The realm of multiplayer console gaming has been stagnating in recent years, reduced for the most part to a string of variously rehashed first-person gun orgies and match after match of a certain relentlessly iterative football sim. Despite scattered moments of genuine spark and inspiration, mainstream console gaming has been simply begging for something little more, for something new, for an evolution.
Thankfully, Turtle Rock Studios seem to have come up with an answer to that call. Early passengers on the asymmetrical multiplayer bandwagon, the studio championed their epically-hyped, monster hunting blockbuster with the concise yet informative ‘#4V1’ and the rest is history. Evolve is the beast that, after a long development arc and several delays, has finally burst forth from the ominous, glowing egg the PR-machine has been pointing at for months on end, but the question is: Does it have any bite?
Evolve’s asymmetry is simply explained in broad terms, but its nuances are subtler and much trickier to simply outline. Essentially, Evolve’s innovation comes in that rather than having two teams of equal size, equipped to roughly equal standards and letting them wage war, we’re given one team of four humans, each with highly specialised roles and equipment, to hunt, trap and kill one solitary monster.
So that’s the 4v1 taken care of, but where Evolve’s gameplay really goes Darwinian is in how the process of evolution drives a distinct shift in the precarious and fickle balance of power. Initially the monster is on the back foot, underpowered and vulnerable, trying to get as far out of the hunters’ way as possible. Surreptitiously creeping around the map is the name of the monster’s game in these early stages, snacking on the various (most often unfriendly) fauna of the alien worlds that play host to these frenzied, frantic games of cat and mouse. Each mouthful drives the hulking titan closer to its next evolution, as well as the accompanying swell in stats.
With three levels of evolution, the stage one monster is weak and vulnerable, where the stage two monster is more or less on a level pegging with the team of hunters, perhaps still at a slight disadvantage. When the monster reaches stage three, it’s amply powerful to easily dispatch its hunter foes. To make matters worse for the awesome foursome, a second path to monster victory is at this point opened up: destruction of a power relay. This design element was clearly, and rightly, implemented to prevent an endless chase in the latter stages of a hunt.
By smelling and tracking its prey, the monster should try to evolve as quickly as possible, moving as stealthily as possible and trying to avoid disturbing the flocks of birds that when startled will give away its position. When strong enough, the monster’s normal attacks, operated via the triggers, can be combined with four special moves. For the first and simplest monster type, the Goliath, these include the throwing of huge, projectile chunks of rock, fire breathing, a leap-and-slam move and a charge move.
Close quarters combat can quickly devolve into total chaos, with seemingly no method to the madness. Simply keep cycling through the special abilities, juggling move cooldowns, to press the advantage.
Playing as the monster is the simplest role, on a par with the most basic of the hunter classes, the Assault. With massive health and a deployable personal shield, the Assault is designed with serious amounts of sustainability in mind. Soaking up the heat and allowing the rest of the team to focus on their support roles, the Assault is the quintessential tank character, taking the player right into the epicentre of combat.
Supporting are the Medic, the Support and the Trapper. The Medic is characterised predominantly with a ray gun-style healing beam, keeping their comrade’s health topped up, and given extra dimension being equipped with the tranquiliser gun and the armour-piercing sniper rifle, which slow the monster and attach armour debuffs to it respectively.
The Support can unleash death from above by calling in airstrikes, which can prove to be catastrophic for all involved, indiscriminately blasting all and sundry to the four corners of the map, whilst inviting frustrated torrents of abuse from one’s teammates over the voice chat channels.
The Trapper’s role is vital, coming equipped with a mobile arena, they can lay down an energy-dome, preventing fleeing monsters from making their escape. This often proves a pivotal, hunt-defining ability when attempting to nip it in the bud and take care of a monster prior to its evolution.
For each class, including the monster, progression is logged and mapped out on a linear path. Achieving ‘mastery’ in specific skill areas within a class will endow permanent buffs upon certain abilities and as progress is made, new characters / monster types will unlock, each with their own, defining, unique ability.
Switching character types ushers in particularly drastic gameplay changes for the monster player as they swap from the initial brawl-type monster, the Goliath. Changing over to the second, dubbed the Kraken, has more range and swifter, airborne movement. The final beast included in the retail package is the Wraith. As you’d have it, this is a stealth-based creature, adapted for the skulking in the shadows, doling out its damage and vanishing back into the darkness.
Mastering the specialities and intricacies of each class and character will come with experience, but particularly neat and helpful is the after map summary page which presents a map with a sped up, top-down replay of hunter and monster movements. This should help in becoming accustomed to the routes monster-players tend to take and may give some inspiration for some sneaky, unexpected routes of your own when your turn comes to bare your fangs.
Initially difficult to gauge the weight of, player movement tends to feel sluggish. As the monster, this is rectified with judicious timing of leaps and charges, but as a hunter your only reprieve from the drudgery of walking is almost total reliance on your jetpack. In some kind of sick joke, the developers have ensured that the jetpack will always expend its last dregs of fuel at the most critical of moments; loud, irrepressible rage typically ensues.
In terms of its visual aesthetic, Evolve hangs out its wares on the usual xenomorphic storefront. Conceptually, we’ve seen it all before, but in terms of creature design, the stylistic cocktail that lands halfway between Aliens and Jurassic Park gives a decent range of fauna for target practice and for monster kibble.
The level design is nothing overtly original, and the viable paths through them feel contrived, over-engineered, unnatural and synthetic. It’s designed with balanced gameplay as the objective, perhaps, but the levels are unconvincing in terms of their immersive properties and contribute to the detached and arcadey character of the overall game.
Fattening out the offering are a range of alternative play modes. The staple and mainstay is evidently ‘Hunt’, though other modes present players with different objectives. ‘Defend’ tasks the Hunters with guarding a series of generators and a fuel line for a refuelling op, whilst ‘Evacuation’ bundles together all aspects of Evolve, spreading them across a miniature campaign of five matches strung together, in which world states and the events of previous matches will have direct consequences in the next. This mode is the closest Evolve comes to having a shred of a sustained narrative. On the converse, ‘Nest’ sees a scattering of monster eggs spread across the map. From these, the monster-player can spawn minions (only one at a time) to aid in their flight from the Hunters, who win if they manage to destroy all the eggs before the time limit runs dry.
A host of wacky caricatures make up the hunters, their banter humanising the alien scenario through levity, making their exploits relatable. Amazingly, the monster even had me pitying it as it scurried, starving in search of food. Admittedly this pity rapidly dissolved as evolution took hold.
The characterisation and personality of the playable entities in the game are a strength; the real shame is that when the road forked, and Turtle Rock faced the dilemma of whether to make Evolve a serious piece of art with drama to match the formidably crafted and maddeningly compulsive gameplay, the devs took the easy way out, sacrificing depth of experience for the instantly gratifying fizz-bang-wallop of multiplayer focussed gaming. Fizz-bang-and-wallop, it has in abundance, and it definitely has bite to match. But as time takes its toll and the dentures come a ’gnashin’, I fear that where it missed its chance to be something truly profound, Evolve will merely come and go after a brief heyday atop the food chain, just another stopgap in the process of evolution, having left little more than a superficial footprint in the forgetful sands of time.