Imagine this: you’re proceeding down a hallway with your space marine pal, machine guns in hand. Something smells odd, and you feel like you’re being watched, but there’s no time to think about that now. You’ve got an order from the commander to secure a supply point. Right as you’re about to enter the room housing it, the lights go out. Sounds of skittering can be heard all around you in the pitch black darkness. You and your partner turn on your flashlights and scan the room. Suddenly, your partner screams and falls down. You turn to look and see a small alien creature chomping at his legs. You aim your rifle at the creature, but before you can shoot, it’s run off into the darkness. You hear more skittering but can’t locate it. Suddenly something hits your arm… a needle. You aim your light at the one place you haven’t looked: above you. Sure enough, one of the creatures is clinging to the ceiling, staring right at you. Before you can raise your gun to shoot, the alien leaps at your face, mouth wide. Then… more darkness.
Welcome to Natural Selection 2.
Natural Selection 2 is quite an interesting specimen. This PC game developed by indie studio, Unknown Worlds Entertainment, is a real time strategy and first person shooter hybrid. The game preceding it was originally a mod of Half-Life. This stand-alone title offers a multiplayer experience that’s out of the ordinary. The game takes elements from both RTS & FPS genres and molds them into a new style of game. Players choose one of two factions: the Frontiersman, a group of human space marines and the Kharaa, a strange race of aliens that have the ability to invoke their own evolution. The goal is to destroy the other faction’s command station. Each faction’s command station is manned by one player who acts as the commander for your team. The commander plays from a top down, real time strategy perspective. Their role is to coordinate with soldiers where assistance is needed, research new weapons/upgrades and generally strengthen their team.
The rest of the team plays the match like a first person shooter. Space marines will run around carrying guns like you’d expect. The Kharaa use their claws, teeth, and other natural weaponry. To differentiate playing the alien race, the perspective is set inside of their mouth. It’s a small detail, but it makes things interesting.
The game is visually impressive. The things that indie studios are able to achieve on their budget never fail to blow my mind. The use of colors and all of the special lighting effects really make this game stand out. When aliens take out the power in a sector, it goes pitch black for a bit, allowing the scenario that I wrote out at the beginning of the review to realistically take place. Eventually the red backup lights will turn on, creating an eerie, threatening atmosphere. Combine this with the alien growls and screeches and you can argue that Natural Selection 2 feels like a survival-horror game at times.
Working together with your commander, you will try to defend your own territory and build up your resources and available abilities to eventually traverse into the opposing territory and start breaking their stuff. Each side requires team and personal resources (Res) in order to upgrade their weapons/abilities. Res is gathered slowly over time as long as your team has control of the resource node. As a marine, these upgrades consist of weapons (shotguns, flamethrowers) and tech (jetpack, Exosuit). For the alien side, Res is used to evolve yourself. Each alien player spawns in as a “Skulk” which is a small, agile creature that can climb up walls and ceilings and easily navigate through ventilation systems. By gathering Res, you are able to evolve into four other classes, each with their own abilities, strengths and weaknesses.
After playing both factions, I can definitely say I preferred playing the Kharaa. The Frontiersmen had some cool gadgets, but overall they don’t have a particularly unique feel to them. They’re something I’ve played before; the badass marine running around with a machine gun. What I haven’t played is a vent-crawling alien that can transform into a giant, stampeding behemoth.
So how does it actually play? Well, the goal is simple enough, but the learning curve is more like a learning brick wall. If you haven’t played the original Natural Selection Half-Life mod… prepare to be overwhelmed for a bit. If you jump into this game with no prior knowledge, you’re going to be lost, as the game doesn’t offer an in-game tutorial. There is a training option on the main menu, which takes you to a list of YouTube videos by the development team and by fans that go more in depth with the game’s mechanics.
I feel like this could potentially put new players off. I didn’t like the idea of having to sit through a ten minute video just to learn the basics of the game. I like to learn how to play by jumping in and doing things. While that is an option here, you’ll probably end up not having much fun as you get slaughtered repeatedly, which is what happened to me. I’m not even talking about commanding, just trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing is confusing. There is also the “Explore Mode” which puts you in an empty game and gives you access to all upgrades. This is useful in that you can play with all of the different evolutions and weapons, but without context I still don’t think it’s a very useful tool.
This is why communication is so important to the experience. You will need to make sure you have a working microphone and are willing to listen to others if you want to have a successful game. Your commander has the best view of the battlefield and will be able to direct you, but you have to be willing to listen and work with others. If you’re a gamer who prefers to go rogue in multiplayer matches and work on your K/D ratio: this game isn’t really for you. Smart players will be communicating with their team and coordinating attacks on certain areas, making solo play dangerous.
I actually love the teamwork aspect of this. With the huge maps and constant battle over resource points there is always something you can be doing. I had a lot of fun coordinating attacks with other players. Since Skulks can cling to ceilings and run through vents, you can meet up in the room you’re going to attack virtually undetected and all attack at once. It feels really good to see your teamwork pay off. You feel like you’re contributing to the team when you meet up with marines who are trying to hold a point. You don’t get that in most multiplayer games.
If you can stick with the game and overcome the intense learning curve, Natural Selection 2 offers major bang for your buck. You could spend hours just figuring out how to use each Kharaa evolution and Frontiersman tech effectively and learning the maps. The community is active, as the Steam Workshop already has fan-made maps and other mods. The game comes in at $24.99 on Steam, which I think is more than fair for the amount of content you get. Unknown World Entertainment have clearly put a ton of love and effort into this.
[+Impressive Visuals & Sound Design] [+Fun Maps] [+Unique Experience] [+Focus on Teamwork] [+Kharaa Are a Blast to Play] [-Ridiculous Learning Curve] [-Frontiersmen Rather Bland] [-No In-game Training]