Natural Selection II - Peaks and Valleys
Natural Selection II is an interesting game. So interesting in fact, I'm having a hard time deciding how I ultimately feel about it. I never spent any significant amount of time with the first Natural Selection, which started out has a modification for the Half-Life 1 engine. All I really know about that game is that it had a sizable and dedicated following, had aliens and marines, and was a blend of RTS and FPS.
So, why is the game so interesting? Because when everything about it clicks, it is one of the best multiplayer experiences of all time. But, when things don't line up it is a frustrating game that is simply not fun to play.
It may be a symptom of the game being so young that prevents those important aspects to line up to create compelling matches. First of all, the inherit mix of seasoned veterans and green newbies in the community right now is sabotaging having fun games. While most of the community has been helpful, I still get flashbacks to playing DOTA and HoN at times when someone is unhappy with their team's performance and starts barking into the mic. Players in NSII seem much chattier than people in other games. Which is ultimately a good thing because good teamwork is needed in this game, and the game is much more fun when you’re coordinating? Of course, the gap between the vets and the newbies will close and matches will be overall more even as time goes on.
Overall balance in the game is also an issue being affected by the age of the game, but may not eventually even itself out over time. And balance issues in a game with asymmetrical factions are not a good thing. Overall, I feel that balance is pretty good at this stage. It's just that the way the game is balanced in its current state can lead to some very frustrating situations that make you feel helpless.
These balance issues mainly stem from the Onos alien class and the Exosuit marine class. Both of these classes are at the top of the tech tree for both sides and are extremely powerful. They're also extremely fun to play as. It's hard to find a similar experience in another game that compares to rampaging through a marine base as an Onos crushing everything in your path; or stomping your way through a blacked out hallway, shining your Exosuit's lamps into corners and shredding enemies with your gatling gun. When you're on the receiving end of the beat downs both of these classes cause though, the game is tedious and frustrating. Oftentimes when these weapons are brought to bear they can bring the overall game to a grinding halt. Both teams will sit at the entrance to a base biding their time. Most often the defending team will just be stuck throwing themselves at an enemy Onos or Exosuit, dragging the game play down to what equates to a meat grinder.
Despite this, NS II still achieves a sublime multiplayer experience at times. The mechanics of the game are sound. The actual FPS combat part of the game is great, aiming and shooting is smooth and slightly twitchy. Running around as the Skulk class for alien throws me back to the days of Aliens vs. Predator 2; skittering along walls, hiding behind doors waiting to ambush some poor sap off by himself in the dark. There is a lot of skill to be gained here for those looking to master an FPS, especially on the alien side. I haven't spent a large chunk of time as the commander in a match yet, mainly because I find the man bite parts of the game more fun, but the controls seem to be standard RTS controls that work well enough.
NS II also has atmosphere in spades. The hand built engine Unknown Worlds has built is drop dead gorgeous with some of the best lighting and atmospheric effects I've personally seen. It's unfortunate though that the game seems to need quite a beefy PC to turn all of the bells and whistles on. I have personally been having some performance issues, but my CPU is getting a bit long in the tooth and many people have been reporting that the game runs silky smooth on their machines (mostly people on forums so take that as a grain of salt because "silky smooth" means something different for everyone). Up until about a month ago client performance was even worse, so hopefully Unknown Worlds continues to optimize the game.
At the end of the day I would recommend you pick up NS II. If the game were a full $60 release I might be more hesitant to do so since there are some low points to the game, but $25 ($40 for a deluxe edition with a soundtrack, a cosmetic skin, and some wallpapers) is a pretty insane value proposition if you get into the game. NS II has really dug its hooks into me like most games don't, and I'll be playing it for a long time to come. It's also worth mentioning that the game has full Steam Workshop support, comes fully loaded with a map editor, AND is open source. The developers have been touting that it is a highly moddable game. Mods are only going to extend the lifespan of this game.
If you can take the good with the bad, then NS II is going to reward you in ways that other games can't.