Over the course of Evolve's big alpha and its technical beta, Turtle Rock has demonstrated a remarkable talent for finding a spectacularly uneasy balance on both sides of their asymmetrical monster-themed shooter.
Games like Evolve are are nothing new, and yet few try to fully push the boundaries of what can be done when matching up two disparate enemies. Even the benchmark games within the genre still rely on teams of different-but-equal power facing off against each other. The same cannot be said for Evolve, and that's unique and exciting.
The monster will utterly destroy any individual hunter, and probably any team of three or less. It's only when all four hunters are working together that the team has any chance of killing a fully-evolved Goliath, Kraken, or Wraith. Turtle Rock is obviously still refining the specifics of each monster, and will no doubt continue to do so even after release, but even between the two pre-release builds I’ve played, it's clear how the ongoing balancing has improved the player experience from alpha to beta. The player-controlled monsters always present a steep challenge, but it's never an insurmountable one.
When playing as the hunters; cooperation is the only path to victory. Anything less all but guarantees defeat, death, and digestion. Every member of a hunting party has a specific role to fill, and each also has a weakness beyond the common squishiness of their fragile wee bodies.
The Trapper is all about tracking and containment. The main piece of kit in their bag of tricks is the Mobile Arena that creates what is essentially a laser Thunderdome that traps everyone within. The creature can’t escape, but neither can any of the hunters. Its kill or be killed time for all parties.
The Support class depending on the character selected play different roles, although both can cloak nearby team-mates their role when in combat is quite different. Calling in an orbital strike to deal massive damage, to shielding a team mate from damage on one side, or unleashing autonomous sentry guns, and laser guided missiles on the other.
The Medic class offers a lot of utility. The two Medics play differently enough to warrant a closer look. Both wield sniper rifles and can heal the team with their AOE healing burst, but Val is a more traditional healer class. She is able to directly heal any team mate, and her high powered sniper rifle can create weak spots that can be targeted by team mates for extra damage. She also comes armed with a tranquiliser that not only slow the beastie down, but makes it visible briefly even through terrain and obstacles.
Lazarus is a little different. He cannot target a unit to heal it, but as his name might suggest, he can resurrect a dead player immediately so that they can jump straight back in to the fray. Armed with a cloaking device and a rapid firing silenced sniper rifle he is also capable of not only damaging the monster undetected, but also reviving fallen comrades without drawing the attention of big ugly. It’s a very interesting trade-off between the two.
The Assault class unsurprisingly is the most straight forward of the four hunters archetypes. They provide the raw damage in the team, and have a personal shield that completely blocks incoming damage for a short time. The Assault class wants to be upfront and unleashing hell on the monster, but will need assistance to get to safety once his shield depletes or becomes trapped.
It’s this kind of rock, paper, scissors approach that makes playing the hunters so much fun. A communicative team working together is key (these can sometimes be hard to come by in pick-up games), and while some classes won’t get as much face punching time as others, all are equally engaged and equally important in every firefight and all are rewarding in their own right. That's an incredibly difficult developmental feat but the team at Turtle Rock has pretty much nailed it.
In a game all about emergent moments and the balance between a coordinated gameplay and all out action, the amount of down time is surprisingly low. While early on the initial hunt to locate the monster can drag, this became less of an issue once the team learns where and how to look for the creature. This also proves true for the monster. Learning the best ways to feed, evolve, and fight changes the dynamic dramatically.
My first few runs with the monster were unmitigated disasters. I was quickly located and killed, or more frustratingly out-classed by co-ordinated attacks from skilled players. The monsters can be complex, and can take time to learn. The cat and mouse game early in the match is tense and sometimes frantic, but once attaining higher evolutions and powering up your attacks the dynamic shifts and you can take more risks. Victory comes at either killing all the hunters or completing the map objective, for example destroying a power core. The latter option becomes available once you reach the third Evolve level. At this level you are almost a demi-god incarnate, able to inflict and absorb massive amounts of damage. Victory is far from assured, but at this point if you need to face the hunters the odds are far more balanced. Still, knowing who to target and when is always vital to victory or even survival.
Playing the monster can be the ultimate power fantasy, but it does require planning and strategy to get to that point. Utilising the terrain, and water to hide your trail is key early on as is using your smell sense to detect both hunters and prey. The Goliath, which look and plays like a combination of Godzilla and King Kong, is surprisingly agile and can unleash devastating melee attacks as well as breathing fire and throwing massive splash damage causing boulders. The Kraken takes a more stealthy approach, and while it too can unleash a barrage of direct damage from its tentacles, using its ranged lighting attack while flying overhead is most times more effective. The Wraith has a cloning ability, ultra high speed, and cloaking. It is a brutal adversary and still requires some additional attention from the team before the game hits stores.
Evolve is also a gorgeous game. The Crytek engine has been fully utilised to create sumptuous and visually compelling maps. Dense foliage, detailed terrain, and interesting (and potentially fatal) fauna are all rendered beautifully.
By combining two very different playstyles and providing some surprising depth, Evolve just might be the multiplayer game to look out for this year. Every aspect of the game shows obvious care in its construction. The classes feel balanced, and the eventual addition of even more characters should allow for even more tactical depth. Every map has a wide variety of terrain, with natural choke points, and wide open areas throughout. All have high degree of verticality and various approaches to combat baked in. Even this small slice provided me with over 40 hours of compelling gameplay.
The only real red flags I took away from the tests were the appalling loading times and multiple loading screens. These were improved slightly in the beta, but proved to be a persistent and constant source of frustration. They're hardly deal-breakers anyway.
I don’t play a lot of online shooters, but Evolve has already changed that. Already miss seeing it available in my Steam library.
Evolve comes to PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on February 10.