Natural Selection 2 really got me off guard. I knew about its strategy/FPS hybrid gameplay but I didn't expect the combination of the two to be such a massive deviation from the traditional FPS formula. The depth of the multiplayer walks a fine line between control and balance while the simple premise of aliens versus marines makes the game approachable for any FPS novice. However, the real depth shows itself when you realize how integral proper teamwork is and I can honestly say that Natural Selection 2 is the first game to make me feel like I needed to work with my team in order to win.
Some games are beautiful, some games have exciting stories, and still others gain fans from their gameplay alone. Natural Selection 2 is the latter of those choices, its hybrid gameplay is what sets it apart and keeps it fresh through hours of play time. Natural Selection 2 plays like your average first-person shooter, at first. There are two opposing sides, the aliens and the marines, that play in vastly different ways depending on the side and class you choose. The marines don't necessarily have classes but they do have upgradable weapons as well as different layouts and items they can use such as jetpacks and shotguns. The aliens, on the other hand, play as a class based shooter with classes ranging from the crawling skulk to the monstrous Onos.
Each alien class plays differently from the others; the skulk can crawl on walls and attacks best from the shadows, the gorge can help heal and build structures as well as spit acid, lerks can fly freely through the map, fades act as stealth creatures with blades for hands, and the onos is essentially a walking tank that can stun anyone in its radius. These classes vary widely from one another and each is essential for various team efforts such as building structures and fending off foes. Each class can also be upgraded with things like speed and health regeneration which requires resources and research. The exhaustive list of alien perks isn't to say that marines are stuck with just guns, though their arsenal of guns is quite impressive. Most of the guns for the marines are typical; assault rifle, shotgun, pistol, flamethrower, and a grenade launcher. What makes the marines able to fight off creatures like the onos are jetpacks and the advanced marine Exosuit which is a walking mech that players can use to wipe the floor with alien scum.
These powerups and weapons are all well and good but they require resources in order to unlock, and that's where the main gameplay element of Natural Selection 2 comes in. Each team has one player that acts as the commander and plays the game with a top-down perspective on the game similar to RTS games like Starcraft or Command and Conquer. This player is beyond essential to the teams ability to not only be competitive but also their ability to win in the end. Without a good commander at the head of your team you are doomed without a doubt. The commander is responsible for picking which research to look into, what upgrades to buy, what buildings to build and so on. From what I've seen it usually works out that the team asks for certain things and the commander researches it accordingly, sometimes a strong player on the field can help the commander which is as good as having a strong commander to begin with. Commanders also drop health and ammo which can quickly turn a battle around before the other team knows what's happening.
Alien commanders are a bit different from marine commanders as they need to spread infestation, similar to a Zerg's creep, around the map to help their team move faster and slow down marines. This infestation is also essential since it's the only place an alien structure can be built upon. Alien commanders also have the benefit of having their structures build themselves while marine commanders need teammates to weld structures in order to have them up and running. The entire commander/field operative dichotomy is something that looks terrible on paper. You're asking gamers of all ages and backgrounds to listen to a single person who is basically your main means of survival and victory. Somehow Natural Selection 2 makes this commander and soldier mechanic work exceptionally well as the entire time I felt it was necessary to listen to my team in order to win. The times I had a bad commander were the times my team lost quickly, but the times I had a commander who held their own were the times that our team put up a good fight til the end. A first person shooter isn't going to much differently in this day and age, throwing in the RTS element sets Natural Selection 2 apart from the competition and makes the gameplay much more interesting than left trigger aim right trigger shoot.
Unknown Worlds decided to take the game away from its original Source Engine roots and move it to an in-house developed engine instead. While this seems like a crazy move the game looks pretty good for all it's been through in terms of engine switches. Marines and their shiny silver buildings look like space marine stuff we've come to know and love. The guns are basic and not too enthralling but the animations of the marines work well enough that it's never distracting or ugly to the eyes. Aliens are where the art stands out as many of the aliens play with the camera view pointing from their mouth. This gives a cool view of the creature's mouth as you play and see the world from their...mouth. Alien buildings and structures have a very Zerg-like feel to them as they are organic and infested with wiggling ooze and such. The aliens themselves look great and seeing a skulk come crawling at you on the ceiling for an onos come lumbering around a corner is rightfully terrifying. Beyond that the levels are very basic and decent looking, nothing too exciting but it's enough to get the job done.
As stated earlier the fun factor of Natural Selection 2 comes from the commander-soldier relationship and the craziness that ensues when things don't work out right. When you have teammates yelling for ammo or a certain structure and the commander is fumbling or failing to deliver there is a sort of caveman mentality that takes over. Players start to vote the commander out of his position and decide to kick them out of command and hop into the command center themselves to get the job done. From what I've seen this usually results in the team rallying around its new leadership and pushing through to a tough victory, which feels awesome.
If anything I wish the actual combat between the marines and aliens felt better overall. There are times where shooting a skulk can be next to impossible and it becomes a shotgun spray and pray affair that takes the skill out of the shot. Other times, as the aliens, I felt like my bites and claw attacks weren't hitting but I was able to get kills regardless. Perhaps it's a hit detection thing or maybe just a bit of lag, either way it's an unfortunate problem to have in a FPS. However, the high moments of commanding your team properly to victory or being an integral part of the winning push feels awesome. The sense of teamwork Natural Selection 2 demands from its players is unlike anything I've played before.
Natural Selection 2 is one of the first games I've played that doesn't just boast a teamwork mindset but actually delivers on it. Games like MAG made teamwork and leadership seem important but couldn't make the idea of listening to other players enticing enough. With the small game by game basis and one commander that isn't always in command Natural Selection 2 makes leadership and following your leader feel right. You feel as though it's the only way to win and that's because when you don't help your commander he or she won't help you. This isn't a game that you can win on your own FPS skills alone. Getting 20 headshots in a round doesn't level you up or get you a new gun, your commander does that and in order for them to do that they need you to be where they say at the right times. Team-based multiplayer is getting to be an oversaturated market, luckily there are games like Natural Selection 2 to add some spice to the original recipe.