Team-based shooters have been around for ages, but other than a few series like Rainbow Six, they sometimes treat the concept of “team” in general terms and don’t always try to instill a sense of unity or command structure. The sci-fi themed Natural Selection 2 , much like its 2002 predecessor, stands apart from the pack by being a team-based multiplayer shooter that actually requires players to work together to succeed, and throws in an additional layer of RTS elements for anyone willing to step up and take charge.

Drawing pretty heavily from James Cameron’s Aliens for inspiration, players pick from two factions – the tech-heavy Frontiersman Marines or the Xenomorph-like Kharaa – and battle it out for supremacy in a handful of beautifully designed and atmospheric locales. The Kharaa are a class-based faction with a handful of different alien forms based around fulfilling different combat roles, such as the hippo-like Gorge being more support-oriented with its ability to heal and build organic sentry turrets, and the wall-crawling Skulk excelling at ambushing hapless soldiers with lots of sharp pointy teeth. Marine players, on the other hand, spawn as an average grunt armed with a rifle and basic body armor, but over time can gain access to shotguns, grenade launchers, jet packs and chain-gun-wielding mechs called Exosuits. Both sides have the same overall goal of wiping out the opposing team’s structures, but their styles of play are very distinct from each other and you’ll definitely have fun figuring out the best kind of tactics or weapons to use as any of the races.

The real-time strategy elements of Natural Selection 2 come into play when one player assumes the role of a Commander, which is done by hopping into either faction’s equivalent of a command station at the start of the match. The commander’s perspective switches to a top down viewpoint, and lets them place buildings and research upgrades for their team. Building construction and resource management is a straightforward process and it’ll feel very familiar if you’ve played a game like Starcraft or Command and Conquer in the past. But the most important and interesting aspect of playing the Commander is that you’re technically in charge of the people on your side. Your primary responsibility will be to try and direct the flow of battle by suggesting a course of action for your team to follow and providing information as to where the best areas to attack, defend, fortify, and so forth are, by clicking on the map to create waypoints, using the in-game chat or your mic to call out commands.

Being a commander is where Natural Selection 2‘s learning curve is at its steepest, and for some, it can also be the least accessible. Once you take charge as a Commander, almost everything relies on the decisions you make, and your ability to convince your teammates to follow your lead. Even if you have some of the best players on your side, it won’t amount to much if you don’t react fast enough to what your enemy is doing or don’t communicate to your team what’s going on in the larger scheme of things. It can be incredibly stressful maintaining the high attention to detail you’ll need to manage several bases at once, give orders to your team, keep an eye on what the other team is doing and respond to player requests for help. If you’re able to accomplish all of those goals and help your team get what they need to take out the enemy, it will make any victory feel well-earned. But at times, it can also feel like there’s so little room for error that it’s possible to spend an entire match thinking that you’ve made all the right calls and organized your team efficiently, only to watch helplessly as everything you’ve built is wiped out in one swoop because you didn’t realize you were being flanked on one side of the map or you picked the wrong weapon at the wrong time for your team.

When that happens, it can be hard to tell if it’s an issue with the factions not being balanced against each other or if the game is missing a few necessary tools to help you command as effectively as possible. The first person elements of the game are straightforward and easy to grasp, and fights between the two factions can really get the adrenaline pumping as you struggle to defend an outpost that’s being overrun by leaping Kharaa or try to tear apart an Exosuit before it finishes riddling your hive with bullets. Taking up the reins of the RTS side of the game, however, is a daunting experience, and it’s certainly not for everyone.

Natural Selection 2 does try to mitigate its sharp learning curve with a lengthy tutorial series of YouTube videos and a sandbox style game mode that gives you an empty map to play around in, but it only goes so far in preparing you for how an actual match will play out once you spawn onto the battlefield. At the very least, it really would’ve been nice to have access to a more in-depth and hands-on run through of how to play as a commander other than the “trial by fire” process that’s in the game now, especially when the FPS parts are well-put together and the most enjoyable aspects of the game.

The role of a commander is just one part of Natural Selection 2‘s very high focus on using teamwork to succeed, which is where the game both shines and can fall short, depending on who you’re playing with. For the most part, those who decide to play as a one-man-army will often find themselves at the mercy of a maw full of gnashing teeth or the wrong end of a shotgun, so your best chances of completing objectives or surviving a run-in with the opposing team is by sticking close to a teammate and coordinating with whoever’s commanding. It’s really refreshing to see a team-based game that actually needs players to work together to instead of giving out vague objective of “capture point A” or “Kill all of the opposing team” and then assuming players will work towards that objective, and there’s something quite satisfying about pulling off a successful assault or ambush that you planned out cooperatively with your teammates. But achieving success does rely on your fellow players’ willingness to cooperate in order to get things done, and there’s no real way to get players to help each other or follow orders other than just asking. Besides a small boost to your in-game score, there’s very few mechanics in place to really drive the point home that cooperation means the difference between victory over your opponent or a long, drawn out defeat.

Bottom Line: Natural Selection 2 is a fantastic-looking FPS/RTS hybrid that’s an in-depth and involved experience for those who enjoy cooperative and team-based games, although it does come with a steep learning curve that’ll turn some players off to the strategic side of the game.

Recommendation: Anyone interested in playing a team-based game that actually requires you to work as a team should definitely check this one out, but just know that it’ll take some time to learn how everything works.

[rating=4.0]

Game: Natural Selection 2
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Unknown World Entertainment
Publisher: Unknown World Entertainment
Platform(s): PC

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