Natural Selection 2 is the Sci-Fi update of the classic “On the Origin of the Species” by Charles Darwin. In this modern revisitation of the 1859 work you are a member of a space faring science team charged with peacefully documenting life outside the earth’s atmosphere in all its myriad of forms. You may also play the inquisitive alien species as they interact with human beings for the first time. Watch as these two disparate life forms come together to create a bridge of understanding in the spirit of inter-galactic harmony and discover together the wonders of evolutionary biology. Well, that would be the case if it wasn’t for the commanders telling everyone to kill each other.
Natural Selection 2 is actually a team based multiplayer shooter (updated from the 2002 Half Life mod) which pits Frontiersmen against Khaara in man’s eternal struggle to eradicate anything weird and slimy. Alternatively you may play the weird and slimy alien Khaara who enjoy nothing more than covering all the walls in green slop, the floors in giant pimples, and biting the heads off humans who try to clean it all up. The brilliant addition to the team multiplayer format that ties it all together is the commander role. One player on each side may jump into the commander’s seat to be given an overhead view of the map. From there they can send orders to the other players, provide them with health and ammunition, decide what to build and where, and research new upgrades for use in the field. It’s this aspect of the game that sees Natural Selection 2 evolving from another bout of simple team deathmatch to a much more robust, intelligent and engrossing beast.
What’s fascinating and utterly refreshing about Natural Selection 2 is that by adding a commander, players of Natural Selection 2 actually act is if they are on a team (rather than what is essentially the chaos exhibited in most team shooters) . Overwhelmingly in the games I played players would take directions from their commander, completing his build orders and putting the pressure on the areas requested, as well as communicating back and forth about what the best course of action would be to annihilate the other team. Not only does this happen naturally, it’s also absolutely essential for players to do so as an unorganized team will have their command centre wiped out promptly. When playing the commander, the game becomes essentially an RTS, but with units capable of independent thought. Sometimes you might just need to do a little convincing when you send a unit on what is clearly a suicide run, or be prepared to justify why you researched jet packs before grenade launchers.
Playing the non-commanding cannon fodder is very akin to playing a multiplayer shooter heavily influenced by Alien versus Predator…erm minus the Predator. Non upgraded or evolved starting units can deal out a decent bit of damage but are fragile, only taking a couple of shots or bites to go down. The Khaara’s Skulk can scuttle up and down walls and into ducts, while the Frontiersmen have the obvious advantage of ranged weaponry. Even at the start of the match encounters are deadly and tense and things only ramp up with evolution and upgrades on either side. Don’t expect everyone to be running around as Onos (a heavily armored gorilla/rhino) and Exos (a mechsuit) come end game though as the resources used to upgrade are always relatively scarce and this encourages people to take care and think before aforementioned suicide runs. There is a constant sense of danger as you run through Natural Selection 2’s corridors which makes the overseeing commander all the more important and integral to the game.
Natural Selection 2 benefits from it’s pretty impressive presentation. It’s a nice looking game and this goes a long way into the creation of the game’s oppressive atmosphere. I’ve not played many multiplayer shooters where I actually got shocked by an enemy jumping out of an air duct or constantly stopped my turret building to shoot a glance at all the entrances and dark corners of a room. Sound also plays a big role and you will learn to hate the noise of a Skulks claws on metal grating or, heaven forbid, an Onos charging down a hallway. What’s great is all this audio-visual splendor isn’t wasted by people acting like twats, with a good commander in charge on either team the game is exhilarating. The game runs on Unknown Worlds own Spark engine and while it looks great I think it suffers from some optimization issues as I was unable to play smoothly on my decently beefy PC without turning off the shadows and a couple of the other bells and whistles.
But when there is a good commander on either side and decent players backing them up, games can go on for quite a while. Without a daring push from either side, stale-matey conditions can occur so be prepared for long match. Single matches lasting for an hour aren’t uncommon and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing it makes the game slightly prohibitive for those of whom time is scarce. This is a serious game and you won’t get much enjoyment out of short sessions where you can phase out a little and take it easy, expect to give the game your full attention for the long haul.
Amazingly Natural Selection 2 manages to maintain its tone of sci-fi horror when most multiplayer shooters devolve into a weird combination of individual competitiveness and silliness. The addition of the Commander with the game’s atmospheric presentation allow this game to evolve into a whole new species of multiplayer shooter a cut above the rest. Naturally, I’m selecting 4/5 stars for this game’s contribution to science.