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.