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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.