If you're a fan of online, competitive, team-based First-Person Shooter games but you've become a little bored with the oversaturation of the same basic formulas, Natural Selection 2 from Unknown Worlds Entertainment might be a welcome change of pace for you. Even more so if you're a fan of Sci-Fi, and the Alien Quadrilogy in particular. Natural Selection 2's aliens, the Kharaa, are not exactly xenomorphs, but the overall atmosphere seems heavily inspired by those films. And I mean that in the best possible way. Playing as a Marine, you feel like you're clearing out the colony on LV-426. On the Kharaa side, you spend much of your time creeping around, trying to catch Marines out of position, and feeling very xenomorphy.
Hybridizing FPS & RTS
The Real-Time Strategy elements add another, unique aspect to the experience. If you ever played the original Natural Selection (a Half-Life mod), or the recent online FPS/RTS hybrid Nuclear Dawn, the theory is basically the same. One member of your team takes the role of Commander, directing the flow of battle, building structures, and researching upgrades for your team to make use of. For example, a Marine commander can up his soldiers' armor and weapons, and eventually provide jetpacks and hulking, Avatar-style exosuits loaded with gatling guns. On the Kharaa, the Commander researches abilities for the different alien forms, and ubiquitous skills which allow each player to customize their little monster based on their playstyle. For instance, one they're both researched you can choose between Celerity to move faster, or Adrenaline to increase your energy pool for extended ability use, but not both. It probably goes without saying that your Commander can make or break any given round.
Marines in the Dark
On the Marine side, you will frequently find yourself in pitch black rooms with nothing but a flashlight--and maybe a few more erratic flashlight beams from your freaked-the-hell-out teammates--to light your way. Then a skittering form creeps along the wall just outside your beam, but you lose it and its gone. You call out to your teammates, “We're not alone in here,” and all hell breaks loose. A pack of quadrupedal, zergling-like Skulks drop off the ceiling, they start biting at your ankles and scurrying around faster than you can track; a pterodactyl-esque flying Lerk swoops through the room dropping poisonous gas on you and your squad. You try to fall back, but when you turn to flee, a bipedal Fade with blades for arms appears out of a cloud of mist and cuts down your last remaining squadmate. The last thing you see is an elephant-sized Onos charging toward you.
“That's it! Game over, man! Game over!”
Hopefully you can use your imagination to see that scenario from the other side, too. (The Kharaa have a toggle to switch between normal and a pseudo-infrared/thermal vision, which means zero-light conditions are beneficial for them.) You should know, going into this game, there is a bit of a learning curve for the aliens. It's a different type of gameplay than you're probably used to (unless you played a lot of Aliens vs. Predator back in the day). Once you've gotten the hang of it though, playing the Kharaa skillfully can be an extraordinarily rewarding experience--not to mention exciting to the point of adrenaline-pumping. Marine-side, things are pretty straight-forward but still very enjoyable and occasionally terrifying: shoot guns, follow orders, build the structures your Commander throws down, and try not to die.
Commanding an Army of Monsters! Or Marines.
There is a lot for a Commander to keep track of, and unlike normal RTS games, if you screw up in this one, your units will probably start trash-talking you. So it's a bit of a stressful position for someone without a fairly deep understanding of the game on both the ground- and meta-level. I wouldn't advise hopping into the Commander seat for a while, since there is a surprising amount of depth to this game which only reveals itself to you over time. Luckily, all these elements are pretty well streamlined for the Commander. Instead of name-specific hotkeys--like “A” for “[A]rmory”--all the Commander hotkeys are arrayed in a consistent, four-wide/three-tall grid on the left side of your keyboard (from “QWER” down). So once you get the hang of each building or ability's location in the menu, your left hand will barely move, allowing you focus on the battle.
Graphics, Sound, and Level Design
Besides being fun as hell, the game is very nice to look at too. The Kharaa models are unique and just the right blend of kinda-gross and fully-rad. Overall, the player models are good but nothing you're going to be raving about. The real shine here is in the level designs. These are some incredible maps: strategically interesting and well-designed; beautiful and atmospheric; very complex, but each room is memorable enough that you'll learn them well after you put some time in. Adding to the impressiveness, the levels also work really well in multiple states, such as: infested and non-infested, full-light, low-light, and pitch-black/powered-down. Map knowledge is a big part of the skill curve here--and its even harder to get a really good feel for the levels when you are sprinting through them as a Celerity-enhanced Skulk. But each significant room on the mini-map is clearly named and labeled, and there is a HUD element that keeps you informed of what room you are in at all times.
Sound plays a big part in the strategy and skill here, so it's to Unknown Worlds Entertainment's credit that the sound design is superb. Marine boots make an easily identifiable, metal-on-metal marching noise that echos around corners, and Skulks' skittering, blade-like feet are equally recognizable. Marine welders produce a satisfying sizzle, while their structures and exo-suits make clangy, wonderfully metallic noises. Alien growls are fun and Zerg-like, their structures and skills make sickeningly organic little squeals and splashes and spits.
The Source be Open
As a final note for those interested in game development: Unknown Worlds Entertainment provides their entire game source for your use or perusal. They're calling it the “Spark Engine.” There is a file in your Natural Selection 2 directory called “LaunchPad.exe” which opens up a link-bar with all the tools currently provided by UWE, as well as a couple guides and tutorial links. Of particular interest to budding level designers, the “Mapping Guidelines” lays out some really interesting tips on how the UWE crew thinks about their level design process. There is a 3D modeling program provided, but it is currently in pre-alpha state, and at present can't hold a candle to the free-to-use Blender 3D, which has been in development for ages. Luckily you can import models from other 3D programs. They also included Decoda, a Lua code editor, a model-viewer (similar to Source's Hammer tools), and a Cinematic creator. UWE has promised that they will continue working on these secondary products going forward.
Natural Selection 2 is an entertaining, novel experience with a rewarding skill curve, excellent level design, surprising depth, and an open source development model. All those things add up to a definite-buy if any of the above sounds appealing to you--especially since its only $25 USD, available on Steam.