It’s been a long time since Unknown Worlds released the original Half-Life mod. The original Natural Selection was the first of its kind when it was first released in 2002. By 2008 it was one of the ten most played Half-Life mods. Since its release in 2002, the game has evolved immensely as the whole thing was redeveloped and improved from scratch.
Natural Selection 2 is a hybrid RTS/FPS that pits Zerg-like aliens called the Kharaa versus human Marine Frontiersmen. It’s quite easy to screw up a hybrid genre such as this and there haven’t exactly been many RTS/FPS games that are in the same league as Natural Selection 2. The last RTS/FPS hybrid that received considerable attention was Savage 2: A Tortured Soul by Heroes of Newerth creator S2 games which was released in 2008. Considering the gaps between games of this genre, it’s safe to say this type of game is quite hard to properly execute. Natural Selection 2, however, automatically feels like a classic and at the same time fills in the big shoes the original Half-Life mod left.
The main goal of the game is to destroy the enemy’s main structure which serves as the command console (or command giblet for the Kharaa) for each team’s Commander. Each team has one Commander who is in-charge of the whole RTS aspect of the game; he is tasked with building structures, dropping supplies and researching new weapons and skills but most of all he is responsible for issuing commands to everybody. It’s not enough for a Commander to know how to use the Command Center or Hive. It takes strategic knowledge and strong leadership skills to carry on the whole team to victory. Not only that but if you don’t communicate with your allies clearly and politely, they will tend to not listen to you decreasing your chance of winning.
The team must constantly push forward and acquire as much resource points by building resource collecting structures. Choosing which area to move into next and when is a decision that must be well-thought out by the Commander lest he sends his troops into heavily guarded territory without adequate upgrades. However, due to the utilization of voice communications, decisions like this tend to be more democratic. A winning team is comprised of people who often report even the smallest events like which claimed areas are under minor siege or if a tanky unit is under way. This information is essential to the Commander in that it helps decide which upgrades to purchase first or which area to move into next.
Taking on the role of Commander is a lot of pressure. Your troops depend on you for researching the correct upgrades and setting up bases in appropriate areas. This role is absolutely not for those who are completely new to the game. The learning curve for the Commander role is steep; I’ve been playing since the game’s launch and I still haven’t completely gotten the hang of it. There are some video tutorials available as well as an Explore Mode for players to tinker around with either faction’s upgrades and units without being hassled by an angry team. However, no amount of video tutorials or playing around compares to real in-game experience. Thankfully, there are rookie servers for beginner players where there is a lot less pressure when taking the role of Commander.
The macro management of the Commander is just as important as the micro management of the ground troops. Nobody plays hero in Natural Selection 2; killing a bunch of enemies in one go then dying won’t help the team as much as killing a bunch of enemies and surviving long enough to help your allies take over an area.
The game creates a very team-oriented environment. Marine structures are commissioned by the Commander but require the Marines to be present to build them. The more Marines contribute to the construction, the faster the construction speed. As for the Kharaa, their playstyle, similar to the Zerg in StarCraft, relies on swarming and ambushing the enemy. The most basic unevolved Kharaa is the Skulk which is a melee fighter. Its HP isn’t all that high and the melee attack isn’t exactly the strongest. Taking out even just one Marine can sometimes be problematic so wandering into Marine territory with no one to back you up isn’t very wise.
While upgrading weapons and skills may aid in defeating the enemy team, it still boils down to how well your team works together. In most first-person shooters, players usually rely on their allies’ skills rather than their ability to lead. In Natural Selection 2 it’s all about the team work. It doesn’t matter if you’re handy with the gun or with the claws; going solo is detrimental to yourself as well as your team.
Natural Selection 2 caters to the type of player who takes pleasure in executing complex strategies as well as the type who just wants to be part of the team. The most basic level of the game has players taking control of a human soldier or an alien creature. You are expected follow orders and to stick to the plan while you run around the map shooting or clawing at every enemy or structure you see. The game further encourages teamwork by awarding individual players with score points whenever they destroy an enemy structure or help build an allied structure. Resource points are also awarded the longer you stay alive which individual players can use to purchase guns and tools for the marines or evolve into more powerful units for the Kharaa.
While using a human Marine with a gun is something wholly familiar to almost every gamer, using an alien unit can be a bit tricky. The most basic alien unit, the Skulk, is a fast moving quadrupedal creature that has the ability to scale walls and run through vents. Though they are also equipped with a ranged attack, most of their damage comes from their melee attack. As mentioned above, the aliens rely more on swarming and ambushing. The game makes this more accessible by the way the maps are designed. Each map has a whole network of ventilation systems that alien units can navigate through. Their lack of ranged power is made up for their ability to run through the map quicker than the humans as well as giving them more opportunity to ambush using the vents strategically.
Each area of the map is given a specific name. This is something every shooter, regardless of being part RTS, should take note of as it makes communication a lot more effective and clear. The levels are quite easy to navigate through and offer advantages (or disadvantages) to either faction.
The original Natural Selection ran on an engine called Goldsrc which was basically a heavily modified Quake engine. Goldsrc was the precursor to the Source engine. For Natural Selection 2, Unknown worlds developed their own engine called Spark that looks considerably better than the Goldsrc engine. There are, however, some known issues with running the game with a playable frame rate. If you do not own a high-end battlestation, you’ll have to opt for lower resolution and low textures. Even with my Nvidia GTX 260m video card, I still have trouble running the game at 60fps. I have no trouble running other games like Skyrim at 60-90fps provided I turn off anti-aliasing but for some reason my system struggles to run Natural Selection 2. I found my framerate considerably lower especially when I play on the alien side. This is perhaps due to the amount of detail in the alien infestation mold. There is an option in the menu to have the infestation at a minimum but it’s not the same as seeing pulsating greenish yellow bulges infesting the map.
You can tell that they spent a lot of time making sure the design and atmosphere are eye-catching. The character models of the aliens are especially well done. The Kharaa have nasty bile spewing creatures and a greenish yellow mold infestation that spreads through the eerie corridors and over human-made structures. Seeing the infestation spread while playing on the Marine side really makes you feel like you’re under biological attack. Every inch of pulsating alien tissue is in direct contrast with the Marines metallic and cold machinery. They’ve come a long, long way from how the Natural Selection used to look like when it was still a Half-Life mod. See the picture below for a comparison from the Skulk’s point of view.
The sound effects as well as the music also play a role in the overall ambience of the game. The Kharaa’s growls and footsteps echo hallways and serve as imminent warning to the Marines. Just the same, the sound of welding tools and rifles will make any soloing Skulk run away in fear. Epic imminent sounding music plays when an enemy Hive or Command Center is about to be destroyed which contributes to the feeling of satisfaction successful teamwork brings.
Natural Selection 2 is also backed up by a thriving community that is present to help you with any issues with running the game or to provide you with strategic advice. The menu screen has Unknown World’s Twitter feed giving you live updates about the game, tips on strategies and even announcements for live developer Q&As on Twitch.tv. The community played a huge role in the development of Natural Selection 2. Six of the available maps in the game were actually designed by the community and several mods are already available in Steam Workshop.
Despite some errors that can be fixed by a few patches, Natural Selection 2 comes highly recommended and has proven to be one of the most well-done online competitive shooters/RTS the videogame world has seen in awhile. It’s definitely worth the money and definitely worth the time.