Natural Selection 2 is the first ever game I've enjoyed watching more than I've enjoyed playing.
If that sounds like an insult, it's certainly not intended as one. Rather, read it as perhaps one of the highest compliments I could give. Natural Selection 2 is good stuff—but playing it is only half its purpose.
First, some background: Natural Selection 2 was and is the little big game that should have been impossible. The game is from Unknown Worlds, a tiny studio of just seven people who took on the task of creating a massive, fully functional, online multiplayer shooter and strategy game.
The gambit worked, and over 144,000 people picked up the game in its first week of being live. Though in this instance, "live" is a bit of a misnomer. The game came to life through extensive collaboration between the dev team and fans, many of whom paid for pre-order and beta access, then helped bring the game to life. It well and truly launched on Halloween, ten years to the day from the moment the original Natural Selection, a Half-Life mod, was published.
So, yes, the saga behind Natural Selection 2 is a good story—and yet as we've seen over and over, it takes more than just a fairy-tale narrative to make a good game. Happily, NS2 is more than just a story about a scrappy studio. It's a genuinely well-made, top-notch game. One that I am manifestly terrible at playing. But more about that in a moment.
NS2 is a multiplayer, online, competitive, team-based shooter, but with a couple of twists. Only one set of players in any given match is taking on the role of the ever-popular gun-toting space marine. The other team takes on the role of the aliens, trying to conquer the station by taking to its walls, ceilings, and access tunnels. Marines take their first-person view down the barrel of a rifle (or, in moments of desperation, behind an axe); aliens take theirs from inside a mouth. A big mouth. Full of sharp, pointy, nasty teeth.
What I am saying here is: the aliens are serious bastards. Play as them.
Despite the many differences between sharp teeth and rifles, both sides are in fact exceptionally well-balanced. Or at least, they can be. Team performance, as in any multiplayer game, depends entirely on the players taking part. NS2, though, doesn't just demand cooperation of its cannon fodder. Instead, it requires true leadership.
Each team has a commander. The role isn't pre-assigned; both the aliens and the marines have particular stations that a player can stand in. The player in control of the command station is the commander, and while everyone else in the game is playing a first-person shooter, the commander is playing a real-time strategy base-building game. The commander chooses which upgrades to research and which structures to build. Structures get built when marines or aliens go and construct them, and so the commander issues orders and delivers tactics that the team, ideally, then follows.
The commander, like any great general, really is the linchpin of the team. If he (and in every match I played, on either side, it was a he) knows what he's doing and can issue clear, direct, intelligent orders, then the team has a good chance at survival. If he doesn't know what he's doing, and dithers too long over constructing resource extractors or gives contradictory orders to his side, then the team is going to be a mess.
I had expected to run into some ego-driven tantrums over the role of commander, as I wove through servers and parties, but I never actually did. I am sure there must be some pissing matches going on, but it seems that players are keenly aware of the responsibilities of command (and the potential blame), and take the duties to heart. I did, however, encounter one match where command was bugged. The command center kept ejecting players serially—sometimes, in as little as 30 or 45 seconds. Unable to keep anyone issuing orders for more than a minute or two, the marines eventually ground to a halt and, despite having superior numbers and having made significant progress in the match so far, crumbled.
Between good shooting and smart, quick RTS elements, Natural Selection 2 is a genuinely good multiplayer experience. It's also, in all honesty, a game that I should probably not be playing. To all the strangers on the rookie-friendly servers who put up with my fumbling, thank you. I promise not to do it again.
Learning to play NS2 can be a challenge. I, personally, found it quite intimidating. I watched the beginning tutorial videos, as the game itself prompted me to do, but I simply don't learn very well from YouTube. Part of why I play games is because I tend to learn best by doing—all the informational videos in the world fly out of my head when confronted with an actual experience later down the line.
After the videos, I wandered a map in Explore Mode. This, too, was beneficial: I managed to gain familiarity with some of the landscape, and to learn what certain machines and nodes are, how things are built, how things are killed, and overall to make sure my grasp of the basic mechanics was sound. And yet even memorizing an empty map only does one so much good as compared to a full map full of skittering creatures swarming at you in three dimensions to eat your face.
All of which, then, brings me back to the joy of watching.
After one loss (which admittedly, I had only joined the server six minutes prior to), when thrown back into the lobby, I more or less hurled myself through the door marked "spectate" in despair. I needed a break, and neither the tutorials nor the hands-on experience had yet taught me what Natural Selection 2 was all about.
Some major gaming phenomena are just not on my natural list of likes. The rise of eSports, streaming gaming, and player-vs-player competition are all on that list. I've never understood why so many people might prefer to watch a livestream of some strangers play a game when they themselves could be playing instead.
Now, I understand. I had hoped that viewing a match as a spectator would give me a better grasp of how the game should ebb and flow—and it did. More than that, though, I began truly to enjoy watching games for their own sake.
Watching both sides duke it out, with access to the full game map, has the same sort of strange tenterhooks satisfaction as watching a horror film. I'd find myself thinking, "Aaaah! No! Don't go in there! Go the other way! THE OTHER WAY!" And when I watched one very, very good space marine dodge, weave, and survive his way through most of the base, only to walk face-first into a nest of aliens that had been left in waiting for him, I admit to shouting, "IT'S A TRAP!" aloud, to the confusion of all.
In the end, Natural Selection 2 is perhaps best described as a skeleton, or a scaffold. It's an excellent, stable frame on which to hang cooperation, teamwork, and competition. As a multiplayer game, the experience is exactly as good as a player's allies and enemies are. Strong teams, that join the game and work together to perfect and enhance their skills, could truly be a thing of beauty.
I know my limitations; as far as NS2 is concerned, I am not born to be a leader. It's a grunt's life for me, as I try my best to do what I'm told and find the correct room I've been ordered to go to without getting killed twice along the way. Lacking a team to play with as a unit, I'm probably best left on the sidelines... but I think I'll still be watching.