’s golden goose. 2004’s Tribes: Vengeance was so disappointing (its much vaunted single-player campaign was so bad) that it single-handedly erased all future plans for the franchise.
After the success of Global Agenda in 2009, HiRez took the chance to pick up the rights to Tribes on the cheap. Open beta began this month and for a free to play game, the line between open beta and official release in the free, character-persistent category is kind of meaningless. F2P has suffered lots of deserved flak for being of lower quality, but Tribes: Ascend benefits from its unique gameplay conceit and AAA background. The Zen-like focus and experience required to ski efficiently and lead your targets also means that, although there are pay options inside, this game is definitely not “pay to win.” Many of the lowliest starting weapons can insta-kill all those kids who bought maxed out WoW characters and let auto-attacks do their dirty work.
Whether you’ll end up spending the thirty dollars to essentially “buy” the game and receive a permanent XP boost to unlock weapons, classes, and perks faster or stick around for the fun, Tribes: Ascend deserves serious attention. It demonstrates how much one change in gameplay can matter and that should provide hope to indie developers just starting out on their own quests. Look at it this way: 4chan’s notoriously impossible /v/ gaming forum has begrudgingly embraced Tribes: Ascend since the closed beta. That’s at least a guarantee of its hardcore throwback style, if nothing else.