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.