Natural Selection 2 Preview (PC)

Stepping into Natural Selection 2 for the first time, I’m greeted by the voice of a man with a heavy German accent. Barking orders with an air of authority, he carries himself in a way that begets any great leader. His controlling tone may have been immediately apparent, but his commands were incomprehensible to my newborn ears: he may have been talking in English, but for all the jargon he was using, it might as well have been Alien.

I’m a marine, and this is the first indication that having fun in Natural Selection 2 requires you to be deadly serious. Six deaths and zero kills later, he picked me out by name, giving me a specific order and telling me to stop running in the wrong direction (I maintain I was simply taking the long way round to the right direction). Like any good soldier, my immediate reaction was panic, quitting the game and deciding I’d return once I’d got the basics down in the training mode I’d spotted earlier.

Live together; die alone

Unfortunately, training mode hasn’t quite embraced the learn-as-you-play approach that is the norm in recent years, instead giving you what is essentially a lengthy, modern-day manual. You’re presented with a list of YouTube videos, and you’re expected to trawl through them before you start playing the game. You don’t need to watch them all, but eventually you will, and it’s a dull and lazy way of introducing new players.

Despite the lack of well developed support here, developer Unknown Worlds does get other things that are external to the brunt of the game right. The quick join function of matchmaking isn’t brilliant, often dumping you in matches that are populated by just one other player, but that’s not a massive problem when you can easily browse through games to play in the lobby.

They’ve also been very appreciative of the community that surrounds the game and their roots: the original Natural Selection was a Half-Life mod, and they’re keen to support the modding scene as much as they can now that they’re in full control. They’ve also listened to plenty of feedback throughout development, and when the full game launches next month, it’ll be a far cry from what it was when it first entered beta stages.

The man scaring me in my first match was the Commander, an integral part of the FPS/RTS hybrid approach that Natural Selection 2 takes. While ordinary troops and aliens do battle on the ground, as is the custom in most shooters, the commander watches over the battlefield, planning assaults, researching better upgrades, and building bases, much like in any other RTS.

A good or bad commander can be the difference between winning or losing, which is why the shouty-man was taking things so seriously – Natural Selection 2 is about survival of the fittest, and nobody wants to end up an evolutionary loser. It’s extremely intimidating at first, but after playing a few games with more laid back commanders and less intensity, I started getting to grips with things.

It’s teeth, Jim, but not as we know it

Playing the hero is pointless, especially if you’re a marine. Charging in with my rifle at the ready, I quickly found myself surrounded by what felt like a number of aliens all gnashing at my heels. It turned out to be just a single alien, jumping from wall-to-ceiling-to-floor-to-wall, my haze of bullets not getting close to its sporadic movements. Without any squad mates to help, I was an easy target.

When you’re armed with just a rifle it feels difficult, but you’ll soon pick up enough points to upgrade, providing your commander has been doing their job. A range of weapons and armour becomes available, including Flamethrowers, evening the score. Eventually you’ll even get access to an Exosuit – a high-powered mech-suit with mini-gun built in, allowing you to reek destruction on the alien horde.

Aliens progress in much the same way – biologically rather than technologically, though. The progression on this side is more interesting, if only because playing as extra-terrestrial lifeforms is a much rarer experience than playing a gun-wielding soldier. The early aliens can run up walls, but you’ll soon find yourself fading in and out of reality, swooping through the skies, and soaking up bullets like the first link in your evolutionary chain was living sponge.

Aliens are a lot less threatening when your arms are made out of mini-guns

From my perspective the game was perfectly balanced: my ability to transform from a living entity to a dead one was equal no matter which team I was playing on. A quick glance at the scoreboards proved that it wasn’t just me, as aliens and marines often seemed matched. Balancing a game where the two teams are so very different is no easy feat, and Unknown Worlds seem to have got it spot on, and they’ve still got time to tweak things further should they need to.

If you don’t like losing, or think games shouldn’t be taken too seriously, stay well away from Natural Selection 2 when the game hits PC in October 2012. The steep learning curve means you’ve got to be blessed with patience at first, carrying the guilt of letting your team down again and again until you’ve got the hang of things. Once you reach that moment of enlightenment, though, you really feel like you’re involved in something special, playing as a team and listening to tactics not because you’re encouraged to or because it’s suggested that’s how you play, but because that’s the only way you’re going to survive.

Most Anticipated Element: Seeing Natural Selection 2 get its own ‘Natural Selection’ when the mod community takes this already great game somewhere new.


By Gale47 (SI Core) on Sep 07, 2012
This thing looks really great. I remember this was bundled with Overgrowth a couple of years ago.
Too bad Overgrowth didn't reach this level of development yet, though.