It is unfortunate that in today's world despite the astounding technological advancements there are few games that actually surprise you with their novelty and innovation when putting this new arsenal of potential to use. However, Natural Selection 2 is twice as surprising in this regard as it innovates not in one, but two genres simultaneously.
The concept of an FPS/RTS hybrid has been around for quite some time though never properly executed by any major title in gaming. This has always puzzled me as there is no greater satisfaction than seeing a game unfold from both the perspective of an overarching command and the boots on the ground itself. While Natural Selection 2 is a purely multiplayer experience it excels in bring new exciting gameplay to the stagnating genre of first person shooters, most of which have simply resorted to throw bigger guns, toys, and vehicles at you. Instead Natural Selection 2 recognizes the strengths of its predecessors innovative gameplay and polishes it to make an impressive new clean-cut version of a game every gamer should try at least once.
While this game truly shines because of its innovation and creativity it does not spare any expense on its presentation either as all the character and alien models are fantastic and really brought to life by the dynamic lighting, sounds, and overall atmosphere that is simply blooming in this games thematic atmospheres.
The first thing I noticed jumping into a lobby of NS2 is that cooperation between teammates is not only recommended but essentially necessary. This is absolutely phenomenal! There are too few games in this is online gaming world that actually demand that you interact with gamers in such a way as to properly execute a plan rather than everyone simply going at it alone, lone-wolf style. I've played my fair share of both Call of Duty and Battlefield and neither of those two triple-A giants require you to communicate with your teammates as much as NS2. If the new gaming era is going to strip us of local multiplayer and let us only play with strangers online, then they better give us a reason to want to talk to these people, and NS2 does just that by making the alternative to cooperation abject failure.
The reason that cooperation is so essential in NS2 is because of its unique gameplay featuring 2 asymmetrical sides, the aliens vs. humans, and furthermore one player on each side must be chosen as your Commander/Hive mind, who will view the entire map from above and play the RTS portion of the game building, giving orders, and researching upgrades. The twist of course being that apart from a few builder units the Commander/Hive mind has no forces under his direct control but only the other players on his team who benefit most from executing his orders. Again, cooperation is paramount and having seen the difference between a skilled commander and bumbling one you really get to understand just how effective or ineffective you can be as a player or a leader.
As for the gameplay as a soldier on the ground, the games generally proceed as follows. You will run out of your initial base to go seize the nearest resource point with your teammates and if you manage to control it without the enemy showing up then you will continue on to the next one. However, due to the impressive array of maps and the units/upgrades available to the different sides, you can never truly be sure just how easy or hard an objective given to you by your commander will be.
Let us discuss some of the key differences between the sides at this point. The human marines are standard enough beginning the game with an assault rifle, pistol and trusty little hand axe. Throughout the game their commander will be attempting to accrue enough resources to get them upgrades such as shotguns, flamethrowers, jetpacks, better shielding, damage upgrades, and eventually mech suits. While all of these things seem like surefire upgrades from the starter equipment the truth is any of it is only as useful as the player who wields it.
The aliens on the other hand begin the game as the base unit known as the skulk, an equivalent of a zergling more or less which can only effectively attack via melee. They however, are naturally much faster at moving about and can make use of the maps numerous vents which marines cannot enter. These skulks can then evolve throughout the game into other creatures ranging from the builder/medic class of the Gorge, the swift flying Lerk, the deadly Fade and the almighty Onos. Each of these creatures has its own unique strengths, weaknesses and special abilities and knowing when to use each one is critical in being a good alien player.
Returning to the gameplay itself, there are some caveats to be given to new players. This game is rather unforgiving and those who are not any good at shooters on the PC will not find any user-friendly playground here. Though there are beginner level servers they are often such only in name and host just as many veteran players as any other server. Gameplay is rather fast and frenetic and you may often find yourself saying things like "How didn't I hit that guy!?" or "4 of us ambushed him! How did he kill us all!?!" And unfortunately if there is one thing to be said about this game is that the learning curve is about as steep as the Hoover dam.
That is not to say that the community for the game isn't great, because since servers and players can sometimes be limited, dedicated gamers will do their best to teach newbies the ropes every chance they get. Yet despite the helpful tutors you'll run across you can't help but feel that the majority of people you are playing with in this game have simply come over from the Counterstrike community and have years of practice and experience over you. That being said, if you happen to be a CS gamer, this is your bag and you will feel right at home.
The truth is however, that despite sometimes going all game without even a kill, I could still make a difference in the match through my targeting of key objectives or even posing as a distraction for my teammates who could actually effectively hit a moving target. This is what makes NS2 so brilliant, that even if you aren't your teams Rambo who CAN take on 4 aliens at once, there is always something that you can do to make yourself useful, and if you really must learn how to be a Rambo then simply practice, practice, practice, and eventually you may get... your first kill. All jokes aside, there is such a vast gap between some players in the NS2 community and while the game may not be as accessible to newcomers as I would like, it generally tends to balance out throughout games.
Overall NS2 is a real treasure for all gamers and tells the success story of an ambitious group of modders who managed to create a revolutionary game that I believe has not gotten the attention it deserves. If more studios focused on innovation rather than repackaging and retheming then we would have more games with the spirit and uniqueness of NS2. The FPS/RTS is still a largely underused genre and yet probably my favorite, and while NS2 may have a steep learning curve which may prevent it from being my go-to just because I don't have the time to dedicate to mastering it, it is still an unforgettable and incomparable gaming experience from which larger studios should learn from.