Evolve is the latest release from seasoned first person shooter veterans, Turtle Rock Studios, and their first original IP release in over seven years. Evolve boasts an “asymmetrical multiplayer experience”, whereby a team of four humans do combat with a monster in various game modes, usually fighting to the death. Focussing on power imbalance is a dangerous gameplay choice, which precariously places Evolve upon the edge of a knife. Poor balancing, lacklustre characters, a lame class or redundant map design would each alone completely unhinged the experience. Luckily, from the dozen or so hours that I’ve played Evolve so far, it appears they’ve avoided catastrophe – barely.
In its most basic mode, Evolve pits a team of humans comprised of four distinct classes against a vile monster which, by stealthily patrolling the map and feasting on local wildlife, aims to gain experience and evolve (get it?) into a stronger incarnation of itself. If the players kill the monster, they win. If the monster reaches its final stage of evolution, it can win by killing the players, or destroying a generator within the level. Determining who is hunting who is a nebulous question, with the balance of power between the players and the monster ebbing and flowing constantly within a round. Each encounter lasts for around 20 minutes or so at the longest, so it’s pretty easy to rack up a large number of games quickly. At the end of each round, players gain experience for the different special abilities they used, which in turn unlocks damage bonuses, new characters and tangential items.
Playing as the monster is the most demonstrably different gameplay quirk that Evolve possesses, and as such the game sends you through a fairly lengthy tutorial process to learn how to play as the lumbering giant. Starting as a level one monster, the player is tasked with hunting weaker prey and consuming them. This grants bonuses in terms of experience and shielding, which can be used to absorb the attacks of others. The shielding on the monster can be regenerated by consuming more creatures, however, the health of the monster cannot. As such, it’s imperative to ensure that the monster is adequately protected at all times. When the monster gains enough experience, it can evolve, levelling up its abilities, growing in size and strength and shedding all of its precious armour. The evolution process takes around 15 seconds and leaves the monster highly vulnerable, meaning that the decision of when and where to evolve is tantamount to success.
The monster is a lumbering giant, easily five or ten times the size of the human players. Its size can be a disadvantage, as even the simple act of traversing the terrain leaves telltale signs for the human players to follow and hunt. Walking leaves tracks which can be followed. Knocking over trees and shrubbery creates noticeable pathways where the monster had walked. Flocks of birds can be scared if walked too close to, which create a visual notification on the players screen. By using a stealth mode that doesn’t leave tracks, climbing up ledges and leaping great distances, the monster can travel and avoid leaving pathways. The obviousness of the monsters travel and its exposure during times of evolution and feeding help create this dichotomous feeling of contiguous strength and vulnerability that constantly flips during a match.
By comparison, the human players are much weaker, and more single-minded in their task: hunt and kill the monster, before it kills them. Each of the four classes (Assault, Medic, Trapper and Support) play a very distinct and important role in the hunt, and without effective teamwork and appropriate use of their individual abilities, will lead to imminent failure.
The Assault is the primary damage dealer of the group, equipped with a variety of weaponry that attacks from multiple distances. The assault player is the one charging head-first into the fray, getting up into a monsters face before falling back for some healing. When played effectively, the assault strikes at the monster like a bat out of hell. The initial Assault character that is unlocked, Markov, is a fairly standard first-person shooter type of guy and is easy to understand and play.
The Medic is the primary healer of the group, concerned with keeping the various hunters on their feet and in the fight. The initial Medic, Val, has a heal beam that once it latches onto a player, continues to boost their health until a new target is located. Val also comes equipped with a tracking dart gun and sniper rifle, which pierces the monsters armour and creates a weak point for the other hunters to exploit for a damage bonus.
The Trapper specializes in finding and trapping the monster in place, so that the other players can attack and destroy. The trapper can create a mobile arena in an area, erecting a large bubble shield that traps the monster inside for a short period of time. The primary hunter, Maggie, can also lay a number of traps that will harpoon the monster and lock it in place. Maggie also has a pet that catches the scent of the monster, and will help direct players to find it amongst the thick underbrush.
Lastly, the Support is equipped with a number of tools and abilities designed to make the fight easier. The primary support character, Hank, comes equipped with a shield projector which operates similarly to Val’s medic ability, a cloaking device for the team and an orbital barrage of missiles.
Each character class is distinct and enjoyable upon their own merits. Surprisingly, no one class feels overpowered or unenjoyable – rather, each has their own distinct play style and mechanics that help make them feel original and new. That distinctiveness is very important in games with rigid multiplayer class requirements, as being forced to play as a lesser enjoyable classes can get old quickly. Instead, though each player will inevitably have their favourites, no one class will be a chore.
Playing as a hunter feels very different to playing as a monster. The world seems much larger and more imposing. The small creatures the monster is attacking for food can be magnificently large to the individual human, and pack more than their fair share of a punch. Hunting these creatures can be a boon for everyone: certain wild creatures will carry unique buffs that once killed, can be transferred to the player. These buffs will boost cooldowns, increase the mobility of the player or make them better hunters. Even though the sense of danger from being in the world is far greater for the player, there are just as many rewards for their exploration as there is for the monster.
Primarily, the human characters will be hunting the monster across the vast maps in an effort to slow it down and kill it. The maps that come with the base game are all very unique, with different gameplay styles and tactics required depending on which one is used. When the players find sight of the monster, they can place a small tracking beacon by pressing in the right stick on their controller. Working together as a team, four hunters should be able to take down a mediocre monster most of the time. Unfortunately, failures in teamwork will see the monster easily trounce the players. As far as a balance of power between the two sides goes, it ends up being very even.
After a match, the players each gain two types of experience: individual character experience and their overall level experience. Each character gains experience for how much their individual abilities were used. Once all three ability experience levels are completed, the player unlocks the next character in that class. The overall experience level unlocks additional shapes and shaders for the emblem creator, as well as a few ancillary benefits.
The character unlock system is novel, albeit somewhat flawed. By forcing the player to use *all* of their abilities equally to level up and unlock more content, the game systematically changes the behaviours of the players and alters the way they would ordinarily complete each mission. I found levelling Markov’s rifle and lightning cannon to be quite simple, but his arc-mines were difficult and finicky to use. When I would focus on using them, I was actively neglecting using my more effective abilities and compromising the fight for my team. Some rebalancing of the way these unlocks occur is necessary.
Then, there’s the real elephant in the room: the disturbing amounts of DLC available and unique content unavailable to different players. Turtle Rock have been adamant to insist that all map packs will remain free for every player, but there are over forty different skin packs available to purchase and nearly ten DLC characters already planned for. Were it that Evolve felt lacking for content, this would be of greater concern, but with fifteen characters in the base game already and a good number of maps and gameplay modes, it’s hard to complain too much. The availability of DLC isn’t a problem in concept, and in this case the availability of DLC is not representative of a dearth of content. Still, there’s an uncomfortable feeling that surrounds the additional items in this game, and a faint whiff of something fishy in the air.
Evolve strikes an important balance between being powerful and powerless across all classes and presents each different class with a slew of abilities, environmental cues, combos and video tutorials to make everyone perform at their best ability at all times. Ultimately, however, your gameplay is going to be significantly impaired by a poorly trained partner, or worse, an AI companion (who are universally awful). Unlike most competitive shooters, the balance of power is so keenly tuned here that one misstep on the behalf of either team spells imminent disaster. Playing with a trapper who can’t capture the monster in a mobile arena, for example, makes the entire experience a frustrating, debilitating mess. I’m not the type of gamer who likes foisting the power and control of my experience onto others, so the idea of needing at least three other players to be on top of their game for me to have a good time is a difficult thing to grapple with.
Ultimately, Evolve is a cleverly designed, finely balanced experience that will keep players entertained and hungry for more. There are some definitive teething issues that desperately require fixing – better AI is a mandatory improvement for the inevitable sequel, and how this game launched without local multiplayer is mind-boggling. Also, through no fault of my own I’ve had my progress hard reset twice in the month or so I’ve been playing, and that’s a massive bummer every time. Your experience will be definitively shaped by those you play with, for better or worse, but if you can get in a good match with a smart team and a cunning opponent, there are few game experiences quite as satisfying. The thrill of the hunt is real, and will leave you yearning for more.