It’s nearly impossible to consider Evolve without comparing and contrasting it to Left 4 Dead, Turtle Rock’s late 2008 debut. Evolve is, for want of a better term, an evolution of the same asymmetric multiplayer formula that first won the studio widespread acclaim a little over six years ago.
Evolve is set on the distant, wild planet of Shear. A human research facility has come under attack by gargantuan creatures and it’s up to a team of hunters to track the monsters, kill them, and save as many of the colonists as possible.
Four player-controlled hunters representing four distinct classes must stalk, evade, attack, and defend against one player-controlled monster. In the game’s headlining Hunt mode, the monster starts each round relatively vulnerable and must feed on other wildlife (or players) to grow or evolve over three tiers. Each time it does so it becomes stronger and more resilient, and gains new abilities. Correspondingly, it also becomes a more dangerous adversary for the hunters.
At its best, Evolve is a tense and excitable game of cat and mouse, where roles of predator and prey can be changed up by the snap conditions of any confrontation: trap a monster early and watch it panic as a well-coordinated team of hunters do considerable damage to it. On the other hand, if the monster can corner and dispatch an isolated healer, for example, it can spell gleeful disaster.
At its worst, Evolve can be a dull exercise in following the telltale signs of a monster – a startled flock of birds, some tracks – back and forward across the map for 10 minutes until it’s fully evolved and ready to destroy a power generator.
That Evolve can offer two such contrary experiences is indicative of the fact that this game is drawn from a much loftier concept than Left 4 Dead. In the right conditions, Evolve is the best example of the kind of infectious player-driven drama that is Turtle Rock’s signature. In aiming for it however, the studio has necessarily had to focus on more competitive dynamics that, moment to moment, sometimes simply aren’t always as fun. Evolve’s sparing but more intense drama doesn’t always compare to the simpler, more frequent, and less conditional joys of a well-timed boomer pop in Left 4 Dead’s Versus mode.
Beyond Evolve’s Hunt mode, Evacuation mode provides some welcome narrative framing to a playlist. Players must hunt, defend, and extract NPC survivors across a sequence of modes and maps, with conditions that change based on the outcome of the last round. If the monster managed to destroy the generator, for example, the hunters may have to deal with noxious gases. If the monster was slain, the hunters may have had the opportunity to set up turrets. The varying objectives in these modes also inject a little more energy and volatility into the game.
Inevitably, different monsters and hunters must be unlocked by working through a progression system that at times can feel like too much busywork. To unlock new characters, players must demonstrate a mastery of – or at least a willingness to use – that class’s abilities. It means that players aren’t always focused on their class’s primary function. Of course, players can skip all of that if they can divine Evolve’s bewilderingly convoluted DLC structure.
Evolve’s dynamism is a huge strength or a weakness depending on who you’re playing with. Among friends the game almost has a party vibe, with players taking it in turns to control the monster, and hunters communicating freely and easily with one another. The hunters soon find their synergy and the almost transcendental beauty of Turtle Rock’s vision is laid bare.
Online with strangers it can be altogether different. Hunters can race off in different directions like sugar-crazed ADHD kids fresh through the turnstile at Disneyland. As the game’s community develops, it’s also easy to imagine more skilled players turning the environment toxic. Teamwork is so essential to success it’s hard to believe that others will patiently accommodate the foibles of newer players.
Played in the right conditions, Evolve is supremely easy to recommend. Whether it can sustain its success will depend on the game’s strategic depth – how map knowledge, builds, and team compositions bring new dynamics into play – and how much attention it gets from Turtle Rock and publisher 2K post-release. After all, it’s not the strongest but the most adaptable that ultimately survives and thrives.