Have You Played… Natural Selection?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

I’m sorry if you haven’t already played Natural Selection [official site]. I’m sorry that you missed out. You’ll never know some of the greatest multiplayer gaming I’ve known. Natural Selection is a sci-fi FPS-RTS released for Half-Life as a free mod first in 2002, which plays out a bit like StarCraft in terms of real-time strategising – but every unit on the map is controlled by a player.

The backstory: it’s the future, and humanity is spreading to the stars, only to encounter a strange gunky alien lifeform which starts looking like unpleasant fungus but, left unchecked, will grow horrible big alien hives spawning monsters from dog-like Skulks to the rhino-sized Onos. That’s where players come in. Frontiersmen are sent into infected facilities – research labs, mining facilities, etc. – to clear out the Kharaa. From there, it starts like a StarCraft match between two different races. Both sides try to secure resources, proceed along tech trees, and ultimately wipe the other out, but they play quite differently.

One space marine must take the Commander role, sitting in a chair which gives them an RTS-style overhead view to issue orders, drop structures and so on. The Comm is very much playing an RTS, albeit one where they need to convince units that it’s in their best interest to obey orders (rewards and punishments tended to go well, honestly). They follow an SC-style tech tree, unlocking new and more powerful equipment by building new structures and researching. Aliens are a literal hive mind, with no formal leader. They need to build and hold new hives in specific locations to unlock more options, which is tricky to organise when every player gets their own flow of resources and can spend them as they please.

Obviously, NS rounds could easily become angry messes. But on good servers with good players, coordination and cooperation came together in beautiful ways. Sneaking deep into alien territory to build a teleporter so the rest of your team can flood through. Being on the other side of that teleporter, all geared up, waiting for the other end to light up. Being the aliens who are rushing that ninja marine. Or counter-attacking the enemy base to take down their tech buildings and depowering them at a crucial moment. Knife-edge timing attacks. Fending off those attacks, knowing that if you can survive the next thirty seconds you’re sure to win. Grand plans and assured victory falling apart because you get complacent. Finding the one uncovered spot on the Marine building controlling their sentry turrets and munching it down. A chain of marines in Heavy Armour welding each other up while burning down aliens. Ahh, you had to be there.

It’s so very polished for a free mod too, and had one of the finest shotguns around. Though, honestly, part of me preferred NS’s earlier beta versions with a few more interesting rough edges.

Its commercial sequel, Natural Selection 2, never grabbed me the same way.

Writing Have You Playeds for multiplayer games is sad. While few Natural Selection servers are still running, if you missed it you’ll never know the game I once did. You won’t find the same players, the same skill, the same energy. But it was once one of the finest multiplayer games.


  1. Artist says:

    Played NatSel religiously for 4 straight years. One of the best games Ive ever played. As RTS/FPS-hybrid its still the best of its kind, but while mixing the best of both worlds it also alienated players from both worlds: Too complex for many FPS-players and most RTS-players cant stand to have to deal with “units” that have their own mind, hehe!

    Amazing game. The successor is okish. Still better than any other FPS/RTS-Hybrids. Too sad that UWE strangled their community do death with they slow updates, buggy engine and lack of mandatory blancing (Onos first). That was the death-blow to the forming competitive community. So much potential wasted..

  2. Pheeze says:

    This was my number 1 game for many years. NS2 doesn’t come close to capturing me as NS1 did. Siege maps, Fade acid spam, frantic moments trying to build the last IP while the rest of your team waited to spawn… good times.

    Tried playing some the other day, but it seems like there are no populated servers left. How I yearn for the days of playing on the Wonga NS or ABLE.ns servers!

  3. PseudoKnight says:

    Possibly my favorite team multiplayer game of all time. I absolutely adore it. You should also check out the Natural Selection 3.0 trailer which is much better looking.

    That game is a great example of missing early versions. When 2.0 and 3.0 came out, there was always some of us wishing we could go back to a prior version. Some of those several hours long 1.04 games were crazy, even if it had bad server performance. Still, I’d take any single version of NS1 and NS2 because it is still so unique even after 14 years.

    • Artist says:

      Yeah, the pre 2.0 epic battles have been amazing. I remember a round on 1.04 that lasted 3.5hrs of most intense hive control swapping. Very equal, strong public teams and not single boring minute.
      Many of us have been sad when they optimized 2.0 for 20min tournament rounds.

      • Zum says:

        This. Logged in to just post this. After 2.0 hit, i played it for quite some time, but i miss the old days of 3 or 4 hours battle if the team are balanced.

        Playing as a Marine and having to build a whole new base due to attacks, than pushing back the aliens to just one hive, only to be pushed back again, i mean it felt like a real war, with “frontlines” and resources constantly shifting. Or as a Alien, rushing to defend the last hive, while some other members prepare a new one, to avoid losing since the marines are already pounding on your hive :D

        To me they should only correct some issues in version 2.0 instead of rebalancing everything for quick matches (for example the infinite jetpack that could happen lol).

        • starclaws says:

          The 3-4 hour games are usually because aliens can’t figure out how to bile bomb rush phase gates or marines can’t work together to push 2nd hive. AKA poor teamwork.

  4. peterako1989 says:

    well I went to a house party once

  5. Artist says:

    What I miss the most about NatSel 1 is the outright panic that exploded when the rines got a porter up in front of your hive. Its not the same pace and panic in NatSel 2.

  6. Whelp says:

    Hell yeah! NS was awesome, NS2 is even better. I still play it from time to time.
    Sadly the servers are pretty low-pop these days, due to a combination of steep learning curve and non-existent promotion on the developer’s part.

  7. Trackdoc says:

    If only gearbox had got this team in to do Colonial Marines. The design was nice and tight and plays well despite the limitation of the engine, only prob was everyone wants to be human and not the commander.

  8. HigoChumbo says:

    I’ve played the sequel, and while I really like the concept, the gameplay is quite poorly designed.

    Also, I’m in general an enemy of games in which “bunny-hoping” is possible, and in this one it’s not only possible, but a religion.

    In any case, this game screams for a darker atmosphere, similar to games such as Alien:Isolation or even Doom 3. A marine player should be terrified while walking through a dark corridor.

    • HigoChumbo says:

      The artistic design is terrible as well.

      • TheRealHankHill says:

        Are you mad? NS2 has artistic design and atmosphere only rivaled by Deus Ex HR and KF2. Incredible world building.

        • TheRealHankHill says:

          Throw in STALKER and Metro as well

        • HigoChumbo says:

          Please, look at the alien designs. Absolutelly amateur.

          And In terms of world atmosphere (or even weapon design), even the much older Doom3 looks far better.

  9. Major Seventy Six says:

    I played it a lot. Hail Fraya!

    Parenthood got the best of me before NS2 came out. Althought I bought it, I never got to play as much as I played NS as it is hard to sit through a game without being interrupted by parental tasks. I tend to play long single player games now (Hello Fallout 4 DLC!!!)

  10. Hunchback says:

    NS2 is an excellent shooter game with very interesting mechanics and things… which is sadly almost dead and lost in a world where PC FPS is dominated by CoD and other console ports. *sigh*
    I still boot it every now and then tho, looking for servers. Sadly there’s about 5 active servers left and they are either completely full or completely empty. Hard to find your spot…

    • TheOx129 says:

      I adored NS1 and greatly enjoyed my time with NS2 and still boot it up occasionally, but I think Unknown Worlds made a handful of poor decisions that hurt the latter’s longevity:

      -Way too much time and resources spent on making the game eSports friendly. Attempts at artificially manufacturing an eSports scene for your game tend to end poorly, and this also led to conflicts regarding design between the casual and competitive players

      -Creating a game engine from scratch, while allowing them to do some cool things for the game, was also probably not the best use of time and resources. Justifying it – at least in part – by telling themselves they could recoup some costs by licensing the engine was also a bit silly in a world where Unity, UE3/4, etc. were becoming increasingly ubiquitous

      -No sort of skill-based matchmaking system. Given how small the playerbase is, it wouldn’t even matter now, but it would have helped a lot on release and shortly thereafter. The game quickly reached a point where competitive players would stack teams and led to *very* fast, one-sided matches that caused casual players to leave in droves (or just bounce off the game entirely if they bought it on sale or something)

    • HigoChumbo says:

      I wouldn’t call a game which does not even have weapon recoil an “excellent shooter”. The shooting mechanics are extremelly simplistic (your aim is the same while running, crouching, jumping…).

      Again, I really dig the concept of the game, but the execution is mediocre at best.

      • Hunchback says:

        “(your aim is the same while running, crouching, jumping…).” it is not, really. And they are also changing a lot with the patches…

  11. tixylix says:

    NS2 had one big issue and that was the engine, it’s so unstable and poorly optimised, none of my friends could run it smoothly and when the end game starts the servers struggle and it becomes laggy.

    They should have just used Source or UE.

    • Distec says:

      I remember purchasing NS2 because I was such a fan of the original mod. And while I was fair bit above the minimum requirements, it was pretty much unplayable. I’d boot it up occasionally in case patches fixed the performance issues, but it always sucked.

      Now I have a PC that could run it at twice its maximum settings (were that possible) and I even reinstalled it to give it a whirl with my new rig. But I’ve never launched it.

      Oh well.

  12. DrunkMonkey says:

    NS2 has had copious updates, performance is brilliant.
    It’s sad to see all the, NS1 was great but NS2 is not malark. it’s still more original and brilliant than 900,000 other games, each round is still fresh and exciting.

    Come and see for yourself at the Thirsty Onos

  13. Einsammler says:

    I did, but for some reason I couldn’t hit anything. My computer at the time couldn’t handle the base alien’s melee attack, dropping frames as the jaws go nom nom nom over the screen, but I had no excuse for the marine rifles.

  14. Duke of Chutney says:

    I preferred NS1 over 2, though im not really sure why. I think NS2 in many respects is the more rounded game. For me it might be just it was so original to me in the mid 00s. NS1 captured the man vs alien sctick AVP multiplayer never really nailed. I also think the greater asymmetry of NS1 helped. Winning as a marine comm in NS1 was a bit more satisfying than in NS2.

  15. AngryAnt says:

    I utterly adored NS1 when it came out. Must have sunk an obscene number of hours into it. I loved the idea of the game, which realistically hasn’t been captured since.

    NS2 was fun, for the good year or so I played it. Made a few friends via steam who i still play with now thanks to it, but they really didnt recapture things. Sadly it died all too soon.

  16. best_jeppe says:

    I never played NS1 but I did and do play NS2 and to me its one of the best Multiplayer-experiences ever. It easily beats AAA competitive MP-shooters.

    We are a few people from RPS that still play the game from time to time. We are trying to meet-up bi-weekly with the next scheduled this upcoming monday march 21st at 20.00 CET.

    If you are interested in meeting up join the Rock Paper Skulk-group on Steam for further instructions.

  17. RanDomino says:

    Have I! As far as I’m concerned this is the only game that exists and all others are crude imitations.

    There were so many great moments that people haven’t mentioned. I loved sitting in a vent as a skulk and sniping with the parasite. The panic of Lerk-gassing. Laughing at Lerk gas as a Heavy. Staring at the Onos sphincter after your heavy was eaten. Okay, that part I didn’t love, but it was funny. Gorge rushing! Until the commander drops a bunch of shotguns and you just lose.

    Funny how most of the best memories involve being aliens, but I and everyone else always wanted to be marines. Maybe because marines were more straightforward/easier/casualer.

    Anyone remember Combat Mode? It… existed. The mods for it were great, though.

    • PseudoKnight says:

      I always wanted to be aliens. I’m glad that there were plenty of volunteer knees for us knee-biters.

  18. DanMan says:

    I played it some back in the day. I also bought v2, but I’ve yet to play it. Backlog is real.

  19. starclaws says:

    This game is the greatest game to ever exist though. Natural Selection 1 that is. And for those talking about pub play here, there existed a completely different level at competitive play. Check stuff like: link to youtu.be
    and link to youtube.com

    Really the only frag movies though… But if you didn’t play against some of these guys you didn’t manage to pick them off a few times at the start. You were slaughtered in just a couple minutes. Bunny hopping, hit dodging, and many other movement based skills meant it wasn’t just about aiming in this game. You weren’t just a no scope prodigy. You actually used more than 3 buttons unlike other games.