Thursday, October 24, 2013

Natural Selection 2

A sequel should be more than just a port of an outdated game to a new platform or even less, a new game engine. When various Half-Life 2 mods did this, they had the decency not to pretend they were true sequels. They labelled themselves Day of Defeat: Source or Counterstrike: Source because really, the Source engine was all that was new about them.

Backtrack a bit. It's 2002. Yours truly, a craven man-wolf caged in a backwater "university" dormitory, has a few popular online games as his principal occupation. One of these is a little FPS game called Counterstrike. Oh sure, I used to play DoD or TFC as well, and I'd started to hear about this new HL mod which had space marines fighting aliens. And one day, the admin of my favorite CS stomping ground dropped the fateful words on us like a bomb: "goodbye CS server, hello NS server." The server switched and I along with it, and even though Natural Selection ran so poorly on my old computer that I was forced to play in 400x300 resolution, I loved it.

NS is an FPS/RTS hybrid game. What I remembered I loved was the visceral thrill of FPS combined with the added relevance of true teamwork and strategy: taking resource nodes, defending bases, climbing a tech tree. There had been good offline games like this in the past, like Battlezone or Uprising, but not truly multiplayer-oriented ones. Internet gaming was just coming into its own with the likes of Half-Life and Starcraft.

NS did not have a very long period of popularity, for various reasons. It did not receive needed updates fast enough, which made many of its balance issues grate. It was using what was at that point a slightly aging game engine (Half-Life was a 1998 game) and the improvements made to it were too much for older video cards like mine while not allowing players with brand-new machines to show off their capabilities. Worst of all, the creative team decided at one point to fragment its customer base for no reason, creating an "action" version of the mod which removed the RTS portion. It became nearly impossible to get players to play the more complex, original concept.

So now we have NS2, and I did not bother playing it until now because, well, Planetside 2 was coming out and there are only so many hours in the day. Since 2002 there have been other attempts at RTS/FPS hybrids. I previously mentioned the Insects Infestation mod for Half-Life 2, and HL2 also spawned the equally short-lived Empires mod. The most interesting attempts however were the two Savage games. Actually when Savage first went into beta there was a hilarious display of hysterics from a NS fan who accused Savage of stealing the concepts of NS and that "be assured the NS community will hear of this!" Savage's dev team basically just chuckled and said "ok kid, thanks for the free publicity."
Given Battlezone and Uprising and the like, it's hard to condemn Savage of "stealing" NS. The whole hybrid thing is just a logical progression of either more team-oriented FPS or a first-person RTS. Even Dungeon Keeper allowed you to take control of a single minion and run around your own strategy-game map. It is true that Savage basically copied the marine team from NS but what can I say? "You're just a copy of an imitation." Savage was an improved version of NS and Savage 2, while a downgrade from Savage in terms of complexity, brought many needed improvements especially to the FPS side of things, creating a set of intuitive combat mechanics which should be given a thorough look by anyone wanting to develop a mixed melee/ranged FPS system. In short, S2Games, while they are overall a shameless bunch of copycats and bandwagonners, moved forward in their own way.

Natural Selection did not. NS2 is basically NS:Source. Oh, sure there are some new weapons, but this is 2002 all over again. Everyone still bunny-hops and there's still too little feedback on landing melee attacks, etc. The few "improvements" were actually steps back, like giving the alien team a commander instead of keeping the old dichotomy or the more cluttered maps of undifferentiated rooms which, like the clutter of Planetside 2, serves only to reward twitch-gaming instead of planning and teamwork. Not to mention that just as the first NS did, NS2 pushes the capabilities of its graphics engine unnecessarily, straining older cards without really competing for showing off newer ones. No matter how much you dress up the Source engine, Planetside 2 still has nicer explosions.

It's sad to see this happening. After Savage 2 committed hara-kiri and with the other HL2 mods dying young, not to mention MMOs like Rift refusing to see they could be the ones to fill this first-person RTS niche, I'm not sure there's much out there. A true sequel to NS would have gone a long way toward keeping one of the best genres alive. Unfortunately, just like DotA 2, NS2 is just a nostalgic throwback, fixing little or nothing of what was wrong with the original, sitting back while the rest of the industry either moves on or gives up on the idea.

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