RTS and FPS come together in Natural Selection 2

Of all my time doing previews for Destructoid, I’ve never actually had the privilege of visiting an indie studio. I’m so used to walking into the giant offices of Electronic Arts or Activision that when I stepped foot into Unknown Worlds Entertainment offices in San Francisco, I actually felt like I was in the wrong place.

Their office is just one large room where the small team can easily see and speak to one another, a sharp contrast to the sea of cubicles with people glued to whatever project they’re crunching on that I normally see. At the head of this team is Charlie Cleveland, and I must say, I’ve never been greeted with such intensity before.

Charlie, along with the rest of the team, is a man who loves what he is doing and he’s putting his heart and soul into Natural Selection 2. He spoke to me with such passion about his game that, again, was the complete opposite to what I’m really used to when covering games.

Natural Selection 2 (PC)
Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
To be released: Early 2011

The original Natural Selection was released in 2002 as a free mod based on Half-Life that mixed together the first-person shooter and real-time strategy genres. To give you a sense of how passionate Charlie is, he worked on the mod by himself for 18 months before it was finally released. The original was really popular with the mod crowd back then, up there with the likes of Counter-Strike.

The success of the first game led Charlie Cleveland to start work on a commercial sequel and form Unknown Worlds Entertainment. Shortly after the studio was created, Charlie hired his first employee, Max McGuire, the studios Technical Director. Since then the team has steadily increased in size during the development of Natural Selection 2.

NS2 started life on the Source engine, but after about a year of development, the company threw it all out. The Source engine wasn’t capable of doing what the team needed it to do for their vision so Unknown Worlds went ahead and created their own engine called Spark. The team also created Decoda, a commercial debugger for the Lua programming language which has been sold to companies such as Electronic Arts and Lucas Arts.

As this company started as a mod, the Spark engine is completely open source and fans can “mod the crap out of the game” as Charlie told me. The community is important to the dev team and they have big plans for featuring their audience’s work.

On to the game itself: Natural Selection 2 is a 32-player multiplayer-only game that continues the FPS meets RTS mashup from the first game. Everyone starts off from the first-person shooter perspective and at any point, one or more players can take on the role of the Commander, either on the human or alien side. Once a player becomes the Commander, the view changes to a top-down perspective and it’s the leaders job to create structures and research upgrades and weapons in order to help their team survive.

The most important thing a Commander can do is place down an Extractor (Marine) or Harvester (Aliens) at special locations in the map in order to pump resources into the economy. Every 12 seconds, the Extractor pumps out one point for the Commander and one point for each member of the team. The Commander will use the money to create structures and the team will use the points to purchase weapons and upgrades.

On the Marine side, the Commander needs to place down structures such as the Armory. Once this is placed, the Commander then needs to research different weapons and upgrades so the rest of the team can utilize better weapons. Commanders can also place down sentry turrets, create a little robot that will help build and repair structures and throw down ammo and health for players as they engage the aliens.

On the alien side, the Commander’s role is more about putting various defensive structures such as tentacles that act as defensive whips and other structures around their base for protection. The Aliens also need to use Harvesters to gain resources in order to build structures and to unlock different alien breeds that players can evolve into.

It’s important for both sides to expand their bases into other areas of the map in order to unlock better weapons and abilities. For instance, once the Marines have built a second base on the map, they’ll be able to make use of a new weapon such as the grenade launcher. Unknown is still toying with the idea, but there is a chance that players will lose access to upgraded weapons if the base that unlocked it in the first place is destroyed.

One way for the aliens to really mess up the Marine side is by destroying the various Power Nodes scattered across the levels. These Power Nodes power the Marine structures and if they’re destroyed, the Marine structures tied to that specific grid will shut down.

Now let’s focus on the FPS side of things. Marines are pretty much what you would expect in any FPS. They start off with the standard pistol, assault rifle and an axe. Later on, they will be able to make use of a Grenade Launcher attachment for their ARs, flamethrowers and shotguns. Marines will also be able to make use of an exoskeleton suit mech that can be equipped with either a mini-gun, plasma rifle or a claw.

The aliens are easily my favorite race to play as as each one is completely different from the other. Players begin as the Skulk, a speedy little wall-running dog-like monster thing. The Skulk has a bite attack, a leap attack, and the ability to mark Marines with a projectile. Wall-running is very fluid in that the world doesn’t change perspective based on where your Skulk is so that dizzying effect you get from something like Aliens Vs Predators doesn’t occur. Also, players view the world from within the Skulk’s throat so every time the Skulk bites you see his mouth close down on your screen.

At any point, and so long as the resources permit, players can evolve into a different alien. Evolving reverts the player into an egg, so you’ll want to be careful where you decide to evolve at on the map. Players can evolve into a cute pig-like creature called the Gorge which acts as a healer/builder, the Lerk which can fly and has a sniping attack, the Onos, a giant behemoth creature that can smash through doors or my personal favorite, the Fade.

The Fade is basically the most badass thing I’ve ever played as in a FPS. The Fade’s main ability is that he can teleport around like Nighcrawler from the X-Men. Players will see a projection of the Fade ahead of themselves indicating where the Fade will reappear after he teleports. A team of two really coordinated Fade players can really shred a team apart. They can teleport into a room, attack with their scythe-like arms, and then vanish all in a blink of an eye.

Aliens also all have an ability called “Hive Sight” where they can see any other alien player through the walls. If an alien has an enemy in their sights then all of the other aliens will see the human target too, no matter where on the map they’re at.

During my actual playtime with the game, I found myself leaning towards the first-person shooter stuff more than the RTS elements. I’m not really a RTS player, but that’s the beauty of this game. Someone else that loves strategy stuff can take care of that while I go around destroying people as the Fade. If it really comes down to it, I can see myself messing with the RTS elements until a player appears that would want to takeover. The transition between the two play styles is seamless.

I only played a couple of matches, but what I got to experience was a lot of fun. I need to play more, especially with the RTS aspect, but I definitely left the Unknown World offices impressed.

Natural Selection 2 should be out through Steam sometime early this year and is going for $35. Purchasing the game now will let you into the closed beta with the over 19,000 players currently active in it. Once the game is released, don’t expect Unknown Worlds to just take a hike either.

The team plans to continue work on the game and release free updates and patches in the same style Valve does it with Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2. Unknown is also looking into releasing a Mac and Xbox 360 version of Natural Selection 2 down the line.

Hamza Aziz