After a bunch of delays and a somewhat underwhelming technical beta, Evolve’s unique brand of multiplayer has finally emerged from the tree line; but does it spring forth with a growl or a whimper?This is the latest project from Left 4 Dead creators Turtle Rock Studios, and it sees the team finally break free from the shackles of those well-directed swarms of zombies, swapping their rotting corpses for the altogether more interesting concept of 4 vs 1 asymmetric multiplayer. In Evolve you play as either a single member of a four-person human team of “hunters”, or otherwise solo in the guise of their prey: one of three gigantic, earth-shaking, fire-breathing, electrifying monsters.
The balance of power is intriguing. On one hand, Evolve’s hunting party should be able to swarm their foe with tracking abilities and superior firepower, raining down missiles and plasma to end the fight before it’s even begun. On the other, the Monster has the ability to withstand an enormous amount of damage, to grow, become more powerful and pick off the fragile humans individually or as a group. Perks, bonuses, class specialities and player creativity dictate whichever scenario comes to pass.
FeedAs with Left 4 Dead, there’s not much in the way of background information or narrative setup for Evolve’s universe. Each of the four humanoid classes (Trapper, Assault, Medic, Support) comes with three fighters from which to choose, and most of those are larger-than-life character designs that wouldn’t look out of place in a Jim Raynor Starcraft space-trucker montage. The chosen team of four is then airlifted into battle on the surface of a mysterious jungle-filled planet named Shear, with small snippets of conversation providing a few clues as to why it is that they do what they do.
Much like Titanfall then, there’s no real exposition to be found and not so much as a sniff of a traditional campaign; but Evolve nevertheless does an excellent job of creating a real, lived-in feel.
The planet of Shear is beautifully designed and consistently atmospheric no matter which map you play on, and although that leads to the majority of its 12 different arenas looking extremely similar, that’s kind of the point. Everything feels as if it’s taking place in a cohesive location (imagine Avatar’s Pandora reimagined as part of the Aliens canon), and it’s an incredibly hostile planet made up of vertiginous jungle, rain-beaten cliffs, man-eating flora and alien creatures that burrow and blend into their landscape as if... well as if they’d Evolved to do so. Both ambient and combat audio is also superb, lending a real sense of menace to the inhabitants.
The wildlife isn’t just for show, either. Although there are four different game modes from which to choose and an overarching framework that cobbles them together under the guise of extracting human survivors from the planet, Evolve’s core gameplay always comes back to that hunt between man and beast, or vice versa. At the start of each round the monster is afforded a brief head-start to scamper away from the centre of the map and begin eating as much of the wildlife as possible, slowly building up a power meter that can then be triggered to evolve its health and armour through one of three different stages. Points can also be allocated into one of four special attacks, while killing certain larger creatures will bestow bonuses to damage output, recovery or speed.
After those precious initial few seconds, the human team then drops into the arena and follows its trail, scrambling and jet-packing their way across the landscape as quickly as possible. Their only job is to find their prey, enclose it in an energy dome and initiate conflict as quickly as possible. If the monster manages to survive and evolve into its final form, then focus switches to a generator in the middle of the map, with the humans desperately defending as their foe goes on the offensive.
Those initial stages are the speciality of the “Tracker” class that comes equipped with tools and techniques to point the humans in the right direction. Monster footprints leave a glowing imprint on the ground if it’s dashing rather than sneaking (so can be followed easily), flocks of birds are scattered above the treeline as it thunders around, while a trail of fresh carcasses is another good indication. Each is worth investigation, but the rest of Shear’s wildlife impedes the humans’ progress at every turn, with beasts attacking and ensnaring the team as they traverse the landscape, but offering the buffs and bonuses for their execution.
EvolveWhile the tracker is busy deploying radar-enabling sound spikes, holding the monster in place with harpoons or cajoling their trusty dog to give them a bead on its location, the rest of the human party is made up of more traditional, but absolutely essential roles.
The assault class is perhaps the most well-worn, offering high damage output in the form of trip mines, rocket launchers, lightning guns, grenades and rifles. The medic is able to keep the party healthy with a healing beam, healing grenades or the revival speciality favoured by the bald-headed Lazarus, while they can also play a role on offence, firing tranquiliser darts, flame grenades or weakening the monster with sniper fire that acts as a damage multiplier for anybody else striking the same wound. The support class is a jack-of-all-trades, useful for highlighting enemies with dust, firing through walls, deploying an orbital barrage or temporarily shielding a team member from damage.
At this point it’s probably worth noting that although Evolve can be played offline in singleplayer mode, that’s not really the intent. This is a game that hinges around its online play, and though the AI does a competent job of replacing either team-mates or the monster if you’re really desperate, Evolve really needs five human players to shine. That’s where the stories are made, where frustrations centre around the behaviour of a person holding a controller rather than an errant path-finding subroutine or a laissez faire AI medic.
And more so than any other shooter I can remember, Evolve finds itself truly in the realm of role-playing; not in the sense of dense character upgrades or XP systems (though those exist to a lesser extent), but rather in the fact you have to play a role. Step outside of your duties as the trapper, medic, support or assault class, and you’ll find your whole team at the mercy of the monster, while on the flipside, playing as each of the creatures requires a specific approach, whether it’s stealth, herding, misdirection or flat-out aggression.
DestroySo while the variety of character classes is hugely welcome for the longevity of Evolve, it also leads to a strangely splintered experience.
This past week of play has produced some of the very best multiplayer action I can remember; crucial last-ditch efforts from individuals, ingenious use of the jetpack and terrain to buy another couple of seconds for a drop-ship to arrive, or special abilities used in tandem to devastating, satisfying effect. When everything comes together it’s a brilliant spectacle, and full of those water-cooler moments of Battlefield fame, but Evolve quickly falls down when even a single player fails to work to the strengths of their character build.
Indeed, having a regular group of friends to play with is nigh on essential for getting decent life out of the game, because matchmaking with random strangers throws up all sorts of problems. The early levels are full of players learning or completely ignoring their roles (Evolve’s skill tree goes up to level 40, unlocking perks and buffs along the way), giving any competent monster player an easy victory against a weakened team. Conversely, matching a good team against a beginner monster player is also frustrating for both parties, usually leading to a swift, brutal victory for the human team (our record is a win within one minute of touchdown).
It’s when the skillsets align that the magic happens. Matches can roll from one to the next (Evolve keeps its participants locked unless they back out to the menu), with skilled players toying with their opposition, trying new tactics and working to surprise them in different ways.
It’s within those even matchups that the class-based perks and bonuses come into their own. As an example, taking down a good Wraith player is a royal pain in the arse (the Wraith is Evolve’s fast-but-weak assassin-class monster), but with the right combination of speed-boosting perks, invisibility, and tracking (Caira’s acceleration, Cabot’s cloak and Maggie’s pet hound), you stand a much better chance of catching, and damaging it, in its earliest phase. Likewise, taking on a hardy Goliath player is easier if your assault class is buffed to output as much damage as possible, so hunting creatures that bestow extra perks in the arena is nigh-on essential.
Indeed, there are so many combinations of class specialities and tactics that it’s likely Evolve will have a much greater shelf life than many expected. After sinking upwards of twenty hours into the basic hunt mode I still find myself unlocking and experimenting, and our regular team is still prone to being taken by surprise, finding new combinations or tactics to throw at the enemy. But on the flipside, after twenty hours we still find ourselves at the mercy of poor matchmaking, albeit to a lesser degree than those early levels.
Playing as the monster offers a similar set of frustration and elation, but you only ever have yourself to blame. The skill tree for each of the three creatures is deep and rewarding, while taking the role of antagonist is perversely pleasurable. Finding new ways to throw the humans off your scent is crucial (sneaking through water or launching yourself off a cliff to avoid footprints, as an example), and choosing when and where to evolve can make or break the game in your favour. There's a huge amount to learn about when to attack, where to corral players and which team members to focus on, and there are just as many moment-to-moment decisions to make as the other side. Crucially, once you get the basics under your belt, everything feels balanced.
Despite the surprising prospect for longevity though, Evolve’s meta-game is strangely lacking in hooks. There are no clans or tournaments to speak of, and besides a few character-based and global leaderboards, there’s nothing to really measure you up against the rest of the community. It’s the sort of content that can hopefully be patched in, but unless you find Evolve’s core gameplay completely intoxicating (which might not be the case for reasons highlighted above), there’s little else to keep you here besides some overpriced cosmetic DLC and the prospect of four new hunters coming down the line.
- Beautifully atmospheric
- Deep team-based combat
- Swift rounds
- Uniquely rewarding
- People not playing their role
- Lack of meta-game hooks
- Occasionally laggy
- Framerate dips
Evolve PlayStation 4 ReviewIf you were on the fence as to whether Evolve would make for a worthy full-price purchase, you simply need to ask yourself whether or not you can regularly scrape together three or four other people to sink time into learning its many subtleties. Solo players are well-catered for with monster duties, but that's not always a role that's up for grabs.
Evolve is an utterly beguiling experience as part of a well-oiled team, but quickly falls apart when delving into the pit of random matchmaking. There are too many people that don't understand the role they need to take, and the frustration of watching a team-mate thundering off in the wrong direction to get mauled by the wildlife cannot be underestimated.
But it's beautiful, it's atmospheric, and it's interesting. When everything aligns, Evolve is easily one of the best multiplayer games of the year, and hopefully the community will eventually shake out to a pool of players well-versed in the intricacies. If you stick around for the long-haul, surprisingly, I suspect it'll have legs for quite some time.
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