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Game mods have come and gone throughout the years, some leaving their mark while others vanish without a trace. Some mods manage to extend, improve or completely reinvent a game; ten years ago, Natural Selection did that for the Half-Life engine. The mod was free to download and introduced a complex and balanced ballet of battles between animalistic aliens and technically advanced humans, filling the lion's share of my free time. Now, exactly ten years later, Unknown Worlds Entertainment has released their followup, and it's awesome.
Natural Selection 2, like its predecessor, is a mixture of real-time strategy and first-person shooter. The goal of the game is to expand through a map while harvesting resource nodes, building new bases, researching new technology and ultimately destroying the enemy bases. Once the last Command Station (for Marines) or Hive (for aliens) is destroyed, the game is over.
From a first-person shooter standpoint, this game rocks when you play as a Marine; it's scary, tense and simple. There is no aiming down the sights or leaning around corners, it's just good old-fashioned run, jump, shoot and cry as you get swarmed by aliens in the dark. As you start to spend your resources for better equipment, the tension ramps up even more; since you lose that expensive stuff when you die, you're encouraged to think twice before wandering off alone into a dark corridor.
Playing in a first-person mode as the aliens takes some getting used to; they primarily have melee attacks, and the speed at which they move can get disorientating at times. Once you get it down, though, you will feel like a parkour master, running on walls and celings and flanking a helpless marine until he's dinner.
Natural Selection 2 isn't really about scores or kill-to-death ratios, but teamwork. Wandering off alone may get you a kill or two, but that's useless when you end up dead and back at your starting zone, losing all the progress you made pushing through the map. Voice communication is key, and investing in a good headset will improve your experience with Natural Selection 2 because the maps and team-based combat encourage group tactics. Take time to flank enemies or take them by suprise and two to three coordinated players can take out a whole team in a moment, giving your team the map advantage.
One player from each team can step back from the front line by taking command of their faction to research tech trees and provide support to the their allies. They are the focal point of the team and most likely to accept the praise or blame of a game. Each commander gets a top-down view of the map where they can scroll around and plan a route for expansion or the safest areas to gather resources. They manage team resources and make the ultimate call of which techs to research first, which often determines who has the winning edge and thus can lead to a lot of difficult decisions.
Marines go through different tech such as upgraded armor and better weapons (shotguns, grenade launchers and flamethrowers!) to researching phase technology to build teleporters for quick movement around the map. Ultimately you end up obtaining jetpacks and large mech-like machines with very large machine guns, which changes combat significantly as the game progresses. Unlike the first Natural Selection, players also get their own discrete pool of resources to spend how they choose. Once a technology is unlocked by the team they can choose whether or not they want to purchase gear.
Aliens have a much different tech tree, which include evolving with different traits and abilities. There are five different lifeforms to choose from, but everyone starts as a Skulk, a little creature that can zip around the map and climb on walls. When you have enough resources you can choose a higher lifeform, such as the Gorge, a support unit that heals and builds defensive structures, the Lerk, a flying creature that attacks from afar or lays down poisonous gas as he passes over enemies, the Fade, a two-legged creature that can teleport short distances to close the gap between enemies and attack them with his spear-like arms, or finally the Onos, a giant elephant alien that will demolish a squad of marines without breaking a sweat.
Natural Selection 2 runs on the Spark Engine, which was created from the ground up by the small team of developers. It is designed to be extremely moddable and easy to work with even for smallest teams of designers and creators. While the core game is a single mode, the game types and maps are determined by the community and their unlimited ability to mod the game as they wish. We have already seen pure combat games spring up as well as community made maps. It doesn't hurt that the engine looks beautiful too, supporting physics (rag-dolls getting hit by an Onos is hilarious) and immersive lighting.
As with every new game, especially one developed by a small company, the game has some bugs. I haven't ran into anything game-breaking yet, but there are talks of some map-loading errors, UI oddities and lag spikes. The sound still needs some tweaking too; the in-game voice chat is too quiet compared to the hectic game noises and using the "Voice Volume" slider in the options has little benefit. The great thing about buying a game from a smaller developer is that they seem to care deeply about the user experience and are constantly patching and squashing bugs everyday. They are very active in the community (check their Twitter and Facebook) and are willing to listen to every individual issue and suggestion.
The learning curve may be steep, but the rookie-friendly servers (highlighted in green) will be the place to start. The game has been ten years in the making, and it was absolutely worth the wait. I look forward to seeing what comes next as the modding community is bound to do some fantastic work to keep it alive for years to come, making the game a great investment.
You can find it on Steam for $24.99 or $39.99 for the Deluxe edition that comes with a soundtrack, digital art, wallpapers and an exclusive in-game Marine model. In all honesty, writing this review has really got me salivating more than a hungry skulk for some playtime, so back to chomping faces I go!