Have you ever played a real-time strategy game and wondered what life was like for the pawns you send out to battle? What if those soldiers weren't brain-dead fighters, but could actually carry out smart decisions on their own, without you telling them to do so?
Natural Selection 2 breathes life into an otherwise lonelier real-time strategy game by mashing it together with a first-person shooter game. So while some of the RTS tropes remain intact — a marine commander sets up base camps to gather resources and enhance his/her army and base against an alien commander on the same path — NS2 is much more of a team game, with players carrying out the front line of battle.
While the respective teams' commanders labour away at keeping soldiers alive and defenses formidable, up to 15 other players will carry out the role of the strike unit for their team, in first-person mode. This is where the Counter Strike connection comes into play (or really any first-person shooter — though I'd have gone with Aliens — but this is the comparison that developers at Unknown Worlds make). Playing on either the side of the marines or the aliens, players will defend their commander's bases to the death. Marines with their rifles and shotguns, and aliens with their teeth and infectious attacks.
Anyone can play as the commander. And that commander can choose to exit the command station at any time to run on foot and take the battle head-on instead. As a commander, you can either shout out commands over a microphone to your teammates, or direct them like you would on any normal RTS game. But instead of force-moving players, a visual directive will pop up on their screen telling them what their leader needs and where they need to go to carry out the command. Commanders can watch overhead and drop med packs to players in need, or focus on unlocking new alien abilities and jetpacks for the marines.
As a commander, you become your team's lifeblood. In turn, your soldiers will defend the base and help build new constructions, while also attacking the other team and their base. Whoever demolishes the command unit first, wins. Just like a real-time strategy game.
But the RTS/FPS hybrid isn't the only thing that's unique about NS2. And though you may have played as aliens, mutants, creatures and zombies in other video games, you rarely see that perspective through the teeth of the thing. Playing as a skulk on the side of the aliens, for instance, lets you watch your tongue slide and flop around in your mouth while on the hunt for a marine's legs to gnaw through.
Each alien has roughly two set abilities each. Until, that is, their alien commander unlocks new ones. I lean towards the fade as my favourite, because they can blip in and out of sight. Lurkers also look fun to play. I can't resist playing as a character that can fly as well as it murders.
It might seem like playing on the side of the aliens puts you at a large advantage. Aliens run smoothly throughout the maps. They can climb walls, fly speedily around you, and deal massive damage, particularly if you can get your hands on the Onos: a ram-looking beast. They can stick marines with a parasite to track them, even through walls.
Each alien plays uniquely. Each one is about as ugly as it is deadly. But marines have their advantages, too. Their commander can unlock jetpacks and powerful flamethrowers. They have sentries, and Unknown Worlds is soon adding an exosuit, too. Though, the marines can't do a cute belly slide to drift around long corridors like the gorge can. Did I just call that chubby monster cute? Anyway.
Maybe the best testament to how exciting Natural Selection 2 is can be seen in the community's fervent involvement with the game. Unknown Worlds tells me that the community actively sends them code to embed new features, like a spectator mode or bots to fill in for players. Community members are so active that some of them even get hired on to the development team, like Hugh Jeremy who helped me through most of the gameplay demonstration.
Unknown Worlds in turn encourages this interaction by providing the game's entire source code. One of the most popular maps, in fact, is made by the community themselves. Accessibility through Steam Workshop lets players download community-made maps and mods to easily play on NS2.
Natural Selection 2 is a complex game. There are a lot of factors that go into a loss or a win. Strategy includes everything from the commander's guidance in supplying the team with resources to aliens attempting to take the fight to their infected bases to benefit off of environmental protection. A commander can choose a different tactic every round, focusing on certain upgrades over others. The first-person shooter players might even take the role of leadership in their hands, charging at the enemy base while everyone is still fairly weak. Each round is completely up to the teams that fight in them.
NS2 is a game that's as strategic as your favourite RTS game, but as fast-paced and full of bloody fun as your favourite FPS game. I can't imagine why this hybrid Counter Strike, Starcraft baby wasn't born even sooner than the original Half-Life mod it was based off of.