Picture a space station overrun by an alien infestation, just as you have seen innumerous times in science-fiction films, television series and games. That is the exact setting of Natural Selection 2, a cliché representation of a fight between human marines and alien monsters, in this case the Frontiersmen and the Kharaa. If any sort of plot were provided I might be a little more enthusiastic about the origin and causation of the depicted battles, but, being a multiplayer game, Natural Selection 2 seems to just cut the fat and focus on bad-ass online strategy/action gameplay, which it definitely delivers. Also, although the environments are what you would expect with the above description (miscellaneous futuristic settings similar to those in Star Wars/Alien/etc.), they are beautifully made, and can barely be appreciated to the extent they deserve when used as the backdrop against the game’s frantic skirmishes.
Natural Selection 2 is presented as an amalgamation of first-person shooter and real-time strategy, the results of which are apparent throughout the whole experience. Most players will only play the shooter side of the game, as it draws less attention and responsibility onto one’s self, but they’ll still feel the emphasis on strategy. On each team, one player at a time acts as the Commander and they essentially play an RTS game, dishing out orders to other players to build certain structures, defend resources and attack. They are also given the responsibility to invest in technological and evolutionary upgrades using team resources, enabling players on their team to purchase these upgrades with their personal resources should they desire to.
With a decent Commander, it can actually be a lot of fun to be a pair of feet on the ground, following orders. The feeling of being a part of a team when everything goes right is one of the most genuine senses of pride a player can have mid-game (even if that team is a load of strangers), whereas an impatient Commander that is incapable of effective communication, and just blindly yells at their team (which is much more common), is going to lead them to a painful, frustrating defeat. Either way, games can last as long as an hour, or be over and done in just a few minutes–just like many RTS.
Playing as Commander on either team (Frontiersmen or Kharaa) feels much like any other RTS, except that builder and fighter units, being real people, have the potential to not follow orders. Capture resources, build structures, buy upgrades, make armies, defend own base, destroy enemy base; this is all pretty typical of the genre and is done just as well in Natural Selection 2 as it is in any triple-A RTS title.
As an FPS, however, Natural Selection 2 can feel much more exciting and unique to play–all depending on the quality of your teammates. Working in squads, the Frontiersmen are especially fun to play as while taking and defending objectives as opposed to a simple death-match style game, giving players the feeling that they are helping to give the team a certain strategic advantage. Somehow, the game manages to make you feel like a part of the RTS experience while fighting as a marine, and with the maps as huge as they are, you always have a sense that something, somewhere, is going down. However, as they are so large, one will often find that by the time they retreat back to base to counter a threat, that threat has already completely annihilated everything. That happens a lot, and never fails to make players feel dreadfully hopeless.
As the Kharaa, each species of alien has its own specific role, and best teams use the various skills of all the aliens in conjunction. Once players understand how their species-specific skills (such as the Skulk’s ability to walk along walls, or the Fade’s ‘blink’) actually work, they work together seamlessly and intuitively. It just feels right, and makes slaughtering marines so damned fun. When players don’t work together, Natural Selection 2 is about as frustrating as online multiplayer game can get. Certain marine technologies, particularly the huge exosuits and flamethrowers, mean immediate death to any species of alien flying solo, with neither fight nor flight being available options.
I hadn’t been genuinely angry at a video game for some time until I was playing a match of this very game, where every skirmish of mine was fruitless and ended in constant death. What makes death so maddening is that personal upgrades purchased using resources are lost on death. Meaning that I can spend a huge amount of my personal resources upgrading to a stronger alien species, only to be immediately destroyed by a walking tank, losing everything. A happy player this does not make.
New players will be utterly overwhelmed with the lack of rookie-assistance. With no in-game tutorial, the “Training” entry on the Main Menu links to a selection of YouTube videos, which feels a bit tacky. To get a basic understanding of the jargon used by teammates I had to watch over an hour of these videos, and I still managed to get yelled at fairly regularly. A smart move by Unknown Worlds Entertainment, new players will have a very obvious “Rookie” status against their name, but this doesn’t stop more experienced (see: impatient) players from constantly yelling at newbies. Then again, this is unfortunately rather common in online gaming.
There are a couple other things I’ll quickly whine about while I’m at it. The quality and number of servers (in Australia, at least) is abysmal, with timeouts a-plenty, provided a server with a free spot can even be found. If the game doesn’t timeout before I join, it is likely to take such a long time to load the map that the server fills up. This doesn’t detract from the quality of the game, obviously, but it really makes it difficult to properly enjoy it. The tendency for the community to shout abuse at any player who takes a step out of line is also something that doesn’t particularly impress me, but also can’t be blamed on the developers.
Natural Selection 2 is an undeniably well-made game in terms of depth of gameplay elements and aesthetic quality. The major issues come through it being an online game, with some balancing issues and a fairly unpleasant community. Unknown Worlds have done great by developing this title, and are constantly updating it (which earns them a huge thumbs-up from me), but I find it difficult to recommend a title that subjects players to listening to teammates constantly making excuses and blaming each other for defeat, and has instilled within me so much anger. That said, Counter Strike is another inarguably great game with a downright unpleasant community. The bottom line is that Unknown Worlds have successfully tackled the task of smushing FPS and RTS gameplay into one delicious package, and have delivered some of that sweet, sweet innovation I’ve been dreaming of.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Natural Selection 2 by Unknown Worlds Entertainment.