Hands On With Evolve: Where The FPS Meets The MOBA

I was sold on Evolve, convinced by a weekend spent game hunting in October’s Big Alpha. The player numbers seemed to suggest others felt similarly. This is it then, I thought: a high profile title has found approval in alpha and it’s a straight road to release.

However, there was dissent among pundits, forcing me to ponder why some players had rebounded from Evolve, confused by what they found. Turtle Rock have a long history with the Counter-Strike series and created Left 4 Dead. With those credentials, a similar first-person set-up of four friends chasing a fifth controlling a hairy monster should make for an instant connection with players. But there was a contingent who didn’t expect what Evolve was offering. And it turns out, after being dispatched to a Turtle Rock’s studios to play it, neither did I.

Cornering studio co-founder and creative lead Phil Robb, I asked him what genre he’d stick Evolve in.

“Sci-fi”, he replied, with a hint of a grin.

He knew what I was fishing for, but non-committance reveals more than the acronym I wanted. Throughout the day, Turtle Rock staff variously denied, considered and agreed that Evolve might be a MOBA. Now, MOBAs are slippery things. They’re generally grouped under a League-of-Legendsy umbrella but get creative with semantics and a MOBA is anything that can access the internet: shooters, brawlers, my telly. In my mind, though, the concept that connects the Leagues and the Dotas and the Smites is complex, competitive cooperation.

The hardest decision in Left 4 Dead is whether to shoot the zombie eating your mate’s face or the zombie running towards yours. According to Phil and co-founder Chris Ashton, Evolve was once the same – four faceless hunters were fed a weapon pick ‘n’ mix to bring down Goliath. But tracking something with human intellect is harder than playing zombie bait, demanding an arsenal of seventy-plus components from med-guns to parachute-cams.

Testing revealed that curation was required to save us from being devoured by our own item builds, as initially staff overseeing these sessions could call a hunter loss from a round’s opening moments.

Thus were Evolve’s brand of heroes born, now 12 all told, split into four classes, each with three abilities and a class-wide ultimate. Markov, Hyde and Parnell are Assault characters to get in close and boil off armour with lightning, fire or automatic RPGs. They’re simple soldiers, but go in without one and you may as well caress your scaly foe.

Support characters pack some of the gadgetry that caused headaches among testers. Hank deals in old fashioned artillery, Bucket’s head moonlights as a UAV, and lapsed Greenpeace member Cabot can coat an area in radioactive tracking dust. Trappers, with Abe the last to be revealed, utilise restraints and a mobile arena to corral the monster into meeting on the hunters’ terms.

Finally the medics ­– so often the least loved entries on any character roster, in Evolve I fought to fight as them. Grenade wielding, splash-healing Caira is the latest addition, but the first medic, Val, epitomises the interplay of skills that makes Evolve so much more MOBA than shooter. The med-gun is simple – single-target healing at range, a bright neon line connecting healer to healee and ranking you highly on the monster menu ­– but you need to do more than keep your allies up. Switch to tranquiliser darts to hobble your quarry, and break out an anti-material rifle to expose weak spots for your team.

Any one of these classes are as chicken nuggets to their prey, and this, I reckon, is where Left 4 Dead vets are slipping up. In Evolve, shooting is almost an afterthought. The hunters have to make plays, creating opportunities to further the group.

The complaint I heard most often about the alpha was that each match was a ten-minute jog around a muddy arena, following footprints that went nowhere, waiting for the monster to make itself known. This is not a passive game. Unlike L4D, things do not happen to you. Collectively the hunters are a toolbox, and it’s being left to the community to discover its potential.

“Things can get really bonkers,” Chris recounts as Phil giggles. “You can kill an elite marshstrider, take the perk from it, [tracking] dart it, have [medic] Lazarus bring it back to life, and it’s real tricky elite wildlife for the monster. The monster thinks he’s getting a perk and he gets a dart instead.”

Turtle Rock are proud of the metagame that’s arising from division of labour, but Evolve’s more involved direction might have been better communicated.

“It’s a challenge, because it’s so different from everything else that’s out there … We always sort of expected [confusion] for the alphas,” says Chris, “the beta will include tutorial missions, and it’s more like the full game. Players will be able to play a mission as the monster, get to use all the abilities by themselves; they don’t have to jump straight into multiplayer.”

Together, four Hunters can overpower one monster. Divided, the worst they inflict is heartburn. Collaboration isn’t a problem with friends, but how do you get a public squad to stop squabbling? The single consciousness of the monster devastates the uncommunicative.

In one alpha round, silence ruled the mics as my team of low-level hunters stalked a rank 21 Kraken (a levitating wizard lizard). Six minutes in, we resigned ourselves to spawn farm. The reptile left one alive and devoured respawns conveyed from the dropship like sushi. Suicide by carnivorous plant afforded an eventual undignified exit. I asked Phil how encounters can be balanced.

“The matchmaking in the Big Alpha was not tuned – role preference was overrated and skill level was underrated.”

No doubt that’ll help, but no PC gamer puts total faith in matchmaking. Can the imbalances of alpha be avoided in the wild?

“We did that [dropship wipe] strategy in the office. It lasted maybe a week and then we figured out how to beat it, and then it became known as monster suicide. I see this with a lot of games – the strategy du jour will pop up and people will be completely flustered by it … but then people figure it out and we’ll move on.”

I was framing my questions around Hunt, the only game mode available in alpha and one which alone could sustain a community as per Dota’s defining style. Now four new modes have joined the roster. Nest and Rescue are objective-based games for people uninspired by freeform hunting. Defend takes the MOBA concept most literally. Evacuation, meanwhile, leverages lessons from Left 4 Dead to generate a pseudo-campaign to be enjoyed in company.

Among my playgroup of jetlagged writers, Nest was a winner. That could mean anything for lucid humans, but intuitive objectives should lure in big game sceptics. Six monster eggs scatter the map, which the hunters must scramble while the monster would prefer that they didn’t. It’s Predator meets Man v. Food. Objectives force a strategic rejig, especially for the panicking sod playing monster. Which was me.

Manning the close combat Goliath, I rejected the idea of evolving to max strength – eggs are armoured, but crack fast under fire. Charging in at level one didn’t seem like responsible parenting either. With the hunters making omelettes and opting not to harass, I was free to gorge on wildlife, hitting stage two at the cost of half my clutch. The eggs are fantastically distracting though. So alluring, in fact, that the interlopers didn’t notice me fume across the map and unleash a minion at the cost of a fourth egg. Father and son dropped in uninvited. The hunters, failing to pre-empt me, gave away the win. I whooped and clapped, then remembered no one was on my side.

Fun, but fleeting. I prefer stalking to rushing in, but Nest isn’t targeted at me. And my group were terrible (sorry, friends). We were outplayed by AI on occasion. Skilled brawlers might drag things out, strategising instead of panicking, in a calculated game of phases.

Rescue mode passed faster still. As Kraken, I was tasked with finishing incapacitated colonists before the hunters could extract them. It’s like inverse Nest, but only two of the nine NPCs can be rescued at once, an orderly queue for aid and a single focus for the action. Things are harder for the hunters. I re-enacted my previous strategy, hitting level two then looking for fights. Just one survivor was up when I reached the enemy. Shrugging off bullets, I dropped lightning on the downed chap and ate the colonist already rezzed for good measure. My armour was spent, but what of it? I crossed the map and supped on the leftover locals before the chase was even begun. An effortless victory.

I’m disappointed by the rampage that Rescue turned into. Not because the monster outmatched the resistance – I’m allowing for inexperience – but because the grand strategies described by Chris and co. lack scope in matches so short. Barrelling after the objective seemed the obvious approach.

Nest is brisk but better paced. A compatriot and I, playing Trapper and Support, caged the nascent monster and popped stealth. Unable to defend its eggs or find the fellow maintaining the dome, it gave the hunters a fearsome head start. Devious plans are exhilarating when executed, but I can’t see room for them in Rescue.

Defend goes full MOBA. Considering the happy integration of genre staples elsewhere, it’s strange that it should feel so out of place. The hunters protect two tiers of towers (generators) from waves of Goliath creeps. The level-three monster draws gunfire while the minions whittle down each tower to get at the ancient. Sorry, the fuel line.

This mode disrupts the emergent metagame. What good are gadgets like sound spikes when you know where the monster is coming from? Its otherness is exacerbated by special maps; four miniature biomes segregated from the twelve arenas which host all other modes. Though it’s serviceable in play, Defend is different enough to perturb the fantasy.

It’s an artefact of Evacuation, a mode unexpected in its ambition. You couldn’t guess from the alpha that Evolve’s disparate maps have relative locations on a fleshed-out planet. Evolve invokes its Left 4 Dead heritage to provide campaigns for friends and, I prophesy, something bigger.

In Evacuation, a map and a mode are chosen at random. The outcome alters the flow of the next, adjacent, democratically-selected match. Victory as the hunters on Distillery prompted colonists to release a scent-masking compound, dulling the monster’s senses. In other rounds we were supported by roving NPC squads. Turtle Rock claim that a monster win on Dam will flood the next area. I’m calling it Maptural Selection.

Defend mode finishes off each Evacuation, giving it context. Like L4D’s holdout finales, hunters withstand monster battery until their ship refuels, escaping the planet for good. Or until a rematch is called. It’s a narrative device, and that’s why Evacuation exists – it’s a journey to recount down the pub alongside hard-nosed match analysis.

It’s also very watchable: a series of dynamic, escalating battles with a pool of XP to play for. Despite a shoutcasted trailer and a planned spectator mode, however, Chris seems affronted at the suggestion that Evolve is looking to go pro.

“Everybody’s thinking that we’re positioning [Evolve] as an eSport because of us shoutcasting the game, but we just find that’s one of the best ways to communicate what’s going on … In my mind it’s not a lot different than making a commercial.”

Whatever their competitive intent, Turtle Rock have record of inspiring community. As I write, a descendant of Counter-Strike is centre stage at DreamHack, and six years on I can still get a game in Left 4 Dead. They’re frank about the future. Their CryEngine license precludes above-board modding, but map packs will always be gratis, and punters not buying new hunters or monsters can play freely with those who do.

So Rescue didn’t sit well and Defend felt out of place, but it’ll take more than a day in a darkened room to test the limits of Evolve. Turtle Rock are throwing out five conceptual configurations and handing us tools to tell our own stories; tools we have to share with friends, foe and internet strangers who can’t trap for shit. In the inventive fervour it might inspire, it’s just as much MOBA as Dota.

30 Comments

  1. Christo4 says:

    “In the inventive fervour it might inspire, it’s just as much MOBA as Dota.”
    Whoa…
    You just went there man…
    You just…
    Went there…

    • mezron says:

      Knocked the wind right out of my sails with regard to this game as soon as I saw that.

    • RARARA says:

      Will you be happy with MOBAlike? MOBAlite?

      Is MOBA the new rogue?

      • mezron says:

        Sometimes I think people use the term “MOBA” when what they really want to say is “Toxic Community”

        The gameplay sounds fun.

    • Corb says:

      …why moba? Why not TF2 like instead? Between the fps, classes, and strategies it is much more akin to TF2 instead of a moba (unless I misread the original definition of moba put out and Angus includes TF2 under that definition).

  2. Lobotomist says:

    I spent 1 hour in “alpha” before uninstalling.

    Actually 30 minutes of this hour were spent waiting for matches to load.
    Other 30 minutes were spent mindleslly trying to run at insane pace after the team, in circles around the map, for some unexplainable reason known only to the PUG leader. (if you fail to keep the pace , let say try to think or look at some hud message. You are singled out and killed by the monster)

    Basically what we had (in alpha) was a prime example of online game that you must play with team of friends (or established group) and have great coordination with. Otherwise the game is simply exercise in futility. Much more so than l4d or payload.

    And insanely long loading times (where you also have to wait for each player to have game loaded) didnt help much.

    All in all. The game sounds good on paper. But in practice it just does not work

    • Kitsunin says:

      Umm, when you say “In practice it does not work” that makes it sound like the concept itself doesn’t work. It does, quite well, it’s just bogged down by secondary issues like loading and poor matchmaking.

    • Asurmen says:

      This sounds like typical knee jerk reaction to something clearly labeled as a beta. The matchmaking and loading were quicker after the first day or two as patches were released. As for working together, a bit of communication is all that’s needed. suggest to split up into 2 groups and one group follows tracks and the other heads of likely locations. It worked when people suggested it during beta.

    • Dale Winton says:

      I had the exact same experience with it as you. Running about aimlessly chasing a monster only for it to run away and repeat.

      Also the waiting 30 min for a match.Not a good way to launch an alpha , what with matchmaking being broken

      • Eggman says:

        The hunter can track the monster, so if your group were following that character, it would not have been aimless.

    • Reapy says:

      Wrong.

      The game works just fine. The problem is you REALLY REALLY need tutorials in there. The intro videos were good but you just needed about 30 minutes of overview on the mechanics and you’d have much more quality games as both the hunter and monster. It is just really hard to figure out what is happening in the game, learning a new map, understanding your hot keys, understanding the neutral mobs, and methods of detection.

      In isolation they are easy to understand, but under the gun of other people trying to play it is exactly as you describe, a frantic mess until the systems become apparent.

      For example playing the goliath I kept losing every game quickly, so I went to the forums and read about 6 paragraphs of tips and then won my next two games once I understood the stealth mechanics, no tracks when you crouch, birds are a ping on the hunter’s radar, when you kill the trapper the cage goes down, and that was enough to win twice in a row.

      I did uninstall after a day, but only out of personal preference rather than thinking the game has failed in its mechanics. It definitely works and provides a lot of pretty fun and atmospheric encounters. The more and more you learn map layouts and how to detect things the less you are chasing and more you are intercepting and ambushing, until you know what connects where though you are forced to just blindly chase after a faster creature.

      Also if 4 abilities and multiple classes is now moba, i guess.. I wouldn’t call it anything to do with moba, just has classes with a lower amount of abilities, this is nothing specific to moba.

  3. Anthile says:

    Kinda weird to mention Turtle Rock and Counter-Strike together, considering it was them who produced the much-maligned Condition Zero – even if that was not entirely their own doing.
    That CS:GO is such a success is hardly their achievement.

    • Angus Morrison says:

      They played a big part in Source, too. While they had no direct hand in GO, we can reasonably assume that there wouldn’t be a GO if all the previous iterations had sucked. Plus, without their work on CS: Source there would be no Left 4 Dead – zombies were originally bots with knives running round a modded de_dust. The history of Turtle Rock is bound to Counter-Strike – it would feel strange to leave it out!

  4. Banks says:

    The Alpha was boring as hell.

  5. iainl says:

    I didn’t get on with the Alpha at all. Having already read a load of grumpy messages about how hard it was to play as a human if you didn’t have a good, coordinated team of four, I tried being a monster, so at least my being rubbish wouldn’t upset anyone.

    I rapidly discovered that the human team had realised the cunning technique of sticking together while legging it around the map at high speed in an attempt to find the monster – without being able to pick anyone off singly a level 1 monster doesn’t stand a chance, and without time to breathe in your running away you can’t level up.

    • Asurmen says:

      Croaching and leaping/flying doesn’t leave tracks. Spam smell as often as possible so you know when it’s time to stop feasting. It’s actually bad for hunters to stick as a foursome because they become too easy to evade.

      A level one monster isn’t supposed to stand a chance unless hunters do dumb things. You either avoid them or capitalise of their mistakes when you can.

      • Angus Morrison says:

        This is bang on – it’s not about running, but out-witting. You leave no tracks and startle no birds while sneaking, water washes away all trace of you. It’s not a straight shooter, but a game of phases, careful planning and execution. Reaching stage 2 is half the battle, and the hunters should be very afraid if you do.

        • Asurmen says:

          What I did was as soon as round started, was croach somewhere near by where I could smell them but not be seen, then spend the rest of the round following them occasionally picking up free kills from them. Was always amusing. Or intentionally leaving confusing tracks via croaching and water.

          I did find strange rounds over the weekend as people got to grips with the learning curve. Bad monsters at first, then better monsters because you don’t need to co operate with anything, and then better hunters towards the end when they got to grips with maps (such as learning good and bad places to put down an arena), skills and team work.

          There was three other things about the beta that bothered me: one was limited replayability (extra characters, monster and modes/maps were known to be happening but no details so potential for let downs. Seems they’ve got the extra modes right at least).

          Second was how skills level up and people gain new hunters and monsters. There’s some potential for people to troll by spamming the use of skills that are counter productive to winnning but let them rank up. For example, Markov only using assault rifle despite lightning gun being superior in its niche area. Possibly allow all abilities a boost if you win, or did it do that already?

          Third was the Kraken. It’s evil. No one ever did it once a fight started, but I believe Val’s tranq rifle drops you out of fly. It does imply to me that you need her in your group vs Kraken or you’ll lose.

      • iainl says:

        Thanks – that makes sense. Unfortunately I didn’t progress past dying a lot to figure out any of this myself, and there was no tutorial.

  6. Asurmen says:

    I enjoyed the beta thoroughly, far more than I was expecting, and once I ended up as monster once despite it being my lowest preference, I took to its gameplay like a duck to water on my first go and didn’t want to play hunter again.

    To me, during beta the game was too heavily weighted towards the monster. Too easy to avoid hunters, too easy to take down trapper if you get caught in an arena. I would suggest a cooldown on smell ability and similar or range/duration reduction for leap/fly.

    • Angus Morrison says:

      That’s what I felt as well. In alpha I kept getting mauled by the monster. But according to the stats, hunters won 57% of the games. I reckon the sensation that the monster was winning was down to the widening skill gap over the weekend. Matchmaking was very hands-off (i.e. non-functional), so little old me wandered in on the Sunday and immediately got eaten by rank 22 Krakens.

  7. liceham says:

    Here’s where I would agree with the MOBA comparison: It takes a while to learn how to play effectively.
    Maybe not as long as DOTA or LOL, but playing for an hour does not show off how the metagame works. In the Alpha, I saw a lot of people (including streamers) initially think that the monster was overpowered, followed by believing that the monster couldn’t win against a coordinated team. So far as I could tell from the Big Alpha, monster is easier to start and win with, but as players get more experienced, it becomes more difficult and requires adjustments to your initial strategy.
    I have beaten the monster in pickup groups, with people who had gotten more used to the game (and I was still bad at the human side). I have beaten coordinated groups as the monster, or come very close.
    I can already see the strategic possibilities of Nest and Rescue. They will be different than Hunt, and maybe all the modes won’t end up being equally balanced, but I wouldn’t discount their possibilities after a few hours play.
    As for how the Hunt is currently balanced, that’s a lot of detail about monster movement, human tracking, targeting priorities, using the map intelligently, targeting buffs, etc. There seems to be a fair bit of depth to the game if you invest the time into it.

  8. milton says:

    I was fairly excited for the Evolve alpha and managed to get a little playtime myself.

    I unfortunately was not too impressed with what I played with. The idea is solid but I feel like the game needs more finesse. It’s chaotic and repetitive though I could see how competitively this game could be good.

  9. The Dark One says:

    I think what throws off a lot of people who expected something more like Left 4 Dead is that instead of making a Survivors vs Tank game, Turtle Rock made something that’s essentially The Infected vs a Tank. Instead of four identically handling, resilient humans, you’ve got a group of relatively weak, specialized classes who have to take the initiative, set up & coordinate ambushes to be effective.

  10. untoreh says:

    from my perspective the hunters need a fuckin lot more of customization and stuff to do in battles… Talking bout mobas… Items maybe? 4 abilities are just not enough, skill ceiling for the hunters is very very low. The perks for both the beast and hunters are boring stat based stuff. I do not think the game I tried had the tools to be a competitive focused game. It just didn’t have the depth for it like l4d2 does and l4d2 wasn’t even focused on competitive. For the beast the situation is a little bit better but it needs more variety map wise, I think the map can really be the beast victory or demise and there has to be a way to deal with such imbalance.

    • Asurmen says:

      3 different people per class is the customisation though. I think the skill ceiling for the hunters is the teamwork, correct use of skills, map control and jet pack fuel control . Not sure how to move that to genre standard things like recoil. The perks were boring I agree.

      For me personally it’s the other way round. L4D had little depth, this has way more. For the maps, there isn’t really an imbalance. Each one has areas that are good and bad to engage the monster. Hunters need to control that engagement. Likewise, a monster can start an engagement in places that suit it’s playstyle, such as cover and hard hostile creeps that will go for the hunters.

  11. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I don’t see where the DOTA comparison makes sense. Sure, having various classes to choose from is present but that’s hardly confined to DOTA style games. It’s like when a type of game or genre comes (back) into vogue everything has to relate to it.