Friday, August 31, 2012

Grognard Grumblings - Tribes: Ascend Pseudo-Review

Little-known fact - when I have a Windows machine, not enough homework, and no tabletop gaming readily available, I sometimes play video games other than Dwarf Fortress.  In this case, it was the most recent iteration in the Tribes series, and it made me mad for a lot of reasons.  I played Tribes 1 and 2 back in high school and earlier in college, and they kind of established my expectations of a Tribes game - three flavors of armor, about ten available weapons (plus packs, grenades, mines, and beacons), an overwhelming focus on capturing the flag (with a sideline on camping the enemy generator), jetpacks, skiing, and being utterly demolished by players who had been playing since the game's release.  T:A...  doesn't quite deliver on these expectations, especially that last one.

Here we have nine flavors of armor, each of which has its own unique weapon set based on an unlockability model (which makes me mad), but which can only carry two weapons (and these are strictly divided into primary and secondary categories).  This is some serious bullshit, especially when other folks are using heat-seekers and you don't have flares because your class just can't ever have flares (contrast with T2, where light and medium defense and a lot of light offense always carried flares).  Other equipment shenanigans include the laser grenades that fire lasers at random across an area for their considerable duration (since when is that a thing grenades can even reasonably do?) and the assault rifle.  Now, don't get me wrong - I like the assault rifle a lot.  This is because it's a very nice weapon - it takes the best of the chaingun and blaster from T1/2 and puts them together into one package.  No bullet drop, no scatter, good ammo capacity, good RoF, and decent damage.  If you figure out the right lead on someone and have a decent amount of ammo left, they're toast.  The problem, of course, is that in the hands of someone who was halfway decent with a chaingun in T1/2 (which I'm not even sure I am), it's stupidly effective at (say) gunning down flag cappers skiing away from your base at high speeds, even at long ranges.  Not bad at shooting down jet fighters either.  If that sounds like any assault rifle you know of, let me know.

The assault rifle also introduces a problem with existing canon, though.  Historically, I've used three weapons as references for the 'power level' of Tribes - the fusion mortar, chaingun, and plasma gun.  Consider for a moment that historically in the Tribesiverse, a plasma weapon was the equivalent of most games' shotguns - short range and good damage, but not an instant kill.  The raw, burning sun-fluid plasma is an 'indoor toy' in Tribes, useful mainly for letting light armored players punch through shields to destroy generators and other static, shielded targets.  Let that sink in a bit.  Then, consider also that almost every user of heavy armor in any iteration carries a fusion mortar - a man-portable tactical thermonuclear weapon system, complete with radioactive green explosions - and that a direct hit from such a device is insufficient to kill an undamaged heavy, and that a shielded heavy might weather several such hits.  Finally, the chaingun - a belt-fed minigun, usable in one hand by any armor type, without any upwards recoil.  These three weapons suggest that historically, Tribal armor in the Starsiege universe has been durable and strength-enhancing beyond the point of reason.  I guess the publisher of this iteration decided to 'fix' the canon by replacing these vehicle-grade weapons of manual mass destruction with two-handed assault rifles that need to be reloaded from a magazine rather than being belt-fed.

Hell, reloading in general is a problem - everything was auto-loading in T1/2, even the mortars.  Here it's all fancy manual reload animations every time you fire something, rather than a muffled 'clunk' of the chamber cycling at the end of the refire delay.  The extraneous graphical chrome isn't confined to reloading, either; visor cracks when you get hit, spaceships flying around up in the clouds, jetpack trails behind people, explosions in the distance outside of the map's bounds.  There's a huge amount of HUD noise, too - indicators appear and disappear when you're skiing, and every last inventory station, repair gun (not pack - gun.  This makes me extra mad, since I can't both carry two weapons and repair shit.  Used to be I could carry four weapons and still fix the gens - now I'm hosed if someone's camping the generator and I need to kill them before fixing it.  But more on the generator game later), generator, and a whole host of other crap shows up on the HUD.  I had a couple times where the enemy was between me and my base and I couldn't accurately target them because there were too many little indicators in the way.  T1 and 2 solved this using the command circuit - you could waypoint a generator, and find your way to it that way without introducing any more information than you needed.  Here, everyone knows all the time where everything is (and if there is a command circuit, I have yet to find it.  It certainly isn't bound to 'c' like it was in previous versions...).

Speaking of the generator game - it's pretty messed up.  Inventories are no longer critical to getting medium or heavy armor, since you can spawn in whatever you want, so the main benefit (at least in low-level public play) of having generators is having working turrets.  Honestly, not worth fighting the generator campers for; have fun sitting in my basement, I'm going to go grab your flag and actually win the match.  Especially when you're using those damn dirty laser grenades.  So that partially negates the manpower allocation decisions on defense; put all of your D-team on the flag and they can have the bloody generator room.  Effectively, the design team decided that the convenience of spawning in whatever armor you want is better for the game than having that strategic depth of choices about what is worth defending or attacking and how much force you, as a team, should allocate to those objectives.  The logistical element of defending a simulated supply train is now gone, and everyone should be on the flag, all the time.

Oh, and heath regeneration.  They decided that a button-activated repair kit was too complicated, so they added in automagic health regeneration in the style of Halo or Call of Duty.  They removed a real, useful resource-management choice that added to gameplay in doing so.  Previously, you spawned with a repair kit, and you could either use it (healing a bit and expending it) or throw it away, in which case it would self-destruct after 30 seconds or so.  If you died and had neither tossed it nor used it, it could be looted off of your corpse by friend or foe.  This led to gameplay like "Well, I'm uninjured, but I'm going into a situation where I will likely die very rapidly, so I'll use or toss my kit despite being uninjured to deny resources to the enemy", or "Our flag carrier is badly wounded and incoming; I will toss my repair kit to him so he can heal himself and survive to make the cap."  You know, like, real choices that impacted the outcome of the game.  It also made deathmatch slightly more interesting (not that anyone ever played deathmatch), because the only sources of healing were a repair backpack if you could find one, which you'd have to actively use at the cost of jetpack fuel, or the bodies of your fallen foes.  All of that gameplay is now gone; sit in a corner, wait 30 seconds without taking damage, and you'll be good to go.  That's so much more interesting, right?  Granted, a real old-school Tribes player would say "Wait, since I can spawn in whatever armor I want at full health, it's more time-efficient for me to suicide than hide waiting for the heals to kick in."  Suiciding when you're out-of-position (blown off your route for offense-types) has a long history in Tribes, to the point where there's even a hotkey for it, because it's faster than walking back to base.  After all, there's no respawn delay.  Well, there is in this version...

So - as a Tribes game, I don't like it.  Mucks up too much of the Right Stuff from previous versions, and makes the game much less cerebral.  The problem, though, is that it does succeed in actually being kind of fun.  T1 and 2 were hard - it took me a couple of weeks before I got my first kill.  I've never capped a flag in either (though towards the end of my time in T2 I did get good enough to chaingun down cappers and get returns on a regular basis), and spent most of my time in T2 turret farming (building defenses) around our flags and letting my turrets do the shooting.  T:A is much easier (though this may be due in part to a much newer player base) - I mowed down countless (upwards of 15) flag carriers yesterday during my first day of play.  In medium armor, I was able to successfully chase cappers in light armor; this bespeaks either very easy skiing or very unskilled cappers.  I retook the generator room from heavy campers twice; that would never, ever have happened during someone's first day in T2.  Shield-offense would have stomped them and taken their repair kits repeatedly, probably healing more from the kits than taken in damage.  You only ever have two weapons to use, so choosing between them in any situation is much easier than choosing between 3+ in T1/2, and you have much, much more jetpack energy to play with - I played one round as a heavy and was dumbfounded by the amount of flying I could do.

So, it is kind of fun, in a simple-minded run around and shoot things successfully sort of way.  But it also lacks, I think, some of the depth of T1/2, where everyone had the same tools and it was all about figuring out the best ways to use them without any enforced roles.  Basically my conclusion is that they 4e'd it - made it pretty, easy to learn, and beginner-friendly at the expense of The Way Things Have Always Been, a lot of gameplay choices, and parity in equipment.  Roles are enforced, healing is easier, the system is designed to sell you shit, the maps are much simplified, the team resource allocation aspect looks pretty dead, and weird player skills like beacon-stopping are gone.  Just as with 4e, I think my tenure here will be brief.  After all, T2 is still around via TribesNext, and the folks over at the Team Warfare League are still holding tournaments...

1 comment:

Aaron Pirnack said...

Hi John,

I am trying to find your email/contact info to send you a game to review on your blog (if you're up to it), but can't find one. Would you email me at if interested?