Platform: PS4 (tested), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: Out Now
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Original games should be cherished, whether they're a complete success or not. Evolve doesn't get everything right, but it is certainly unique, and there won't be another game like it for a long time.
Turtle Rock Studios built their reputation on Left 4 Dead, the chaotic co-op zombie shooter that was a huge success back in 2008.
Evolve takes the basic principle of that series (four-player first person shooter co-op) but turns gameplay into a hunt, rather than a sprint for survival.
What they're hunting is a player-controlled monster, and to kill it they need to work together. Each Hunter class is integral to achieving the goal, and each one's abilities are tightly focused to encourage team-play between strangers online.
A Medic must heal, a Trapper must trap, Assault deals out damage, and Support provides tactical finesse. It's a simple mechanic reinforced by the abilities of each class, but in the early days of the game at least, a lot of online players don't seem willing to play to the game's tune.
This is not a Call of Duty, and it seems not all players have got to grips with that yet. The big loud trailers may make it seem like an action-packed blockbuster but Evolve is primarily about the chase. In fact, in many ways it's more about non-violence than violence.
Don't get me wrong, when there's action there is plenty of it, but to excel in this game players must be smart and make plans, and the Monsters must initially avoid rather than engage. Eventually things come to a frenzied head when the Hunters trap their prey or when the Monster is ready to finish things itself.
The initial slow pace feels different to most shooters, but it's an intended part of the experience. Turtle Rock shouldn't be criticised because some players don't want to embrace what Evolve is – particularly when they've done all they can to turn their concept into a robust and fun core game.
Issues with players getting to grips with their hunting roles will subside as the player base shrinks to a more dedicated group, but at the moment it's creating an imbalance. I played the game a lot pre-release with groups wanting to understand each role, and victories were split down the middle. Since playing the retail version however it has been the Monsters winning most often.
Monsters get a head start on the Hunters and are on the run from the start. A stage one monster isn't very powerful and will often lose if they charge head-on into battle, so instead they must run, hide and creep around, avoiding Hunters and eating enough wildlife to be able to evolve two times into their most powerful form.
Each time a Monster evolves it can use three upgrade points to improve its four abilities however the player chooses. Then the Monster can attack the map's power relay with the aim of destroying it and ending the game.
The genius of the game is in how the Monster has been handled. It isn't just a bullet sponge, as it requires the player to think intelligently and outsmart the Hunters until it is powerful enough to take them on. More often than not however, Monsters will end up in fights they don't want to be in, and it's here that Turtle Rock's exemplary job of balancing the game comes to the fore.
Few battles in the game feel one sided, and often they will go down to the wire unless one side has particularly outshone or out-prepared the other. Hunters must try to organise themselves on the fly and read the unfolding situation, while the monster must target specific Hunters to weaken their strategy. The game hinges on these encounters and Turtle Rock have done a top job.
Hunt mode is the game's focal point but other game types mix things up nicely. The Evacuation mode consists of four rounds mixing player-voted maps and game types, building toward a fifth round finale. Win a match and that side will gain an environmental advantage in the next round, creating numerous possibilities and combinations.
If one side wins often then the advantages will build up and become almost insurmountable for the opposing side, which is problematic but not particularly common. For the most part Evacuation mode adds a lot to Evolve, but it does feel a little hollow. An abundance of plot isn't needed, but it could have created a greater sense of importance and cohesion.
Turtle Rock have done a great job with the game on a base level, but the structure of it leaves a lot to be desired. The progression system is simply diabolical, and weighs down the game significantly.
Evolve would soar if some of its characters (three of each Hunter class and three initial Monsters) were available from the start rather than just one of each, but instead players must put an inordinate amount of time in before unlocking these.
The system measures progression on the use of each character's four weapons and tools. Each can be improved three times, indicated by stars. Unlock one star in each and you'll unlock the next character. Apart from being a chore, this system is incredibly counter-intuitive, as it prompts players to focus on particular parts of their arsenal when using everything equally is the best path to victory.
Dangling a carrot in front of players has long been a tool used by numerous online games, but rarely to such an obtuse and obstructive degree. If the goal is to artificially lengthen the game then Turtle Rock have undoubtedly succeeded, but at a huge detriment to the experience.
It feels like a game that has been segmented and hidden behind barriers to entry. Of course all games need progression of some sort, but this method is harsh and restrictive, when a more micro level of progression – unlockable weapon and ability boosts or maybe cosmetic items – would have weighed the game down less and opened up more options for players starting out.
This is a shame because when the chase is on Evolve is tense and exciting like few examples in a multiplayer landscape that champions short bursts of excitement. Evolve is about the hunt, and it's a hunt that feels like one should – lengthy, with moments of exasperation and frustration that are worth it when the building tension turns to bedlam in the blink of an eye.