Eurogamer Expo preview: NATURAL SELECTION 2 is one month out. Having grown from a Half-Life mod to a standalone sequel, we meet up with developer Unknown Worlds at the Eurogamer Expo for a hearty chat and some hands-on time with the game.
I remember playing a losing match in the original Natural Selection. With only a few soldiers left, our base was being besieged by an Onos. It was destroying our equipment, and with all spawn pads gone, I was ultimately the only one left standing. Clip after clip went into the rampaging beast, but it kept coming. Then all I had left was my knife.
The Onos was going for the commander module, which would cost us the game (if it hadn’t already). I went in with the knife and promptly managed to stab it to death. My feeling of utter exhileration was then snuffed out by a Skulk biting my last legs off.
This is just one example of how gameplay is the story in multiplayer. There might be a rich backstory or a narrative flow to the proceedings, but ultimately the player tells their own tale. That’s also the view of Hugh Jeremy, PR man over at Unknown Worlds Entertainment. They’re getting ready to launch Natural Selection 2, which has made the leap from a Half-Life mod to a fully self-contained release.
“[Natural Selection 2 is] not just aliens coming into the humans’ environment, it’s also the opposite,” Jeremy adds. “It can cut both ways. There’s not one evil team and one good team, just two teams that happen to be fighting over these environments. Why they’re fighting is up to the player.”
Why we fight
The Frontiersmen and the Kharaa may be equals in terms of their territory claims, but definitely not when it comes to how they fight over it. The soldiers rely on technology while the aliens are their own organic technology. That type of asymmetrical warfare necessitates a very careful balance, which has been improved upon “over the course of 72 test builds”, according to Jeremy.
That’s not the only balancing act. Natural Selection 2 also has to appeal to a larger audience while not alienating its hardcore fans from the modding days. “We have to accept that not everyone will like what we do. The diehard fans will always want a deeper, more complex game. The new fans will always want a simpler, less complicated game,” Jeremy says.
“A lot of games do take a simplistic approach to try and allow more players in, but with an inherently complex game like Natural Selection, that’s not an option. Instead, we’ve eased up the learning curve with things like contextual hint systems and an explore mode.”
All that comes from a very close dialogue with the game’s audience and taking fan feedback at heart. Natural Selection 2 is a game that finds its origins within the modding community, and that’s anything but forgotten.
“[With our own engine], we can make the game extremely moddable, which is important to us because we were a mod. The community has literally created parts of the game because of that. Our spectator system and multiple official maps have been done by the community,” Jeremy mentions.
The game is running on an engine that the team designed themselves, giving them an extraordinary level of control over their creation. And that’s not the only advantage. “We’re in a wonderful position. We have our own technology, we’re not beholden to anyone.” The game’s being self-published through Steam, but while this has been good for Natural Selection 2, Jeremy’s not convinced that the lack of publisher oversight is always a good thing.
“There are obviously those nightmare stories of a publisher directing a developer harshly, but there’s also a lot of stories where a publisher just creates direction, is their rudder and allows them to more efficiently create a game. When you don’t have a publisher around to be that rudder, you enter a state where the opposite can happen, where development drags on and you take a long time to produce a product. In our case, I believe our development process of six years without that direction has been a good thing.” Don’t call them indie, though. The studio’s cofounder wouldn’t like that.
Six years might seem like a long time, but the game’s release on October 30th is not the finish line. “We like to joke in the office that development on Natural Selection 2 only starts in October. That means constant and consistent content updates through Steam, free of charge.”
Natural Selection 2 looks set to impress on its own merits. Unknown Worlds want the game’s quality to speak for itself and do the advertising legwork. ”We take the view that, rather than growing our revenue through DLC, we’ll just keep making the game better and that will naturally lead to a bigger player base,” Jeremy opines.
Having had a go with the game back at Gamescom and today, I can attest that Natural Selection 2 does all it says on the tin. Players both old and new will find a very competent game that caters to their tastes. My preorder is ready, and I can’t wait to try and knife an Onos again.
Natural Selection 2, from Unknown Worlds Entertainment, is due out in October for PC.