Sometimes it’s best to simply take orders and try to be the best soldier you can be, helping build what needs to be built and taking care of the alien Kharaa as they begin to creep into your territory. Wandering aimlessly into enemy territory to only be ambushed by an alien that’s made its way behind you through the ventilation system and then begins to literally claw you to pieces is clearly not the best outcome to your life as a space marine. Building power stations, beacons, and resource centres as commanded, is more like it, it keeps you busy and out of harm’s way -- for the moment at least. Sometimes it’s best to simply take orders, even when you know they'll put you in the thick of it.
Natural Selection 2 is a team-based shooter, where real-time strategy (RTS) plays a major role in deciding the outcome of a particular round. It’s also one with a generally steep learning curve, one that feels like a classic hardcore shooter designed strictly for gamers and a game for those willing to put in the time. But above all it’s a game for those that play well with others, and don’t treat online gaming as a venue for juvenile ‘verbal pants-downings’ via cool lingo and racially charged slurs.
As a sequel to a classic mod from the original Half-Life, Natural Selection 2 has been in development in one form or another for close to six years, where fan expectations have been riding extremely high and industry focus has been steadily picking up steam based on early, extremely positive word of mouth. What exactly sets Natural Selection 2 apart from other competitive online shooters is its blend of classic corridor team-based shooting that has become a PC-staple for decades now with the strategy elements found in RTS games like StarCraft. On paper this may sound a little gimmicky or even at worst, something that’s different enough to be a fun diversion for a few hours -- but in execution the end result is surprisingly exceptional, and more often than not, brilliant.
If you were to imagine a StarCraft multiplayer game between two evenly matched Terran and Zerg players on a small map with a small unit cap, the action would be hectic and the road to victory paved with many changes in both strategy and leadership. Natural Selection 2 in a way presents a similar scenario as maps are designed in a not too dissimilar fashion where opposing alien and human teams have their main base of operations at random locations with the ultimate goal to secure enough resources and tech upgrades in order to take out their opponent’s base, and win the round. Although team-based, where players are free to roam each map and play the game as they see fit, each side is allowed a single commander who, via entering a hive mind or command centre, is then given a top down view of the map and given the ability to build structures, drop supplies, research new weapons and abilities and, most importantly, issue commands to their teammates.
Playing as a commander is no easy feat, and requires a clear understanding of all the abilities at your disposal in addition to the ability to competently and quickly react to the changing nature of each encounter. From making decisions on which weapon or technology to research to whether or not you invest heavily in defensive structures, the choices are both numerous and deep enough to warrant comparisons to a game as synonymous with sci-fi competitive strategy as StarCraft. It’s a lot of pressure to be sure, and clearly not for those new to the game or even players who prefer the twitch-based nature of shooting and killing their opponents – as after all, the core of the game is still a shooter. Although militaristic in its simple chain-of-command approach, the advent of voice chat in most online games today adds a democratic flavour to the decision process where something as simple as spotting a specific enemy unit or impending attack can help the overall strategy as does polite bickering over exactly what technology upgrades should be tackled next.
Now, having a commander than can build structures and issue commands in a shooter may sound like a sure thing on concept alone, but there are countless ways in which an approach like this would ultimately fail. Natural Selection 2 pretty much avoids all of these through clever design choices that feel natural and seamless in their execution, an indicator of a great game if there ever was one. By forcing players to actually build the structures their commander drops instantly creates a team-based culture within the game and keeps players moving their whole team forward in addition to any individual skirmishes and ambushes they may take part in. This directly leads to the game allowing each player to gain their own pool of resources in addition to those they generate for their team, which in turn they can use to purchase their own upgrades and abilities, through their own individual skill (see: kills) and contribution (see: other stuff). This means that all facets of play are rewarded in Natural Selection 2, even making the skilled lone wolves out there a formidable obstacle if given enough time to do their thing.
At the most basic level the game allows for players to simply jump into the action and take control of a human soldier or alien monster of sorts and simply stick to the plan and help out as best as they can whilst shooting, climbing walls, and circle strafing like a professional. By appealing to both skilled players who revel in strategy and those simply willing to be part of a squad and larger team, taking the fight to the front line, is merely one of the countless things that makes Natural Selection 2 feel like its own formidable entry into the online multiplayer shooter genre. To put it bluntly, it’s just a heck of a lot of fun to simply take orders and be a simple grunt shooting your way to the frontlines with a clear and definitive goal – destroy the enemy and its base of operations.
Both the human and alien forces are distinct in not only the way they look but also in the way they control, the basic strategy they need to employ, and the overall team play styles. Running and gunning through corridors as a human soldier will be a familiar sight and setting to most gamers, but given control of an alien unit that can run up walls, through a ventilation system and change its vision to an almost Predator-like infra red view of the battlefield, will be, to put it in obvious terms - a little alien
By keeping, in a similar fashion to StarCraft, the two controllable races not only visually distinct but fundamentally, adds exponentially to the play experience and longevity of Natural Selection 2. It’s clear that a lot of time was spent on the core mechanics of Natural Selection 2 with very little left over for superfluous elements like single-player modes, cut-scenes, or complex progression systems seen in EA’s Battlelog or Activision’s Call of Duty. This is a moderately priced game from a clearly dedicated team looking to bring a synonymous PC shooter well into the 21st century, by embracing the clear benefit of recent technological advancement, easy social interaction and integration.
With regular patches that not only look to balance the overall experience, but also add new elements based on player feedback, Natural Selection 2 is sure to have a vibrant community in the coming months and years. And with full mod tools launching with the game, new maps, modes, and full conversions are also on the cards. What began as a popular mod has now finally become its own formidable standalone shooter, one that’s looking to nurture the very same community that made it possible to release the first version of this great shooter all those years ago. If you’re a fan of online shooters on PC, then Natural Selection 2 not only comes highly recommended, but essential, and should sit right alongside other classic entries into the genre.