First of all, I haven't played any previous Tribes games but when I saw the Tribes Ascend open beta, I just had to try it out. Heavily modified Unreal Engine 3, large scale multiplayer action with vehicles and characters with huge armors. Remind you of some other multiplayer game? How could I resist a game that looks and feels like a new Unreal Tournament?
The game pits two tribes in battle against each other, Blood Eagle and Diamond Sword. I really don't know why they're fighting each other since there's not a single reference to that in the whole game. Being a multiplayer-only shooter this doesn't really matter.
Both tribes have similar character classes and weapons, only the armor textures tell you which tribe you're fighting for. There are 3 character classes with 3 variants each making a total of 9 playable classes. The 3 classes are assault (Pathfinder, Soldier and Brute), recon (Sentinel, Infiltrator and Raider) and engineer (Technician, Juggernaut and Doombringer). Assault is excellent at close-mid range, recon is good for sniping and stealth and engineer is best when used to deploy turrets and destroying enemy structures and vehicles. Some classes have to be unlocked using the experience earned in matches or by purchasing in-game credits, GP (we'll discuss the economics of Tribes Ascend a little later). Each character class can be modified with a small array of weapons and equipment. When modifying a character you can change it's primary weapon (bolt launchers, rifles, sub-machineguns, etc.), secondary weapon (shotguns, assault rifles, pistols, etc.), belt item (grenades, explosives, mines, etc.), pack item (includes upgrades to the character like recharging energy and increased speed) and primary/secondary perks (like extra energy or reduced fall damage). The character armor can also be upgraded and it's skin changed (currently only the Infiltratot class has changeable skin). Every new weapon and equipment costs huge amounts of experience so if you're the kind of player who just has to get 100% from a game, this will get you going for a looong time. Offcourse you can cut the corners and purchase credits to get the items quickly unlocked. Every single weapon and equipment can also be upgraded using experience points. These upgrades include things like more ammo for a certain weapon or a bigger blast radius for grenades.
There is a total of 4 different game modes: Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Arena and Capture and Hold. Team Deathmatch is your basic 'kill the other team before they kill your team' mode but Tribes does it with a little twist. The first kill in a match spawns a flag on the battlefield. The team that holds this flag gets double points for all their kills. Once the flag carrier gets killed, the flag is again up for grabs. This is a great addition since it keeps the battles centered around the flag carrier. Capture the Flag is also familiar from other shooters. Your team must capture the enemy flag from their base and deliver it to yours while at the same time defending your own flag. Much like UT3, Tribes laso has vehicles in this game mode. These vehicles include for example hover bikes and tanks and they can be purchased in the middle of a match from a vehicle spawn point (again using the hard-earned experience). They are very costly and totally worth it. Grabbing a hover bike and speeding your way to the enemy base to capture the flag is always a blast. Arena is very similar to Team Deathmatch but the teams are cut down to 5 players per side. The maps of Arena are also much smaller and more cramped then in other game modes. This makes the battles much more intense and faster with bolts and discs flying back and forth. Capture and Hold is very similar to other games' conquest mode. In Capture and Hold, your team must capture flag points form the map and defend them. This game mode also has vehicles. TDM and CTF game modes are available to play from the start, Arena and Capture and Hold are unlocked when you reach level 8. This, according to Hi-Rez Studios, assures that the players are already familiar with Tribes before playing these game modes. There are a total of 16 different maps, 13 large open ones and 3 smaller ones for Arena. Capture and Hold uses 3 maps that are also used in the CTF game mode.
When you've finally selected a suitable class and modified it to your liking, it's time to join a server. This is not hard since this game is very popular and a lot of players are playing it at any given time. Once you're on the battlefield the first thing on your mind is "Does this game really need a quad-core CPU and GTX 560 to run smoothly?". Sure the maps are big but they really lack in detail and texture size. Every map looks like the other; bumpy hills with (very few) plants here and there and some blocky structures that look over the landscape. You might even find a small pond with very dull looking water in it. The character textures are the exact opposite; the armors, weapons, gadgets and such are made with an amazing attention to detail. They look like they are from a totally different game. At one time I even thought if the limited graphic options (Minimal, Low, Medium, High and Very High) only affect the characters and the landscapes are always drawn with lower detail. Once the shock from the ugly landscape has passed, it's time get fragging. Your character moves very slow but every character is equipped with a jetpack that allows you to fly for a limited time. Using the jetpack consumes energy which slowly regenerates. Other method of moving around the field a bit faster is by 'skiing'. Skiing is a special method of moving that allows you to zip downhill at incredible speeds. There's even a single player practice mode dedicated to skiing. Other single player game modes include a target practice with bots that don't shoot back and free map roam which allows you to explore the maps before joining a match. The matches are very fast paced with players jumping and skiing all over the map and shooting at everything that moves. At first it looks ridiculous but once you've spent some time with the game, you realize that you're doing the exact same thing.
During a match you gain extra experience by doing deeds. These include stuff like destroying an enemy vehicle, getting the first kill or assisting in killing an enemy. As you rack up experience, you gain levels. These are just to show off how much you've played the game (except level 8 which unlocks the Arena and Capture and Hold game modes), with the maximum level being 50. As said before, you can use the gained experience to buy extra character classes, weapons, upgrades, just about anything. What I like the most about this game is the fact that the developers don't force you to spend any real money on it, everything can be purchased with experience. The rate in which you gain experience is very low though, around 100 to 1000 points per match (I'm a beginner at this game, good players will most likely gain more) and when the most expensive character class costs 18,000 experience... Well you do the math.
Time to put the money where your mouth is
If you really want to get the most out of Tribes without weeks of grinding for experience, you can purchase credits for it. There are 4 credit packs available for purchase; 7.99€ for 800GP, 15.99€ for 1800GP, 23.99€ (Elite Pack) for 3000GP and 39.99€ (Premium Pack) for 5500GP. The Elite Pack comes with a 30-day experience booster which doubles your gained experience. The Premium Pack also comes with an experience booster, lasting 60 days. The experience boosters are great when you're trying to get everything unlocked but in my opinion the Elite and Premium packs are too expensive. Luckily these boosters can also be purchased without a Pack.
The prices for classes, weapons and other unlockables are very low in GP. For example the most expensive character class costs only 280GP. This really encourages you to buy some credits to unlock a good character and some great weapons for it. But as I said before, you're not really forced to do that, the game can be enjoyed fully without paying a dime for it. An absolute plus for me.
All in all, Tribes Ascend is a good free-to-play online shooter. You don't even have to be a Tribes fan to enjoy it. The landscape graphics are a big letdown and the amazingly drawn characters don't help much since you really can't enjoy them during a hectic match but this doesn't really matter since there's a solid player base so you'll always find a suitable game to join and there's lots of stuff to unlock to keep you playing.