Natural Selection 2 is stubbornness; it is bull-headed devotion to a single idea; it is passion personified and everything in-between. The original Half-Life mod released a decade ago and despite the innovation it brought to the FPS genre we’ve seen very little like it in the years since: which is pretty rare in an industry so reliant on the borrowing of great ideas. Natural Selection introduced asymmetrical multiplayer, blended RTS into FPS and introduced an element of horror never before seen in online FPS gaming, and this new sequel doesn’t stray from that original idea even slightly: Unknown Worlds is nothing if not determined.
So to look at Natural Selection 2 it’d be fair to think it’s nothing more than a HD remake, a graphical overhaul that keeps the game looking modern but the underlying mechanics largely the same. In many ways that is true: the objectives are still the same and each of the original innovations are present and correct, almost unchanged from the original mod. But then this isn’t a mod, this is a full standalone release and though it doesn’t appear to break any new ground, that is purely because it is preceded only by itself. No one has attempted to mimic Natural Selection in its ten years of absence, and that’s something worth cherishing.
The idea is simple: humans (or Marines, to use their in-game title) battle aliens on a series of different maps. But this isn’t simply another deathmatch; there’s only one mode, with both teams beginning with a starting base that must be defended from attackers and vice versa.
Each map is a sprawling maze of space station corridors connecting individual named rooms. Your objective is to vie for control over these rooms – whether aliens or marines – to ensure your team receives a steady dose of resources. This’ll earn you additional options for your team, gradually increasing your overall strength and, hopefully, reward you with the final push on the last base.
How you navigate the map depends on the faction you choose to side with. Aliens, for example, can scurry along walls and through vents to quickly pass through the map or claim an advantage on an overwhelming force of marines. Their benefit is their speed, while additional abilities let them see in the dark or switch to a unique view that helps track allies and enemies – even through walls. And the marines? They’re a little more simple: aided through research, it’s up to each player to pick and choose their weapon to use against the alien swarms, beginning with assault rifles then through to shotguns, flamethrowers and, eventually, mech suits.
Yet while it is the asymmetrical gameplay that is the USP of Natural Selection 2, it’s the commanders that make it work. This is where the RTS elements come in, producing a top-down view of the map to issue commands, utilise abilities and build structures. Each faction differs in how they command too, with the marines issuing build orders for the boots on the ground to action while the aliens must spread its infestation through the environment with a chain of cysts in a fashion similar to Warcraft 3′s Undead Plague.
Stepping into the commander’s seat is an unnerving task, however, one made tougher by the endless trolls just waiting for a single slip-up from a newcomer to the hot seat. It bundles in team management and unit progression into one role, and knowing what is involved is of primary importance. Unfortunately there’s no safe place to practice this task without risking the ire of your team-mates, and the included videos explaining the role aren’t tantamount to the experience of a single match. This is one of the downsides to this sequel: the original Natural Selection suffered from the same aggressive critics that plague the game now, a problem that is admittedly endemic of the importance of this role. Without a good commander – and the upgrades and rewards that come with it – your team will be weakened, ripe for the taking when the opposing team rolls in, giving the rest of the players an easy scapegoat to blame if you fail to life up to the task.
But when it all works, when it all comes together, Natural Selection 2 provides a very unique brand of FPS multiplayer game. Aliens can evolve to different forms, unlocking various abilities and adapting their playstyle dramatically. Marines bunch up together, building structures symbiotically with the commander while combining their firepower to bring down the more powerful alien evolutionary forms. It’s a system reliant on teamwork, and there are few games that can match it in that regard, making each success feels hard won.
It’s a shame then that, even now, Natural Selection 2 is failing to receive any of the excitement it deserves. Perhaps it’s a problem with the overwhelming nature of the game – again, all the more reason to include an offline or private match set up for those wishing to train before jumping headlong into the swarm – but we found a surprising amount of empty servers throughout our time with Natural Selection 2. We’re not worried for the game’s future, there will always be a diehard community here just as was the case with the original too, but it is a very valid concern that Unknown Worlds needs to address.
So all in all it’s probably best not to think of Natural Selection 2 as a reinvention and, in fact, more of a distillation. It’s taken years and so little seems to have changed; but instead of sweeping changes and overhauled systems, it is now far more balanced, playable and worthy of a paid release than anything we ever saw with the mod. The fact remains that Natural Selection 2 is just as unique and innovative as the original ever was, and now’s the time to get involved. There’s something special here, you just need to look underneath all the copies of Call Of Duty to find it.