Natural Selection II is the sequel to one of the most popular Half Life mods ever made. Originally released in 2002, Natural Selection won the hearts of hundreds of thousands with its unique combination of FPS and RTS features, and the success of the original title allowed Charlie “Flayra” Cleveland and Unknown Worlds Entertainment the opportunity to develop Natural Selection II. The game is currently in a closed beta stage but we were given the opportunity to sink a few hours into this alien infested hybrid, and we were met with a fair amount of surprises.
The basic concept of Natural Selection II is to offer players a unique FPS experience with an RTS twist. Players choose to fight for either the aliens (Kharaa) or marines (Frontiersmen), with both sides offering totally different FPS features and mechanics. We’ll go a little more into the FPS mechanics for both sides shortly, but first and foremost, the RTS element. The combination of RTS and FPS is a rare niche in today’s industry and is practically unheard of, with the exception of a hand full of titles. Some can argue that titles like Battlefield and PlanetSide offer RTS depth, but neither use the same systems that are available in Natural Selection II.
Both teams have a Commander slot available at the start of each game that any player can fill, taking on the role and responsibilities of carrying their team to victory. The Commander acts as a leader for both sides and is given a variety of tools and systems to aid their cause. Unlike other players that run around in using a typical FPS view, Commanders are given a top-down view of the map giving them the ability to see each room and what it contains. As players move forward and push their enemies back, the Commander’s can construct various buildings and other objects to aid their team. There’s a good variety of buildings available all with their own unique benefits. Constructing resources, evolving or purchasing better weapons costs resources, which each individual player earns for their accomplishments and teams status. Creating more than 1 Hive or Command Center gives the team a faster respawn rate, while upgrading other things can lead to better weapons for the marines, or evolutions and upgrades for the aliens. An inexperienced Commander will mean your team doesn’t get upgrades and the correct buildings won’t be constructed. An experienced Commander will ensure your team is equipped with the best available tech, and can even give your team knowledge on enemy positions using specific buildings. RTS players will be highly coveted for their tactical approach as an empty Commander chair will result in a total massacre. Think of the RTS element as Command & Conquer, Starcraft and other popular RTS titles, but instead of AI troops, every troop fighting for you is a real player.
Although officially called Kharaa, they’re most often referred to in-game as Aliens, as such I’ll do so here. The Alien faction works on infecting surrounding areas in order to construct their various buildings. They have resource towers, much like the Marines, that must be protected for the team to earn resources that are used to unlock various things. Although each Alien is different in terms of ability and mechanics, they all share the potential evolutions that become available once unlocked by the Commander. The currently available evolutions include Hyper Mutation, Adrenaline, Celerity, Feign Death, Camouflage, Carapace, Silence and Regeneration. Different Commanders research different evolutions at different times, but players can usually expect to gain the majority of them before the round is over. Up to 3 can be equipped at any time, giving Aliens bonus affects such as removed sound while move, faster mutations, blend in with the environment and so forth. Each Alien is best suited to different evolutions but players are free to experiment with any they feel suit their play style. The Aliens play in the first-person perspective, but unlike the Marines, players quite often see various parts of the Alien form on screen. Such as viewing through the mouth of the Skulk or seeing the deadly Fade’s blades in front of them.
The Skulk is the most basic form of the Aliens but is useful throughout each stage of every round. They’re the only Alien mutation that are able to climb walls and stick to ceilings, giving them a huge advantage in combat against the infantry of the Marines. The Skulk has two main attacks, a powerful bite and a long-range ability that infects targets with a deadly parasite. They’re the main stealth/ambush weapon the Aliens have access to, with many hiding in the shadows and attacking unsuspecting Marines as they build structures or retreat from battle.
The Gorge mutation are the backbone of every Alien attack as they’re the only utility class they have access too. The Gorge has the unique ability to heal allied Aliens as well as various structures. They can also build 2 different structures to aid their team in defending important locations. The first of the buildings available to players that use Gorge is the Hydra. This is a weird Alien plant thing that can attack Marines that come into close proximity, they do cost some personal resources but they can be devastating when planted in groups. The second of the structures available is the Clob which is pretty much a large green blob that restricts the movement of Marines. Using both of these combined is a great way to protect an entrance to an important room, but they can also be used to block the retreat of your enemies. Gorge don’t really take a front line in combat but they’re amazing if used correctly, supporting the other Aliens from the back with their heals and long range attacks.
The Lerk mutation are arguably one of the more difficult to play as it involves mastering their ability to fly. They have access to 3 main attacks, a bite, a long-range attack with spikes and a poisonous cloud. The bite can be extremely useful for players that are skilled enough to fly close to enemy Marines, take a quick nibble, and fly away, but mostly the Lerk is used for other attacking methods. The long-range attack doesn’t do incredible amounts of damage but it can be a great harassment ability as the Lerk flies around the room dodging Marine gunfire, but still causing damage. And this is where their final ability, the poison cloud, is most effective. The poison cloud follows Lerks wherever they fly, allowing them to cause damage over time to targets, without having to get too close for too long. Combining the unique flying mechanics with this ability is one of the best ways to use the Lerk, but it does require a certain amount of skill.
The Fade are the assassins of the Alien world, having abilities that allow them to enter and exit battle in the blink of an eye. The Fade have two main abilities, a claw slash and teleport, which when used in conjunction can be a total nightmare for any Marine. The claw attack does exactly what you’d expect, decent damage at a close range, but it’s the ability to teleport, or Blink, that gives Fade’s their potential in battle. At a simple click of the mouse, the Fade can turn into a cloud of smoke and travel extremely quickly, making it a great escape tool to dodge enemy fire. It’s also a great ability to allow Fade’s to quickly enter the heat of battle, slash a few Marines, and retreat to a healing Gorge. They’re one of the most fun Alien’s to play, and also one of the most deadly.
The Onos is the most powerful single unit available to the Alien species. They have an absolute ton of health and can easily dispatch of a small group of unprepared Marines. By default they have a charge and a melee attack, but the Alien Commander can research an additional stun ability. The Onos is mainly used to counter the Marines Exo Suit but it is also a great unit to send into any rooms where Marines have dug in deep. The disruption from the stun skill, combined with the devastating damage makes the Onos a deadly adversary, even more so if supported by other Aliens or healed by a number of Gorge’s. Once an Onos and his Alien comrades have cleared a room of Marines they can destroy the structures inside with ease, using the awesome attack power of the Onos to wear down even the most armored of structures. Even though the Onos is deadly against the infantry of the Marines, it’s not unstoppable. Various Marine technology can be used to counter this brute, such as the Jetpack research option.
MarinesThe Marines are your stereotypical human infantry that have been given the task of defeating a seemingly unbeatable enemy. But in true human fashion, resilience and bravery shines through as the basic humanoids attempt to push back the constant advances of the Alien race. Much like the Aliens, the Marines have a Commander that is in charge of building, strategy and tactics, however there is a major difference. Unlike the Aliens, the Marines actually have to complete the constructions placed by their Commander. The Commander can choose to place a variety of structures but for Marines to occupy an area or advance, they will need to build various Power Conduits to connect rooms. This leaves them extremely vulnerable as they’re able to fire while building, forcing communication and teamwork to keep the Marines alive. Another difference to the Aliens is the “Rambo Factor”. A single Marine traveling alone is likely to end up as Skulk food within seconds, it’s imperative for Marine survival to move around and operate as a unit. This adds a depth of communication and teamwork that isn’t necessarily needed on the Alien side. Although evolution smiles down on the Aliens, the Marines also have a few tricks to deploy thanks to advance technology and research. There’s tons more technology and equipment available, but I’ve highlighted some of the best below.
The Shotgun is arguably one of the most important companions for a skilled Marine. It’s far more powerful than the Assault Rifle, and when upgraded can easily dispatch of enemy Aliens in 2-3 hits. Being a Shotgun, it does have some major drawbacks. It’s not very strong at long-range distances and the reload time can mean certain death if it catches the Marine unaware, but if you combine it with the more powerful armor technology, Marines become a force to be reckoned with.
Mines do exactly what you would expect them to do, explode on contact. These dangerous little explosives can be a great way for Marines to protect certain travel routes, or to reinforce the defenses around the base. They also work really well when placed inside vents or small areas that Skulk use to move around, giving them one hell of a nasty surprise if they put their foot wrong. Mines are one of the cheaper upgrades Marines are able to use, costing only 15 resources for 3 Mines. They can be placed practically anywhere that isn’t on a player structure, and they detonate once an enemy is within range. They can 1-hit kill Skulks and do massive damage to the other Aliens, they’re also quite adept at stopping a careless Onos if they charge into enough of them.
The Jetpack is one of the most vital upgrades a Marine Commander can research. Despite the obvious applications of faster travel, it is also highly advantageous in fights against a number of the Alien species. It’s the bane of the Skulks, totally nullifying their melee only attacks, forcing a retreat or imminent death. It’s also one of the most powerful applications against the powerful Onos. Being restricted to melee only abilities makes the Onos an easy target for a squad of Marines equipped with Jetpacks, harassing the giant Onus in the same way a swarm of bees would an elephant. It’s very easy to control using simple short bursts of the space-bar, giving Marines an easy method to get to those difficult to reach spots, or to chase down a retreating Lurk. Finally, it’s also useful for dodging some of the Aliens AI defense turrets, keeping out of reach while still being able to damage other surrounding structures.
The weapon no good Alien movie would be complete without, the iconic Flamethrower. Although the Flamethrower isn’t brilliant against the Aliens themselves, it is one of the best ways to clear a room of Infestation, restricting the Aliens ability to expand and upgrade. It does average damage at short to medium range and quite often scares most Aliens away before they’re killed. It’s also great in a choke point such as a narrow corridor or small ventilation shaft, forcing anything in its path to retreat and rethink.
Saving the best until last, the Exosuit. Looking like something straight out of a Ridley Scott movie, this powerful mech warrior can do devastating damage if used correctly. Players can use their own personal resource points to unlock an Exosuit with melee capabilities, a powerful minigun or both. The majority of players seem to wait until they can afford the fully armed Exosuit as it’s far more deadly with a long-range weapon equipped. The Exosuit is the Marines answer to the Onos, just as big and just as dangerous. It’s one of the most expensive upgrades an individual Marine can purchase so you won’t usually see these big guys until towards the end of the round. However, it’s not rare for both teams to have 2-3 Onos and Exosuits attacking at once, creating an intense firefight between the strongest units in the game.
Can It Make The Grade?
The original Natural Selection game was a huge hit amongst players and Half Life fans, but being a player mod it didn’t really hit the limelight in terms of attracting mainstream. It was a notoriously difficult game and Unknown Worlds Entertainment have done a great job of porting that over to Natural Selection II, but is that what FPS/RTS fans are after? Natural Selection II has the recipe to be the perfect RTS/FPS hybrid, but is it the next evolution or has it devolved from the original? Check back soon for our full review.