Locating Unknown Worlds at the sprawling Los Angeles Convention Center wasn't an easy task.
After failing twice to substantiate a rumour that the developer had in fact booked a cubicle somewhere near the South Hall, it was beginning to look a bit like the San Francisco-based team might be taking its company name too seriously.
The third exploratory mission saw better planning. Armed with a large fold-away map containing scribbled directions and a large X-marks-the-spot at the supposed locaton (kindly supplied by Gameplanet's Yug Blomberg who fervently preached to its existence) success came in the form of a fully-enclosed booth with a comfortable sofa, large screen TV and a couple of suitably branded Alienware laptops running the latest Natural Selection 2 build.
Such an understated presence is indicative of the small developer. Formed in 2001, the original purpose of Unknown Worlds was to collate development work on the immensely successful Half-Life mod, Natural Selection. This success soon drove plans to create a commercially viable sequel, and despite a number of glitches that has seen development time extend out to the better part of six years, it looks like this dream is about to become a reality.
Natural Selection 2 closely follows gameplay found in the original title. Core to this is the ongoing struggle for supremacy between the forces of the human Frontiersmen and the alien Kharaa, played out in the guise of a relatively simple first-person corridor shooter.
Where the original Natural Selection differs from any number of Half-Life mods promising the same basic action is the addition of a Commander. Upon entering a pod-like structure, the one team player bestowed with this responsibility is able to access a top-down map where structures, upgrades, weapons and ammunition can be doled out according to whatever strategy the Marine forces may dictate. It's the hybrid nature of the first-person combat mixed with real-time strategy that has endeared it to so many over the past decade.
The downside to this however is that should the Marines acquire an inept commander, they'll be devoured faster than a bag of Doritos at a 420 sit-in.
In Natural Selection 2, this previously human-only role has now been extended to the Kharaa forces in order to steer the murderous collection of Skulks, Gorges, Lerks, Fades and Onos to ultimate victory. Unknown Worlds' Hugh Jeremy – also a new addition to the franchise, although not at all murderous – was keen to elaborate:
"We wanted the Alien Commander to not be relaxing as such, but certainly more chilled. More higher-level, cerebral. To grow things out of the infestation, and to think about strategy and placement, not how fast you can click the mouse".
Following this with a brief demonstration, Hugh places various Alien objects utilising a similar top-down perspective to that of the human Commander. Unlike the humans that require a Commander to build structures for them however, the Aliens can just let the structure grow organically. By overlapping structures with resource points, the Alien forces expand out over the map, although as Hugh explains, there's a lot more to it than that:
"The Commander can issue an order that all team members are to be Skulks at the beginning of the game, in order to hit the enemy hard. Try to beat them down into their base to prevent them from expanding. Meanwhile, these structures will be growing very slowly.
"Or, the Commander could ask for four Skulks and two Gorges, so they'll be a little slower on the attack but they'll be able to build their structures and tech a lot faster. Everywhere there are these trade-offs, and complexities."
The complexity at hand extends further than just gameplay additions. Following the abandonment of Valve's Source graphics engine in favour of an in-house solution entitled Spark, Unknown Worlds has altered lighting and textures to more adequately reflect interim technological improvements. Not only does this engine allow limitless tweaking for the developers, it's designed specifically to allow anyone to modify Natural Selection 2. Even absolute novices, as Hugh was quick to point out:
"The entire game is written in a very accessible language called Lua. It's a scripting language that's very high level; even a dolt like me can get in there and change the number of bullets in a rifle, it's a very easy language to learn. Underneath that is the engine, hard-coded stuff, but you can strip off the scripting language and put whatever you want on top of the engine, and have your own game right there."
Aiming for Natural Selection 2 to become "the most modded game ever", Unknown Worlds will include its own level editor, model viewer, and cinematic editor when the game is released on Steam. As to when that will be, and what challenges the team plan to pursue post-launch, Hugh offers the following:
"Late August, first few weeks of September is the release time for us. And the next project after that is to continue with development of Natural Selection 2".
Those unwilling to wait that long can participate in the beta by pre-ordering the game from the official site.