Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox One
When Turtle Rock Studios first appeared on the radars of gamers with the superb survival horror shenanigans of Left 4 Dead, it was clear what this studio was about - creating collaborative gaming experiences for players. What made Left 4 Dead so special was the director AI, pulling the strings of the enemy and measuring when to up the ante, which typically was just as you felt you had a moments respite. It’s this notion that Turtle Rock have taken further with Evolve, which principally is another team-based survival-horror game, but one that removes the idea of an AI director and lets the players build their own experience.
The conceit of Evolve is a simple one, you have five players - four hunters and one monster. The goal is as straight forward as you would expect, with hunters trying to kill the monster and the monster trying its best to return the favour. There are slight variations to that formula which serve to dress the experience up but ultimately it comes down to being the hunter or the hunted and that perception is something which can shift multiple times in any given match.
The hunters are broken up into four distinct classes; Assault, Medic, Support and Trapper. It’s no surprise that the Assault is your damage dealer, the one who will chip away at the monster’s health faster than the rest of you, but having to get directly in the firing line requires the need for protection from the rest of the team. The Medic class is a vital one, serving to not only heal other team members but also allowing them to hit the monster with a rifle that places a temporary marker on it, and if team mates can land their shots in these areas then the damage will be increased. Support can provide protection in multiple forms, whether it be assisting the team with your Energy Shield (allowing temporary invulnerability) or with a mortar drop that will make even the boldest of monsters think twice about sticking around for a fight. Finally you have the Trapper, who operates in a two-fold capacity. Firstly they can assist in the hunting of the monster by picking up of tracks, but they can also restrict the movement of the monster. If a Trapper gets close enough to a monster they can release their Mobile Arena which will create a large dome on the map, locking the players and the monster inside for a short period of time.
Every class is utterly vital to success and there is truly no way to win if you don’t have all four elements combining. It is clear that Turtle Rock have worked incredibly hard to make sure that the individual can never be more important than the collective unit, and that is a lesson that will be hard-learned in the early hours of play. Evolve is not a game for those who like their hand to be held, and despite the by-the-numbers tutorials you will plow headfirst into the steep learning curve almost immediately. It is sure to be divisive to some degree as it can feel a little overwhelming, and while it initially feels maybe it’s the game’s fault that you aren’t doing so well, it isn’t. Many shooters have what are essentially transferrable skills, shooting might feel similar, certain mechanics might be the same and within that there is a comfort but Evolve takes that all away from you. Better players in Evolve are not better because they necessarily have faster reaction times, or have been playing games longer - they are better because they have more experience in this world. And that only comes with time.
Playing in an experienced team is a joy, with Trappers tracking and then trapping the monster before the Medic gives support to the Assault class who is dealing out punishment before a well-timed mortar drop falls on a panicked beast. It is that type of experience that stays with you long after you power off your console and you’ll feel that you have learned something every time you win or lose a round. But while successes are euphoric, failures can be frustrating. With Evolve’s learning curve being what it is, you’ll will inevitably be teamed up with someone from time to time who isn’t sure of what to do and when you see you medic running headlong into a one-on-one fight with the monster you will hurt yourself from the all but certain facepalm. However, it is still relatively early days in Evolve’s life cycle and as the community grows and learns, the overall standard of play will get better.
One of the main draws of Evolve is the ability to play as the Monster, an alien beast with nothing but the mutilation of four humans on its mind. As the Monster the game switches out to a third-person view, giving you a broad scope of the world around you - in contrast to the almost claustrophobic first-person view of the Hunters. But you are far from invincible and to improve your chance of success you need to literally evolve. The Monster has three stages of evolution, with each stage giving you more strength, but also more damage resistance. At the start of any round the Monster gets a head-start, with Hunters about to be dropped you need to put as much distance between you and them as when you are at stage one you are extremely vulnerable and a reasonably organised team of hunters will have no issue dispatching you quickly. As you prowl around the map you will encounter local wildlife, and it is feasting on this wildlife that will help you evolve. At stage two you are in a much better position, and in a head to head fight with the four Hunters, things will be much more even and unpredictable. If you can manage to avoid the Hunters for long enough and feed a lot you will reach stage 3 - and you can be assured when the Hunters learn you have reached stage three there will be a collective muted panic as in this position it is very much the Monster’s round to lose and only an exceptionally well-oiled Hunter team will take it down.
But this is a simplification of the deeply nuanced experience on show as there are so many decisions that you will have to make in any given round. For example, as aforementioned, when you play as the Monster you have a short period of time before the Hunters land to get moving - but how will you do this? If you choose to run then you leave footprints and knock over trees, easily leading the hunting party to your location. If you sneak you will not leave any tracks but you will have to be even more on your scaly toes as the Hunters will be initially closer to you. What if you find a herd of animals and manage to kill a number of them at the same time? Feeding is the quickest way to evolve so it seems to make sense to eat as much as you can when you can. However, killing an animal often attracts birds that want to feast on the carrion and their presence will give Hunters a clue that you are likely nearby. So do you feast and risk being attacked, or do you eat a little and keep moving to stay ahead of the Hunters?
This notion of a continual game of cat and mouse, with those roles constantly changing, is what really consolidates Evolve as one of the finest co-op shooters in recent memory. There is too often the approach of ‘fire and forget’ in shooters, but in Evolve if you aren’t thinking ahead you are probably already dead. There is a very real cerebral aspect to Evolve, and in many ways it is this facet that is perhaps the most entertaining. With no real guidance you will start to develop tactics, using the rules of the world on show and turn them to your advantage. For example, as already mentioned, if you run as the Monster you leave tracks and Hunters will be on you in no time - but what if you create a set of tracks going in two different directions? Or what if you kill an animal, feed and then sneak nearby, waiting in the shadows for the all but certain arrival of the hunting party hoping for a stealth kill on at least one of the members. This is the real joy of Evolve, progressing from utterly out of your depth to understanding how the game, and the game world, works and then using it to your advantage.
Turtle Rock deciding to leave Earth behind and travel to Shear was a wise one. Shear is a planet that has been inhabited in the ‘Far Arm’ of the galaxy in the future and it is one that is regarded as highly valuable. But as is the case with colonising far off worlds, you always run the risk of coming under attack from aliens that want to tear you limb from limb. This move away from an earthly setting has given the game room to breathe and allowed the developers to not just create a setting that looks otherworldly but to also develop an eco-system of supporting wildlife and fauna that serves not just as window dressing but as elements in the world that are either an additional threat or a tactical advantage. If you are being chased by a group of Hunters you can run through herds of animals, disrupting them and causing them to lash out at the Hunters on your trail. Or you can even lead them into a patch of man-sized Venus Flytraps, and watch as some get swallowed whole.
All of this experience is housed in two main ways to play, Quick Play and Evacuation. Quick Play is exactly as you expect, self contained matches, while Evacuation is essentially a story mode played out over five matches with success or failure in any given match serving to provide either help or hinderance in the next stage. Whether you play Quick Play or Evacuation they both draw from the same pool of four game modes; Hunt, Nest, Rescue and Defend. Hunt is a standard affair with the hunters trying to kill the Monster to win - the Monster can win by either killing all the hunters or by reaching stage three which then gives them the ability to destroy the power relay in the level. These matches tend to feel like the best all-round experience as they provide the excitement and stress of the hunt but also a very definitive endgame if the monster reaches stage three with a final showdown at the power relay. Nest and Rescue are similar enough in that you have to destroy eggs or save colonists across the map, but these modes end up being a race around the map trying to achieve what feel like tacked-on objectives and the idea of trying to hunt or evade seems to get somewhat lost. The Defend mode is essentially a showdown with the monster starting at stage three and the Hunters having to protect a refuelling station. It essentially cuts to the endgame of Hunt mode with all out action, but again this mode loses that notion of hunting, whether as Monster or Hunter.
There has been much talk about the DLC strategy for Evolve and it has came in for heavy amounts of criticism from all corners - even going as far as announcing DLC before a screenshot had emerged of the game. As a vanilla package it is hard to not see Evolve as good value for money, with twelve maps, four modes, twelve Hunters and three Monsters on offer straight out of the box. And any DLC released on day one if purely aesthetic and gives no players a pay to win avenue to go down. The way in which the DLC was announced and the obvious notion of the monetisation of extra content may not sit well with some, but it doesn’t directly affect a vanilla user’s experience.
Overall it is hard not to be impressed with what Turtle Rock have achieved here, as Evolve is truly unlike anything available at the moment. Its no-nonsense approach is a breath of fresh air, and while the steep learning curve may force some gamers out of the loop early, those who remain will help form the core experience of the game in the months to come - a version of natural selection if you will. And much of Evolve’s success will depend on Turtle Rock’s plan for the future, as although the maps are interesting and numerous there is the worry that in a month or two time they may grow stale. What is undeniable, and certain, is not just how rounded the experience is, but also how deep, tactical and nuanced Evolve is beneath its simple monster versus guns setup. From the jaws of defeat to glorious victory is an ever-swinging pendulum in Evolve; a constant back and forth filled with blood, teeth and bullets.