Across the world, game sites’ forums have filled with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Lone gamers wander the streets crying, their clothes torn. This month’s popular computer entertainment publications will come with cover-mounted ashes. It is, in fact, all really bad.
Yet, astonishingly, gaming life goes on elsewhere. As of today, I can now officially kiss goodbye to any more attempts to do something creative with my life because my favourite time-sucker has risen again: Natural Selection 2.0 is out!
NS is a free Half-Life mod that’s been around since the middle of last year. I first encountered it when I got back from Israel in November and promptly let it move into my brain. Like most HL mods that become immensely popular (such as Counter-Strike, which became the most popular multiplayer game on the net for a while), it’s remarkably polished for a free, amateur production. (So says the Open Source advocate.) Unlike most mods, however, it’s not just a simple variation on free-form blasting: there’s a proper old-fashioned Real-Time Strategy game (like the evergreen StarCraft, or Command and Conquer) in there too.
You have the usual RTS features such as resource discovery and management, buildings, upgrade paths etc. There are also two teams: Marines and Aliens, who not only have very different characteristics but also have to work in those teams in different ways. Whereas the Aliens basically run around trying to cause as much havoc as possible while building hives and evolving into massive killing machines, one member of the Marines’ team gets to use the wicked-cool command console with which you can scroll around the whole map from above, give your troops orders, deploy buildings and defence systems (which other players in the field have to construct/repair), deliver weapons, health and ammo, etc.
In practice, the commander plays a cross between a benevolent god and the administrator who never listens to you. Many’s the time I’ve stood by an empty resource point for five minutes waiting for the commander to get off his arse and deliver a tower, along with some bloody turrets so it doesn’t get destroyed immediately. Conversely, I’ve sworn my head off at those troops who have no patience with my commanding and nag me for big expensive guns every two minutes, and won’t even tell me where they are.
Of course, the idea that I should be able to magically teleport ammo and health to my troops instantaneously, yet not actually be able to find them without scrolling around the whole damn map mousing-over every green dot is just one of the first version’s flaws, and there are quite a few. (The command console’s lack of decent features was a major bugbear for me that has thankfully been addressed in 2.0; now the commander has cool new tricks like selectable hotgroups he can give orders to, as well as much more obvious ways of finding players.)
I was halfway through writing about the psychology of RTSes and why I’m drawn to them but then I realised that my download of the client had finished, so I’m off to go play. I’ll write that piece eventually, maybe, in 2006. Won’t be doing much useful before then. (Torrent’s here. Enjoy.)