Natural Selection 2
AMD Radeon HD 5770
Natural Selection 2 is a game about the survival of the fittest. Unlike the scientific principle of its name, it is not a random, circumstantial process, but one decided by two battling deities, influencing and supporting their people from above. A combination of real-time strategy and first-person shooter multiplayer, NS2 is a unique beast. Is it a species that will grow a flourishing community, or is it bound for extinction?
NS2 is a game that I will almost, always feel under qualified to speak about. Aside from a passing acquaintance with the first and some time with Nuclear Dawn, I haven’t engaged with any similar hybrids of this nature. Mostly because there simply haven’t been many. NS2 is also a game undergoing constant evolution. During the beta updates would be released regularly almost twice a week, sometimes more. These ranged from bug fixes to numbers and map adjustments, and constantly tweaked the balance of the game. It’s an adjustment that will go unnoticed by all but the dedicated, but it speaks volumes about the developers and the community that NS2 has built, even before release.
It’s a community that’s been built partly from necessity. NS2 is a game with an almost overwhelming learning curve. Before you even join your first match, it is recommended that you spend an hour or two learning the mechanics of the game from both sides and perspectives by watching the tutorials and using the game’s Explore mode to familiarize yourself with the maps. For those completely fresh to NS2, here’s the crash course: NS2 is an asymmetrical multiplayer title in the format of space marines vs. aliens. Each side’s goal is to attempt to control the map and destroy all of the opposing team’s command stations. Marines are equipped with a variety of long range, rapid firing weapons ranging from the standard assault rifle, to the devastating flamethrower. Aliens, for the most part, lack long range options and are forced to close the distance before they can inflict damage. In order to counterbalance this, aliens will need to hunt in packs, single out lone marines, and use guerilla tactics, appearing and disappearing through vents and performing hit and run attacks. It’s a dynamic that leads to frantic and dramatic encounters, with panicked marines firing in all directions attempting to hit aliens moving with vicious speed across the room. The dynamics and vulnerabilities also force players to cooperate with each other, as lone players are not likely to survive.
That’s one way of doing team selection.
In fact, the team dynamics of NS2 are it’s greatest strength. Central to these dynamics is the commander, through which the RTS elements are integrated. During any time in the match a player can step into a command station. Once logged in, the command station will close down around him/her and protect the player from damage. The player will then take the role of the commander, issuing orders, assisting players, and building structures and upgrades from a top down perspective similar to those common to any number of RTS interfaces. Without a commander, the game is lost. Even a short delay at the start of a match without a commander can give the other team a significant advantage. Communication is also a key. For those interested in playing the commander, invest in a mic. Without it you simply won’t be able to relay orders and information to your team fast enough. Unlike games such as Nuclear Dawn or Battlefield 2, NS2 lacks a mutiny mechanic, where players can kick off a commander they feel isn’t doing a good job. Never did I feel like it needed one either. Even in the rookie friendly servers I spent my time in, commanders of varying skill levels always set up a good line of communication with the team, asking the team what they needed and where he/she was attempting to push into.
On the ground level, players will have to work together to secure and control areas of the map. The first priority will be to obtain resource nodes. When built upon, these nodes supply the both the team and individual players with resource points, which are used by the commander to build structures and research upgrades RTS style, and by the players to purchase weapons and tools at the armory. Resource flow is slow, so spending major resources on a weapon and dying, or losing an expensive building strikes a major blow to the team as well. Each side also has limits on where and how they can expand. For marines, each room must be powered for structures to work. If the power is destroyed, structures cease to function. Additionally, structures must also be manually built by players or robots. Alien structures, by contrast, grow without additional assistance once placed, but must be built upon infestation, which grows dynamically via cysts placed by the commander.
Commander role hard to learn and even harder to master but it has to be filled in order to achieve victory.
While the tech trees, mechanics and variety of structures may not be expansive enough to support a standalone RTS, they are smartly paired down to options that are well fit for the hybrid, cutting out standard RTS additions without compromising the flexibility of team play. Likewise, the shooting mechanics aren’t going to compete with the multitude of deathmatch options available today when taken alone. NS2 eschews the now standard stop and pop, aim down the sights based rhythm of shooters today for mechanics closer to those of Half-Life, giving it a more constant sense of motion. Because weapons lack the lethality of modern shooters, playing with a squad, finding a good position, and being accurate are much more important. While aliens generally have a low level of protection against weapons, they offset this with speed and tactics, as well as the ability to see allies and enemies through walls. The Skulk, the foot soldier of the aliens, can crawl along walls, ceilings, and vents, staying out of sight until ready. The Gorge, a slow moving creature, can set up Hydras to attack intruders and block off passages with Clogs to control a space, as well as spitting armor and structure deteriorating Bile. Lerks dominate the air, swooping into rooms to lay down clouds of poison gas and firing needles into marines. The terrifying Fade moves quickly in and out of a gaseous Blink state, becoming immaterial only to quickly close the distance and strike with its claws. Most intimidating of all is the Onos, a massive rhino like beast that knocks marines of their feet with a single stomp, and impales them with its horn. The various weapons and tech available to the marines helps balance this out. With smart use of shots, shotguns allow the quick takedown of enemies, grenade launchers crush structures and control spaces, and flamethrowers push back infestation and deal massive damage. Prototypes also allow you big advantages. Jetpacks make it difficult for the melee focused aliens to damage you, and the intimidating Exosuit matches the Onos in damage capability. No matter what side or ability you take on however, you’ll be met with a set of particular drawbacks that can be countered by the right approach. As always, teamwork is a must.
NS2 is a massively complex game of tech trees, mechanical dynamics, and teamwork. It has undeniable depth of both mechanics and strategies, and the community to support it. It’s also the reason for its steep learning curve. Hours into the game and I’ve yet to fully understand the relationships between the various mechanics of the game. The maps themselves also provide a challenge. While it’s true that many first-person shooters require you to familiarize yourself with the maps in order to improve, having a basic familiarity with the map is a requirement to even be useful to your team. While the in game map and minimap provide easily readable information to help you navigate, knowing the various corridors, vents and choke points of each map will allow you to efficiently work your way around and flank enemies. Even if you are interested in only playing on the ground level, playing a few matches as commander will prove invaluable (I personally don’t enjoy the pressure of an entire team’s victory being placed on me). Commander mode will make the web of connections obvious to you as well as give you an idea of what particular options are available for you team at any moment.
What shall we cook today?
On the technical side, NS2 is a full blooded PC game. All the various tweaks and options you’d like are nestled into the menus, and there is even a (somewhat finicky) FPS counter in the menu as well. NS2 supports both server and LAN play, and allows you to filter between various rookie friendly and modded servers. Ah, yes! The mods! While there are obviously not many yet, NS2 is fully moddable, and has Steam Workshop integration, with some mods already showing up in the Workshop. While the visuals aren’t technically impressive, the art direction makes an impact, creating easy to read silhouettes and using color and lighting to set a strong mood. The audio design is integral as well, the sounds of gunfire and aliens giving you split second alerts to the actions of your teammates and enemies. It’s overall an impressive achievement for a small indie studio, especially when many major studios seem to lack the same amount of care or polish for their PC titles. While there are only five maps at the moment, content updates are sure to introduce more, and the community maps providing more content in the meantime.
Natural Selection 2 is a game that will initially bounce off many players, and is simply not a good fit for others. It requires time, dedication, and most of all - investment. For players who find reward in learning and exploring the mechanics of the game, NS2 has incredible depth to sink into. Matches are long, forming territorial chess matches of strategy and skill. Diving into wikis, spectating matches, and commanding players will slowly and surely prove to be a reward. For those who are looking for something more rapid fire, shorter form, or simply don’t have the time to invest in learning the game, NS2 is a not a game they will enjoy. NS2 doesn’t have the immediate reward of gunplay or action common to most shooters, but it does have depth uncommon to others. As it continues to evolve, it will no doubt move towards the top ranks of team shooters.
- Hybrid Creature: one of the few, and possibly the best, hybrids of the FPS and RTS genres.
- Split Up and Die: NS2 doesn’t simply encourage teamwork, it requires it.
- The Rabbit Hole: this game has more depth than the majority of team based shooters.
- Not Quite Fair: Asymmetrical gameplay gives each team significant advantages while maintaining balance.
- Spit Shine: NS2 has enough polish to be a full retail release.
- Community: even before release NS2 had a flourishing community, with games being available at whatever hour I chose to play.
- Open: Workshop and mod support are sure to keep the game’s lifespan long.
- Atmosphere: the lighting and mood here, combined with the desperate fight for survival, creates an intense atmosphere.
- Bang Bang: weapons and abilities tend to feel very weak at the start of the round, but do escalate.
- Steep Curve Ahead: The learning curve for NS2 is lengthy, and will require a significant investment of both time and money.
Natural Selection 2 is a game just for a select few. Not the privileged, but dedicated. It’s a game that is hardcore and unforgiving. It demands you to play nice with your team and make sacrifices for victory. This is not a game to jump in to have few good matches and go to work. This is work; And I mean it in the best way. Natural selection brings out the heroes amongst us and shuns immature people away. This is the case of “all or nothing”. The victories here has to be earned.
If you are ready to give what is asked of you and not just demand for your share of “fun”, you will have a blast. The community is mature and ready to accept anyone who is willing to play by the rules. The game itself is unique and great as a whole but average if only taken by some of its parts. Neither the commander mode or the shooting are very sophisticated but, as one, they work great. The content is a bit scarce at the moment but with modding not only available but encouraged it give reassurance of long life for the game and the community. Combine that with the developer who has a track record of unwavering support and you have yourself a product that is firm on its feet and will stay that for long time.