Somewhere between the initial conceptualization process and the later stages of development, the opportunity for Turtle Rock Studios’ promising new multiplayer concept to transform into a full-fledged, consumer-ready product almost met the chopping block before it was ever fully realized. After barely escaping the devastating collapse of publisher THQ and suffering from a grueling five year development cycle, the studio responsible for the critical and commercial success of the original Left 4 Dead is finally ready to completely unveil the one project they’ve been viciously fighting tooth and nail to see released: Evolve.
As the highly-anticipated fruit of Turtle Rock’s labor, Evolve pushes the boundaries of Left 4 Dead’s asymmetric, competitive multiplayer (particularly the Tank-vs-survivors aspect) by honing in on an even more ambitious, unevenly balanced humans-versus-monster setup. It’s an intriguing gameplay design that understandably possesses its own share of flaws, but that doesn’t mean that Turtle Rock’s innovative new monster-hunting follow-up is a complete disappointment. Evolve still manages to effortlessly present itself as a welcome breath of fresh air amid the ever-stagnant atmosphere of more conventional multiplayer experiences – despite its own noticeably apparent limitations.
Similar in many respects to Titanfall’s own bare-bones story approach, for instance, Evolve’s narrative only exists to support its seemingly endless array of small-scale battles. Therefore the paper-thin premise surrounding each conflict remains relatively simple: a malevolent plague of alien monsters has begun to indiscriminately destroy established human colonies on the planet Shear, and it’s up to a ragtag team of creature-slaying hunters to dispose of this colossal threat and rescue as many survivors from the ensuing chaos as possible. In-game chatter and repetitive, match-initiating dropship cutscenes help flesh out this diverse cast of hunters – and thus, the narrative itself, providing a bit of character-enhancing information to invested players seeking more depth out of the game’s skeleton-like story structure. However, the lack of a detailed backstory for each specific hunter seems like a missed opportunity for Turtle Rock, especially considering that it would have added more substance to Evolve’s relatively lackluster narrative.
Admittedly this minimalist story setup is designed only to incorporate a flimsy sense of purpose behind the true meat and potatoes of Evolve: four-versus-one cooperative/competitive multiplayer. Four player-controlled hunters cooperate together, utilizing their own class-specific weaponry and abilities to track, trap and annihilate one of Shear’s gigantic alien invaders. Meanwhile, one lone player wreaks havoc as said creature; evading the hunters, hungrily feasting on Shear’s diverse fauna and evolving into a towering, human-decimating brute capable of obliterating the disparate hunters that so foolishly oppose them. Self-controlled bots tend to substitute for absent players from time to time to keep matches consistently fair, but the bulk of the game ultimately relies on controller-clinching, all-or-nothing battles between real-life human beings.
Side with the hunters and you’ll gain the opportunity to choose between four potential character classes, each of which define your specific role on the battlefield. Assault players are predictably the damage-dealers, utilizing their invulnerable shield to temporarily absorb the creature’s deadly onslaught and dish out some punishment of their own. Trappers are vital for tracking and containing the beast, impeding its mobility with useful equipment like harpoon guns and stasis grenades, and deploying mobile arenas (dome-like force fields designed to enclose a small, specific portion of any given map) to prevent the monster from fleeing the scene of a fight. Medics keep the entire team alive via medguns, healing grenade launchers and their health-increasing class ability. And finally, support players aid their fellow teammates using a combination of tools – including cloaking fields, UAVs and sentry guns – to help give the hunters a tactical edge in combat.
Altogether there are twelve total hunters, three for each of the four aforementioned classes, with each possessing their own character-specific weapons and secondary abilities. For instance, the first-tier support character, Hank, possesses a damage-reducing shield projector and a monster-leveling orbital airstrike ability, whereas both fellow hunters Bucket and Cabot get the job done utilizing equipment like sentry guns and damage amplifiers respectively. Every hunter, regardless of their class, brings something new to the table; new abilities, new equipment, new weapons and, in return, perhaps more advanced and efficient strategies in which to eradicate Shear’s over-sized pest problem. Thus, learning your selected character inside and out, and trying out other unlocked hunters along the way feels incredibly satisfying, especially considering that experimenting with different characters might just allow you to coordinate and execute new, potentially match-winning tactics your team wasn’t capable of performing before.
If you happen to be more of a lone wolf type of player, however, you’re bound to feel more comfortable controlling one of Evolve’s three planet-invading monstrosities. Goliath is a gargantuan, primitive-looking, rage-fueled creature who devastates its victims with a barrage of melee-centric attacks and incinerating fire breath. Kraken is a Lovecraftian-inspired nightmare of tentacles and teeth who ambushes threats with a bombardment of long-range, electricity-based attacks mid-flight. And then there’s Wraith, a grotesque extraterrestrial whose stealth-based abilities like explosive teleportation and the temporary, self-cloning decoy are designed to confuse, disorient, and panic any poor hunter who comes into contact with it.
We enjoyed playing as Goliath, whose third stage of evolution would dramatically transform the monster into a pure force of unrivaled destruction. Leap smashing into the center of unaware hunters, violently throwing large chucks of earth at airborne foes and scorching left-over survivors into overcooked hamburger felt immensely empowering, even after ten straight matches of tearing players apart as the hulking brute. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy raining electrified death from above as the Kraken or assassinating unsuspecting hunters from the shadows as the deadly Wraith. However, it always seemed to feel more gratifying slaughtering our technology-equipped adversaries face to face with our razor-sharp claws when we decided to play as one of Evolve’s three monsters.
Regardless of what faction you choose, Evolve’s less conventional progression system (which does include unlockable perks and banner customization) will challenge you to acquire additional characters by gradually increasing the first “mastery” level of each hunter’s or monster’s particular set of skills. To unlock the second-tier assault character Hyde, for instance, players must master Markov’s initial weapon and equipment skills first. Continuing to progress Markov’s skill set only minimally boosts his weapon and equipment stats, so you must therefore play as Hyde and master his first-tier skills in order to unlock the next and last playable assault character. Since some hunters and monsters understandably require more playtime than others to progress their skill masteries, we wouldn’t be surprised if some players decided to grind progression meters in solo matches to obtain the playable character they desire.
We’re not developers, but a progression system where players are forced to painstakingly progress the skills of characters they may not enjoy playing as is a time-wasting, consumer-frustrating mechanic. Instead of gravitating towards individual skill progressions for each given character, Turtle Rock should have allowed each class type (including assault, medic, support, trapper, and monster) to possess a character-unlocking progression meter of its own. With this sort of system in place, players would have the freedom to stick to their desired characters or even test out newly acquired ones without sacrificing the ability to unlock a new class-specific character.
While there are multiple ways to play Evolve, the most popular match type during our playtime appeared to be Hunt mode. In Hunt, the monster begins the match ahead of the hunters, fleeing from its now compromised feeding grounds in order to chow down on Shear’s wildlife. By hunting and munching down on prey, the creature begins to prepare for an inevitable showdown, evolving into a more intimidating and powerful death-dealer in the process. The monster’s last stage of evolution transforms it into a near-unstoppable killing machine while simultaneously unlocking a secondary objective it can destroy to automatically win the match. Thus it’s essential for the hunters, in return, to track and slay the retreating abomination as quickly as humanly possible in order to achieve victory in Hunt mode.
In retrospect, we thoroughly enjoyed incapacitating hunters and annihilating monsters in Hunt mode, but there were admittedly times where matches developed the uncanny habit of drifting between boring and downright frustrating. Sometimes tiresome monster pursuits would leave our crew of hunters mindlessly racing from one side of the map to the other, with alerted carrion birds and discarded animal caresses hinting at another missed opportunity to kill Shear’s new menace. Other times poor match-making would pair us up with low level, inexperienced teammates who’d carelessly bum-rush the enemy and consequently die in spectacular fashion, leaving the rest of us to deal with the headache-inducing aftermath.
It’s bad enough using these reckless tactics as a stage one monster, charging into the center of the hunters and predictably succumbing to a quick death as a result. But as a hunter, transforming into creature chow at a moment’s notice has the potential to instantly jeopardize the match for the entire group since each character class plays such a fundamental role in the success of the team. Since death isn’t exactly taken lightly in Evolve (the monster only gets one life, for instance), these kinds of occurrences have a tendency to sway your impression of the game unfavorably. Hence, the most ideal way to experience all that Evolve has to offer is alongside a close-knit group of friends, generating a party atmosphere where every player personally knows one another and regularly changes roles on the battlefield in order to keep matches feeling fresh and exciting.
If cycling through matches of Hunt isn’t quite your cup of tea, there’s always Evolve’s more entertaining Evacuation mode to keep you busy. In Evacuation, hunters attempt to rescue as many of Shear’s colonists as possible in a five-part mini campaign which cycles players through four match types: Hunt, Nest, Rescue, and Defend. Each match features two possible environmental effects, with the winning team directly impacting the next map and gaining a slight advantage as a result. Match winning – or losing – cutscenes detail exactly what players can expect on the battlefield, with a hunter win resulting in bullet-spraying sentry guns or a monster win unlocking damage-dealing radioactive clouds, for example. To counter consistent losing streaks, Evacuation also features a newcomer-friendly auto-balance system that helps eliminate the hair-pulling irritation of one-sided shutouts, making this particular match type a far more forgiving addition to Evolve.
Personally, we grew to love Evacuation mode for introducing us to smidgens of tactical goodness like Nest. In Nest, the monster possesses the ability to hatch one of the eggs its guarding into an AI-controlled Goliath minion which, in return, can help decimate the creature’s pesky hunter problem. This advantage comes at the sacrifice of one of the monster’s eggs, however, so performing this particular maneuver can consequently advance the hunters one step closer to victory if they eliminate the hatched offspring. Therefore strategically juggling between guarding eggs, evolving and protecting your vulnerable minion (if you decide to hatch one) as the monster or destroying eggs (and the minion), killing buff-rewarding wildlife and slaughtering the monster as a hunter soon becomes a frantic, multitasking ordeal of sorts. More than a simple humans-vs-monster affair, Nest offers a much more satisfying level of complexity and challenge to those searching for more depth in Evolve’s match types.
Whether it’s saving helpless colonists in Rescue or beating the tar out of objectives and hunters in Defend, Evacuation mode offers a constant stream of engaging match types that are bound to provide you with water cooler moments on par with Left 4 Dead’s own heart-pounding multiplayer modes. Though we described Nest as one of our absolute favorites, you can rest easy knowing Defend and Rescue inject just enough variation into Evolve’s standard Hunt formula to make them unique, highly replayable additions to Evacuation’s stimulating match repertoire as well.
With Turtle Rock charging a steep $60 admission price at retail, we were quite alarmed by the surprising lack of content Evolve actually contains. If you’re a multiplayer enthusiast, you can expect only two different game modes – including Skirmish (which only cycles through maps in Hunt mode) and Evacuation – to choose from right out of the box. The same applies to single-player, which still includes Evacuation but replaces Skirmish with Quick Play mode (a match type which cycles out maps and modes after each round). Both play modes include a custom, private match option that allow you and your friends to participate in tweaked versions of familiar match types, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. Throw in the fact that the map variety is astonishingly homogeneous (aside from a few note-worthy standouts like the snow-covered King’s Fort) and Evolve’s most promising feature becomes the incredible assortment of hunters and monsters the game accommodates.
Turtle Rock has previously promised that free maps and premium hunters and monsters will arrive shortly after the game’s release. However, if the current map selection and downright ridiculous season pass price (which includes four new playable hunters and three monster skins for a whopping $25) is any indication of Evolve’s future, then we are deeply concerned with the longevity of the game.
Complaints aside, Evolve is an ambitious, intelligently designed shooter that’s weakened by the noticeably apparent flaws cracking its otherwise rock-solid structure. Between the well-crafted asymmetric gameplay, satisfying teamplay dynamics and simple-but-deep character class mechanics, Evolve could have easily innovated the genre in ways more conventional offerings wouldn’t dare touch. Unfortunately, Evolve never quite taps into its true potential to deliver players a ground-breaking experience worthy of all its pre-launch hype.