Developed by a team of enthusiast Natural Selection 2 players, Combat is a standalone spinoff of Unknown Worlds’ multiplayer FPS/RTS hybrid priced at $15/£10. Combat is inspired by the similarly-named mode of the original Natural Selection for Half-Life, so this is a continuation of the same concept.
That's just the elevator pitch, but the most admirable aspect is Combat's close modding ties. I loved seeing Faultline's efforts reflecting one of PC gaming's greatest pillars: creating custom content borne from passionate players. I've stabbed, sniped, and jetpacked my way through Combat like any other space shooter, but it's nice to recognize its player-driven origins.
Less appreciable is the decision to cart Combat for moneydollars. Few mods—even ones grown up as standalone games—want my wallet pulled out, so my expectations weighed not just on experiential value but also on determining if it's worth the cost. That shift in mindset adds weight on the importance of Combat proving its worth.
In basic terms, Combat is NS2 stripped of its strategy—the top-down commander role from NS2 is cut. Teams of up to 10 players on the Marine or Kharaa (alien) side load up into a map, meet at objective locations and chokepoints, and shoot/bite/flame/fart toxins at each other until either home base is overrun or enough capture points are taken. The five maps included in the launch keep true to NS2’s dark and dense sci-fi, but I didn’t see much beyond Facility in Space, Overgrown Facility, or Facility Underground. By my fifth return trip to Infested Facility, I was yearning for more variety.
What I did like seeing was the way that Combat has preserved Natural Selection’s asymmetry between man and monster. Combat’s progression system utilizes NS2’s basic framework of tech versus organic adaptability with increasingly stronger weapons, armor, and Kharaa lifeforms unlocking during a match. Fragging fills an XP bar, and leveling up (with a max level of 15) awards a single point spent on upgrades such as swapping an assault rifle for a flamethrower or morphing into a deadly flying Lerk. It’s a very MOBA-ish approach to shaping the flow of a game but in slimmer format—no minions, jungle creatures, or lanes here.
It’s a neat way of learning the basics before jumping into NS2 proper. Beginners familiarize themselves with the Kharaa’s emphasis on stealthy flank attacks and the Marines’ strength in numbers. Experienced players head to Combat for a break from relying on a good commander to have fun. It’s a theory I’m desperately wanting to throw my support at, but the drawbacks are too steep to ignore.
An abandoned war
The reality of it is I just can’t recommend sinking time into Combat. It isn’t because of difficulty, imbalancing, or bugs. It’s just empty. At the time of writing, only one server was active out of the entire list, and it was full most of the time. Populating a deserted server sometimes took hours, and I would only manage to pull in three or four idling players for small skirmishes. Seeing all those zeroes in the player count column was a disheartening sign from the start.
On the active server, I’d often run against juggernaut teams of veterans who would quickly bulldoze their way to my team’s base and simply off us as we spawned before blowing up our power core. That’s certainly not an issue inherent to Combat, but it weakened any sort of hook that kept me going for extra rounds. Outside of lopsided battles, I scrabbled for something reflective of NS2’s identity, but nothing appeared. It was just humans and aliens slaughtering each other for half an hour.
Loading into a round also took abnormally long at times. On my i7 PC with 8GB RAM and a GTX 670, I’d enter a match after sometimes waiting up to 10 minutes. I’d occasionally get stuck on a loading screen and would have to close the game manually try again even after switching to a lower resolution or after a complete reinstall. I didn’t encounter these problems every time, but they showed up often enough to preclude them as sporadic hitches.
What’s most disappointing is seeing Combat’s potential dancing just out of reach every time I flame a Skulk or hack away at faces as a Fade. The framework is in place for a truly worthy NS2 alternative, and I feel that if Faultine had made the extra effort to branch out with new modes or a different approach to NS2’s systems—I’d love a Spies vs. Mercs setting of perma-cloaked Kharaa up against infrared-goggled Marines—the price wouldn’t factor into anyone’s decision to grab it. At the moment, save your money and stick with NS2.