Tribes: Ascend and the future of hardware

Science and Technology
Chasing down an enemy capper. Hardware tech may be advancing, but that won’t make my computer magically better, and in the tradition of the PC hardcore I’ve turned off the pretty in order to squeeze extra frames out. Grainy textures for all! / John Glanville

This week, I have been mostly playing Tribes: Ascend, in search of a fresh shooter. Ironically, ‘fresh’ in this case has taken the form of a throwback to the days before a console FPS was a thing, let alone the commercial behemoths that Gears of War, Halo and Call of Duty have become.

Tribes is a franchise made great by happy accident. Thanks to the careless oversight of 1998-era developers, Tribes’ signature aspect is pure, unbridled speed. Hold down ‘jump’, and friction is suspended, indefinitely. With the aid of a jetpack, welcome to the most ludicrous cross-country skiing simulator ever, where 150km/h is the slowest you’d ever want to go. This was a game of milliseconds and kilometres, in an era before “open world” was a bullet point to hang off the back of a box. The maps may be boxed in, but it hardly matters when you’re crossing hundred-metre gulfs in a single bound. And so it happens that the game is one of speeding bastards flitting across the landscape, and hulking human tanks doing their level best to ruin somebody else’s day.

This is what you’ll be looking at, ten plus times a game, if you’re playing anything but a heavy. The life of a capper-chaser is a lonely and short one all too often./John Glanville

Flick forward fourteen years, two publishers, two developers, and four games, and one stumbles into the new, free-to-play incarnation of a game that retains unashamed early-2000s roots, branches and some leaves, and could never exist on a console. First and foremost, the obsession with speed will forever trap Tribes on keyboard-and-mouse; the simple joy of a perfect flick-shot taking out an enemy flag carrier that you only spotted a third of a second ago, crossing your screen in another half-second. Or rather, who would have crossed it in half a second, if not for the arcing, glowing, frisbee-shaped chunk of day-ruining virtual explosives landing right in front of them. All in less time than it takes to turn around on a twin-stick controller. Further trapping Tribes, at least for now, on the PC is that question of scale: maps too large to fit in memory and player counts high enough to break a console.

The rolling hills and architectural features of a small map. Average transit time: 45 seconds. Average capture time: 60-75 seconds. Go on, get moving./John Glanville

Simply put, the cutting edge has moved on from flagship consoles, and the delayed console cycle is only exacerbating the problem. When the John Carmacks of the world express their frustration with the hardware, and push out in a PC-first direction, consoles are naturally left suffering either a stagnant  software cycle – the Gears of War and Halo route, or cut-down low-performance builds of current engines – what Rage has adopted. Meanwhile, top-end engines aren’t pushed: the post-launch high-resolution texture pack (or mod) is a staple for the modern PC gamer, and usually only covers a small portion of the improvements that are possible. The result is the return of glorified tech demos: engines and games built at the top end to show off a fancy new renderer at the expense of actually being fun or directly commercially successful. Sadly, the reverse of the coin is that AAA releases are disincentivised to use cutting-edge tech, while lower-budget releases on all platforms lack the resources to exploit that same technology.

Suicide is painless. Except when you’ve just dropped the flag as well. Then it hurts, but you’ll cackle with glee when a teammate swoops in to save the day./John Glanville

In the end, we as gamers of all sorts lose out on hardware development, to our continuing cost: successive E3 and GDC conferences have included demos of truly impressive new technology, left for the moment by the wayside for want of commercialised hardware on which to run it. While nobody will argue that the technology makes the game, the lack of risk-taking on hardware has certainly contributed to the chronic sequelitis afflicting the AAA industry, and it looks like for at least the next few years, we can look forward to Shooter Videogame N+1 on a regular basis.