Natural Selection 2, released by Bay Area game developer Unknown Worlds at the end of October, is a first person shooter wrapped in a real-time strategy game with an online multiplayer backbone. In the game, two teams -- one alien, one human -- fight to gain ground and military assets. Whether you play on a squad of elite marines or as one of the Kharaa alien hive, you have to work together and learn to use your team's unique strategies and abilities to overcome the opposing force and win the game.
Most games of this kind pit roughly similar enemies against each other on the battlefield, with roughly similar styles of play, not so Natural Selection 2. The human combat functions much like the in Halo, fairly standard point and shoot, with the added fun of exo-suits, gun upgrades and on-the-fly repair abilities. The aliens, on the other hand, can't shoot at all, but are incredibly fast and, once in close range, deliver eviscerating melee attacks. The aliens can cling to the ceiling, attack through ventilation systems and some can even fly.
But that's not all. One player plays as the Commander on each team. This person is playing a very different game from the rest of the team. Locked inside a command station, the Commander gets a top down, classic, real-time strategy view, of the battlefield. Commanders have to juggle troop deployments and orders, resource management, healing and ammo dumps, and even constructing and deploying units for direct intervention. Games hinge on the Commander's ability to effectively coordinate all the other players on his/her team and to adapt to changes as the game progresses. One of the most fascinating parts of this game is the relationship between the Commander and the troops. While it is in the best interest of the troops to follow orders, which allows them to receive upgrades from the Commander, they may disagree with how the game is being run. Communication between the two becomes paramount.
Team-based player vs player combat, commonly referred to as pvp, is certainly not new to games but Natural Selection 2 manages to require teamwork on a level most games have never come close to achieving. This game is not for players looking to push their gamer tag to the top of the scoreboard. Without real and efficient teamwork and the ability to communicate effectively, the other side can easily win a game in under three minutes.
The Russian Doll effect of inter-stacking completely different styles of play (fps, rts and pvp mmo) could easily fall either flat or become incomprehensible if the three portions of the game weren't so well executed. The sheer intricacy of balancing the two sides is a feat to be lauded, with neither side feeling over or under-powered. It adds up to gameplay mechanics that feel very unique for each side and, when combined in the heat of battle, offer fun and dynamic challenges for each player. The sheer roiling complexity of it makes even Starcraft, a famously difficult game to master and on which Natural Selection 2 is clearly based, pale by comparison.
This alien vs. human battle royale takes place in a sci-fi future full of human outposts and alien enclaves. The environments, military bases on alien worlds, are beautifully rendered with rich, dirty detail and creeping alien scum. The characters, both alien and human, look satisfyingly real and gritty and sync up well with their surroundings even when the screen is crammed with passing bullets, the bright glare of a welding torch touching up a nearby exo-suit and the ever growing green slime that means the aliens are near. The interface fades quickly into the pulsing action and you are just there with Marines pressing down on you from all sides, hoping against hope your alien infestation will hold out just a bit longer. It is breakneck and hard and amazing to play.
Surprisingly one of the game's best achievements is the supportive and helpful community. Natural Selection 2 lacks the harsh insulting fervor typical to many multiplayer games, which may be because the game is indie, or because of the collaborative nature of the game play or maybe even just the simple color coding for new players. If you like the idea of playing chess, but with a team of pieces that all have their own ideas how to win, Natural Selection 2 is the game for you. But the beauty of the game is that not everyone playing has to be a Commander. Rather be on the battlefield fighting it out face to face, tooth and claw to bloody bullet? The teams needs you as well. The game is beautiful, so intensely nuanced as to be baffling, and a wonder of ingenuity. I, for one, will definitely be going back for more.