Monday, 27 February 2012

Tribes Ascend: The Way Forward is Up

Oh Tribes, it has been too long.  In fact, it's been too long since we last saw a proper, fast paced shooter in the classic vein of Tribes, Unreal Tournament or Quake.  Why did these slick, skill-based shooters fall on the wayside to begin with?  What made the masses turn to the brown-washed world of Modern Medal of Battlefare, and abandon these bright, colourful and lightning fast games?  Well, truth be told, the answer is effectively pure speculation.

But I will indulge that urge to speculate and dissect the minds of the FPS loving masses.  To my eyes, while there are many potential reasons why these people turned from what hardcore gamers would consider the holy grail of FPS subgenres (if 'fast' shooters can be considered a subgenre, and I would argue they can), there are several key points that I believe trump all the rest.

The first is the feeling of being a badass.  Halo did this quite well.  I mean, right from the get-go, you're a super soldier equipped with incredibly powerful technology and weapons at your disposal, let loose to savage legion upon legion of alien hostiles.  And the best part is, everyone gets to feel like a badass, regardless of your skill level.  The easiest mode in the campaign gives the player a sense of extreme power as you unleash unrelenting carnage upon your enemies, while the famous Legendary mode will challenge even the hardcore FPS fan, offering a sense of accomplishment.  It was all quite marvelous.

Remember when shooters had more colours in their palate than brown?  Yeah, this game is pretty gorgeous.

However, somewhere along the way, the idea of giving out merit badges for accomplishing different feats became a big deal.  Beat a level on Legendary?  You get an achievement.  Get 5 kills in a row in multiplayer? The announcer makes sure to let everyone know how well you're doing.  All the while, these ideas were creeping into other titles.  Not to suggest Halo was the pioneer of this idea, but it's merely an example.

Where we can really start pointing fingers is in the Call of Duty franchise.  Now, believe it or not, this is a series that used to be held in high regard.  No really, it did.  Call of Duty 2 had a fantastic, fairly lengthy campaign.  Call of Duty 4 brought a lot of great ideas to multiplayer.  But suddenly, ideas became mandatory inclusions, to the point of becoming detrimental to the rest of the game, as the importance of kill streaks and leveling up in multiplayer led to declining quality elsewhere in the game.  The campaign for Modern Warfare 2, for example, was a complete joke.  This also led to lazy, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitudes towards multiplayer, seeing effectively the same game re-re-(and yes, re)-released over and over.  We've now just had to endure Modern Warfare 3, and indeed Activision has already confirmed another Call of Duty this year to fill the "one a year" quota they seem to so direly need to keep up.

Indeed, this is the point where it's difficult to avoid becoming ranty.  Call of Duty represents lazy iterations in gaming, but it's certainly not the only series guilty of this, nor is it the only contributor to the downfall of fast paced shooters.  Just how hard has Nintendo milked its fans over the years with the Pokemon franchise?  Almost always releasing two games at once, rarely having much in the way of innovation between titles.  Even Assassin's Creed, a series that earned my love with the second game, has now ventured into obnoxious territory with its seemingly yearly releases.  Not that Pokemon or Assassin's Creed have much sway over the FPS genre, but I digress; Activision and Infinity Ward are not the only guilty parties here.

Getting back to the issue at hand, why this shift from fast to slow paced shooters?  It really wasn't that long ago that the gaming community seemed to love the frantic madness of Unreal Tournament, Quake and even the original two Tribes games, both of which were played long after their releases in 1998 and 2001.  Well there's the issue of feeling like a badass, and while this may be a generalization, there's no denying that 12 year-olds everywhere get a kick out of running around with an M60 or FAMAS, destroying their fellow prepubescent players with what they believe to be 'real' military tactics.  Well, certainly, I'm no military tactician, but I'm fairly sure most warzones do not take place in a 200'x200' box as so often is the case in Call of Duty's tiny multiplayer maps.

High-speed cap incoming!

But Battlefield has massive maps.  Indeed, Battlefield is often seen as the antithesis to Call of Duty; the 'war sim' that gets it right, and appeals to the 'real' FPS fans.  But even it is not without fault.  Battlefield is still a slow paced game, regardless of how many explosions there are, how many vehicles on the field, or how often you get caught in a hail of crossfire.  Most of what's happening is totally out of your control, and individual skill blurs due to the chaotic nature of the matches.  You can die without knowing why, and you can kill without intention.  True, this may emulate a real war situation much more correctly than Call of Duty...but does that game for a good game?  It can, if done correctly.  Red Orchestra and its sequel, games I must admit I have not played, are the ones that apparently get it right.  Battlefield is a weird mix of simulation and gamey contrivance.  Usually this doesn't work very well; a game should either exist outside the limiting restrictions of reality, or follow it as closely as possible.  Games like Forza, Gran Turismo, and Flight Simulator earn respect because they feel correct, and attention to detail has been given.  Conversely, ridiculous and unrealistic games that parallel these, such as Burnout and Crimson Skies, earn equally big kudos because they cast aside any illusion of being taken seriously and serve only the purpose of being fun and outrageous.

Tribes Ascend has no illusions of realism.  It puts two tribes of soliders, Blood Eagle and Diamond Sword, against each other in an attempt to capture one another's flag.  Why the flag?  Who are Blood Eagle and Diamond Sword?  What are they fighting this war over?  Who cares; the game is fun and uncompromising, and that's what matters.  In this game you fly across massive, open battlefields at speeds in excess of 200 kph (that's without vehicles) firing explosive discs at each other while attempting to shut down the enemy defenses surrounding the base...again, all to capture a flag.  And that just works.

The sense of speed is palpable.  You might get a gut-wrenching feeling the first time you pull off a successful disc jump and hurtle yourself towards the enemy base at 250 kph, grabbing the flag before they can react, cursing and praying as you ski back home in an attempt to capture the flag with a pack of angry tribesmen biting at your heels.  It feels unusual and absolutely refreshing in this day and age.  Indeed, even as a former Tribes player, I had difficulty getting into Ascend.  It's been years and years since I'd last picked up a Spinfusor and launched myself across the map in an FPS, so it goes without saying that the learning curve was rather steep.

In place of full customization of heavy, medium and light armors, we now have 9 classes, each with some customization
options.  Tribes purists may cry foul, but this is a fair compromise to make the F2P model work, and doesn't negatively
impact gameplay.

And this is where perhaps the big turn off for fast paced shooters comes in:  they're hard.  They are not easy games.  If you're looking to rack up some kills and have Mr. Announcer tell everyone how well you're doing, don't expect to do so in Tribes Ascend, unless you've been playing for quite some time.  The learning curve is, indeed, more of a cliff than a slope, but luckily the game comes with several different tutorials that should help you acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with this sort of shooter.  However, what comes with a more challenging game is a greater sense of accomplishment when you start to get the hang of it.  Get a kill streak in Tribes, and you know you're hot shit.  Every kill feels unbelievably satisfying, and that's because you have to hone your skills for each and every one.  Hitting a target with non hit-scan weapons moving at 150+ kph is, obviously, not so easy.  So when your shots do hit home, you'll have to resist the urge to fist pump and shout in victory at your monitor.

I genuinely believe Tribes Ascend is perhaps the most important game of 2012.  It's been in closed beta for a number of months now (it just entered open beta), and with each patch, Hi-Rez seems to be getting things more right.  Aside from a few small bugs and stability issues, it now feels more polished and complete than many triple-A titles out there.  And that's ridiculous, but this is a free to play game.  Yes, Tribes Ascend is completely free.  It adopts a free to play model that's quite similar to League of Legends, in that money will unlock certain classes, abilities and (eventually) unique skins immediately, but will not buy you upgrades.  Upgrades must be purchased with experience gained from actually playing, and indeed you can unlock absolutely everything within the game exclusively with experience, never paying a dime (although it will take untold amounts of time).

But I urge anyone genuinely interested in fast paced shooters making a return to highly consider paying the $30 "VIP package" fee, netting you over $30 worth of in-game currency, instant VIP status and an experience booster.  While these perks are all wonderful things to have, perhaps my main reason for paying money when I didn't need to was to support this game.  Half the price of your average new game seemed like a small price to pay for supporting what is perhaps the most fun and satisfying FPS in years.  It's important to support the games and developers we covet, not just because it's right, but also because it will foster the development of more games like it down the line.  If you'd like to see a revival of the once-great world of fast paced shooters, give Tribes Ascend a look, and definitely consider supporting Hi-Rez with your wallet, as well as your words.

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