Review: NATURAL SELECTION 2 has made the jump from a third-party modification to a fully independent project. Is it a successful giant leap or should it be dismissed as a small step?
How many first-person shooters can you think of that incorporate the standoff set piece? You know the one. It’s you in a defilade against a horde of attackers, and you have to hold out until the game is scripted to send help or make them stop coming. It’s tense but ultimately static and predictable.
Not so in Natural Selection 2. Desperately defending your last stretch of corridor without being sure when help is coming or whether the onslaught will even let up, it’s a scenario that often comes up organically and is much more rewarding for it.
Of course, one might argue that this dynamic unpredictability is the virtue of any multiplayer game. But Natural Selection 2 has got a style all of its own. To those who played the original Half-Life mod some ten years ago, it will feel instantly familiar. And those coming at it with fresh eyes will find an experience that may be overwhelming at first, but is well worth the pursuit.
Natural Selection 2 still pits a team of marines against an alien menace known as the Kharaa, with each side certain that it’s the other encroaching on their territory. The marines start out with a command module that allows one player to assume the role of battlefield commander (more on that later), while the Kharaa have a single hive to call their own.
If you build it, they will come
Each side builds structures from that starting point, collecting resources and gaining ground along the way. Those resources allow better equipment for the marines and gestation cycles for the Kharaa, besides more general upgrades attuned to each side. Victory ensues when the opposing team has no ground left.
That’s the overarching framework and Natural Selection 2 ensures you never lose sight of it – especially when you’ve got your boots (or talons) on the ground and you might be worried more about your own survival than anything else. You’ll quickly learn that death can come fast, hard and from that overhead vent you missed earlier.
I cannot stress how tense this game is when you’re playing as a marine. You catch yourself trying to find the best angle to build a structure while still keeping an eye on your surroundings, but you know a Skulk might be behind you – right now! It’s the visual way in which the alien presence manifests itself that truly shines.
Through a process known as ‘infestation’, territory claimed by the Kharaa is overtaken by a coat of slime that slowly expands. A pristine hallway you walked through earlier might be covered in green alien pus the next time you pass it. It’s a brilliant visual indicator that tells you how far the alien influence is spreading.
Playing as the Kharaa can take some acclimation. Making a beeline for the nearest marine is a sure way to get killed when you’re playing as a Skulk. You must use the beast’s wall-crawling ability instead to ambush them. Flying around as a Lerk means figuring out a good wing beating rhythm for navigation. And I hope you’ve played lots of Dishonored, because a Fade can blink all over the map.