- Natural Selection 2 Review
- November 7, 2012 12:47PM PST
- By Eric Neigher
- Natural Selection 2 offers a promising combination of strategy and first-person shooting, but disappointing execution holds it back.
- The Good
- Fascinating combination of real-time strategy and first-person shooting
- Cool artwork.
- The Bad
- Steep learning curve makes it hard for newcomers to enjoy
- Graphics often look dated
- Long load times.
- Like a number of popular games, Natural Selection started off as a modification--in that game's case, a mod for Half-Life--and a full-fledged sequel now follows up on that mod's popularity. Unlike a lot of mod-to-retail conversions, though, Natural Selection 2 retains much of the rough-around-the-edges feel you get from a free, fan-made game. The problem is that this offering isn't free: it costs 30 bucks.
- Rough around the edges isn't necessarily a bad thing, and there's something to be said for the jerry-rigged feel of Natural Selection 2's gameplay and graphics. Apart from a map-exploration mode, the game is entirely multiplayer and features the unique distinction of having two classes of players playing two different styles of game in a given match, depending on their roles. A game of Natural Selection 2 is team versus team, one side playing as the human space marines and the other side as a cadre of Zerg-esque alien creatures.
- Whichever side you play, each team designates a commander, who plays Natural Selection 2 as if it were a real-time strategy game: he or she has a top-down view of the map, places structures with the mouse, researches new technologies, and gives orders to individual units. The other players take control of said individual units: they must construct the structures placed by the commander, do the actual shooting/biting of the bad guys, and protect their base from assaults by the other team, all through a first-person interface. The goal for both teams is simply to destroy the opposing team's commander, but that's a lot more difficult than it sounds.
- Part of the reason it's difficult is that the game is well balanced, but a lot of the reason it's difficult is that the game simply fails to sufficiently explain what does what and how things work. There's a series of YouTube tutorials that you can watch to learn the basics, but these are either far too shallow or terribly abstruse (some are nearly 30 minutes in length), and therefore not much use to most players. There's no interactive tutorial, so completely green players (literally colored green to designate them as new for others) are thrust into the mix with no hands-on experience. This often makes for incredible confusion, and newbies are often left wondering what is going on, while experienced players largely ignore anyone colored green and shout unintelligible Natural Selection cant at each other as the bullets fly.
- Another problem is that because each side has only a single commander, it's critical that this person be attentive, competent, and unflappable. Unfortunately, a fact of life in online gaming is that some people are apathetic, unskilled, and prone to quitting matches in a rage. That means playing Natural Selection 2 with random commanders is a recipe for disaster.
- If you get to play as the Commander, though, you’ll find it’s pretty similar to a stripped-down version of the original Starcraft. Resources are generated passively through structures built on specific resource points throughout the maps. You designate where these ought to be built, and must rely on your team to build them. You can also lay down defensive structures, set waypoints and mission goals, and decide what areas to research in your tech tree. Often, Commanders will poll their team and ask what would be of most use to them for research or building. Such practice is a case in point in Winston Churchill’s famous quotation that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Teammates often have no idea what they need, and will often just agree to anything that sounds like “free stuff."
- As for the rank-and-file soldiers, it's critical that they communicate and create synergistic combinations of skills, loadouts, and roles. For the marines, this means having some guys focus on crowd control and base defense, while others go out and surgically destroy key alien units and structures. Aliens are perhaps even more reliant on good teamwork, because they aren't as survivable as individual marines, and instead must make use of hit-and-run and distraction/stealth tactics, which is virtually impossible without good coordination.
- In theory, this could make for some compelling, variegated gameplay, but because Natural Selection 2 lacks a skill-based matchmaking system, and because the learning curve is so high, most newbies are going to lose--over and over, while better players yell at them to shape up. No biggie, you might say, but losing a game becomes considerably more frustrating when you need to deal with the extremely long load times between maps. Natural Selection 2 "pre-caches" (presumably textures) for as much as five full minutes as maps load, which is an unacceptably long time.
- All that said, Natural Selection 2 is filled with promise if you can put in the hours of grinding necessary to learn the units, maps, controls, and balance, and figure out what the heck is happening around you at a given moment. Graphically, the game looks, well, old, and the color palette for the levels is uniformly grey and brown, with a dirty chartreuse for the alien parts. But, especially with regard to the aliens (who see through their mouths), the artwork is surprisingly evocative, with interesting models, and a distinctive, consistent look to both the marines and the aliens. The interfaces, too, are minimalist and well done, and the game will sometimes helpfully prompt you with certain, limited information (telling you to signal the Commander for a health dispensation when you’re near death, for example).
- More importantly, the core idea of Natural Selection 2 is clever in the way that it hybridizes two disparate genres. The idea is clever, that is, but the execution isn't. And that's the long and short of it. There's promise galore here, but Natural Selection 2's foibles simply keep it from fully realizing its promise in the end.
a guest Nov 8th, 2012 555 Never
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