Game of the show, and then some.
I'm stood on a crate, scanning the exit route for signs of life, as the corpses of three team-mates lay motionless around our generator. Only moments ago we were under siege by a gnarled beast we’d been chasing high and low through forest and chasm - the very same monstrosity I suddenly spy darting across the bridge around a hundred metres in front.
It scampers, eager to round the corner and clamber to safety; to regenerate its defences and return to bellow its flame-breath in my direction one final time. But it’s weak, and badly needs to heal. It has to be now, or never. I select the rocket launcher, aim close to the cliff-side and pull the trigger. I watch as the laser-guided explosive arcs its way across the bridge to victory or defeat.
“God-damn!!!” comes the cry from the end of the bench, as the chap playing the role of the recently-deceased beast pulls off his headphones. He turns to me with a huge grin on his face, and whoops of laughter emerge from my other vanquished teammates.
This is Evolve, and it’s absolutely glorious.
Coming from Left 4 Dead developers Turtle Rock Studios, Evolve crafts its Jurassic Park meets Predator monster hunt around the core concept of four human “hunters” vs one human-controlled beast. The task for the hunting party is simple: track and kill the monster at all costs. The task for the person playing the monster is equally easy to understand: Evolve as quickly as possible, then pick off the opposition one-by-one.
Playing as the monster, you’ll want to get as much of a head start as possible. The stage we’re shown at Gamescom is a densely-packed jungle, rich with rivers, cliff-sides and roaming wildlife to hunt and feast on to gain power. You can hurl rocks or claw at any creatures wandering into your path, to smash them into pieces for an easy feast, or else dash forward with speed towards larger enemies, spewing fire from your mouth for a close-quarters kill. Rocky cliffs can be clambered at will, creating tough vertiginous routes for your jet-pack-wearing enemies to traverse.
Gnawing on that variety of wildlife comes with its own risks and rewards. Herds of small lizard-type creatures bound everywhere, alongside huge, lumbering behemoths. Killing a strong enemy yields a heck of a lot more flesh to consume, but it takes time to do so, and that eats into your precious head start. The hunters will be closing on your position, and quickly. Sure, you can turn to fight them at any stage, but any experienced hunting party will easily take down all but the most skilled of low-level monsters. Evolution is absolutely key.
When you’re fully-feasted and ready to gain power in your chosen skills, it’s also important to consider that triggering an Evolution takes time, so it’s best to be somewhere remote and quiet. Your skin ripples and sheds as you upgrade your DNA; orange veins glowing with fire.
Complete that process a couple of times and you’ll hit maximum strength, and then it’s about time to round on the chasing pack. Be sure to select the right target. The medic *always* comes first, then assault, tracker and support can be picked off according to threat. Isolating each is key, as is avoiding their traps and making sure your fire breath, charge and boulders find their target from as high a vantage point as possible. If you get the opportunity, jump off and smash the ground beneath their feet. Be on the move constantly. Use the terrain. Get them following. Turn, trample, incinerate.
As one of the hunters, you’re instantly aware that the monster’s movement is heavy, and noisy. Flocks of birds scatter above the tree-line wherever it roams, and footprints are left in the ground. In those early stages, fresh from the drop-ship, the person playing the role of tracker is the most important. It’s their job to get a bead on the monster’s movement, to hunt them down and deploy a mobile energy dome to fix it in place. Your faithful dog or deployable sound spikes should lead the way if you ever lose the scent, while rocks and obstacles can be boosted over with a recharging short-burst jet-pack.
When the fight draws near, the other three classes come into their own. Assault is the tank of the group, using heavy weaponry to destroy the monster’s armour and whittle away its health, while the support class focuses solely on creating as much of a nuisance as possible, either by laying down automated turrets, launching a UAV, shielding comrades or raining down a precise orbital barrage. The medic, as ever, is the most crucial. Their sniper rifle marks out weak spots on the monster for the assault class to inflict bonus damage, whilst an area-of-effect healing burst is augmented with the choice of either invisibility and a device to resurrect team-mates, or a classic TF2-style healing beam to help from further afield.
So the mission is always to find your foe, trap it, and stay as a group. The quicker it’s over, the better. In a distinct nod to Left 4 Dead’s extraction set pieces, as the fight draws on the hunting team will eventually need to defend a specific location in order to win, and that’s when the dynamic changes; siege mentality takes over as the monster launches wave after wave of attack.
It took us a while to get that last-ditch generator moment. The first two matches of Evolve were marked out by a sharp learning curve.
In the first instance it was the monster that crumbled all too easily, getting stuck around a rock in its most primitive state, unable to climb to safety or land enough hits to damage any of the hunters significantly. Learning quickly from his mistakes, the second round was absolutely devastating for the rest of us. We split up early on and never properly regrouped, enabling our foe to quickly level up its skills and take out our Medic in a remote location. While any downed player will eventually re-spawn from the drop-ship above, the resulting two-minute delay was enough time for each of us to get sucked into its maw one-by-one. Round over.
The third (and subsequent) games, were absolutely superb from both parties. By this point everybody on the hunting team had learned that plain communication was absolutely vital to success, so the headsets were buzzing with voices sharing information about the environment, movement, plans, and advice. Everybody played a role, and whether it was dealing damage, drawing fire, buffing the attack or stealthily reviving players from the dead, it was a joy to partake in something that felt like true teamwork.
My concerns going into Evolve were that of longevity and variety, but this session ended any doubt that this it’ll be a title with legs. Even though it lacks the procedurally-branching level design of Left 4 Dead, the environments are still huge and superbly designed, with the jet-packs and clambering mechanics opening up the terrain to all kinds of ambushes and tactical opportunities for both human and monster. There’s a huge amount to take in, and that’s before we even address the combinations that stem from choosing from four classes and three specialities within each.
So is it ready?
If I could pay money right now for the level that 2K and Turtle Rock showed us at Cologne, I’d gladly do so. Even that small sliver of content was enough to mark out Evolve as my personal game of the show; there was simply nothing else that could hold a candle to those final rounds when fluid four-player teamwork faced up against an unpredictable, powerful and skilful human-controlled behemoth. It was frantic, funny, down-to-the-wire.
So, as with Left 4 Dead, I'm inclined to believe that Evolve’s hunting parties will likely only truly come alive with groups of regular players, but for once it's heartening that soloists aren't left out of the equation either; they can simply choose to play the tentacled or scaled antagonist instead. Time will tell, but unless there’s a huge slew of imbalances, or show-stopping bugs that make it into the final code, Evolve will be something truly special.
Anticipation rating: TAKE MY MONEY NOW!
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