Turtle Rock's asymmetrical multiplayer shooter Evolve [official site] went live today, though its many and various DLC shenanigans mean I'm not entirely sure just how much of the game is on my hard drive right now. That's a dilemma for further down the line though: today, I just want to natter about how it's feeling a few hours in. We didn't get review code before release day, so any sort of definitive judgement lies further along your puny mortal timeline. Let's do this as we go along.
OK, so the game that Evolve is most putting me in mind of is not its predecessor Left 4 Dead, but Titanfall. I mean that in a good way - small vs big is a strong setup for an unpredictable round of ultraviolence - and in a bad way, in that neither game seems to be comfortable being simply a big, quick, multiplayer bust-up. As in Titanfall but perhaps a little worse, Evolve is swaddled in unnecessary frills which slow things down significantly, from the excess of cutscenes in some modes, to how pointlessly long menu screens hang around and to the multiple post-game screens barraging you with how many of the various experience meters have gone up as a result of your recent actions.
This is not really a game to just jump in and out of, because it's got so damn much it wants to show before and after you can actually play it. I don't know whether this is down to someone getting carried away with themselves or it's to mask that what's at Evolve's core is relatively small, but I do feel like it's wasting a lot of my time. Time I would very much prefer to spend pretending to a big monster, if you please.
If we are to hold this up against Left 4 Dead, it's a completely different creature from the simple, fast, drop in and have a grisly adventure mentality of that game. But then we are in a different age now. We are in the age of the unlock now. The experience of playing the game no longer matters. All that matters is the reward for doing so. I'm concerned that I play a round of Evolve primarily for the post-game screen which tells me how far along I am to unlocking the next monster or the next ability boost. I wish (as with Titanfall) that the game had a chance to breathe before it had to trumpet prizes and progress at me, that there could have been a month or two where all that stuff wasn't turned on yet and I could play Evolve purely to play it. Remember Team Fortress 2 before it became about the drops? I'd love an Evolve like that. When all this were fields, etc.
The reason I would is that the key parts of Evolve feel pretty good. So far I've been almost all monster almost all day, and I guess the reason for that is I enjoy playing as something with a whole mess of hitpoints, so that I've got a decent chance to get out of trouble rather than just have to fall over the second an enemy catches me unaware. (That said, the human Hunters can take a fair old beating before becoming down and out too: Evolve wants to keep everyone on the board, in some capacity, for as long as it can). The essential feedback loop of hide, run, bulk up, take the fight to your oppressors is a great one, especially because (in my case so far at least), there's huge uncertainty about the hunted becoming the hunter.
I'm still learning the ropes in terms of how to sneak, how to create false trails, and everything required to not have four heavily-armed humans on my arse all the damned time. There are quite a few small elements in there to get to grips with - how certain wildlife behaves and how you can exploit it to create diversion or unwitting assistance, what can and can't be climbed on, how to maximise jump distances and flight speeds, which creatures should be sought out for maximum health gain when I eat their bones, which of my abilities causes the most light and sound...
The maps are few and the playable monster types fewer, but there does seem to be plenty of strategy underneath it all. Just stomping about is suicide; I'm quite looking forwards to steadily learning how to use the environment as much as I do my claws, flamebreath, electro-tentacles and whatnot. Playing as the monster, I do feel big, heavy and destructive - Evolve has got sound, movement and animation right - but brute force doesn't last long against four humans with assorted guns, heal-rays, air strikes and harpoons. The balance feels right, in other words.
What's lacking, though, is any great sense of excitement about, say, which map you're playing. The game is clad in semi-darkness, which while possibly appropriate for the hunting theme doesn't do any favours for its personality. The maps have different settings - geodomes, industrial enclaves, forests - but wind up looking and feeling pretty much the same due to all the gloom. I would call that look and feel "locked in an abandoned Center Parcs at 7pm on a late November evening," which a) isn't as spooky as it probably sounds to non-Europeans and b) probably isn't what Evolve was going for, given the attempted Aliens vibe. Similarly, you've got all these classes and skins for the hunters (a few for the monsters too), some of which go for real money, but I'm not sure anyone's going to get much of an eyeful of 'em. Lighten up, Evolve. You're a game about four superheroes trying to catch Godzilla, after all.
Attempts to forcibly inject personality via cutscenes in the Evacuation mode - five rounds strung together, with minor variations depending on which side wins each - don't work out too well either. They look impressive, with big spaceships and flocks of monsters, but I've found them pretty dreary otherwise, and very much in the way of the shooty-bang I'm really there for. It's certainly not making me feel fond of anyone. There's a particularly cringeworthy one which tries to convey the characters of 10 or so different hunters by having each of them speak a 'cool', posturing line as they prepare for planetfall, but Aliens' wake-up scene it is not.
That stuff aside, I like the dynamic of Evacuation mode - it's a more substantial and satisfying way to play than the standalone rounds (included under 'Quick Play'). Part of that's just the best of five setup, part of it's the conceit that the hunters and the monster are deciding the outcome of a human settlement. Sure, it's a callback to semi-narrative modes in the likes of early Unreal Tournaments and Return To Castle Wolfenstein (or more recently the ill-fate Brink), but it's good to have a slightly higher purpose than just win the round or just unlock the next thing. The stakes do feel much higher as the win/loss counter climbs, and the mix of modes makes it feel like more than just a pointsfest.
It is a pointsfest, though. I keep jumping back into Evolve as I write this piece, which I guess means it's doing something right, but my interest is much more in unlocking the next monster than it is the joy of playing the two I've unlocked already. I want to be more excited about the fact I can already play a flying Cthulhu thing with tentacle for arms and which can shoot lightning, but between the unlock mania and the perma-gloom it's nowhere near as fantasy-fulfilling as it sounds on paper. So far, Evolve feels like a perfectly good action game in the modern paradigm, and with the added bonus of deeply asymmetrical sides which feel perfectly fair, but it's just not the riotous time a game about big bloody great monsters could have been. More on it soon, anyway. I have more to play, more to unlock, more to learn and especially more time to spend with the puny humans.
Part two of our Evolve review is here.