29 April 2012

Tribes Ascend - Impressions

For those of you who don't know by now, Tribes Ascend is a new free-to-play first person shooter by Hi-Rez Studios. The main attraction is... speed. You are armed not only with an arsenal of ass kicking weapons, but a jetpack and frictionless boots.

If you aren't sure what kind of extreme impact this has on gameplay, I think a video will do more justice than explaning in words:

As you can see, insane speeds, aerial combat and fun times are to be had by all. This is a real mash up compared to the long tradition of modern war-based shooters that we have seen.

The game is still in beta, but the release date is set for 12 April 2012, and it's pretty much complete.The game has officially been released. If you haven't tried it yet, I would really recommend giving it a shot. It's been a blast all the way so far. If you are worried about being disadvantaged for playing for free, don't worry. You get 3 armour types to start off with, in the form of the Pathfinder (light), the Soldier (medium), and the Juggernaut (heavy). These are all well-balanced classes that will work just fine.

Pub vs Professional

A game like Tribes obviously has a very high skill ceiling. It gives players freedom to own through developing their accuracy, speed, map knowledge, game knowledge, teamwork and pure dexterity. This opens up the opportunity for competitive play, as long as the game remains balanced enough that skill is the deciding factor, and not gimmicks.

At the moment, many players would most likely play on the public Hi-Rez servers. Public games and competitive games cannot really be compared because public games tend to remove the key element of teamwork. Teamwork is especially necessary in the popular Capture the Flag game-mode, where there are many aspects to manage such as base defense, flag defense, spotting, chasing, flag capping, base assaults, and so forth. If everyone does their own thing or attempts to lone-wolf through the game, they are either ignored by the enemy team and own, or completely destroyed without the backing help of their teammates. There is something satisfying about joining a game of complete strangers and actually getting a semblance of teamwork out of a game. This is similar to playing pub games of Dota, where people learn to communicate and play their roles without prior planning. There is definitely still fun to be had.

On that note, I really like the voice-command system built into the game. By pressing "V", you open a hotkey-navigated menu of common commands. These are all categorized nicely with easy-to-remember mnemonics. For example, to instruct your team to defend your generator, you would type VDG: V (voice), D (defend), G (generator). This is mostly because the action in Tribes is too fast to open a chat menu and type, but an added bonus is that it is a standard form of communication that does not depend on a user's specific language or (lack of) proper grammar.

My point of view

Personally, I am not a professional gamer by any means. I have never played a game competitively. The closest that I have gotten is dedicating a lot of time to Call of Duty 4 play on a local server, but I have never played in an organized match. This means that my opinion of Tribes Ascend is from a purely public perspective. I am sure a lot of people are trying to develop the game towards the competitive scene, but the public arena cannot be ignored and also plays a big role in the game's success.

My preferred playstyle is that of a capper/chaser. I prefer going after flags at high speeds to lobbing death at base defenses and other players. I do occasionally [vad] Disrupt the Enemy Defense with a Soldier, but I spend most of my time as a Pathfinder. I have recently unlocked the Brute class and it is quite fun causing mayhem in gen-rooms, but I'm still trying to unlock perks and weapon upgrades. In this case I do feel that you are pretty significantly weaker without upgrading your gear.

I am playing on a purely Free-to-Play basis. I still want to make a single small money-purchase for the permanent XP boost, but I am unlocking items using XP alone. This means that I have not tried all the classes or weapons, but I have been killed by them all (quite) a few times and know what they do.

Game client

The first thing that I noticed when installing and playing the game is the game client. You do not download the game as a fat archive and install it. You download the Hi-Rez Launcher, that in itself starts the "Hi-Rez Studios Authenticate and Update Service". This is responsible for managing your game install and downloading all the game files and updates.

On that note, Tribes Ascend's free-to-play model can be almost directly compared to that of League of Legends. The launchers are even similar, too.

Launcher
Tribes Launcher
LoL Launcher
LoL Launcher

Personally, I think this is not good. Not good at all. Where I come from, not everyone has access to large amounts of monthly internet data. I still have to find a way to install the game without downloading it from scratch through the Hi-Rez launcher. I have followed the instructions for backing up and importing a game from the Hi-Rez website, but it doesn't work, the game is simply not detected and re-downloads every. single. time. I don't have a problem with the concept of launchers, and LoL's works just fine. With LoL, you can copy the game from computer to computer to avoid updates with no problems at all.

The launcher also has the option to set the "Default Games Directory". Clicking the button does... nothing. Really, it's just a useless button. I think this kind of system would work better if it was tested, refined and smoothed out a bit more. Right now, it's just a bit frustrating and looks slightly unpolished.

Main Menu
Diagnostic tool - click for larger version

User interface

Menus

I have mixed feelings about the user interface. It has really seen a lot of polish since the early days of the beta, but I still feel like it could do with some improvement. It is definitely functional, don't get me wrong, and the main menu features some gorgeous 3D visuals that actually relate to the menu option they are part of.

Main Menu
Main menu

However, I think the "tree style" menu is a bit basic. Every menu has a list of options, and the option to go to its parent or the root. Sure, you can find everything, but I'm also sure that there are other UI paradigms that one can use to improve the experience. I'm thinking of Blizzard's Battle.net system here. I just want to add that I am a programmer, and not a UI designer or human-computer-interaction specialist, so all the critisism here is based on hunches and intuition, my feelings as an end user.

Something that I long for in the user interface is tooltips, just a bit of context. Whenever I get an accolade (doing something useful but common in-game), or an achievement unlock, the item is represented by a badge with an icon, and a rather creative name. I constantly find myself trying to mouse-over these to get a more detailed description of what they actually mean, but no tooltip presents itself and no other explanation is given. I have yet to find an explanation of the accolades and achievements from in the game interface. I search for the accolade on Google and check what it means in a Tribes Ascend Wiki.

The Hi-Rez website and account management section could also do with a bit of an overhaul. It's the small details that make people go "Wow!" and fork over their money.

In-game interface and HUD

The in-game interface is, in my opinion, quite simply great. It gets out the way and lets you focus on the gameplay, but provides a lot of important information at a glance.

Player positions are marked using small 2D arrows that do not scale with distance. These arrows also look different based on the player's armour class. Allies are always blue, and enemies are always red. This keeps things nice and simple. The icons were also recently updated to have thicker borders so that they stand out more against the terrain.

Flag carriers and the flag itself are marked using a small icon of a flag.

Base defenses have a small icon showing whether they are powered or not. The top of the screen also immediately shows the status of each team's generator, as well as the score.

User Interface
Click for larger version
User Interface
Click for larger version

Your health and energy are displayed as green and blue bars in the bottom left of the screen. They also have numbers next to them to show the actual value of each. This console also shows the status of your usable pack and grenade count.

Each weapon's ammo count is displayed in full 3D on the weapon itself. I find it to be more obvious on some weapons than others, but for the most part, it's really easy to see and weapons have a tendency to light up red or orange when your ammo starts getting low.

Pressing tab will open the scoreboard. This will tell you each player's kill count, assist count (no death count), and current score. One thing I would change here is to highlight your own name on the list more obviously, as I often find myself scanning quite hard to find where I am (it's nice to not have to look right at the bottom for a change :). EDIT: as you can see in the screenshot, that has been fixed in a patch. Your name is now highlighted.

One can mute each player on the voice chat by clicking the little speaker next to their name. EDIT: a certain patch has removed this functionality (see screenshot). I'm not sure why.

Unlocking an accolade during gameplay will briefly flash it in the center of the screen before displaying it in the top-right corner for slightly longer. One of the most satisfying things in the entire game is hearing the awesome "cha-ching" sound when getting a "Blue Plate Special" or "Air Mail", which involves getting a midair kill using a spinfusor- or explosive-based weapon respectively.

Friend system

The friend system has also seen some overhauling since the early days. In the latest (release) patch, the friend system has been divided into friends and followers. Followers are people who have added you, but that you do not have to add back. Clicking on a friend or follower's name will put you in the queue to join their current game. There are also nice and friendly notifications that pop up when friends come online or go offline.

As a tool to play with friends I think it is pretty functional. It does not really encourage social engagement though. The social aspect of the game could be improved in the sense that player achievements and unlocks should be able to be showed off to friends. Player profiles should be browsable and there should be a chat channel system.

I say "should" here, there really doesn't have to be, but for a purely multi-player game I would have expected more focus to be placed on the "multi" part.

Player Profile
What do those banners even mean? Click for larger version

XP Gain

The XP gain system is important to discuss because it forms the core of the Tribes Ascend free-to-play model. One can unlock items using Tribes Gold (a conversion of real life money), or XP earned through gameplay time. There is nothing in the game that affects the actual gameplay that is not unlockable through XP. This means that Tribes Ascend is most definitely not pay-to-win. In fact, some items can only be unlocked through XP. The items that can only be unlocked through Gold are cosmetic skins.

While Tribes Ascend is free-to-play, you can definitely see that Hi-Rez studios wants your money (and there's nothing wrong with that, they made an awesome game and need compensation). The raw XP gain without spending any money is... slow. It used to be a lot worse, though. At some stage, I used to find myself earning roughly 100xp per game, and some of the more advanced weapons cost over 100 000 XP. The situation has improved, and now I find myself earning roughly 600-900 XP per game (unboosted). Every day you have the opportunity to unlock the "First win of the day" accolade that gives 1200 XP. I find this reasonable. Making a single money purchase (the lowest is about $9) will also permanently boost the rate at which you gain XP.

I think Hi-Rez has reached a good balance with the XP system. It used to be overwhelmingly too slow. Now I'm fine with it. In the end, there has to be a reason to spend money, else no-one will. I still feel that unlocks are achievable without spending anything, you just have to be selective in what you unlock.

Maps

I think that good map design is more of an issue in Tribes than in other first person shooters. Map design is always important, but because most of Tribe's gameplay is based on the ski mechanic, and going fast, the maps have to synergize with this. If they do not, they will end up weakening a core mechanic, which is a bad, bad idea.

Personally, I have not played Tribes II. From what I have seen on YouTube, the maps seemed bigger, higher, but a lot plainer. This might seem obvious, though, because Tribes II was released in 2001. A lot of detail has gone into the designs of bases in Tribes Ascend. This is where the Unreal Engine that the game runs on really shines: water flows down walls, and the lighting and texturing is amazing. When you get outside, things still look good, but they lose some of the shininess that comes with closer details like base interiors, character models and weapon models. I understand that the terrain is not rugged, but divided into smooth hills and valleys, because this facilitates skiing, but flat textures alone can't make this look good. Especially as one flies higher it becomes more noticeable. Just a bit of variation: grass, (deep) water, landmarks and so forth would make a big difference. I find this is less of an issue on some maps than others. Personally, I like the design of Katabatic (the snow map) a lot. The jagged shafts of ice piercing the ground with the glare of the sun through what looks like a massive ribcage lining a flat speedway is nothing short of amazing. Other small details on maps like Drydock really impressed me. When a spaceship takes off and flies overhead, it blocks out the sun, casting a massive real-time shadow that moves over the map, possibly darkening the entire area you are in. Wow.

However, on the outskirts of maps like Arx Novena (Mediterranean-looking) and the entire new Temple Ruins (lava), there is not enough variation to stop the maps looking "bla". This might also have to do with choice of colours. The dark olivey greens of Arx Novena and the browns of Temple Ruins don't do much to inspire awe. I am not familiar with any lore surrounding the Starsiege universe, but if one is in the era of spaceships and giant blue explosive disk launchers, I think they would have found some places that look a bit less like Earth.

Drydock
Drydock
Katabatic
Katabatic

In terms of maps being "flat", and skiing dynamics, I think there is a bit of a problem that is difficult to solve. If maps are too big, players that are not used to skiing will be left watching others zip by, frustrated, not by dying, but by not actually having anything to shoot at. If maps are too small, skiing becomes limited and the more skilled players get frustrated. As I have said before, I do not play games competitively, so I am working from the point of view of a pub player. I think the maps are mostly fine, but I would appreciate slightly steeper hills (mountains?), and larger maps. Not larger in the kind of random-feeling way of Temple Ruins, but larger and more focused with obvious routes and choke points that encourage player convergence. I also thought the water element of Tribes: Vengeance was pretty cool, where one would fall in when going slow, but when going fast enough, one could "skip" accross the water to the other side.

Quantity is also always appreciated when looking for maps. I think releasing map-tools to the public will be a great move. Fan-made maps are often made of pure awesome, and this will let Hi-Rez focus their efforts on other core parts of the game. In the meantime, Hi-Rez is still working on maps, and claim that some are not in a "final art or gameplay state" (or words to that effect). I hope they work on variation, and on Temple Ruins especially. The castle bases use enough repetition of textures and simple geometry to make me think of Super Mario.

I speak mostly in terms of appearance, and not mechanics. I have not played long enough to experiment with fixed routes around maps (I freestyle), and have not played competitively enough to think about balance issues when it comes to layout. Luckily Tribes is a very open game and I do not see a scenario like in Call of Duty 4 where a team can literally push players back far enough to pick them off as they spawn in a choke-area on one side of the map (this is know as "spawn-rape").

Temple Ruins
Temple Ruins
Temple Ruins
You can fly to the top of the massive rock spikes

One more thing that I should mention, that I have experienced, is small "glitches" in maps. When jetting up a perfectly smooth slope (seriously, I checked them out), I would suddenly shoot vertically into the air as if I hit an obstacle. This is always in the same place on maps, so I have learnt to avoid some of them, but I still don't understand why it happens. If it is not a glitch, but design, I feel that it is not obvious enough and it really confuses me when it happens.

Greth over at www.spinfusor.org has done a more comprehensive analysis that I could ever hope to come up with. You can read the very interesting writeup here: http://www.spinfusor.org/2012/04/03/the-map-review/.

Skiing

Ah, skiing. Skiing is the mechanic that makes Tribes what it is. Jetpacks are fun, but without the skiing, jetpacks lose their other half. So much potential (harr harr) is unlocked by just removing friction.

Basically, it all makes a lot of sense from a physics point of view. Momentum is conserved, so if you fall down a slope and remove the friction that slows you down, you accelerate. If you go up a slope, and jetpack to counteract the gravity slowing you down, you accelerate. Keep this going, and you'll be hitting insane speeds of 250 to 300 kilometers per hour in no time. If the good-old gravity isn't enough for you, you can also throw caution to the wind and sacrifice some health to the gods of speed. Shooting at your feet with an explosive weapon like a spinfusor will give you a boost. The Pathfinder class also has what are called impact nitrons. They do little damage but give a massive force boost. Using a few of these bad-boys coupled with a spinfusor shot will have the wind roaring through your ears.

Basically, the only limiting factor in this equation is energy. Your combat suit has a limited energy pool that recharges over time. Obviously, using your jetpack will drain this pool much faster than it recharges, else what's the point. There are perks and packs that can be unlocked that have the sole purpose of helping to manage this energy pool. A lot of the time, dueling with someone is about managing your energy more efficiently than them, rather than aiming better. If both players are dancing in the air, hitting each other becomes absurdly difficult. Sure, people are skillful and can do it, but hitting a moving target dead on while compensating for network delay and your own momentum usually is a bit much for the average player. The true enemy is the ground. When you fall to the ground you become a bigger target due to splash damage, and the possible surface you move over becomes more restricted and predictable. Boom, you're dead.

Drydock
Going fast at 218, but is it fast enough? It's _never_ fast enough.

My impression on skiing is that it's pretty easy to pick up, but difficult to master. When first starting out, I was in awe at just how gracefully people were able to move across the maps. Sure, the process is intuitive, but I'd invariably find myself barreling into the wrong end of slopes, hitting a slope just off (landing too "flat" at the top of the slope), overshooting slopes and landing in basins, running into walls and map obstacles, etc. Once you get better at realizing that you can't really turn too well when going fast, aiming your approach and knowing just how much of an effect your jetpack will have, you can start flying through smaller gaps, and focus more on doing other things while in the air, and not spend all your concentration on just the skiing. By "other things", I mean the amazing kick you get while running down a flag carrier, looking over your shoulder at the missile fast headed your way, ducking under arches in an attempt to avoid it, and finally whipping out your shotgun to shoot it out of midair. All while keeping your sites on the enemy flag carrier and your next slope. The great thing is, this is all pretty standard stuff in the world of Tribes.

Classes and Weapons

Weapons and armour have been distributed into classes. Each class has a combination of armour, energy and weapons to fill a specific role.

There are currently 9 distinct classes:

  • Pathfinder (light, capping and chasing)
  • Sentinel (light, sniping)
  • Infiltrator (light, stealth)
  • Soldier (medium, all-rounder)
  • Raider (medium, assault)
  • Technician (medium, base defense and repair)
  • Juggernaut (heavy, long-distance explosive pressure)
  • Doombringer (heavy, flag defense and anti-vehicle)
  • Brute (heavy, high-damage tank)

At the moment I think the weapons are pretty balanced. When the Plasma Rifle was released it was a bit ridiculous (it had an enourmous hit radius, making midairs very easy compared to spinfusor-based weapons), but that got nerfed pretty quickly. The Infiltrator's Jackal can do some insane damage, though. A good infiltrator can really make a technician's life hell.

There are way too many weapons to mention everything here, and new weapons are being released in bundled updates, so I'm not going to try. Basically, I think that subdividing the weapons between classes was a good idea. It actually gives the opportunity to have more weapons in the game, because if any class can pick any combination of weapons it would be much easier to create some ridiculous combinations.

Mortar
Mortars and sunlight can be pretty tasty
Technician SMG
The technician has a pretty cool-looking SMG

There are basically 3 types of weapons in the game:

  • Projectile (spinfusor, mortar, anything that shoots relatively slowly and deals splash damage.)
  • AR-type (assault rifle, chain gun, SMGs, LMGs. Fast, small projectiles that deal no splash damage.)
  • Hitscan (sniper rifles, shotguns, colt. no bullet travel time, no splash.)

At the moment I think AR-type weapons are a bit of a mixed bag. I personally have a lot of trouble with them because I have a minimum of about 200ms delay, and I still haven't worked out how to compensate for that, or if compensating works at all. Add to this the fact that I'm not really all that good at FPS games and you have a recipe for disaster. In any case, a light or medium class with an assault rifle and room to manouver can absolutely tear through a slower moving heavy class. Their projectile speed also means that they are quite effective at long range, which makes them ideal for chasing. They are less useful indoors, where splash damage saves the day, but I think it would be hard to modify them to make them not useless, but also not too powerful. It's not really all that bad, but I have been frustrated on occasion when faced off against someone who is good with an assault rifle.

One weapon that I want to mention that I find a bit silly is the Saber Launcher. Basically, it works like those goodies in the single player campaigns of Call of Duty where you spend a couple of seconds "locking on" to a target, before clicking fire and watching your guided missile do all the work. For a game that has high skill and good aim as a selling point, I find this a bit out of place. I don't think it would be a problem to have made it similar to the rocket launcher from Tribes: Vengeance, where you use your aim to guide a cluster of small rockets through the air.

Vehicles

Ah, vehicles. Vehicles are a bit under-utilised. It's not that you never see vehicles in a game, you really do, but they don't feel as potent as they possibly could.

There are 3 different vehicles that can be purchased at your team's vehicle pad:

  • Grav Cycle (bike)
  • Shrike (plane)
  • Beowulf (tank)

The vehicle seen most often is the Shrike. It is mainly used defensively, to run down the enemy flag carrier. However, it can also be used offensively for what is known as "Shrike Capping". This involves flying a shrike at maximum speed towards the enemy flag, and bailing out to grab the flag at crazy speeds.

Just an aside, I was pretty impressed when I ended up playing in the same server as the guy in the video (Matin), just by chance ^_^.

Anyway, I hardly ever find myself purchasing Grav Cycles. I would rather spend the credits on something like a Tactical Strike, or save them towards an Orbital.

The same goes for the Beowulf tank. It just isn't strong enough. Its cannon does some solid damage, but it's just too easy to destroy for it to really be a potent "lategame" weapon that can be crucial in the outcome of a match.

One always has to think about viability in the competitive scene, but I think a couple of vehicles with more "coolness-factor" are needed for vehicles to be truly great. Multi-person armoured transports, portable missile silos, hell, I don't know. The plane from Tribes: Vengeance was pretty cool (for me), in the sense that it had an anti-base cannon as well as 2 open-air assault weapons on the sides. The people manning these weapons were exposed and could be sniped out. Once again, I'm not really qualified enough to make any sort of realy decisions on what's actually bad, and what would be better, but my impression is that the vehicles are a bit underwhelming.

Something else worth mentioning is the handling of the shrike, and hit detection. It's really easy to crash a shrike on pieces of the terrain you thought you were actually flying past, not into. I also don't think the damage calculations for hitting terrain are well thought out. Hovering and clipping your wing into a tree (oops, noob) can send all your credits into one big firy ball of burning octane crashing into the ground.

This is what flying a shrike should be like:

Gametypes

There are currently 4 main gametypes:

  • Team Deathmatch
  • Capture the Flag
  • Arena
  • Capture and Hold

I'd actually argue that it's 1 main gametype (Capture the Flag) and 3 other modes that are also fun, but less a point of the game. Tribes is at its core a Capture the Flag experience.

EDIT: There used to be a Rabbit gamemode, which involved everyone chasing a single person with the flag, but it got removed. Team Deathmatch is basically a 2-team Rabbit mode, though, because of the flag mechanic.

I only really play Capture the Flag. This might be a bad reason, but one of the reasons is that I just don't get much XP gain through the other gamemodes, as compared to a solid game of CTF. I occasionally play some Arena if I want to practice my dueling, and every noow and then I'd play Team Deathmatch, and I haven't really played Capture and Hold since it came out.

This might seem quite bad, but I think it's actually quite good. Each of these gamemodes has different playstyles that are successful. The perks you worked really hard unlocking in CTF might not actually help you in the Arena, where speeds are lower, and it's more about slow, calculated combat than crazy slaughter or high-speed dodging. This means that the potential investment, or depth, of each mode is quite high. When you get bored of one mode you can play another and really not feel as if you're playing the same thing.

At the moment, there is map overlap between the modes. It's not a different mode on the same maps, but the themes of the different maps are kept consistent. I don't know enough about the mapmaking process to guess how much time was saved by doing this (terrain layout is different, but textures / assets are consistent), but I think that some variation accross all the maps would be nice. If I think back to Unreal Tournament, every single map was defined by its own pretty cool locale.

The exception to this is Arena, which has its own set of maps specially tailored to careful manouvering and fewer players.

Community

Right now it seems to me that the Tribes: Ascend "community" is divided into 2 parts.

On the one hand, you have your professionals. This is a smaller group of people who play clan matches, get their games streamed, get ranked on bloodeagle.org and worry about the tiniest aspects surrounding the balance of the game. This is to be expected.

On the other hand, you have "the masses". These are the people that join pub games, probably with a bunch of their friends, cap a few flags, blow up some noobs, and come back another day.

There doesn't seem to be a middle ground of people who are not really "pro", but play regularly, run their own websites, put out content (yes, there are no content tools yet), etc. I might be wrong, maybe I haven't looked hard enough, but at the moment it seems that there are not really many close-knit groups popping up all over the place. I'm pretty sure this will change once people start renting out private servers.

Some websites popping up that I've found so far:

And YouTube channels:

I'm pretty sure there are more hiding out there. If you know of a nice Tribes Ascend website please leave a comment :)

Conclusion

I've mentioned some things that bug me about the game. Despite all of them, I can't stop playing. This game is freaking awesome. I've spent many late nights defending flags and pumping adrenaline instead of just calling it a day.

This game is seriously fun.

Actually, it's ridiculous what Hi-Rez have managed to do in a free-to-play game. I almost can't believe it. There's not much to say here, except stress the fact that when you play, you will probably find yourself thinking (or saying, or even shouting), "Holy Shit! That's [VGCA] Awesome!".

If you have not yet tried it, do it. Do it now. That is all.

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