Sunday, October 7, 2012

Tribes Ascend: A Critical Review

Calling this review "Critical" in the sense of being objective may or may not turn out to be accurate.  So, in the interests of objectivity, let me be clear: I wish Tribes: Ascend was a different game.

The fact that HiRez Studios was not actually going to be making a Tribes game was obvious before it came out of beta.  Tribes as a series is simulationist--you, as one soldier (infinitely respawning) in a far-future army, grab weapons and assault an enemy.  You spawn as an ordinary (and well-rounded) soldier, check the situation through map and comms, drop by the armory for advanced weapons, and then go to town.  Going to town, incidentally, means soaring into the sky on rocket boots, rocketing down slopes to gain momentum, and generally, moving tactically through the battlefield to cause lots of chaos.  The bases and weapons are all thematic, and all tend to fit in the same high future fantasy world they created.

Tribes: Ascend takes the far-future weapons of the previous games and, I shit you not, tells you that a fucking crossbow is superior to them.

Here you see my point.  I am not entirely sure I can be objective about this game.  I am not sure that I can be an unbiased critic.  This is only one of several design decisions that are, very plainly, antagonistic to people who buy into the premise of the game.  In addition to "Science fiction... with crossbows!", there is also "Soldiers, throwing themselves into the maws of hell... with poorly chosen and inflexible weapon loadouts!", "Heavily defended bases... with the vulnerable back door pointed directly at the enemy!", and of course, the ever popular, "15 different variations on weak, clip-fed automatic weapons (in case you don't want to fire spinning discs full of fusion-fueled explosives--that's SO 2001)".

However, the above are rants.  They don't really affect the player experience, and so I can't say that they are part of an objective review.  So let's get to that part.

HiRez Hates Soldiers

That's a remarkably sensationalist headline, but let's be clear--I mean one, very specific thing.  Every single player in a Tribes match is a soldier sent off to die, and how HiRez treats them is abysmal.

Imagine a soldier in a frontier office, staring at a rack of weapons, packs, and supplies.  His commanding officer tells him, in no uncertain terms, "We need you to destroy the enemy Generator.  The defenses are heavy; you are almost certainly going to die."

The soldier looks at his commanding officer and says, "Sir, I believe I could do it.  I'll need that shield pack, that mortar, that grenade launcher, this pistol just in case, and some of those mines."

The commanding officer gives him a strange look.  "No, you can't have all of those things.  First of all, two weapons max--I don't care if you have a high tech armored power-suit, you don't get to carry more than two.  Second, if you need a mortar, you can't have a grenade launcher, shield pack, or mines.  You can have a grenade launcher and shield pack, but you can't have a mortar or mines with it."

"But," the soldier says, "If you would just let me have those five things, I can do it."

"Too bad."

And that's HiRez's only real word on the subject.  All the weapons are there, and as you familiarize yourself with them, you begin to understand that the combinations make absolutely no sense.

Perhaps the most poignant case in point: The forcefield.  Forcefields are remarkably useful pieces of equipment.  A small deployable base sits on the ground and produces a blue field that damages any enemy it touches, and blocks weapon fire until it is destroyed.  Forcefields, clearly, are defensive structures meant to be used indoors, where they guard chokepoints and prevent people from sneaking past; or, they can be used outdoors to stop people from rocketing through at high speeds, which has (somehow) become its primary purpose.

You cannot carry or deploy a forcefield without carrying a rocket launcher.  For the duration of the beta and some time after, there was only one type of rocket launcher, and it requires an enemy to be in midair for many long long long (oooh it feels so long) seconds before it locks on and you can finally fire it.  Yes, this weapon was and is utterly and completely useless for any enemy that is not both very far away and in the air for a very long time.

You need to carry one in order to stop people indoors, in close quarters where the weapon will never be ANYTHING but useless.  They eventually added a second rocket launcher in a patch that fires the rockets blindly, becoming yet another unguided explosive projectile, but that's still not really valuable in the close quarters that a forcefield is best suited to.

Oh, and if you switch armors after deploying that forcefield, it self-destructs.

This brings us to the next section.

HiRez Hates Defense

Playing a defensive game in Tribes has always been difficult.  The whole series has been replete with heavy weapons--the mortar, the disc launcher, etc.  There have been cloak packs, jammers, and the like, and that was alright.  It was alright, because when it comes down to it, Tribes of the past gave you the tools necessary to slow down or outright stop attackers.  Anyone who wanted to contribute to defense could just drop a couple mines (you spawn with them), a deployable inventory station, some turrets... if they wanted to contribute, great!  They can contribute, and then off they go to throw themselves against the enemy.

HiRez cuts this communal defense off at the knees with several, individually minor but collectively devastating, decisions:

  1.  Not everyone has mines.  This is a remarkably minor change, but it has substantial impact.  In earlier Tribes, if you had mines, you dropped them somewhere before you ran off to your doom, and it helped the defense.  If you were being chased, you could drop one, and the fool might run into it.  If you managed to get into a base, in whatever armor, you had a way to sow chaos and stay alive just a little bit longer.  But in Ascend, there are only a few people that can use mines:
    • Infiltrator (Cloaking armor): The only real offensive caste with mines, you have to be good at sneaking around, and this replaces your sticky grenades, which are helpful when taking out base assets.
    • Sentinel (Sniping armor): Clearly these mines were only really intended for one purpose: to stop people from sneaking up on you.  If you want to use them any other way, be prepared to put your frail little sniper butt in harm's way.
    • Technician (Repair armor): Not really "mines" in that they aren't likely to kill anyone, but they have an energy sapping "motion sensor" that also raises an alert when it's tripped.  Utterly useless except when defending, unless you are exceptionally creative.
    • Doombringer (Air defense armor): What can I say?  The Doombringer is really only good at standing on top of the flag and shooting at anyone incoming, and the mines facilitate that.  You can wander elsewhere and drop the mines in strategic locations, but your slow lumbering gait means that it's not exactly a quick job.
  2.  Deployables and mines go away if you switch armors.  I really, really don't think they understand how much this obliterates your chances at defense.  For example, deployable turrets come only with one armor--the Technician.  Technicians have a poor weapon selection, and are a medium armor; you can't reliably protect the generator against heavy-weapons-bearing enemies, nor the flag against high-speed enemies.  If you want to play any other defensive role, your turrets go away.  If you were playing as a Doombringer (forcefields and mines) and need to change tactics, those assets disappear and your defenses suddenly have a hole that nobody but you knows about.  The Sentinel (sniping, but also has mines and a sensor jammer) has a similar problem.
  3. You can't mix and match armors and defensive assets.  This drives point (2) home; you can't take a heavy armor and deploy turrets, nor (critically) deploy sensor jammers or forcefields as anyone but Sentiel or Juggernaut armors, respectively.  These are, however, critical defensive assets.  If you can't handle a sniper rifle, you had better hope that someone else can, or you will be unable to (not merely that you don't, but you can't) place jammers to uncloak hidden enemies or hide your own from radar.  Trying to protect something with a forcefield?  Better find something to do with a chaingun and rocket launcher, because as long as that sucker's up, you're stuck with those weapons.
  4. The defense dies with the generator.  Let's be clear; the generator, in a lot of ways, is undervalued.  You spawn in the armor you asked for, with full weapons and ammo, so unlike previous games, your home base's inventory stations are no longer a restless hub of activity.  However, this only helps the offense; defensive soldiers, for the most part, live or die by the defensive assets, because they act as force multipliers; one defender is meant to hold off several attackers with adequate tools and planning.  Lose the assets, lose the multiplier, and you and your peashooter are facing the enemy offense's heavy weapons on equal (or in many cases, lesser) footing.
  5. The offense does NOT die with the generator.  This, again, only serves to reinforce point (4); you can stop the defense in its tracks with a swift strike, but you cannot stop the offense, ever.  This leads very naturally to snowballing; the only way to stop a unified offense is to stop every attacker.  Especially poignant considering the Mortar (and the MIRV, its big brother); these heavy artillary weapons are meant to be fired from a ways away to take out defenders that are too busy, say, repairing the base.  No matter what you do to your enemy's base, you cannot stop the flow of incoming mortar-bearing enemies, even for a moment; therefore, the "Offense as a defense" tactic is wiped completely off the table.
  6. Defensive armors carry a special weapon.  In the case of the Technician, you carry a Repair gun; in the case of the Doombringer, as I mentioned before, you carry a rocket launcher.  The Sentinel armor, too, always carries a sniper rifle, although that seems perhaps more natural.  Why is this important?
  7. Nobody carries more than two weapons.  If you want to do anything--deployables, mines, repairs, rocket launchers, anything defensive--you get exactly two weapons, and if one of them is special-use only (Doombringer's rocket launcher, I am not merely looking at you, I am standing squarely in front of you and glaring at you with both eyes, not letting you look away), then you have exactly one weapon, and you had better like it.  Run out of ammo?  Need something else?  Congratulations, HiRez's weapon selection is responsible for your premature demise.
  8. Fractal grenades.  When you see these in action, you'll know why their mere existence suffices to decimate the defense's chances.  One grenade can take out a room full of deployables, and anyone unlucky enough to be caught inside; but why limit a person to one grenade, no no ha ha; the Brute gets several, and picks up another one for every corpse he comes across, just in case the defense should happen to have any un-shattered hopes.  They are only really useless in open terrain, where you can easily get away from them; everywhere else, the offense gets a "Decimate defenses free" card.
If only this were the end of the "HiRez Hates Defense" section.  Oh, if only it were.  However, the angst that defenders feel is not only caused by the horrific ways in which they deal with inventory.  And yes, if you didn't notice, all seven points are ways they changed the inventory from previous versions of the game.  As someone who was in the beta, I assure you they heard more than a few times that the old system should be brought back--they heard veteran players begging that the design be changed to something less demeaning to defenders.  But HiRez has spoken.

And they spoke again with map selection, which takes us to the next section (itself continuing the theme of base defense):

HiRez Hates Indoor Maps

I didn't realize how good the indoor maps in Tribes games were until Tribes: Ascend took them away from me.  Indoor maps were full of intrigue, ambushes, and blind corners; one person sneaking around could decimate a defending force, but only if they were careful, or very very lucky.

Tribes: Ascend is a surface game.  The only deployable inventory system in the game, and in fact basically every use you have for the in-game credits can only be used outdoors.  You can't really use vehicles indoors (People have, but most people regard it as silly, as they barely fit and can't maneuver), you can't call strikes against the enemy position, you can't deploy inventory stations... basically, credits become meaningless.

But that's not hate.  No, the hate that they feel towards indoor maps is clear in how they deal with base layout.

Two poignant examples: Katabatic, and Raindance.  Both maps came from earlier versions of Tribes, both were modified to fit Tribes: Ascend.  Katabatic, an ice map, was originally just a bunker where you came in through a couple small holes in the top--easily defended, but having played those games, I can assure you they were overrun quite easily.  Raindance, on the other hand, has a very well guarded entrance, and the Generator only falls on that map if the offense is very good--or the defense simply doesn't care.

Katabatic's base layout in Ascend looks nothing like previous versions, and well, that's alright.  Those bases were pretty arbitrary, and I don't miss the random slopes and corners that honestly I never memorized.  However, Ascend Katabatic has... a back door.  A back door that's pointed straight at the enemy base, which, let us remind you, is also a bunker buried deep in the earth.  That bunker's back door is also pointed straight at you.  If you go in that back door, you go down two ramps and turn left, and what do you see?  The enemy generator, sitting pretty in the center of the room, just waiting to die.

Clearly this base was never actually meant to keep anyone out.

Raindance's base, in contrast, was basically ripped polygon by polygon from previous games, much to the relief of veterans.  However, I suppose in response to public pressure, they did something about this whole "Adequately defended" thing.  What did they do?  Why, they opened up a hole in the bunker, one that's very easy to get to, and really pretty hard to defend.  In conjunction with the main entrance, it becomes essentially impossible to guard both entrances at once.

Really, defense, who needs it, eh?  Eh?

Let's look at another map, one that as far as I know, was made entirely by HiRez Studios; Bella Omega.  It's not currently in rotation, but I think it fits the "HiRez Hates Indoor Maps" theme.  Two monolithic strucutres rise out of the ashen landscape, and deep in their bowels lie the generators, while up high are the flags, the objective in these missions.  The underground of these bases was a small tangle of passages, with more than a couple places to hide.

And, of course, each of these bases had two ways in--either through the tower, which is really not too hard to defend or through the backdoor, which was again, pointed straight at the enemy.  In the "final" version of the map (before it was taken out of rotation), the choice becomes "Down the center chute or through the base of the tower", but the principle remains the same: you, as the defense, are not allowed to slow down the enemy with a well-defended warren.  You can defend the entry point of the base, but there are few if any other defensive options.

Let's contrast these with a truly indoors map.  Scarabrae, or Broadside which had a similar layout, are old maps from the series.  In each, two floating fortresses face each other; they have a suitable landing platform on the outside, but as soon as you step inside, there are a long set of maze-like corridors you must traverse before you get either to the objective (flag) or the generator, the team's lifeblood.  There are lots of 90-degree corners, which is good for bouncing weapons (blasters, grenade launchers, and especially mortars); there are rooms that span multiple levels; there are multiple ways to get to each place, allowing people to sneak by; and, let's be clear, there are multiple entrances, but none of them are a cakewalk, and all of them are easier for the defense to reach than for the invading offense.

The game was balanced for these sorts of indoor fights.  Ascend isn't; whether it's good fortune that they aren't trying to do much indoors, or whether it's all part of the same decision, I don't know, but it all comes out the same: the maps don't have good base layouts, and that harms the defense considerably.

To be fair (and remembering that I am trying to be objective, if perhaps failing), the game was designed around a faster experience than older Tribes games.  Flag capping was, from the start, a very smooth experience in the best cases; a good route would let you get from your spawn point to the enemy flag, and back to your flag, in a single, fluid, high speed trip.  But it bothers me that their layouts don't allow more complex defensive strategy; there are no maps where the defense has ample opportunities to set up a blockade on the flag, and even if they did, the previous Hates Defense section comes in full force; you simply wouldn't be able to hold a defensive warren the way you could in old games.

It's very easy, both as an experienced player and as a new one, to look at the map and say, "How the hell am I supposed to defend that?  And that's good--it means you have given them a challenge.  But then you realize that the game gets in its own way, far more when you are defending than when you attack.  "I should put a forcefield here, then when they stop, I'll put a turret here to ambush them--what?  I can't have both?"  "I'll put a mines at the blind corner here, and then get the drop on them with heavy weapons if they stop long enough to clear them--what?  Can't have heavy weapons and mines?"  "Oh!  I've figured out a clever way to defend the flag--oh, there's nobody on my team trying to defend the giant gaping hole leading to the generator, and my defense falls apart without it.  I don't think I can split my defenses between the two."

Granted, one player isn't supposed to hold off the entire enemy team by himself, but I go back to my earlier point about force multipliers; a good base layout is itself a force multiplier, allowing whoever has best mastered it (the defense or the offense) to deal with enemies on better than even terms.  The defense, in particular, has every opportunity to completely own any network of tunnels they can reach; mines, turrets, force fields, sensors, they have every advantage, and Ascend takes it all away from them.  And yet, over and over, whole teams will depart on a blitzkrieg offense, leaving hardly anyone behind to defend, and those that do feel worst of all; without any support, they and any hard work they do are completely obliterated.

HiRez Hates Mortars

But perhaps the aspect I miss most about indoor maps isn't specifically defensive; it's how walls interact with mortars, and other bouncing weapons.  The Juggernaut Armor and her mortars aren't really given any love in Ascend; or that's my view, even if it's a sentiment that may surprise many people.  I swear looking at my in-game friend roster that most of the people who followed me (they haven't said anything, so I can only guess) did so after seeing me finesse my MIRV (a mortar-like weapon with multiple boomies); I use it in all situations, whether indoors, outdoors, standing still, mobile, offense, or defense.  But my favorite tricks with the Mortar all involve using buildings or terrain to affect the timing and location of the explosion.

The mortar, you see, bounces off things well enough, as long as it hasn't armed yet (which takes a few seconds); most people, naturally, only see it as an artillery piece, but when used indoors, it takes on a life of its own.  If you are moving forward and trying to shoot someone behind you, bouncing it off a wall can do nicely; I often don't even turn around.  If there is a curved wall, use it to affect your aim; if there is a roof, you can often enough send the mortar going someplace nobody else expects, because who would dare spend the time to look up in a firefight, let alone stop to consider the angle of reflection?

The mortar, outdoors, is an artillery piece, but indoor, it's an ambush predator.  In both cases, it functions the same; if you know exactly where the enemy will be and when, you can either kill him in one shot, or if he barely escapes, wound him and send him off spooked.  Unfortunately, there are not a lot of people who use the mortar for that, and it has a lot to do with there being no good excuse to practice; much as I adore trick-shots with the mortar, for most people, simply shooting it at the floor does well enough.  There are no winding hallways meant for ambushes, and so the Mortar's predatory mode is essentially unused.

But it doesn't stop there, no indeed.  Using the Mortar as an artillery piece to take out heavy defenses was always a part of Tribes, so much so that previous games included a laser rangefinder that automatically told Mortar users where to aim if they wanted, for example, to precisely nail a turret on a hard-to-reach pylon.  That rangefinder is gone from Ascend, which means that if you want to lay down mortar fire, you had either better get used to rangefinding by eye, or be ready to waste ammo trying to find exactly the right place to aim--while the defenders quickly, if not instantly know where you are.  Did I mention you can't carry both a mortar and a sensor jammer?  Thanks.  I didn't need to live anyway.

HiRez Hates Tribes (Or At Least the Parts I Loved)

I guess it didn't turn out to be a fair and objective critique, but it feels good to finally say it.  I can't say I loved the defensive aspects of Tribes, but what I did love was the feeling that your decisions were your decisions.  Tribes, as I played it, was an opportunity to do and be more than a mundane, rifle-toting soldier; you could in many ways be the architect of your own grand strategy, which other people can only come across and wonder as to your thought process.

Often, if not always in Tribes I would end up contributing quite a bit to various aspects of both the offense and defense, in a single life.  That was the value that I brought to the team; I would lay down mines, lay down deployables, then go to offense, take out the enemy's defenses, then die and start again.  Coming back, you find that your base is in dire need of assistance; so you go running, and you help, and you shore up the defenses that you just found to be inadequate, and then you go running off to spring leaks in the enemy's dike.  I can't say I was an MVP, and I certainly was never in competitive play--but in 2001, when Tribes 2 came out, I was 16, on a shared computer, and I'm pretty sure we dialup internet, on the same phone line everyone else used.  I loved that game, and played a lot of it, but it wasn't exactly something I could dedicate myself to.  Nevertheless, I kept playing it on and off, and would play more of it if there were a game like it.

Tribes: Ascend isn't that game.  The theme is similar, except where they've bludgeoned it with a lead pipe, and a lot of familiar aspects are a part of it, but it isn't Tribes.  The game isn't won or lost by thinking; it simply isn't.  You don't have the right, nor the ability to make your own decisions in the quest to Defeat The Enemy or Save Your Side.

It's not a horrible game, and I'm not planning to completely abandon it.  But that's more to do with the fact--and it is a fact--that there ARE no modern Tribes games.  The last entry in the series was Tribes Vengeance, which had all support yanked by the game creator in 2005.  Some people still play Tribes 2, or even the original; however, the only people there are people that have been there for more than ten years, and that's daunting to go against after taking many years off.

The only thing that really bothers me is that as long as Tribes: Ascend remains, there won't be a "real" Tribes game, like I remember.  Not unless I'm willing to play a game that's more than 10 years old, and full of people far, far better than I am.

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