Natural Selection 2’s Steam free weekend has come and gone. I’ve been hearing good things about this game for quite a while, so I tried it out. Unfortunately, despite the interesting addition to its core “team-play based FPS” gameplay, I identified a few issues that obtaining and retaining new players (myself included) are made harder than what one would typically expect.
First and foremost, the game lacks a proper interactive tutorial. The official gameplay videos are informative, but to ask new players spending 60~100 minutes on those videos just to get a hang of the game is tedious and, for a game released after 2010, unacceptable. Of course, not all games need a comprehensive and interactive tutorial. Yet NS2 is a very strategically–and to a degree, mechanically–complex game. Without a proper tutorial, new players who learn better “by doing” (like myself) are not likely to have an enjoyable first match, where both the game and the more experienced players (more often than not) expect me to perform better than my abilities allow.
The game is advertised a First Person Shooter / Real Time Strategy game. Although the “shooter” element only really applies to the Marine team, whose style is to keep as much range as possible when engaging their enemies, the Aliens. Naturally, majority of Alien attacks are melee-based, and Alien players must rely on hit and run tactics to gain the upper hand.
This asymmetrical rules of engagement has a fundamental issue. A marine versus a similarly skilled and equipped skulk (basic Alien life form), the outcome is mostly decided on who, through luck or skill, can manipulate the other side into engaging at one’s own preferred range. Phase 1: the Alien player can choose either to ambush an unsuspected marine, or quickly charge in and hope the marine misses more than he hits. If the skulk player is still alive by then, enters phase 2: both the marine and skulk will start “dancing” (chaotically hopping) around each other, while the survival of the marine mainly depends on how much hp the skulk has before it landed the first bite.
After playing about 20 hours of playing, I can’t say I enjoyed this concept. Vast majority of the times that I find myself in such encounter, the outcome is already decided before I can press my left mouse button. I guess I’m just not a big fan of playing an FPS where “exchange of fire” only effectively happens in melee range.
In NS2, cooperative play with teammates is paramount to winning. Each team has one player to play in RTS mode and act as the team’s commander. The commander is the person who can decide next 5 to 50 minutes of your time to be incredibly fun, unbelievably masochistic, or anything in between. The best thing a new player can hope is to have an experienced and helpful commander who knows how to effectively communicate with rest of the team. Excluding the noobs have no idea what commanding is, the worst kind of commanders is the ones that rarely or never talk. The commander not only needs be proficient with building sequence like playing an RTS, he is also tasked to give standing orders to rest of the team so the foot soldiers need to know what they are expected to do at all times. Yet quite often I am met with a silent voice chat, where everybody was headlessly chasing down red dots on the map without knowing (or caring) what’s the next strategic move for the team is.
One simply doesn’t become a good commander by watching the tutorial videos. Ideally, a player learn the necessary list of things to do from an experienced commander, while playing as the foot soldier. The Marine gameplay does a good job in facilitate learning: the Marine commander puts down a build location, and it’s up to the teammates to finish the construction. New marine players can gradually get a hang of the when and where to build/upgrade something is preferred. Strangely enough, the Aliens constructions need no involvement from other players. The Alien commander usually expand in such a fashion that doesn’t expect help from gorges (the healer/builder class) in the team. This creates a problem that an Alien player cannot effectively learn the basics of commanding without sitting in the chair (and potentially piss off teammates for extreme sub par performance).
The non-intuitiveness of playing as an Alien doesn’t stop with the commander role. There exists limitations are truly arbitrary: the Marines soldiers who have a permanent minimap on screen; Alien players don’t have that. Fast moving alien creatures have more, not less, need of the minimap to get around the map (especially to the new players). Without the minimap, Alien players have to press M key to open up the map screen, which can be a time consuming operation since first you’ll have to locate where you are on the map first.
If you suspect this is a move deliberately hinders new players learning how to play on the Alien time… let’s just say that we share the same suspicion.
Similar to marines picking up different weapons at the Armory, aliens can choose to evolve into different life forms. Unlike the marines, each alien creature require very different play style. I bed all new marine players have gotten utterly decimated by Fades multiple times. Fade, being somewhat a stealth class, not only can go in and out of combat with extreme speed while being semi-visible, they also have a sick damage output. They basically cannot be killed unless they want to be, while assaulting marines who are defending an objective.
Another problematic creature is the Skulk. It is not grossly overpowered as the Fade; instead, it is the hardest creature to master as an Alien player. And for some counter-intuitive reason, it’s the default creature for every alien player spawn from after getting killed. Not only it relies on melee bites that is considerably harder to approximate (compare to projectiles, like marine’s assault rifle), wall-jumping just makes it even more newbie-unfriendly.
The Gorge is my favorite alien life form. Although without any balancing issue, its build menu should be more accessible than it currently is. Right now 1, 3, and 4 keys are used for different weaponry. To build something, the gorge player have to press 2 first, and a number key (1~4) the second time. This makes building in tense combat situations a bit hectic because it’s very easy to mess up the build key with weapon key.
Lerk suffers from another restriction which can only be classified as strange. The creature is capable of flight, but unlike Marine’s jetpack where the player only needs press down space bar to alleviate, the Lerk player has to spam hit space bar to maintain altitude. Compare to the jetpack that serves the exact purpose, Lerks’ flight is unnecessarily unwieldy in combat situations.
I’m a stern advocate against FPS having a persistent score/level mechanic that gates player from in-game items that impact their efficiency in combat (like how Battlefield 3, or any modern mainstream shooter, bars players from weapons etc until they reach a certain level). However, NS2 is on the other extreme side of the spectrum: Like the old Counter-Strike, tach player has no stat to carry between each game. If everything else I’ve said is an obstacle in obtaining new players, lack of meaningful progression is the prime hindrance for retaining players who are just getting better at the game.
The problem is compounded by the fact that if one team holds superior number of resource nodes for over 10 minutes, the hope for the other team to win the match is very low. Yet the team with resource advantage cannot score a faster victory due to the game’s design empowers “turtling” inside a stronghold. And if the losing team does not vote concede, the match will drag on, which serves no purpose other than to delay the inevitable.
The vote concede feature itself is controversial. Player have complained how it diminishes the sense of accomplishment for the winning team to deny them a stomping experience, while other players (accurately) point out that polling only the losing team effectively creates a “minority rule”. It doesn’t change the fact that in many situations, the losing team to concede is the most logical action, if assuming the goal for everyone is to win at all cost, and nothing else. If an accumulative score system is implemented, the losing team still has a reason to make “a last stand” (which, ironically, is few of the most epic battles I fought) that otherwise is just a waste of time.
Despite my wall-of-text mode criticism of Natural Selection 2, I ultimately feel the game does deserve its 80/100 metascore. It definitely worth to buy at 50% for $12 (the sale is already finished at this point, though). Hopefully in due time, this game will grant us a more polished new player experience and have various oddities fixed.