Online team games are a double-edged sword. Because there’s nothing like the feeling of working as part of a well-oiled machine, assaulting an enemy fortification and feeling properly leet. But on the other hand, when Johnny Smacktard joins your squad and bimbles around randomly, haemorrhaging tickets and causing your team score to plummet, it can cause some mild annoyance. To say the least.
All of which means if you’re a newcomer to a complex team game, and you’re trying to work out the nuances, or even the basics, while your teammates scream abuse at you over the voice chat, it can be pretty daunting. So let me give you a gentle warning: Natural Selection 2 is just such a team game. HOWEVER, for a couple of reasons, it’s blessedly devoid of this usual rage.
Natural Selection 1 was a Half-life mod way back in the day that broke new ground by adding a RTS commander element to a team shooter. Since then, there have been a handful of other games to try this same arrangement, such as Savage 2 and Nuclear Dawn. On the surface, it’s a basic setup – marines versus aliens. As we know from every videogame ever, these guys rarely get along (now THAT would be a novel game. Aliens versus Marines: Reconciliation). In Natural Selection 2, the two sides have radically different play styles, and it is this that really sets the game apart.
We’re not just talking a couple of different weapons, here. It’s a completely different style of play, and as soon as you start comparing the two sides the biggest difference jumps out at you. Play as the aliens and the commander is pretty busy. He needs to plant cysts that spread green alien goo over everything, that in turn allow him to claim important strategic points (and to make the whole map look a bit gross). Meanwhile, the other alien players are usually left to their own devices, to hassle the marines and generally zoom around causing mayhem. On the other hand, play as a marine and your commander will be screaming at you constantly. See, he needs the grunts to build the structures he needs to gather resources, and the knock-on of this is that he needs you to get over to certain places quickly to defend the stuff he’s spent his time building. So when you might not even know who your commander is on the alien side (other than the inexorable spread of the alien influence), you sure will as a marine, because he’ll be bellowing at you like Sergeant Apone.
This is far from the only difference. The standard alien form, the Skulk, is all about melee. He can dash up walls, and hang about waiting for an unsuspecting marine to pass underneath, then drop down and introduce his teeth to the delicious taste of human flesh. Which is a pretty specialised approach for your standard build. Marines are just guys with assault rifles, and they play in a much more traditional FPS style, moving around the map and trying to secure whatever area your commander is yelling for you to secure. Maps have been created in a pretty open-plan way, usually with a couple of ways into any of the important rooms. Add to that a bunch of air vents that are easily accessible by the wall-crawling aliens and you never quite know where the next threat is coming from.
Ok, let’s skip to the end. It works. Sure, it’s not perfect; the graphics engine isn’t stellar (particularly when you’re in spectator view and the scenery becomes a confusing jumble of wafer-thin weirdness) and there is nothing resembling a persistent upgrade system that follows you from game to game (although whether this is a pro or a con is a matter of taste). There is a steep learning curve for newbies. But the actions of one determined squad can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and that can occasionally offer respite from the drawn-out endings that team games like this often suffer from. The hopeless wanderings of one little lost newbie isn’t really enough to lose the match for a team, and as long as they’re trying to kill the enemy they can’t really go far wrong. There are no tickets, so dying over and over again (as you probably will when you first start out) isn’t a massive problem.
Both sides have a number of upgrade options, in the same asymmetrical vein. Humans get better weapons, armour and equipment whereas the aliens can evolve into new lifeforms. The end game usually sees a couple of human warriors in powerful armoured exosuits, dual-wielding miniguns, and the odd Onos, a rampaging alien rhino that can tear into marines and structures alike under heavy fire. There are loads of tactical options, for both commanders and grunts – for instance, an alien in amongst a marine outpost might choose to take out the power before destroying the rest of the equipment, resulting in all the lights going out and the alien (with his predator-style vision mode) remaining efficient. Or the phase gates, which the marine team can build, which allow rapid transit around the map, but in sequence, so if there are more than two of these mini-teleporters you need to keep popping in and out until you get where you’re going, which can be confusing for noobs, particularly if the aliens take one out and mess up the sequence.
My first impressions of Natural Selection2 were poor. It’s not the most beautiful game, and combat can feel scrappy and confusing. As a newbie it’s not always obvious what you’re supposed to be doing or where you should be going. But over time, a cleverly-designed game began to emerge. Some clear playable tutorials might have been a good idea, the server lists are a little buggy and games can take an age to load. Long-time fans of the original game won’t care though – Natural Selection 2 was obviously made with love.