Evolve is a 4v1 asymmetrical multiplayer co-op action game from Turtle Rock Studios, the main team behind the original Left 4 Dead. Picked up by 2K for an eyewatering sum at the THQ IP firesale, it's due for release later this year. A couple of weeks ago, I went to play it.
I'm shaking, which while a state I usually associate with over/under caffeination or discovering that there's been a distressingly cynical free to play remake of one of my most beloved games, is in this case a good thing. I'm shaking from built up and released tension, and from an infusion of adrenaline into my frail, pale form. I'm shaking because I became a monster, and because I won, and because I beat the real monsters.
Evolve is a high-budget, highly-focused exploration of themes we've seen in mods and multiplayer modes for decades (The Hidden, for example) - one player's beefed up and/or given special abilities, and everyone else on the server gangs up on him/her. Basically, a bullying simulator.. Where Evolve most differs is that standard shooty-bang shenanigans are the least of its elements: this is about four, mostly bearded, players working closely together to find and trap their hulking alien prey, using a host of gadgets and fairly elaborate teamwork in order to locate it, get the drop on it and keep it in one place. Only then does the shooty-bang play a useful role.
Imagine a phantom Left 4 Dead sequel set some years after the events of the last one, where the survivors have somehow managed to turn the zombie tide and now, tooled up, battle-hardened and blessed with an impressive selection of big hats and even bigger facial hair, they hunt down the last and most deadly Infected. That's Evolve: a proactive, gadgety Left 4 Dead, where survival is an onus placed upon the monster, not the humans. Also there are jetpacks. Basically, this is a game about an endangered species being bullied by ZZ Top in jetpacks. I hereby propose that we stop calling the monster 'the monster'. ZZ Top: they are the real monsters here.
A single player controls the poor, beleaguered but frankly still quite murderous monster for each 10 minuteish round (which felt much longer, as tension and stakes were high, and there's natural peaking and troughing as the game switches from hunting and hiding to all-out combat), and while the beast could handily have two human hunters for bearded breakfast, facing four of the blighters at once is essentially fatal. Initially, anyway.
So, if that's you in the 12-foot scaley onesie, you run. You run and you power-jump and you clobber wildlife whenever the coast looks clear, so you can eat its freshly-cleaved flesh, find a quiet corner to hide in, pop yourself into an icky cocoon, and evolve. See, it's not just a buzzword after all! Evolving means more strength, a harder hide, and choosing from a selection of new powers. Survive for long enough, eat enough animal carcasses, and you can take the fight to those hairy little bastards, swat them like the insects they are. Even then, you'll still wind up as a gruesome wall ornament if you wade in wildly rather than focus on eliminating e.g. the medic keeping everyone else alive or the trapper who keeps pinning you inside a vast energy cage. You must be a beast with a brain. That's why I was all a-tremble when I managed to win a monster round. I'd been working so very hard.
It works well, or at least does in the single map, single monster type scenario I played, because it feels balanced - it feels as though a game can go either way. 1 equals 4 here, rather neatly. That said, frenzied flailing means certain doom for the monster , while the hunters will go the way of the Flappy Bird if they don't work together - which means voice comms are vital. There's talk of some AI-led singleplayer elements in the release version, but it's clear that this is a game which demands that one play as part of a chatty group. John Walkers need not apply.
Each Hunter team, you see, comprises one each of four classes - a Medic, a Trapper, Assualt and Support. While everyone has at least one pure damage weapon, only the tanky Assault character uses this the majority of the time. Even the sniper rifle-wielding support class is more about temporarily weakening the beast with a toxic dart than landing headshots. The sound of war is constant, but much of what's going on involves electro-nets and harpoons and targeted airstrikes and personal shields. Killing the beast is the end goal of any skirmish with it, but first the steps of slowing it, containing it and staying alive while you're stuck in a self-made arena with a very angry Godzilla. Simply firing your gun is a desperate act here.
It's highly tactical, in other words: as the devs put it, each round is one long, rolling, unpredictable boss fight, and if the Hunters don't work together they'll get clawed and slammed and flame-breathed and rock-pounded to death sharpish. The big question is whether the 4v1/no laurel-resting formula can extend successfully over whatever one deems a 'full' game to be. It seems likely that fairly fool-proof tactics will emerge, for both hunters and monster, and then what?
Well, thrown into the pot along with Left 4 Dead and hunter/hunted modes is a MOBA influence of sorts. Teamplay and tactics are all, but they must be deployed against a variety of opponent types. Only one monster, which is essentially a surprisingly high-speed dinosaur with the ability to lob boulders and leap great heights, was on show. The lizardy Goliath, as he's called, is described as the most straightforward, most conventionally monstery, and strategies which work against it won't be so effective against... well, here I can only take you on a short tour of the Land Of Speculation. A crowd control beast, with its own trapping techniques? A summoner of some kind? A flier? A shape-changer? A midnight toker?
We shall see. And I'm quite sure someone, somewhere is rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of releasing a steady stream of new monster types DLC. Hunters too, in fact, as more class variants, load-outs and abilities are promised for a later reveal. Whereas Left 4 Dead essentially plays its entire hand right away, Evolve will be about recognising what you're up against each time you play, and picking tactics to suit.
I hope it works. I hope it can a) support an entire game and b) doesn't become over-fiddly, requiring a near-mathematical understanding of what counters what. What I played I found to be genuinely thrilling, and I found myself more determined to win than I have in most recent multiplayer games, because it was about thinking and planning and evading rather than who's most shit-hot with a targeting reticule, and because there was a bloody great monster rampaging about the place.
Because of that, it does have a self-made narrative that your average men with guns experience does not - there's a dynamic, player-driven plot arc of the monster trying to get keep clear of you, of it escaping when apparently cornered, of a hunter falling at the worst possible time or surviving by the skin of their teeth because the creature falls off a building or gets harpooned by a comrade. The Left 4 Dead DNA is more visible there than it is in the combat: a multiplayer game that's about living a short and deadly adventure rather than chasing a high score placing.
Inevitably, though, there is an Experience and Unlocks system, and it does remain to be seen whether players' hungry pursuit of such toys and e-peenery overwhelms the raw and tense hunt or not. If the unlocks involve even more magnificent facial hair (especially for the monster), I guess I'm onboard.
Evolve should be out this Autumn/Fall.