Natural Selection 2 is really hard. It isn't hard because the mechanics are bad and it isn't hard because of poor controls, muddy graphics or any other presentation issue: it's hard because it is meant to be played very seriously.
Unknown Worlds Entertainment has crafted an extremely satisfying blend of first-person action and strategy with this new multiplayer title, offering up an experience that is equally enjoyable from either perspective. Natural Selection 2 sees human marines (the Frontiersmen) and a class-based alien species (the Kharaa) pitted against one another in an endless war for control of a set of six industrial hubs. To take part in these battles, players pick a side then hop into either the tactical overhead view of a commander, essentially stepping into a real-time strategy game, or control a shooter/melee ground unit.
Playing as a commander is much more difficult than taking on the role of a grunt. Much as in real life, being a leader can be fun in the sense that you get to call the shots — commanders handle all the upgrades, base building and on-the-fly battle coordinating — but also terrifying in the amount of pressure it places on a single individual. Lead your team in the wrong direction and they will let you know; fail to multitask the roughly eight billion aspects involved in winning a game and you ensure that even the savviest ground player has no chance at winning the round. A certain type of player will thrive on the rush of power that comes with overseeing so many real people's chance at victory while others may prefer to forego so much responsibility in favour of carrying out the smaller goals entailed by acting as a ground unit.
This isn't to suggest that only the commander comes under a lot of stress. Taking on the role of a gun-toting marine soldier or a primarily melee-based alien can create a horrible sense of tension as well. When the team commander is barking orders and enemies are swarming toward the player's position, everything becomes extremely hectic. This, like many of the other frightening aspects of the game, becomes less of an issue over time. After three to four hours of feeling more like a burden than a valuable member of a team, I began to know how to properly navigate Natural Selection 2's sprawling maps, intuitively understand how to help assist in turning the tides of a game and immediately recognize the shorthand lingo used by more seasoned players in describing the various elements of the base and unit types.
Overcoming the anxiety of the first hours of play provides a great sense of accomplishment. This is good because there is no progression system to otherwise incentivize continued play. Much like the classic multiplayer design ethos that has mostly disappeared from modern videogames, players gauge their skills not through an experience bar, but by coming to understand the manifold details packed into simply engaging in a nuanced form of competition. Luckily, since the learning curve is so steep, the game brands inexperienced players by listing their name in green and hosts a wide selection of rookie-friendly servers where it's possible to come to grips with the mechanics alongside others of roughly the same skill level. However, Natural Selection 2 falls a little short in offering any other way to ease new players into the game. A set of (lengthy) tutorial videos and a solo, empty server mode with pop-up text boxes are provided in order to help offer a bit of reference to the dense mechanics of the multiplayer game, but a set of training missions with mock-up objectives would go a long way toward offsetting the sense of being thrown into the deep end without a proper swimming lesson that the first few rounds of real play instil.
Just the same, the level of new player accommodation that does exist allows essentially anyone intrigued by Natural Selection's premise — and with thick enough skin to shrug off the insults hurled at clueless players — to explore the depth and originality on offer through the game. Unknown Worlds has obviously put a tremendous amount of work into creating something that can be played for a long, long time. The entire experience is an incredibly polished one. From the design of the maps, which are full of carefully established shortcuts, choke points and the key hubs that both teams rush to capture at the beginning of a match, to the research and "evolution" upgrade paths that allow smart commanders to forge a powerful fighting force, Natural Selection 2 has obviously been made with a lot of care.
Robust mod tools (including modded server lists, free access to the game's source code, map editors and Steam Workshop support) ensure that there's little chance of Natural Selection 2 becoming tired too soon and sharing the dismal fate of so many multiplayer-only titles. Given that Unknown Worlds gained notoriety on the strength of the original Natural Selection, a mod of the first Half-Life, it only makes sense that their commercially released sequel would have been made with future community iteration in mind.
While the currently available maps are beautifully designed, the (seemingly rabid) fan base already devoted to Natural Selection 2 are sure to go on to create even more fantastic levels that expand on what's been made by Unknown Worlds. The idea of community designs that take full advantage of the carefully balanced mechanics and impressive audio/visual presentation offered through the base retail version of the game is very exciting. Not many multiplayer games promise so much continued support over the years to come — and without the price tag that accompanies the official map packs or mode expansions of a franchise like Call of Duty or Battlefield.
Natural Selection 2 is a deep and compelling game that is immensely rewarding for any player willing to invest time in learning how to play it. The intimidating learning curve may put off some, but it's this level of nuanced difficulty that ultimately makes the game such an interesting one. If Natural Selection was simpler than it is it wouldn't be the fascinating multiplayer sandbox that it is. Anyone with an interest in a more thoughtful shooter — or a more organic type of strategy game — will find a lot to love here.
If you are interested in winning your own copy of Natural Selection 2, please check out our NS2 contest!