At first glance Natural Selection 2 doesn’t seem to offer many options. The four maps, two races, and the option to play as either Soldier or Commander are the building blocks that make up Natural Selection 2. Considering the lack of a single-player option the limitation to online team deathmatch does leave a sparse impression. Despite this surface and superficial glance, once the available options are delved into there exists a wide variety of play-style options and nuanced mechanics to be playable by almost any kind of player. Especially in these times when the shooter genre dominates the video game market it’s important for developers to create unique products to stand above the rest. For Unknown Worlds the ability to expand upon their existing Natural Selection property, and add upon what was learned before places them with an advantage from many other developers.
The four maps – Tram, Mineshaft, Summit and Refinery – might be a limited selection, but each is rendered with completely unique layouts and strategic considerations. One my offer more circular area with a central location while another offers a more spider-web design with branching paths. Mineshaft in particular includes plenty of higher ground and intersections that could be useful to attackers and defenders.
In Natural Selection 2 each map features central locations to capture, usually centered around energy points that are used to accrue credits. These credits can be used by the player in the Commander position to build structures, research new abilities or technology, and to help soldier units in the field with supply drops. Soldiers gain their own form of credits by accomplishing goals. These goals can be as simple as killing enemy units, but unless the enemy unit is particularly strong the rewards for these are actually lower than community bonuses. Community bonuses are those gained by helping build structures, healing fellow soldiers, or those which the Commander has requested assistance.
The Commander position can be filled by any player, though only one can be in this position at a time. When in this view Natural Selection 2 takes on what many would identify as the key feature with a huge twist. The view takes on a top-down perspective, and the game acts more like a Real-Time Strategy (RTS). Like other RTS, the Commander can lay down structures, such as weapon depots or tentacle walls, depending on the team. Unlike traditional RTS games, the Commander can not directly lead the soldiers in Natural Selection 2, instead they can encourage other players to complete objectives. These objects reward the other players but are not required.
Transition into and out of the Commander position is seamless. You go right into the Soldier position leaving the Command open to someone else. When in the Soldier position the view takes on a primarily first-person shooter (FPS) view. Depending on the race and the play types though, the experience can be very different.
In Natural Selection 2 playing as the Marines offers the most standard FPS point-of-view and game-play. Structures are powered by being located within a radius of Power Nodes, which can only be placed in certain locations so they become a strategic resource as well as the Extractors which garner credits used to purchase new structures. As with most RTS games there is an order and logic to structures to be built. Certain buildings offer different benefits, which the limited resources and space make choosing which to build a balancing act of cost and benefits. The Marines are capable of building mechanic drones to help in some of the building and repair, as well as automated turrets to help defend a location. However, these take time and money which might be better spent upgrading the players.
Everyone on the Marines team starts as a standard Marine and through purchasable upgrades. Remember those personal credits? They can be customized to their desired role or the needs of the team. The cheapest upgrade is a welding gun. While everyone can help build structures, the welding gun allows them to help finish a structure faster and heal damaged structures and other players in Natural Selection 2. When multiple people concentrate on building one object the rate increases accordingly.
Other upgrades include weapons such as shotguns or flamethrowers, all the way up to a mechanized suit of armor that makes the player a walking tank. Other upgrades, like armor and unlocking the more powerful weapons, rely on the Commander to research them. As each weapon is better suited to certain threats and the costs limit their purchase, determining the best use of credits can be very important.
The Alien team shares the concepts of Commander and Soldiers, but have their twist that make them very different to play. The Commander still sees in a top-down RTS and lays the structures, but the Aliens take on a much more organic approach. They can only build on the fungus that creeps from cysts which the Commander lays down. Instead of new weapons, evolutionary enhancements are researched.
Each Alien creature in Natural Selection 2 serves a different purpose. The basic unit is weak, but fast and can access many of the air vents or small tunnels to move quickly around the map. Their attacks are simple bites, though upgrades can allow for more armor or even stealth camouflage to help improve the odds. More advanced units take more personal credits, but offer different abilities. There are flying units that move swiftly and can shoot attacks from a distance. There are also larger creatures that resemble rhinoceros that act like tanks, stampeding over the opposition.
What really stands out when playing as the Aliens is the point-of-view. Natural Selection 2 takes a new approach, but one that makes sense. It just takes a bit to get used to. Since the Aliens generally attack with melee attacks, and these are bites, the best view to judge depth was from within the mouth. That’s right, the view for most of the Aliens is from within the creatures mouth, jaws, teeth, and all. This combined with the more specialized approach make the Aliens feel completely different from the Marines, while movement and actions are familiar.
Since each team has a wide variety of abilities and options, what makes the difference between winning and losing in Natural Selection 2 comes down to teamwork. It can be immediately apparent when playing a opponent that is not working together, or conversely when yours isn’t. There are options in the lobby when choosing the server to play on if it is “new player friendly” or not. The chat of new players also shows up in green rather than the typical white, allowing teammates to know when they have someone who might need more guidance.
While playing there were differing level of acceptance, from being walked hand-in-hand to a more laissez faire attitude. The caliber of Commander could be told by the level of communication and the ability to use everyone. Even as a novice to Natural Selection 2 there were times when a Commander would give assignments that gave support to the team while giving breathing room to learn the mechanics. This allowed for time to learn the rules and how best to serve the team, because it soon became apparent Natural Selection 2 would not reward one-man-army mentality. Anyone who ran off on their own was quickly eliminated.
This acceptance and patience of these new player rooms is especially important as Natural Selection 2 lacks a tutorial. Instead of any in-game tutorial, there are simply a set of instructional videos that look like someone simply did a playthrough. There is a free-roaming option that allows you to go around any map, and even try out the Commander position in a sterile environment alone or with friends. While this is useful, it’s no substitute for a tutorial, as the concepts and mechanics can make Natural Selection 2 very hard for newcomers. This is especially true for the Aliens.
The dichotic gameplay mechanics of the two teams make both feel advantageous and suited to various gaming styles. Despite initial appearance of limited options, it turns out that the four maps and two races are more than enough for a full game thanks to the care taken to differentiate each level of experience within Natural Selection 2. It is also important to note, as an online only game, as there was only one instance of lag after over eight hours of play-time which was fixed with a refresh.
There will no doubt be contention as to which race offers better tactics, abilities, or strategies, but that’s the beauty of it– both teams have the advantage. To say they both have an advantage is not the same as saying they are equal.
Players from both teams can technically complete parallel objectives. Both offensive and defensive strategies can be applicable and carried out in relatively similar fashions. It’s the execution of strategy that will determine the victors.
It is the coordination and camaraderie of the teams that in most cases gave the advantage to one team over the other. Despite the lack of instructions and the severely limited guidance, it was the instinctual camaraderie and team work that made Natural Selection 2 worth playing. Once you get past the sizable barrier-to-entry and find your place, no matter what position, the sense of accomplishment and contribution from Natural Selection 2 are almost immediate, even when on the losing end.
Looking for more Marine vs. Alien Action like Natural Selection 2? Check out the “Kick Ass” Trailer for Aliens: Colonial Marines.