James Stephanie Sterling
Evolve Review – Prey To Win
It’s wonderful to have a great foundation, but a great game needs to be built on top of it.
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios
Publisher: 2K Games
Format: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Released: February 10, 2014
Copy obtained via Steam press account
The idea behind Evolve is fantastic. Multiplayer games that face humans off against monsters make for fertile creative ground as seen in Left 4 Dead, the Beast Mode of Gears of War, and the online component of criminally forgotten shooter Singularity. Evolve takes this fundamental idea and attempts to run with it, using the hunter vs. beast dynamic as the basis for an entire game and pitting four well-armed hunters against a singular, but potentially devastating, alien creature. The trouble with Evolve is that a good concept can only carry you so far, and it doesn’t take long at all to find out how swiftly a game can run out of fuel when carried almost entirely by a unique, but thoroughly limited, premise.
Each game of Evolve begins as a cat-and-mouse chase through a deadly extraterrestrial environment. The monster enters the match in its most vulnerable state, small and relatively underpowered. It can still deal hefty damage to its enemies, but not enough to survive for long, so it has to stay one step ahead of its would-be killers, sneaking through the map while feeding on the abundant wildlife. The four hunters are attempting to locate the creature as it feeds, using clues such as frightened birds, discarded carcasses, and the tracking skills of their “sniffer dog,” Daisy. If the monster can successfully elude the hunters by sneaking around, stealthily killing its prey, and routinely smelling the air to pinpoint opponents, it can successfully feed on enough animals to evolve – growing in size, durability, and strength, as well as being able to invest points in its special cooldown attacks. The creature can evolve from a Stage One to a Stage Three, where it’s at its most powerful. Should a monster get to Stage Three, it’ll be strong enough to stand a good chance of wiping out the hunters entirely, and can also destroy a power relay for an instant victory.
The hunters, for their part, are armed to the teeth with plenty of tools to help them search and destroy. Human parties consist of four distinct classes which feature three unlockable characters apiece. Characters have their own unique weapons and gear, but they conform to the basic rules of their class. Assault, quite obviously, deals direct damage to the monster, able to use a temporary personal shield and dish out pain with a range of heavy weapons. The Trapper is all about containing and controlling the enemy, throwing up domed arenas to limit its movement, utilizing harpoons to hold it in place, and working with Daisy to most effectively locate a fleeing beast. Support lays down covering fire with a brutal orbital blast, or can keep a shield active on a single player to soak up damage, while the Medic not only heals damage, but uses rifles to weaken their targets in a variety of ways. The humans all use jetpacks to get around the world, because this is videogames and jetpacks are basically obligatory now. The key to success as a hunter is to coordinate and ensure every class plays its role correctly. If the med isn’t healing, if the trapper isn’t containing, if the support and assault aren’t helping to break their quarry’s defenses, then the cause will be lost.
Monsters start with one fiend playable – The Goliath – but can unlock the Kraken and Wraith with continued play. The Goliath is a fairly straightforward prospect, thundering around the map, using a leap maneuver to cross distances, and attacking with leaps, charges, fire breath and a rock throw. Ostensibly, it’s a big red Incredible Hulk, and it’s the most commonly played (and fought) creature in the game. It’s fairly well balanced, and in my time I’ve witnessed it emerge victorious as often as it’s been smushed to an angry crimson paste. The other two creatures are a bit more complex to play, but also seem to enjoy considerable advantages over the hunters. First of all, they both have flight capabilities, allowing for superior freedom of movement, and their attacks are hard to avoid, covering large areas while dealing huge damage. The Wraith is especially intimidating, boasting spectral abilities that see it teleporting across the battlefield, cloaking itself, and overcharging to dish out terrifyingly wild attacks. It’s supposed to be a glass cannon, but it’s a lot of cannon and it’s at least triple-glazed. I know it’s heavily advantaged because even I perform decently as a Wraith, and I’m a terrible monster player.
Balance issues aside, the core concept of Evolve makes for a relatively fun experience. I personally prefer playing a hunter to a monster, but either way, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had in the predator/prey dynamic, and how the scales tip from one role to the other as the match continues. Hunters start out actively seeking the creature as it tries to feed in peace, before it can be strong enough to turn the tables and bring the fight to its pursuers. While you don’t get to actively choose your role in each match, you can rank them all, monster included, by order of preference, and the game does an admirable job of attempting to ensure you get your favorite character – or at least your second-favorite. As a preferred Medic player, I get my healer more often than not, regularly ending up as my runner-up Assault. Despite it being ranked either last or near-last (depending on how I’m feeling), I’m sometimes saddled with Monster duty, which makes me think I’m far from alone in considering the role as something akin to receiving a jury summons.
It’s not that being a monster can’t be entertaining, it’s just that Evolve suffers from a fairly significant problem – it can only ever really be amusing for one side at any given time, and if you’re not great with a certain character, you’re going to be miserable. If you’re a really good monster, you can get a thrill from eluding the hunters, doubling back on your route to mislead them, snacking on wildlife in the shadows, and amassing enough power to finally pounce on them. As a hunter, it could be exhilarating to chase after your target, trapping it in the arena and helping your partners to butcher the wretched thing. Unfortunately, when the monster’s having fun, the hunters are stuck wandering a huge map with little to no clue of its location, eventually growing bored as they wait for a sign – any sign – of its movements before it reaches Stage 3 and an actual fight can happen. When the hunters are having fun, the monster barely get to feel like it has a chance. A well co-ordinated hunter group often ensures a less skilled Goliath or Kraken gets nary a chance to feed, and until one reaches Stage 3, it’ll constantly be on the run. Very rare does one feel the fight is evenly matched, and that it could be anybody’s battle – it clearly becomes either a hunter or a monster victory often long before the conclusion.
This overwhelming sense of ironclad procedure feeds into an even bigger issue – and by far Evolve‘s greatest sin – its formula is apparent almost immediately, and nothing really changes from game to game. Every match of Evolve starts the same way, and it more or less ends the same way, regardless of who wins. Hunters chase the monster, monster fights the hunters, a big chaotic rumble happens until one side falls over. Each role in the game is so rigidly constructed that there’s no room for experimentation and no ability to switch up tactics or change the way every fight is structured. Each character has an unwritten – but clearly signposted – script that they have to follow to the letter if they want to achieve success, and deviation from the pattern leads to failure. It’s a given that any class-based game will have tried-and-tested strategies to ensure the greatest success, one cannot dispute that. Obviously the healer’s primary function is to heal, and the assault class will always be expected to maintain the attack. Evolve messes this up, however, in how quickly and readily apparent the strategies are, and how there’s no room for alternate interpretation. If you have a favorite character, look forward to doing the same thing again and again and again. You won’t unlock new weapons, and you won’t be able to change how your abilities work – you’ll need to pick an entirely new character and gain access to their extremely limited arsenal of tricks.
The “campaign” shakes things up a little, but not by much. In the five-match Evacuation mode, hunters and the monster face off in a variety of challenges. Hunters may be charged to destroy creature nests, rescue survivors, or engage in a classic hunt, while the monster naturally tries to stop them. The results of one match will effect the next – for example, the hunters failing a mission may cause EMP disruptions in the next one that regularly stop their abilities from working, while a victory could unlock teleporters to get the team around the map quicker. Evolve boasts of thousands upon thousands of ways in which the gameplay might change but… it’s still the exact same thing, with a few tiny distractions thrown in. Despite alternative objectives, the game routinely fails to avoid coming down to yet another battle royale between the humans and the aberration, with victory decided by the last thing standing. It’s a stretch to call it a campaign, for that matter – like Titanfall, it’s a series of barely-connected multiplayer matches containing a few halfhearted nods toward a coherent story.
In my first two hours of Evolve, I’d felt like I’d already experienced enough, and in the hours that followed, I saw nothing to dispute my assumption. I’ve now had hours of hours of time in the game, played match after match, and it feels tired already. It’s not badly put together, and it can still provide some excitement when things go well. It’s just so very calculable, to the point where I can’t play more than a couple of matches at any given time without growing tired of the whole thing and needing a break. In short bursts, it can be a good slice of fun, but more than that is just too much. During the course of my increasing languor, I’m listening to the same snippets of banter between the hunters before the match, the same dialog and “jokes” repeated by intensely stereotypical characters in a world that desperately tries to build itself a backstory and a sense of belonging but fails to do so in the meager amount of allotted narrative time. Oh, and there’s a ton of waiting to keep things dull – loading times, lobbies, there’s everso much waiting.
New content is so slowly drip-fed to the audience that there’s little to be excited about between matches, either. Players get an overall personal leveling system to unlock some passive perks during gameplay and aesthetic decorations for their profile, while classes are individually leveled (or “mastered”) to acquire fresh characters and skins. Obtaining these unlocks takes a considerable amount of time, even when focusing on just one class, and the rewards aren’t that abundant. It’s a frugal selection of trinkets spread so thinly that the subsequent effort required to obtain it all just isn’t worth investing. One cannot help but feel the rewards would be more liberal – and the overall sense of progression more exciting as a result – if the vast pool of skins and accessories being sold for cash as DLC at launch was actually included in the core game. As it stands, the main experience feels like an inexorable chug toward to the next abstract shape that you can use in a profile badge.
I believe Turtle Rock’s offering here would have made a brilliant multiplayer feature in another videogame, or at least one that boasted a real narrative campaign. That’s what Evolve feels like, ultimately – an alternate online mode, something other games would include in addition to other elements. Evolve can be a lot of fun, and in short bursts, it’s something I see myself able to return to more than once. Sadly, it’s just not strong enough to support itself in the way Turtle Rock has attempted. It’s not deep and varied enough, its gameplay sticks too rigidly to a blueprint that is instantly sussed out and damn near immutable. It lacks the sense of emergence that Left 4 Dead achieved through its AI Director, and its prey/predator scenario becomes so routine that it fails to remain provocative after only a short while. A game like this requires the sense that anything could happen, that no two playthroughs will be the same, and that the world is wild, untamed, and full of surprises. When only predictable things happen, when most playthroughs are the same, and when the world feels overly scripted, sterile, and unshockingly routine, it just doesn’t work.
To be quite honest, Evolve is an inoffensive experience despite the gauche focus on DLC it had leading up to launch. As an overall game, it offers a basic shooter with a nice gimmick, and I do think you can gather some friends together to get an afternoon’s worth of laughs out of it. I don’t believe there’s enough mileage to have those laughs regularly, though, and certainly not enough to where I’d recommend rushing out and getting it so soon after launch. Maybe when it gets an inevitable “Game of the Year” release with all the extra content included, it’ll be an easy buy – provided it still has a user base by then. As it stands currently, Evolve stands as a brilliant idea that needed to be so much more than simply an idea.