In 2002, Charlie Cleveland created Natural Selection, a Half-Life mod that combined the first-person shooter genre with a top-down real-time strategy game. Heavily inspired by the atmosphere of Aliens, Natural Selection pitted a team of regular machine-gun wielding marines against the Kharaa, a race of mutating alien species. Back in 2002, the game stood out from the pack because it offered something new: competitive but asymmetrical combat. Ten years later, the game’s forthcoming sequel, finally becoming a reality, is still a notable outlier amidst the plethora of military shooters. I talked with Charlie Cleveland and Unknown World’s Advocate Hugh Jeremy at E3 yesterday and took a look at the game’s upcoming release. Natural Selection 2 looks to carry its burden of ten years with aplomb, even while venturing into a market that has changed a great deal since its predecessor first built a group of core players.
At the turn of the millenium, the shooter genre was at a turning point. Natural Selection was released in between Halo and Halo 2, and the first-person shooter genre was moving away from the Doom era and was incorporating strong narratives, adventure-game conventions, and RPG elements in games like Metroid Prime and Deus Ex. Rainbow Six had already brought in tactical game play, but the strategy genre and the shooter genre were still relatively distant from one another. Natural Selection was unique, yes, but it also came at a time when the large studios were redefining the FPS market and were doing so with flare.
The real-time strategy elements of Natural Selection continue to set its sequel apart from the genre even now. The game pitted a team of marines and one marine commander against a team of mutating aliens. Both sides played the game very differently. Marines carried out the orders of a player-commander who could see the battle from above and could distribute resources or initiate the construction of upgrades or buildings. The aliens worked on their own, earning enough points to upgrade themselves into deadly melee fighters, like the Fade, who could teleport in and out of combat with the blink ability. The aliens protected a commander-less hive and also built structures, albeit created by team members of their own free will. Playing each side felt entirely unique and recreated the sensations of playing a role within a functioning team beautifully.
Unknown Worlds brings in several dramatic changes to the sequel, adding in a custom built engine and a gorgeous new dynamic lighting system. They also tweaked each faction, giving aliens new structures that allow for more variable upgrades, like cloaking or the ability to move structures almost instantly. The aliens also now have a commander seat, more closely mirroring the marine gameplay from the first Natural Selection. The reason, Charlie described, was to balance the game for larger scale matches. Considering the team’s interest in building a game suitable for play as an eSport, balance has become even more of a concern. The team already holds weekly competitions among its beta users, broadcasting them live on Twitch TV.
I have high hopes for Natural Selection 2, but the team’s aspirations seam gargantuan in a climate far more variable and demanding than the game’s first release almost ten years ago. Natural Selection saw a great deal of high-level play. A great commander could really set herself apart from others and a good Fade was a surgeon on the battlefield. Today, high-level players come a dime-a-dozen and the eSports arena is filled with competitors. Counter-Strike is still played competitively today, alongside Starcraft, League of Legends, DotA 2, and now new entires like ShootMania. The publishers of these games have experience rallying knowledge and resources that goes into building a competitive gaming fan community and some offer prizes worth well over a million dollars. In 10 years, the competitive scene has grown a lot more, well, competitive.
The same can be said for the shooter in general as well. Natural Selection 2 still stands alone as a game that integrates RTS components elegantly, but other FPS titles also make claims to “never-before-seen” features. CCP’s Dust 514 aims to fundamentally tie the grandiose political scheming of EVE Online into its shooter. Meanwhile, the FPS market brims with heavy hitters that offer class-based combat, stunning set-pieces, narrative-driven gameplay, or bizarre weaponry. Natural Selection 2 now pokes up its head amidst a room full of shooters clamoring for a piece of the pie.
I still have high hopes for Natural Selection 2. Unknown Worlds seem sharp and passionate about their work. The game looks absolutely gorgeous, and the combat feels as variable as ever. Yet the shooter space has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, and I am struck by how small and fragile the game feels. Players have new expectations about readability and accessibility that I sincerely hope Unknown Worlds can address, and their competitors have enough money and marketing power to draw away a player’s attention the moment that they hit a wall. The FPS genre has evolved and suddenly 10 years does not seem long enough to catch up.