AU ABROAD

VideAU Games Review: Evolve (PC, 2015)

evolve

Evolve is one of those games that feels like it’s been in the pipeline for a really long time. Developed by Turtle Rock Studios, the team behind Valve’s multiplayer zombie shoot-em-up Left 4 Dead, it sees a sci-fi future (plainly influenced by 80’s sci-fi films like Predator and Aliens) in which a squad of four hunters dropped onto an alien planet to trap and kill a gigantic, vicious monster that is threatening human colonies.

Right from the jump you can tell that Evolve is trying to do things differently. It drops you into a pair of tutorials right away that familiarise you with the basics of playing as both the Monster and as the Hunters. The Monster’s job is to skulk around, avoiding hunters and feed so that it can evolve and become more powerful. It has three stages of evolution, each of which grant significant health and damage buffs. If the Hunters track the monster down, it will have no choice but to attack. The Hunters, a squad of four rough-and-tumble, armed-to-the-teeth mercenary types, must take the monster down by any means necessary.

As gameplay hooks go, it’s all very straight forward and makes jumping in really easy. Taking a cue from the Battlefield series, there’s no dedicated story-mode here. This is a multiplayer game through-and-through. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a story here - Evolve takes Left 4 Dead’s approach to story and metes out information in the form of short conversations between the Hunters at the beginning of, and during, each mission. It’s a smart way to approach the story-telling but unfortunately it falls down a bit when, over the course of seven games you hear the same conversations repeated three or four times.

You can jump into a variety of quick match game modes like Hunt, which is the most straightforward Human vs. Monster game type. There’s also modes like Evacuation which sees you play five consecutive rounds through a variety of game modes including Nest, which sees the Hunters frantically destroying monster eggs while the Monster tries to hatch them and spawn a powerful minion; Rescue, which has the Hunters attempting to evacuate a number of stricken survivors before the Monster can devour them all and Defend which forces the Hunters to dig in on a starship refuelling platform and defend against a Level 3 Monster and waves of minions trying to wreck up the place. For every match you win in Evacuation, your side is given substantial advantages in the next match (though the game does attempt to auto-balance in an effort to keep things from getting completely one-sided). At the end of the Evacuation mode, win or lose, you receive some substantial XP boons from getting through to the end which makes it an attractive solution to those who want to bash down the XP walls as quickly as possible.

One of my least favourite mechanics in modern shooters is the “unlock absolutely everything in order to experience the actual game” approach. Evolve doesn’t take it to the extreme that games like Titanfall did, however, using the unlockables system primarily as a way to unlock more of the game’s characters and further buffs for combat.

There are a total of twelve Hunter characters to unlock across four classes - Medic, able to heal and revive fallen players; Trapper, who works to contain or slow the monster down; Support, the backup class who works to help the team either by laying down weapons fire, and shielding or cloaking the team when the heat is on; and finally Assault who are all about DPS and your primary method of putting hurt on the Monster. The classes are all built quite well and allow for Hunter players to start their strategy before even hitting the ground, with each character having different abilities, weapons and playstyles.

Conversely, there are three Monsters (so far) to use and unlock. The Goliath is a versatile lizard creature that deals heavy melee damage and has a pretty thick sin. The Kraken is a ranged flying creature that deals in lightning damage and the Wraith which has quickly become the cheater’s monster du jour, a flying, stealth, ranged, high-DPS, decoy-spawning teleporting, cover-ignoring unbalanced nightmare engine. A friend of mine described it as “the Evolve equivalent of the Spy from Team Fortress 2” and that’s pretty accurate. Of the many matches I played during this review, the Wraith was the only creature that could not be dealt with easily. Indeed, I don’t think we’ve ever managed to beat one in combat. There’s a fourth monster coming as DLC as well, called the Behemoth which will be a gigantic, slow-moving damage sponge. Each of the monsters feels incredibly powerful to use and, if wielded properly by an experienced player, are next to unstoppable even against the most battle-hardened Hunters. It’s a real credit to Turtle Rock Studios that they’ve managed to balance the game so well out of the gate (except for the Wraith, that thing can go to hell and stay there).

However, it isn’t just the Monster that Hunters have to content with. Each alien world you drop onto is incredibly hostile, full of aggressive wildlife that will attack if you get too close and will often lie in wait until you saunter by unawares and maul you half to death before your squad can help you. There are rarer, stronger animals named Albinos that will drop different buffs if killed. These buffs could prove the difference between life and death against a skilled Monster player. And if that wasn’t enough, even the flora hates you. Carnivorous plants are everywhere and blend so well into the scenery that you’ll end up snared every round if you aren’t carefully monitoring your surroundings.

Where Evolve really tries to shake things up is in the character selection process pre-match. Unlike other team based shooters, like Team Fortress 2 or Battlefield, Evolve doesn’t allow you to choose a class. Rather, you select on a scale from 1 to 5 which classes you would prefer to play as and the game’s matchmaking will attempt to drop you into a game where you can play your preferred role. I found this a bit hit-and-miss - I’m a Medic main, but frequently found myself saddled with the Trapper or Support - but I suspect that’s kind of the point. It’s a smart way to fill servers and maintain balance, and by not always giving the player the class they want it encourages them to become proficient with everything. Players used to always getting their way on that front may be rather miffed by this but it’s not so bad once you get to grips with everything.

Another part of this process is that if you party up with anyone from your friends list, neither you nor anyone in your party can play as the Monster. Teaming up with four of your friends gets you a random person, a faceless other plucked from the depths of the internet, specifically to menace you. If means you’ve got to work a lot harder at putting them down. You’ve never encountered this person before so you’ve got no idea what their playstyle is like. It goes a long way to making it feel like you’re up against a mysterious, unpredictable alien life form. It’s so much fun and it’s where Evolve really starts to sing. Get a few solid matches under your belt and you’ll be having the time of your life.

This is part of what makes communication so core to the Evolve experience. You have the ability to mark a point of interest for all to see by pressing Q but in order to properly strategize, you need to be on the mic with your teammates and it shows just how much the game is built for party play because every match I entered online with a group of players thrown together by the matchmaking ended swiftly in defeat when they wouldn’t - or couldn’t - jump on the mic to talk it out.

The game, of course, isn’t all beer and skittles. There are a few areas where Evolve really drops the ball, particularly with the PC version. My three roommates and I booted the game up on our PC’s, all high-end rigs, and we were all accosted with bugs of varying severity right out of the gate. There are the known issues catalogued at the official site like the cursor remaining onscreen due to a conflict with the Steam overlay but then there were the sort that broke the game entirely for us. My PC would hang for twenty-to-thirty seconds at any point throughout the game before either returning to normal or dropping me from the game (frustrating when you’ve gotten to the final match of an Evacuation playlist only to miss out on all that tasty extra XP you worked so hard for). The game would cause my room-mate’s machine to lock up entirely, sending Windows into a hang so severe that it couldn’t even bring up the Task Manager until it passed.

On three separate occasions we had the matchmaking break entirely and deposit myself and another roommate into a game as the monster. Yeah, both of us. We collected XP for it at the end of the round. The thing was, the game we were in was full and someone else was controlling the Monster while we were both stuck in some sort of ghostly, HUD-less spectator mode. Another instance saw us split apart with one on the Hunter side and the other as the Monster which, according to the game’s own rules, should be impossible. Also, during these matches, my roommate was able to use the Wraith, a monster he had not yet unlocked at that point.

The other major problem I had with the game is that so much of your time is spent not playing the game. You wait in lobbies for the game to find players, you wait while everyone selects their character and then when everyone has done that you still have to wait for the timer in the top right hand corner to count down. You have to wait for the match to start through the same snippets of conversation you’ve heard fifteen times by now and you have to wait while the game takes you through breakdown after breakdown post match before being allowed to start the whole process over which means you’re back to waiting for everyone to choose their characters. Couple this with the dropped connections and hardware lockups the game kept inflicting on us and you start to wonder if you’re spending more time in the lobbies than out.

I bring these issues up because they really detract from the overall experience. They wouldn’t annoy me as much as they do if the game wasn’t so much damned fun when it’s working properly. It’s still the first week of release thought so hopefully Turtle Rock can patch some of the stability issues out quickly. Though I reviewed Evolve solely on PC, a quick poll of my friends playing the console versions did not report anywhere near the range of issues that I had.

But let’s go out on another good note. God DAMN, but this game is pretty. The Monsters all look terrifying. They’re scaly and reptilian and their movement animations are similarly inhuman and otherworldly. The hunters all have a great deal of personality in their character models and are quite easy to tell apart in the midst of a fray. The environments are gorgeous with dense, lush plant life covering every square inch of many of the maps, obscuring your vision and the weather effects like rain and snow are especially eye-catching. Gun models are sharp and fun to look at, explosions look and feel as beefy as they should. It often feels like a living world and it makes tracking the Monster, who is at home in every one of these environments, all the more challenging. I’ve got nothing but praise for the artists at Turtle Rock. You really outdid yourselves on this one.

Evolve is an ambitious game. It’s full of good ideas and is extremely good fun when playing with a group of friends. Though the PC experience is marred by a few especially jarring bugs, when it works it just sings. As the stability issues get ironed out, I can see this being a title I’ll come back to quite a bit.

Review Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights:
Lowlights:
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Publisher: 2K
Released: February 10, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Reviewed on PC