Surrounding the player in just the right amount of chaos is a tricky task. If things get too hectic then all sense of being in control is lost and the player will no doubt feel frustrated as a result. If a developer gets it right though, controlled chaos can be a wonderful thing.
Titanfall creators Respawn managed to achieve this perfectly – the AI soldiers running amok made the battlefields feel suitably busy. Their presence never affected the chances of survival as they were little more than cannon fodder. Turtle Rock Studios – of Left 4 Dead fame – has adapted a similar approach for Evolve, providing a range of vicious beasts to shoot when the player-controlled Monster isn’t present.
These creatures – each of which have their own behavioral patterns – help the far flung planet of Shear feel alive. Danger isn’t exactly around every corner, but you do have to keep an eye out for carnivorous plants and toad-like creatures that cunningly disguise themselves as boulders before swallowing team members whole.
It’s when the Monster finally shows up that Evolve stumbles. The fire-breathing Goliath feels too underpowered while the later unlocked Wraith and Kraken are the total opposite. Engage a Wraith in battle and all sense of being in control is lost – not only can this ghoulish creature teleport but also perform a charged attack that can incapacitate in a blink of an eye. As such, the Wraith is not only a silent and deadly killer but also your worst nightmare. This is especially the case after it has fed on the remains of Shear’s wildlife and evolved a couple of times. A stage three Monster is something to fear.
Every Monster has four attacks, with a maximum of three selectable before a match commences. Evolving gives the chance to enhance attacks or to add the remaining ability to the roster. It’s up to the four hunters to try and take down the Monster before the chances of victory start to worsen, and often while completing escort, protection and seek ‘n destroy missions. If the matchmaking service – which can be temperamental at times – is unable to find four human players then AI fills the gaps. To particularly good effect too. At times it’s impossible to tell which of your cohorts are controlled by AI. Monsters can also be AI-powered, and usually put up a decent fight.
It’s not until we had our collective arses handed to us in battle a few times that we began to formulate strategies in order to prevent being beaten in a heartbeat. For us, this is when Evolve finally clicked. When playing as a Monster going up against all four hunters at once is a tactless act until evolving at least once. Ideally, the hunters should be silently stalked and dealt with individually when they stray too far away from the pack. Of course, this opportunity may never occur. Hunters meanwhile have a jetpack to master. A beady eye has to be kept on the power gauge, or you’ll risk running out of juice while scaling one of the many cliff faces.
Although the Monsters are undoubtedly the stars of the show, being the hulking bullet sponges that they are, the hunters themselves aren’t without merit. Clutching comically oversized weapons, they’re very action figure-esque. Stereotyping is on display but it’s done well, and as such easy to take a shine to the majority. Each hunter fills a role within the team be it assault, medic, support or a trapper. There’s synergy between some classes, which adds a nice level of depth to the combat. The trapper can ‘slow’ a Monster using tranquiliser darts, for instance, which then makes it far easier for support to find their target when calling in an orbital strike.
As you’d expect, keeping the medic alive is vital. Monsters often attack medics first in order to bring the entire team to their proverbial knees. Should they succeed in taking your medic down it’s highly likely that you’ll struggle for the remaining part of the battle. Hunters can only be ‘downed’ twice before snuffing it, forcing you to then spectate until the dropship circles back around. Spectating can be dull, especially when hunters are still in the process of tracking a Monster, which can take some time. Thankfully there are always telltale signs of where a Monster has been, including footprints and flocks of birds that take to the skies, either panicked by the Monster’s presence or eager to feed on the remains of whatever creature has been left slain. The trapper also brings a tame beast into battle that will also sniff out a Monster’s whereabouts. Also able to revive fallen hunters, they’re a valuable part of the team.
Just four characters are available from the outset, with an additional eight locked behind character-linked progression tables. This is both a blessing and a curse. There will be players out there wanting to unlock absolutely everything and its these individuals that will get weeks, if not months, of play out of Evolve. Aim for a full set of hunters and it’ll serve you well. Others however will find the methods required to gain unlockables both a grind and a chore; a fact that’s not helped by the lack of match types. It wasn’t until after around 12 hours of play that we unlocked the first couple of characters, although to be fair a lot of that time was spent experimenting with the classes and getting to grips with playing as a Monster.
This drip feed of new faces helps to keep things fresh. They aren’t lazy reskins of existing characters – each has their own quartet of unique weapons and abilities, varying from flamethrowers to toxic gas grenades. Team chatter during battle is near constant, and so it also falls onto the unlockable characters to prevent dialogue from becoming stale. Every match starts with a humorous roll call of sorts in the dropship’s hangar – the pre-match chatter between hunters varies depending on characters selected. In theory, at least, you shouldn’t hear the same conversations too often.
Formed of five matches lasting around 15-20 minutes each, Evacuation mode is Evolve’s most substantial offering. Assuming the matchmaking service puts you into a game that has only just started, a full play through can take around an hour. The outcome of an Evacuation match affects the next which is a neat little touch. Fail to save the dam, for example, and electric eels will lurk pools of water during the next match. It all builds up to a final confrontation where three power relays must be protected from the Monster and his minions. Only a stage three Monster can damage the third and final relay, putting a focus on stopping them from evolving beyond stage two. Should the hunters win the majority of matches beforehand then they’ll receive gun turrets to make the task slightly easier.
The handicap adjusts at the end of each match too, helping to keep things balanced. You only have to spend a few hours with Evolve to appreciate just how much fine-tuning it has received. The beta clearly helped shape it for the better. In fact, we’re yet to win five Evacuation matches in a row.
As finely-tuned as Evolve is – some nightmarish encounters with the Wraith aside – it only takes a few hours to realise that not every match is as gripping as the last. By this point just how much effort and time it takes to unlock a single character will also be apparent. Progression really isn’t as fast flowing as we would have liked, but this does at least make unlocking extra characters feel like a genuine reward.
It’s easy to perceive Evolve as a one trick pony, but boy, what a trick. Matches against experienced players utterly captivate, tracking the Monster over varied terrain while occasionally stopping to engage in battle. Updates and DLC should turn it into something greater and more substantial still. How you feel about having to pay out to put more meat on Evolve’s bones though is something you’ll simply have to decide upon yourself.