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Wot I Think: Natural Selection 2

Red In Tooth And Claw

Natural Selection 2's intense multiplayer sci-fi corridor-combat has given me odd dreams. I am not sure why that's relevant, but I wanted to mention it.

Unknown Worlds' long-awaited sequel (since 2002!) to the original hybrid mega-mod has been out for a while now, and I've been snapping my giant, slavering jaws on the live servers during that time. I believe this means I am ready to send you an encoded transmission that tells you wot I think.

Natural Selection 2, as we have already discussed at length, is an awesome accomplishment of community, and of unwavering vision. The small team of developers behind it had a keen idea of what they wanted to achieve: to create a full-blown commercial version of their original RTS/FPS hybrid mod, Natural Selection, and for it to do everything that the best team-based shooters are capable of. And then they did it. With some help from their friends. For a while there it looked like they might have bitten off a steel-bulwark sized parcel of Too Much. But they've unveiled the game to some small fanfare, and the results are quite impressive.

It breaks down like this: there are two teams, the marines and the aliens. Each team has a commander – a single player who directs the action and builds structures – while the rest of the gang run around the sci-fi corridors, battling the opposing team and attempting to support the actions of the commander. Or not. Depending on the player.

It's a mix of RTS and FPS mechanisms, in a way that many of you will already be familiar with: FPS combat takes place on the ground for most of the team (with the aliens using their claws and jaws more than the marines do) and victory is dependent on base construction across the map. A few games have taken similar positions in the time since Natural Selection first appeared, but few of them have done it with as much vigour as this.

What you get here is a very tightly conceived game on just a few maps. I see that limited aspiration (and single asymmetrical battle game mode) as a good thing. It could have bloated, it could have sprawled. It did not. And the complexity of asymmetrical conflict that can emerge from this is enormous, of course, because the levels are large and twisty, and the options provided for commanders and grunts alike are many.

It looks fine at 60fps on my 2500/560ti too. It's not exactly chewing its way through the most magical of modern graphical effects or animation, but everything in it feels designed. It all looks right. Nothing is out of place, and most of the effects are as you'd want them to be. It has a considered feel about it – as it should for a game that has slowly gestated over several years.

Applying what I had learned from other games, I spent my first few matches identifying veterans and following them about to see what they did. A sound strategy, too, because being out on your own in NS2's labyrinthine levels is a recipe of having your arms and legs removed. The action is pleasingly fast paced (no Quake, but it still moves), whether you are a marine or an alien. The marines move slower, of course, but they still have to have the reactions to pop a cap in the skittering/flying/shambling ass of the host of beasts that spew from the alien side. It's much easier to do that when they're attacking someone else. (And, after hours of incredibly tentative combat, I eventually realised there's no friendly fire, either, and began to do much better.)

Building – a task which is utterly essential (this is as much a duel of competing bases, entangled with each other across the map, as it is the two teams of entities biting and shooting each other) - is not something that anyone can solo. Even attacking what appears to be an undefended enemy point can go horribly wrong if you are not supporting (or being supported by) a team-mate. Enemy commanders are usually quick to direct their team to enemy incursions.

The matches evolve, too, with tech being unlocked as you play. This process requires a competent commander to understand and direct that unfolding of tools. As a footsoldier on either side you depend to quite a large degree on information, direction, and supply from the commander (who is, on public servers at least, occasionally a Russian gentleman with an impenetrable accent) if you are to as effective as you need to be to win.

It will remind some of you, I should think, of the AvP games. Particularly Rebellion's original, where zooming about as the alien was just so much fun. It's ludicrously fun here, too, and I got a lot more enjoyment out of being a pair of jaws that can walk on the ceiling than I did being a marine. But that superficial squeal is quickly replaced by the realisation that this is a formidable game which does far more than other Aliens-alikes.

When it finally became time to play as the commander – well, I had already messed about with the game's “explore” mode, so I knew many of the tools, and what they were for, but I simply didn't have a strategy. I still don't. I ended up retreating and leaving it to others.

But that's fine. I didn't expect people to be able to command 100-man fleets when I played Eve Online. I had to learn how to do it. If I want to get the most out of the Natural Selection 2 commander role I'll have to learn how to make the most of it. But I won't. I'm glad to be a grunt. I can't offer more than that without being dishonest: I bounced off the commander role, because I wasn't comfortable with flailing about at the controls. I suspect this will be a problem for other gamers, but since there's only one commander per team, I was happy to let someone else direct.

I suppose if I have a complaint about all this, it wasn't that the RTS aspect was inaccessible, but rather that the games I have played seldom felt like a balanced, knife-edge struggle. It seemed more like a slow slide into the abyss, if we lost, or a steady crushing of the enemy, if we won. I suspect this was simply down to the teams in these games being imbalanced – inexperienced commanders being taken apart by better teams, experienced commanders being betrayed by confused newbies (like me) – and so on. These, however, are familiar feelings from playing competitive multiplayer games on public servers. I realise that my experience could be atypical, and I can't make a proper judgement on quite how that will work out for anyone who plays this for a longer time than I have, but I suspect public games will often have these sorts of dynamics.

There are a few other silly little things I don't like: None of the marine weapons are quite punchy-enough for me. The battle-suit doesn't feel meaty enough. In fact the entire game could do with a bit more weight. I am not sure how it would do that, but it feels like the audio-visual feedback, and the attendant physics, could be dialled up a few degrees to intensify the action. Needs more cowbell.

Not all of the maps made sense in my brain, either, but that's all about learning. And games like this require you to learn. They are about that challenge of mastery: not simply of gun-twitch, but of spatial awareness, tactical awareness, teamplay, resource care. All good brain-food.

Actually, there are two brains in Jim Rossignol. One of these brains has spent years playing games with organised teams, in games like Quake III, through Planetside and Arma II, and off into the awkward realms of MMOs. This brain is one that appreciates teamwork, cohesion, organisation, competition. It's a brain which, when exposed to Natural Selection 2, sees one vision of how this game would really be worth playing: with a team that I had become familiar with, with regular competitive nights, as part of a clan that took things a little more seriously than the folks who just drop on to public servers for a quick blast.

This brain also feels uncomfortable with Natural Selection 2, because it realises it will never actually experience that level of play. It knows I haven't played enough of this game. I never will. I am not going to get into serious NS2 play. I just won't. There's too much else out there, and it's not the laser-point perfect place where I want my serious gaming energies to go. In another life – and for other people – it most certainly will be.

My second brain, well, that's one which has eased, over many years, into a sort of casual appreciation of most games. Almost anything is worth dropping into and dabbling with, even if you aren't going to get the true reward of full-blown competitive commitment. This brain gets a lot of use these days, because it's the brain which, while Brain 1 was obsessive over this or that specific game, was tasting everything else on the menu. I sampled things for the sake of criticism, and I sampled things because they were worth seeing.

Natural Selection 2 is worth seeing, but to this second brain it does not stand out as a major highlight in a world with so many classed-based shooters, RTS aspect notwithstanding. That said, I have not failed to enjoy any single session I played. While the servers aren't perhaps as many and as populated as I'd like, the game always offers something. It's brilliantly crafted – right down to the FPS counter on the graphical options screen, so you can see what impact your changes are making – and that alone makes it, for me, a game that deserves to sit in my games library forever.

There's something like an irony in the name, too. Because Natural Selection 2 doesn't seem like an evolution, it seems like a very specific and directed act of creation. Unknown Worlds willed this into existence, and it was a very deliberate attempt to create a game and a community to serve a specific desire and way of playing. Few games reek so pungently of dedication and obsession to a cause. This is one. And it's a cause I believe we need to support. Let's do that.

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Jim Rossignol