A multiplayer-only game is a risky proposition. While one could argue that Evolve does have a single-player component, it’s simply multiplayer matches against bots, meant to train you for the real thing. A lack of content, as well as declining interest from the userbase due to the game becoming stale, can be the kiss of death for this type of game, as it’s entirely reliant on having a thriving community of players. Luckily, despite some early concerns over a dearth of maps and modes, Evolve shows no sign of getting old anytime soon.
Evolve plays out as a hide-and-seek, cat-and-mouse game between one Monster player and four Hunter players. The Hunters must find and kill the Monster, and the earlier, the better — the Monster roams around the map killing and eating wildlife in order to evolve to the next of three stages, putting points into four various abilities each time. It’s essentially a MOBA, where the Monster player is jungling the entire time. Obviously, the Hunters want to catch it when it’s at stage 1 or 2, because at 3 they’re more or less unstoppable. In case the Hunters decide to just book it, at stage 3 the Monster can also destroy a Power Relay placed somewhere on the map. It can be stopped with just a few shots, so this often isn’t how matches end, but it was a smart addition to keep Hunters from just running out the clock and force a confrontation.
That’s only the Hunt mode, though. You can also start an Evacuation session, which is 5 rounds of varying modes strung together. In Nest, the Hunters have to destroy all of the Monster eggs in a map, and the Monster, of course, has to stop them, but he has a trick up his sleeve: he can hatch one of the eggs, but only one at a time, to create an AI minion, a stage 1 Goliath. They don’t have much health, but can buy you a lot of time, as they always make a beeline straight for the Hunters. There’s also Rescue, where the Hunters have to find, revive, and guide human survivors to a pickup spot, and, you guessed it, the Monster has to kill them.
It culminates in the last mission, Defend, where the Monster begins at stage 3 and has two AI minions that respawn periodically, but he has to destroy two generators and then a power source in order to win, and wiping the Hunter team does not mean victory — they’ll still respawn on the next regularly scheduled dropship. The main problem with Evacuation is that winning a round then gives you a distinct advantage in the next one. If the Hunters successfully defend the Dam, for example, in the next round they’ll have automated turrets all over the map. If the Monster wins on the Wraith Trap map, next time there will be tears in the fabric of reality that allow him to teleport all over the place. It makes it hard to swing back, despite an autobalance attempt that only adjusts the amount of damage dealt by both sides, and the advantages from winning the previous round often far outclass that. Still, it’s an interesting concept, a makeshift “campaign” that can change dramatically due to those modifiers as well as the players voting on what map/mode to play next (strange, as it’s not like the Monster player has a weighted vote). These game modes will sometimes appear even when you’re just in the single-round Hunt playlist as well, but it’s rare. I’m not sure why it happens, either.
There are three Monster types: Goliath (a bipedal beast who leaps like The Hulk, and is the tankiest Monster as of yet), Kraken (a flying Cthulhu-esque monstrosity who is the “mage” to Goliath’s “fighter”, using lightning bolts and shockwaves from afar), and Wraith (the “rogue”, relying on stealth to avoid detection early on, as he’s pretty weak in a head-on fight). Of the four Hunter types, there are three characters in each class as well: Trapper (finds and traps the Monster within a forcefield dome), Assault (damage dealer), Support (defensive specialist, sometimes a secondary tracker), and Medic (if you don’t know what this is, stop playing video games). Most of the characters fit to a specific playstyle, although some are also far more valuable than others. In Support, for example, Hank has a device that can shield any of the other teammates to which he has a line of sight — incredibly useful, as you can just shield whoever the monster is focusing on, and they can’t be hurt, although the shield does have a limited battery. Meanwhile, the robot Bucket can lay down turrets, as well as use his head as a UAV that will place a tracking marker on the Monster if he finds it, but leaves his body vulnerable in the process. The third Support, Cabot, can call an airstrike of dust in an area, painting any animals, including the Monster, with a realtime outline you can see even through terrain. That aids his primary weapon, a railgun that can also shoot through any object.
All of the classes do share one skill, though. Trappers all have the dome, all of the Assaults have a personal shield that grants them invulnerability for a few seconds, Supports have a cloaking field that benefits anybody near them, and Medics have an AOE healing burst that originates from them.
By playing a Hunter or Monster, and using their equipment or skills, you gain Mastery, which is, to me, the main problem in terms of game balancing. By increasing the Mastery level, you get various perks, like +X% damage/range/capacity. Each item or skill has three ranks of Mastery, but to get to the next one you have to reach the previous rank in all of them. This can be especially problematic when it comes to the Monsters, all of whom have at least one skill I never use. Aftershock, a melee-range attack for Kraken, is worthless, but you have to do damage with it, and get it to level 1 Mastery, so you can get Lightning Bolt, Banshee Mines, or Vortex to level 2. This progression system also throws off the, for lack of a better term, e-sports nature of the game. I’m a high enough rank now that I don’t want to play as a character that I don’t already use often, because it feels like I’m gimped without that extra buff.
This Mastery system has one more flaw, as well: it can train players to do things that are actively harmful to their team. The first Trapper, Maggie, has an AI dog, Daisy. Daisy can lead you to the monster, if its AI is working, but it just follows the Monster’s footprints. This is good to know the general direction in which to go, but not to actually trap it. In order to even unlock the next Trapper, you have to get all of Maggie’s Masteries to level 1, which includes one task to follow Daisy for an absurdly long time. Any Trapper worth their salt knows they’re a Trapper, not a tracker. The Monster is always faster than the Hunters, and if you’re going to catch it, you have to know where it’s going and cut it off whenever possible… Not follow a dumbshit AI dog around forever until the Monster evolves to stage 3 and wrecks all of you.
The other aspect of the progression is that you gain perks you can pick from at the beginning of a match. These are mostly things like “weapons/items reload/recharge 33% faster”, “10% increased damage output”, things like that. You can only pick one, and they become more potent as your overall rank goes up, so unlike Masteries, as long as your Rank is the same as those you’re playing against, these don’t give any sort of significant advantage. It’s just another way to tailor the game to your playstyle, which is welcome.
One thing the developers, Turtle Rock Studios, deserve an insane amount of credit for is realizing this world and its characters so well for a game that essentially has no “story”. The planet of Shear’s various environments have a ton of variety, with jungles, swamps, icy outposts, deserts, and lakes, often within the same map. All of the wildlife present in the maps has their own function, as well, and learning how they react to both the Hunters and the Monster is incredibly important. Meerkat-like Spotters let out a high-pitched noise if they see the Monster, giving you an audio clue as to where it might be sneaking around. Megamouths are curled up in balls, disguised as boulders, but have no problem getting their chomp on if any unwary Hunters wander too closely. These ambient creatures can often be the deciding factor in a battle with a Monster, if the area is not ideal. There’s nothing worse than getting a bead on a Wraith and then promptly being grabbed by a Tyrant you didn’t notice chilling out in the water.
The characters all have their own personalities, as well, and they’re all likeable in their own ways. I appreciate that Parnell, the third Assault character and essentially a TF2 Soldier, isn’t a black stereotype. Caira, the third Medic, and my character of choice, could have easily been a ditzy airhead, but her valley girl speak hides an incredibly talented biologist. All of the Hunters present are the best in their fields, from Griffin, the second Trapper, who’s so famous he’s had movies and books based on him, to Bucket, who, from what I can gather, was a Space Marshall, keeping the peace. Just like in Turtle Rock’s previous game, Left 4 Dead, you get these bits and pieces of exposition at the beginning of a round, before you exit the dropship and get to Monster-huntin’.
Oh, and there is just one last thing: The game looks fantastic. Both console versions run well, and on PC, I had to drop the graphics settings to Medium in order to keep a consistent 60fps, but it still looks great. This isn’t that surprising, as it’s running on Cryengine, but it’s spectacular to look at regardless.
If you have a crew of friends you like to play games with, or even if you don’t (communication isn’t that necessary once you learn the game — you can indeed shut your mouth if you know your role), I highly recommend picking up Evolve. Although there is unfortunately no server browser in the PC version, instead relying on console-like matchmaking, the party system does work pretty well, and it’s intelligent about grouping you back up with your bros if you bail out of a match. Now, get out there, and get me some Goliath scalps.
Evolve is already incredibly divisive, and by this point you probably know which camp you sit in. According to the naysayers, there’s too much DLC, too much running, and not enough content on day one to justify paying full price. Valid concerns, but none that I personally agree with. It’s a shame that so many people are willing to write this one off before giving it a proper go.
If anything, Evolve‘s greatest fault is in that you can just plain be bad at the game, and if you have one weak link in the team, the whole match can fall apart. Got a bad trapper? Get ready to fruitlessly meander all over the map. Got a bad medic? Have fun waiting to be dropped back into the game. Whats that, your support is only trying to dish out damage? Well, fuck.
Thankfully, this is more the exception than the norm. Even by grouping up with total strangers, I’ve found that (at least in the case of the PC version), the community seems to be composed of people who know what they’re doing. And when everything falls into place, you’ll be hard pressed to find a multiplayer experience quite as rewarding. Evolve is just a damn good game.
8/10 — George Brundle