A game so good, we needed two reviewers just to wrestle it into submission.
Alex Walker: The world was a vastly different place when the original Natural Selection was launched. The United Nations had passed Resolution 1441 demanding Iraq co-operate with weapons inspectors. Australians were still recovering from the dual bombings in Kuta, Bali and the fallout of the Nord-Ost siege in Moscow, which saw around 170 people, including 129 hostages and 9 foreigners, lose their lives.
But the world of gaming was looking brighter than ever, thanks to the industry of Charlie “Flayra” Cleveland, who managed to do more with a free Half-Life modification than so many studios had managed beforehand. He achieved the holy grail: successfully combining the RTS and FPS genres in a way that refused to dumb down the mechanics of either, while maintaining a heavy emphasis on team-play that was aligned perfectly with the gaming landscape at the time.
That was ten years ago, and things have changed remarkably since then. Instead of Counter-Strike and Quake, gamers think of Call of Duty and Halo when they talk about an FPS. Developers still saturate the market with team-based shooters, but the emphasis has almost permanently shifted to the individual’s role rather than the collective efforts of all.
Enter Natural Selection 2:, a labour of love that took precisely six years to deliver (the game was first announced in October 2006, with the original also being released on Halloween four years prior). But this isn’t a title that caters to the current trends. Refusal to co-operate will get you killed. Failing to communicate effectively will get you killed. John Rambo’s 12-year-old cousin has no place here.
And it feels good.
James Pinnell: Indeed it does, Alex. A decade has done nothing but whet many appetites for a modern version of Natural Selection, and it’s interesting that its creation would not have even been realised if it wasn’t for the support of an extraordinarily dedicated community. Before Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and Pozible, NS2 was unintentionally pioneering the direct-to-fanbase preorder system that has become the first point of call for ambitious independent titles.
NS2 began its long, gradual ascend to reality as a modification to Valve’s venerable Source engine, but it quickly dawned on the developers that the restrictions of the ageing beast would not allow them to build the scope of design that they wanted. They appealed to the community, many of whom still played the original HL1 mod regularly, to back them on an uncertain journey through the design phase of a custom engine, a plethora of bugs, constant build updates and an unknown end date. Tens of thousands (including your insanely handsome reviewers) signed on immediately.
The final result is nothing short of fantastic, especially considering the number of obstacles encountered by the team along the way. Very little has changed to the formula, which for the uninitiated, involves a tense Alien Vs Marine battle in which each side is headed up by a Commander, a player who directs the building of resource collectors, researching upgrades and weapons, and points players to enemy activity via a top down interface.
Players can “Evolve” in the case of the Aliens, which is effectively a change of class, where the Marines have their weapons and armour upgraded and utilise a number of various mechanical tools. What makes NS2 so brilliant is that both sides are so well balanced; for instance, Marines have the luxury of distance via rifle fire, while Aliens can blend into their environment to launch stealthy melee attacks.
Unknown Worlds have been especially careful to keep the flavour right for the sequel, since, largely, most of the hard yards were ironed out in the original.
Alex: But what’s so gratifying is that the sheer amount of skill and depth for people willing to traverse its depths. As an alien, everyone immediately spawns as a Skulk, a zergling-type unit that has the ability to climb walls simply by running at them.
If you’re new to the game, you can simply run up the walls, find a roof somewhere and wait for a Marine to arrive before dropping on their face and mauling the life out of them. That’s fine. But spend a few hours on YouTube and in-game and you’ll discover a new world of parkour-esque movement, flying off walls and leaping past Marines to throw their aim off.
It’s symptomatic of Natural Selection as a whole. There’s the elements you’re given on the surface and the basic idea of how the units are supposed to work and function, but it’s not until you really delve into the game that you begin to appreciate the complexity of how NS2 flows, each players piece in that puzzle, and the ways a game can be turned around.
Here’s some gameplay footage we recorded — click here if you’d like to download it from the file mirror in HD.
But while the depth and scope of the “big picture” that takes place is its most addictive trait, it’s also the most cumbersome for anyone lacking half a decade or more of experience. The only tutorials available are a string of YouTube videos accessible from the game’s main menu, as well as a “explore mode” that lets you try out both races, the various evolutions and weapons and learn the various ins and outs of buildings, abilities and so on.
The videos are instructive enough, but the game is steeped in an old-school philosophy in that you need to develop a “feel” for how everything moves and functions. You don’t learn how to fly at 100 miles an hour; it comes through practice. And this is only the basics of movement; learning how to command is a completely different beast, which takes tens of hours to nail down just to prevent your team-mates from rebelling.
Unknown Worlds could have greased the wheels substantially with some in-game tutorials to help players become accustomed to the basics of the Aliens and Commander roles especially. You can select a “rookie mode” from the options menu, which is activated until a player has logged at least 4 hours of gameplay. Other players are told to help their newer colleagues through a hint on the loading screen, but it’s not really sufficient. A series of tool-tips, perhaps the ones used in the Explore Mode, could be activated in multiplayer for greenhorns until their experience grows.
James: The same applies for how structures work and how to place them. Commanders will bark orders at you to travel to a part of the map to kill or build something, but without any sort of guide it can be very daunting to find it. A minimap wouldn’t go astray, nor would a simple guide on what each class can and can’t do.
But discovery is also a magnificent way to learn, and in most matches people are usually willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Advanced abilities, like the Fade’s “blink”, are invaluable if used correctly, and require a lot of trial and error to complete. The same goes with placing defensive structures or choosing the correct time to lay down a refinery or hive.
The huge generational gap between the old and new games also provides a bit of a leeway to allow rookies to catch up with veterans. Most players I’ve found have been pretty sloppy, struggling to command players when they are still learning the interface. Much of the fun of NS was always the sheer spontaneity of strategy, surprising your enemy by heading straight for their commander, or splitting into two teams to force a tough decision.
But these things will iron themselves out. What UW have done is effectively rebuild NS in their new engine, tweak some of the ways you evolve, or in the Marine’s case, add the option of robots to help repair or build equipment. It reminds me a lot of StarCraft 2 in a way, bringing the game into the modern era with a great looking maps, animations and effects. A lot of it still looks rough, but the game is still evolving, every single day.
Some elements have been wholeheartedly ripped straight out of the original, like some of the sound assets and the basic layout of the player models. Nostalgia came flooding in like water on the Titanic’s lower decks when I heard the “ding dong” of a new waypoint or the rough gnashing of a skulks teeth as it attempts to rip apart an unsuspecting soldier.
Alex: Strangely, I quite like the custom engine UW built. It’s not up to Frostbite 2 standards, obviously, but it’s not an ugly beast either. The dynamic infestation works quite well from the first-person perspective; it’s quite vibrant and a treat to look at (although I jumped into NS after the gun-barrel grey misery that was the new Medal of Honor, so take that how you will). It creates some technical challenges though, with the infestation regularly popping in from the commander’s perspective as you scroll across the map.
That’s been the only real glitch I’ve encountered. That’s not to say there haven’t been significant bugs, but the fact that my experience has been unencumbered so far is an increasingly rare trait in the online age, particularly with the prevalence of day-one DLC. It’s worth mentioning that there’s a live feed of the developer’s official Twitter at the bottom of the menu screen, which occasionally keeps you updated on bug fixes.
There’s also a bevy of useless re-tweets and nonsense, but it highlights the developer’s persistence in engaging with the community. And that’s the crux of what NS2 is all about. This is a game that was built from the ground up by one guy and was kept alive through the diverse strength and passion of the fans who were happy to pre-order years in advance to fund development.
If you play NS2, you are playing with one of the older communities in gaming. You are playing with a developer who has been personally attached to the IP for a decade. Updates and servers will continue to roll out for years, along with a string of mods and maps from the community.
Provided you can tolerate the not-insubstantial learning curve, and the misery of the odd game with a bad commander, there are fewer no-brain choices you can make with your gaming dollar this year than buying into Natural Selection 2 and the love that its fans have for it. Unless you happen to have a savage dislike of intelligent, asymmetrical team-based shooters with a high focus on communication, teamwork and strategy. But in that case, you’re probably a bit of an Alien anyway.
- Stellar effort of modernising a PC gaming classic
- Great engine, performance and sound
- Strong community of dedicated players
- Beautifully balanced, asymmetrical gameplay
- Very newbie unfriendly, high learning curve
- Still a few bugs floating around