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Natural Selection 2 is a fascinating blend of FPS & RTS

6:30 PM on 06.15.2012

Steven Hansen

Features Editor

Natural Selection was one of the most popular mods for Half-Life, but Natural Selection 2 is a full-blown retail game -- and a wonderfully positive success story of modders growing into full-fledged developers with their own studio. It hasn’t been easy, of course, but incredibly strong community support has allowed the guys at Unknown Worlds to keep making the game they want to make. Additionally, Perfect World has picked them up, funded them further, and all without exercising any creative control.

I’m generally not one for competitive multiplayer games, let alone first-person shooters, but I totally dug my time with Natural Selection 2. It’s a game seemingly tailor made for its fans and though I wasn’t able to get into a properly filled, hectic multiplayer match, I found the game plenty accessible to new players.

Natural Selection 2 (PC)
Developer: Unknown Worlds
Publisher: Perfect World
Release:  Late Summer 2012

The first thing that drew me to Natural Selection 2 was the aliens. The first trailer I saw for the game showed alien-on-human combat, which piqued my interest, partially because it’s simply more interesting than most human-on-human bullet fests, but also because the idea of controlling nonhuman things without guns in first-person against people with guns isn’t a thing that is frequently done successfully.

Well, I was delighted to find out that the aliens in Natural Selection 2 are super cool and control well. There are five entirely distinct alien units, the strongest of which take some work to unlock in a match and take additional time evolving into. When you change your alien type, you’re housed in a fleshy, translucent membrane until your newest incarnation is born; obviously a precarious situation to be in with jerkface humans running around shooting up the place.

Also, most of the aliens have hilariously thick tongues just hanging from their mouths in first-person view, and the tongues all bounce up when your aliens jump, landing back down in place with a squelching thud. I thought it was delightful.

The base alien, which reminds me of Borderlands’ Skags, is a quick little bugger who has the distinct ability to run on walls and crawl through levels’ ventilation systems (Aliens!). They’re even similarly named: Skulk. Next are the adorably grotesque Gorge, which trot around ploddingly like Eeyore with a potbelly. They can take ranged pot shots at enemy players to distract them, but their main focus is their ability to excrete a mist that speeds the development bases and all the other RTS contrivances.

Next, we have the Lerk, which fly around stages, unleashing both projectiles and clouds of murky, poisonous mist. These took the longest to get a hang of, but I was soon gliding majestically through narrow corridors and reigning death from above. The Fade are basically devastating Kabutops capable of sneaking up to unsuspecting players and cutting them to shreds. Lastly, we have the big daddy alien, the Onos, which can totally wreck your day. Though they have a devastating gore and debilitating area of effect stomp, they’re actually best used as bullet sponges that draw the enemy’s attention and put everything into a state of disarray.

The humans are also pretty cool guys, but undoubtedly less interesting to talk about. Like the aliens, they want to take and hold key points on the map, but expand through technological means. And they do have some cool technology; for instance, the human RTS leader drops heaps of metal into the field that you have to build by pulling out something that sort of reminds me of those guns you use to scan things for a bridal (catalog? gift list? wedding gift list?). Of course, using it requires you put your gun down, so you occasionally have to decide between shooting the incoming alien menace or building up resources in tense situations. The humans also get jetpacks, which is awesome.

Playing the aliens was definitely my favorite aspect of Natural Selection 2, but the expansive RTS elements are the most fascinating. Effectively, any player can jump into the command hub at your team’s base and start managing resources, expanding your team’s control over maps, and set objectives and waypoints for other players -- all sorts of things.

Only one person can be in this mode at a time and game director Charlie Cleveland hinted at restricting the command position to players with a bit more experience, just to keep someone who knows what they’re doing in charge of this pivotal element of the game.

Theoretically, the RTS mode, aside from being an incredibly unique meld of mechanics, can solve one of the biggest problems of objective-based, team-based competitive multiplayer. Undoubtedly, there will be people who ignore way points and general direction from the omnipotent power looking over the entire map, but it’s a great way to offer to direction to willing newcomers who want to contribute, but don’t quite know the ins and outs of the game. The potential for it working is increased by the established user base and relative niche of the game as well.

Of course, that intriguing dynamic aside, the RTS mode was quite fascinating to me, as someone who doesn’t really play RTS games. Seeing actual, human-controlled players faffing about below your ascendant perch in the heavens is rather neat. I relished going through the options presented to me: deciding which structures to build; expanding the organic alien territory through its cysts and fauna; choosing which team-wide abilities to focus on; etc. While it was quite novel for me, I recognized enough depth, both through fiddling with things and from Cleveland’s explanations of all the systems at play

Currently, Natural Selection 2 is running anywhere from 5-on-5 to 10-on-10 matches, though even larger battles may come down the line. While the levels are large enough to give use to the RTS mode, the RTS accommodations take up plenty of space, along with the aliens and humans running about.

Given that both sides will frequently end up converging on certain points of interest, gameplay shouldn’t see too much downtime. I’m pretty sold on what Natural Selection 2 is doing. It has an intriguing gameplay premise with aliens that play well. Now I just need to pray my incompetent computer will run it. And maybe convince some friends to ravage humanity with me.

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