No, Josh, you are the monsters
Much like the towering Goliath rampaging through its levels, Evolve is a tough beast to pin down.
As I’m sure you’ve no doubt read by now, the new project from Left 4 Dead co-developer Turtle Rock Studios looks to channel their past experience with asymmetrical multiplayer into a revolutionary online shooter, one that pits a team of four Hunters against a powerful alien, every participant controlled by a real player. Each match is an isolated showdown, where the monster starts off comparatively weak, giving the Hunters the incentive to find him and take him down as quickly as possible. As time progresses, however, the alien will have longer and longer to feast on the local wildlife to build up his armor and eventually allow him to evolve to a higher level. Once he climbs up the food chain, he’ll grow in size and earn new, more lethal abilities.
It’s an idea that has enormous promise, but also one that’s going to require a balancing act of unenviable scope to pull off properly. There’s so much at play in every match that, even after going hands-on for a few rounds, it’s hard to get a feel for the overall picture. There are classes, perks, weapons, abilities, upgrade bonuses, map navigation—and that’s just on the Hunter side. If there’s one thing that was made almost immediately clear, it’s that Evolve will have tremendous depth, with systems built upon systems built upon systems. Turtle Rock Studios isn’t so much designing a single gameplay experience as an ecosystem, where players will be constantly jockeying to discover effective strategies and builds. When you consider the fact that the four Hunters and one monster they’ve shown so far are only the beginning of a wider lineup of choices, the potential for a long-term metagame starts to skyrocket to DoTA levels.
With that in mind, the relatively meager playtime I had—one match as support Hank, one as assault Markov, and one as the apelike monster Goliath—seems a shallow window into the world Evolve. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also an enticing one.
I got to tinker with some nifty abilities, like Hank’s remote shield, which allowed me to temporarily make a player invulnerable to damage so long as I had a line of sight. There were a few moments where I felt like I really came through in the clutch, practically sniping protection onto our medic from far across the map just before the monster would’ve landed a painful swing. Even though I didn’t get to play as the trapper firsthand, I saw how crucial he’ll be to any coordinated team, since he’s by far the most effective at limiting the Goliath’s mobility with his harpoons and dome shields. I got to feel the thrill of working together with a team to slay a monster more powerful than any one of us on our own, and I was made to understand the folly of getting separated from the rest of the pack with some embarrassing, repeated deaths.
The highlight of the session, though, had to by my time as the Goliath. Comparisons to Left 4 Dead‘s Tank are apt—both creatures share similar attack strategies and a few specific moves—but it’s obvious that Evolve‘s monsters will have a lot more to juggle from a strategic standpoint. Trying to balance stealth with speed and ensuring you maintain a comfortable distance while still making progress towards your next evolution isn’t simple. Once you’re in combat, you’ve got another slate of tough choices to make, keeping track of your various attacks and their cooldowns and trying to decide which Hunter should be your number-one priority.
Even though I never made it past the second evolution—early enough that the Hunters had the upper hand—I still felt like a force to be reckoned with in the right situation. When the Hunters decided to throw down the trapper’s dome shield and imprison me in an underground tunnel, I quickly made them realize that they were also trapped in there with me. By using the geography to my advantage, I was able to divide the group, pin their medic in a corner, and go to town on both her and anyone crazy enough to go in for a rescue. It was an interesting mix of feeling empowered and vulnerable, trying to use my superior damage (and toasty fire breath) to take them out one-by-one before their collective efforts were able to chip away at my health a little bit at a time. If the rest of Evolve can deliver experiences like that, I’m completely on board.
I’m not, however, without my concerns. Though I was, of course, playing with other first-timers, I still felt like it was a bit difficult to coordinate as a team, even with voice chat. Calling out classes didn’t seem terribly helpful, since it was difficult to pick out a particular silhouette from a distance. There’s certainly a bit of variance in body shape, but not nearly as much as, say, Team Fortress 2, and I struggled to pick out who I should protect or go begging for heals. In addition, the initial stage of any match seemed a little bit sparse for the Hunters, as they scouted around, hoping to stumble across the monster’s trail or hear the calls of startled birds that give away his presence. It was particularly true when the player controlling Goliath decided to take a stealthy approach from the start—a solid minute or two of aimless wandering elapsed before we had any indication of where to head.
That being said, my time was so admittedly limited and the potential for depth is so readily apparent that those worries have done little to dampen my excitement for the game. I truly can’t oversell the cleverness of what Evolve is trying to accomplish, blending elements of Left 4 Dead, MOBAs, and class-based first person shooters to create something with a simple, approachable concept and infinite replayability. There’s a lot that will need to be fine tuned to get that mix just right, but if Turtle Rock pulls it off, I can see this becoming a major player on the scene, a new and drastically different option for people looking to get their multiplayer shooter fix.