Wednesday, 19 September 2012

IMPRESSIONS: Natural Selection 2 Preview (PC)

It's been a good month for source mods. First, Black Mesa Source made a surprise 'coming soon' announcement and released shortly thereafter. Then, Natural Selection 2 appeared on steam, alongside the announcement that it will release in October. The original Natural Selection was one of the most popular half-life mods, doing things with the half-life engine that even the devs didn't think possible. The NS2 dev team is the size of your average basketball team, but has produced the SPARK game engine from the ground up as well as a game that looks as polished as any triple A 100-man-team blockbuster release. It's games like Natural Selection that make me proud to be a PC gamer, supporting the true innovators of gaming.

Unknown Worlds are one of the true innovators of gaming.

So, being a very early adopter and pre-ordering the game over a year ago, I have been rewarded with NS2 beta access. Like any beta, it was full of holes at first, but has been steadily improve up to this point, where I feel it's just about as good as it's gonna get and ready for release. NS2 is such a complex game with an already dedicated fanbase, so I've split this preview into two parts:
1.) What New players can expect, and
2.) What veterans can look forward to.
If you are a veteran Kharaa hunter, feel free to skip ahead to the second section.

NS2's artsyle is reminiscent of all your favourite sci-fi action films.

What new players can expect:

Natural Selection is an FPS/RTS hybrid game that pits the unique race of Kharaa aliens (picture a mix between Starship Trooper's bugs and Alien's Xenomorphs) against a sci-fi standard group of space marines. The best way to explain this game is to imagine your traditional RTS game, Like Starcraft or Command and Conquer. You know all those little soldiers that you build and command around the map? Imagine of each of them was a human player, who played the game as a tactical FPS.

The commander role is one of Natural Selection's most unique features
This hybrid gameplay is achieved by the 'commander' role that is filled by one player on each team. The commander views the game from a to-down tactical view and builds structures, researches upgrades, and commands his troops. Upgrades for the marines include a host of new weapons, while the Kharaa commander can research new life forms and abilities for his teammates to evolve.

There are four main Kharaa life forms, the skulk - a fast scout, the gorge - a support class with a heal, the fade - a flying class that's great at harassing, and the onos - a huge rhino-like tank
Games play out like an RTS, each commander will expand his base, collect resources and try to destroy the enemy base. Games end when either all marine command stations or Kharaa hives are destroyed, and can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. While the commanders do play a vital role, individual player skill is not to be understated. Games are large enough to give you a sense of epic RTS scale while small enough to make your individual effort feel worthwhile. Both the FPS and RTS roles require teamwork and co-operation to be effective. It works really well and when your team gels together it feels really great.

Marines can use phase-gates to quickly travel around the map

Natural Selection 1 was what we call a 'difficult to learn, even more difficult to master' kind of game, especially when it came to commanding. Fortunately, NS2 has a plethora of tutorials available on youtube and accessible in game, as well as an 'explore mode' that lets new players learn maps and practice commanding

NS2 can be quite the clusterfuck for new players, so be sure to check out the tutorials first!

What can veterans look forward to?

It feels like NS. It feels better than NS. This is the NS that Unknown Worlds has always wanted to make. Unburened by the overbearing publishers and tight release schedules that other devs face, Unknown Worlds have taken the time and the effort to make a game that is, first and foremost, a true sequel to NS. While most of you will feel right at home upon jumping into your first game, it wouldn't be a proper sequel without a host of new features. Let's have a look.

NS2's graphics are effects are light years ahead of the old HL1 mod that started it all
The biggest new change is the additon of the Kharaa commander. This was done to help alieviate disparity between the teams, as well as allowing Kharaa players to experince the unique RTS flavour previously reserved for the marines. Anyone familiar with Starcraft's Zerg or Warcraft 3's undead factions will recognize the 'infestation' mechanic utilized by the Kharaa. Khaara commanders will need to first build cysts that spread infestation in an area before being allowed to place any other structures. The commander is in charge of all evolution upgrades, and can also do some cool things like build specific life form eggs (Onos, Fade ECT) that respawning players can spawn as. It's nice to not have to rely on one or two fragile gorges to manage your base.

The Kharaa commander must build a network of cysts to expand his base
Khaara evolutions have been streamlined a bit.  You can now upgrade all traits at once and most life forms have only 2 or 3 abilities. Gorges have been tweaked to be more of a defensive class that heals teammates and attacks from a distance, while still being able to build 'temporary' structures, such as a small turret and walls that can block off an area. Most of the other classes are more or less the same, although, sadly, the Onos can no longer swallow marines whole. The Kharaa also have a new 'alien sight' mode, which will bring back memories of the Predator's heat vision.

Alien sight lets you quickly acquire new targets, even in the dark.
The Khaara aren't the only ones with new toys to play with though. One of the new marine structures, the robotics lab, allows the commander to build MACs that he can control to perform build and repair tasks, as well the ARC - a deployable siege turret. Marines now have personal resources - just like the Khaara in NS1 - that they can use to purchase new weapons independently of the commander. All areas have a 'power node' that must be constructed to build structures in that area, and if it is destroyed, structures in its radius stop functioning.

MACs allow the commander to continue base building operations without bugging his teammates
Weapons have seen some tweaks as well. the knife has been replaced with an axe, and the standard machine gun has an alternate 'mellee attack' that will use the butt of the rifle to hit enemies in close range. The heavy machine gun is gone, replaced instead with the flame-thrower. Grenades have been completely removed, and while the grenade launcher was first introduced as an 'attachment' to the standard machine gun, it has since appeared as a separate gun.

No more spamming the commander with 'CAN I GET A SHOTGUN PLEASE??'
These are all welcome additions, but the coolest one by far is the exosuit. This allows an individual marine to finally stand toe-to-toe with an Onos, as well as make them feel like an absolute badass in the process. It's built alongside the jetpack in the prototype lab, and can be upgraded to dual miniguns for double the carnage.

The Exosuit is the spirtual successor to the old heavy armor upgrade from NS1
NS2 has been a long time coming, but it's day has almost arrived and it's looking like it was worth the wait. New players will be at first bewildered, and then enthralled by its unique gameplay, and veterans will be surprised at both how familiar and how different the game feels. The original NS still has an active community to this day, and I won't be surprised if it's sequel will maintain one for many years to come.

Pre-purchase Natural Selection 2 on the Steam store - for a limited time, all steam pre-orders are upgraded to the digital deluxe version for free, which includes the game's soundtrack, a digital artbook, and an exclusive in-game marine model.

Liked this article? Check out my TF2 basic pub strategy guide!

Subscribe to my Twitter and my YouTube channel to keep up to date on Steve's Game Blog news!


  1. I feel you should rephrase the first paragraph. It seems to imply they've used a finished game engine. They have created Spark from the ground up to make NS2 with it. They deserve even more credit than you give them already ;)

    1. Thanks for the feedback! I've noted it, and changed the paragraph accordingly! I actually didn't know this, and thought that they had licensed the Spark engine from elsewhere

  2. Hey, i'm actually looking forward to this game, it looks awsome and i heard a lot of people talking about it in the scene, great preview btw!