The pitch for Evolve is fundamentally simple, yet inherently entangled in a lot of questions about its balancing. Four-player cooperative team play on one side versus a lone-wolf player-controlled beast on the other is an odd pitch, albeit made incredibly compelling by the proven pedigree of Turtle Rock Studios whose portfolio includes Counter-Strike: Condition Zero and Left 4 Dead. In fact, the most basic point of reference comparison for Evolve, as championed by Turtle Rock, is a bigger, class-based version of a Tank boss fight in Left 4 Dead.

Playing on Team Hunter, the emphasis on teamwork is made immediately evident by the class-based structure of the four characters on offer. Griffin is the Akubra-wearing Trapper whose job it is to place Sound Spikes for tracking enemy movements. Once the monster has been spotted, he can drop an impassable dome that traps the hunters with the monster for a short time. This can go horribly wrong when fighting an aggressive opponent, but Griffin’s Harpoon Gun is an essential tool for impeding monster movements, while his submachine gun is on hand to dish out damage.

Evolve hands-on

Markov is the obvious Assault guy, with a choice of close-range Lightning Gun or long-range assault rifle. Arc Mines are the perfect defensive option for dealing significant damage in an ambush scenario, and his Personal Shield, which grants him temporary invulnerability, encourages aggressive tactics with little risk of punishment. This class is best used by the player that tends to lone wolf it in team situations.

Val, the Medic, is by far the most divisive inclusion, even if her role is as obvious as it is necessary. She plays the most supportive role of all the crew and deals out the least damage. While her mid-range Medgun and Healing Burst ability are essential for keeping teammates vertical, her offensive options are sorely lacking. She can use an Anti-Material Rifle to punch holes in the monster’s armour — which, granted, is a great addition for creating your own boss-battle weak spots — while the Tranquiliser Rifle slows, weakens and highlights the fast-moving, all-powerful brute.

Evolve hands-on
Evolve hands-on
Evolve hands-on

But given the current exclusive emphasis on damage dealt in the pre-alpha end-of-round screen, it’s easy to feel like an underperforming member of the team. This, however, is something the Turtle Rock team is aware of and eager to address before release.

The final combatant is Hank in a Support role. Hank can use a Laser Cutter to damage the monster, or an Orbital Barrage anywhere with line of sight for massive damage. This second offensive option is best used in conjunction with the Trapper’s Harpoon and/or Mobile Arena trap for maximum effectiveness.

Support’s main job, though, is to use the Shield Gun to make teammates invulnerable to monster attacks. As monster players tend to turn and fight when trapped in the dome, a Support/Medic combo is essential for keeping the squad on its feet and in fine fighting form.

Hunters can also combat local wildlife to deny the monster player access to buffs and upgrades, but it also becomes necessary when certain animals are extremely hostile. If you spot a rare animal type, taking it down reaps match rewards such as faster weapon-switching times and increased damage. Players will also score class-specific perks the more they use a particular weapon or piece of equipment.

Playing as the monster — and in this particular instance, one called Goliath (one of a bunch slated to ship with the final game) — is an entirely different affair in third-person perspective. At its base level, Goliath is still a formidable foe, but can be quickly dispatched early on when fighting an organised team of hunters. The best tactic, at least initially when learning the ropes, is to get as far away from the cooperative team as possible.

Evolve hands-on
Evolve hands-on
Evolve hands-on
Evolve hands-on

Glowing monster footprints can be easily tracked by all hunters when Goliath’s been moving at full speed, which is why sneaking, jumping and scaling are all viable beast tactics for staying one step ahead. Footprints can also be used to create deadly ambushes, whereby the monster player deliberately creates a path the hunters can track, sneaks around a bend or scales a rocky outcrop to ultimately double back on the hunters for a surprise attack.

From the outset, monster players can choose two of four abilities: fire breath, rock throw, leap attack, and dash, with the other abilities accessed by evolving. At this stage, PC controls are a little clunky on the monster side of things, with numerical keys controlling abilities, instead of being used to select and then fire with left mouse button (as it is with the hunters). Hunters also have a habit of zipping out of reach thanks to a rechargeable jetpack that can also be used for dashing forwards, backwards, or to the side.

The monster is advised to move through the environment and consume a variety of fauna. Nomming smaller animals affords an armour buff, while munching on larger critters paves the way to evolving into a bigger, stronger creature. Reaching the third evolved tier unlocks a secondary win-state objective, whereby the solo player can destroy a generator and devour scientists.

Death on the hunter side is handled in an interesting second-chance way, too. Players can be incapacitated twice and revived before a third knockout renders them ‘dead’, but they’re returned to the fray via drop-ship after a two-minute countdown. When one player goes, others tend to follow, which makes for an intense game of cat-and-mouse when the scales tip in Goliath’s favour. As with Left 4 Dead, if all human players are incapacitated, the round is over, so the monster player is working against the respawn clock to knock down the remaining players.

In this respect, voice communication is essential for Hunters. The jungle preview level may have been stunningly rendered in CryEngine glory, but it was set at night and there were a lot of shadowy and shrubbery areas for Goliath to hide in. Like Battlefield 4, players can manually spot the monster. This is made a bit trickier in that the spot button will highlight anything you’re aiming at—monster or environment—which only adds to the overall cluttered nature of the HUD, which often overloaded with visual information that lacked at-a-glance relevance.

Evolve has a steep learning curve for both teams, which will undoubtedly be addressed in the retail release thanks to the inclusion of a singleplayer component that Turtle Rock has acknowledged but is currently unwilling to discuss, alongside other play modes, monsters and unlockable hunter characters. Gameplay diversity is the most evident concern, given the single mode currently doing the preview run. That being said, the single-map, single-mode scenario was a hell of a lot of fun throughout the four-hour session.

The real balancing trick for Turtle Rock in creating a viable multiplayer game with longevity is the inclusion of unlockable weapon and equipment modifiers. Producer Jon Bloch says Turtle Rock is focused on balancing long-term rewards for dedicated players and accessibility for newcomers that are late to the game. How Evolve will achieve this is yet to be seen. Regardless, Evolve builds on the addictive cooperative foundation of Left 4 Dead and splices it with the lone-wolf sensibilities of your average FPS public server in an attractive package brimming with promise.

Evolve is coming later this year to PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.