Evolve wasn't the game I expected. I knew going in that it was an asymmetric FPS from the makers of Left 4 Dead, in which one team of four futuristic hunters chases down and defeats a rampaging monster, controlled by a fifth player. In my head, that (very uncharitably, I admit) sounded like it was going to be, well, Left 4 Dead-style shooting, only in the future, and one person on the other team controlling a scaled up Tank or Witch or whatever.
Well, it's not that. Not even close. Like King Kong, it's a far more complicated beast than it appears, and one that takes the greatest risk any online game can - betting its future on players playing 'properly'. If the hunters treat it as simply a deathmatch, everyone loses. That doesn't simply mean the monster will win, though it probably will. It means it's no fun for anyone. And even if people do play nice, with the best will in the world, your first couple of games are likely to be pretty miserable. Many details are just not satisfying - the weakness of the hunters' weapons, for example. The length of fights versus achingly long skill cooldowns. And design oddities such as why the monster has to run like a chicken from the puny humans instead of teaching them what fear is. There's a lot that just doesn't make sense, or at least not gut-sense, during those all important, often frustrating first plays.
Skip forwards a bit though and things change. This is a carefully considered and engineered game and, however it turns out, it's clear every element has been pored over at great length. It takes time to appreciate, to an extent that few shooters this side of Super Monday Night Combat have had to deal with (and we all know how fast that one vanished from the conversation), and operates in ways Evolve will have to address for it to find the audience it needs. If you don't play it on its own, very specific terms, the experience sucks on toast.
But if you do? Then things get very cool, very fast.
This is Evolve, as a hunter. The dropship swoops in and your team freefalls into not just any part of the map, but where the monster started. It has a 30-second headstart. Doesn't sound like much? It is, because this is an open map - a blighted desert full of wildlife, canyons and caves - where it can climb any wall, leap incredible distances in a single bound. It's level one, but don't think that makes it weak. It's already been able to choose up to three powerful attacks - Fire Breath, Charge, Leap and Rock Throw - or maybe spent its points on one. Every minute it's out there, it's getting more powerful; eating wildlife to level up. At level three, it's not only a match for your whole team combined, but able to score an instant win by destroying your generator. Its name is Goliath, and it's earned that name with every scar it wears.
Your tracker takes point. Her name is Maggie and her best asset is Daisy, a 'Trapjaw' (think: giant dog) that can sniff the beast out. Daisy is the team's best friend. Not only does she follow Goliath's scent, she can resurrect fallen players and take part in battles. Several times, Daisy was the difference between victory and success. Expect plushies to be available soon. But she's not your only way of tracking the beast. There's Bucket, a Support character, whose head becomes a UAV. There are the birds Goliath disturbs, pinging onto the screen... unless it finds a perk to prevent this happening. There are its footprints, bright blue, unless it goes sneaky. There's the sound it makes, the ping as one hunter flags it to the rest. As the team gets close, Maggie throws up her Mobile Arena - a blue dome that comes down over the area for a short time. To paraphrase Watchmen though, there's a catch: Goliath is locked in with them, but they're also locked in with it. Even at level one, it's a force to be reckoned with.
And pause. You get the general idea. What you can't really appreciate without playing it though is just how many layers are involved here, and how they all work together to create something far more interesting than Evolve first seems. It's a MOBA (swap with your preferred term here) type game sliced neatly in half, with the hunters worrying about synergies and team composition - though you have to have one hunter of each class, you can't just take in four Assault guys - while the monster treats the map as its jungle. But that's only part of the power-up curve. Both sides can also acquire 'perks' by defeating tough enemies, like the hunters upgrading their jetpacks - which start off useful but unexceptional - and the monster no longer startling birds and giving away its location as it runs around.
Turtle Rock's latest reveals are on the hunter team, not simply to show off four new faces, but to demonstrate how they radically change the game. (Goliath the heavy-hitting tank is still the only monster we've seen, but there will be others to choose from later on.) The most dramatic is the split between the two medics, Val and Lazarus, with Val having a heal-gun and focusing on keeping the team alive, and Lazarus devoted to getting them back on their feet after the monster takes them down, helped by a cloaking device. It may not sound like much, but it radically changes how the monster player has to act; Val for instance having no choice but to be in the thick of things, while Lazarus can snipe, cloak, and only swoop in when needed.
That's just one example of course. Another is that while both Trackers have a harpoon weapon, they use it very differently - Maggie setting plasma harpoon traps to hold Goliath in place, while her previously announced colleague Griffin uses a gun and physically holds the brute in place. Griffin also has a different way of detecting the monster: sound spikes that can be placed around the map to ping when it appears. Daisy will find it eventually, but this is a far more efficient way for a skilled player who knows the map to keep track of hiding holes, or use elements like a river running down the middle as an invisible barrier - one that would otherwise hide Goliath's footprints. Individually, these things are relatively small, but they all have major knock-on effects. Evolve is aiming to be layer after layer after layer of them, all wrapped up in a high-pressure monster hunt intended to take roughly 12-15 minutes.
There are of course some obvious concerns with any multiplayer game, not least the Titanfall problem - that a game reliant on a gimmick (not in a pejorative sense, mind) can often find itself struggling to hold players' interests once the new and shiny feeling has worn off. I sat down with 2K producer Denby Grace to dig a little bit more into how Evolve will handle it, and ideally see if he'd take some cheap shots at Titanfall for a nice rabble-rousing headline.
"I'm still playing Titanfall and I love it," he replies, the spoilsport. "We have a long-term content plan, much like 2K had with Borderlands - I think that's a great example of giving gamers what they want. I'm not going to talk smack about any other games out there, but one of the things about Evolve is that the mechanics go real deep - much deeper than any other shooter. As players become more advanced you start to see these different levels of strategy, whether it's something like realising an cloaked character can be set on fire and be visible, or that the monster can kill a character and camp their body until they're properly dead. Then the hunters have their tactics to counter that, like gas grenades..."
But Evolve has seemed a tough sell so far - certainly, we've seen that our coverage hasn't drawn a huge crowd compared to other games, and the number of new multiplayer IPs that get the world excited for the long haul can rather be counted on the fingers of one hand. Left 4 Dead, while of course a great game on its own merits, did rather luck into the other dreaded z-word, zeitgeist, as the world was going zombie crazy. Evolve doesn't have the same instant resonance or seem to be benefiting from, say, Godzilla being at cinemas. Without something like that to back it up, does it have any chance of making the splash it needs?
Grace shrugs it off. "Does something being in the pop culture spotlight help? Sure, of course, but I don't think we're fearful. Left 4 Dead has something like four million players and those guys are instantly going to pick up playing as the hunters. Evolve really is the natural progression of the co-op system that was established there. Then, the monster attracts a different audience too. We see a really interesting split; lone wolves versus team players."
One of the most interesting parts of the game is how it manages to evolve as players get more familiar, from pure action to something far more strategic. Easily the worst part of the sessions I played were the scrums, when either Goliath goes on the offensive or the team manages to trap him. It becomes a desperate melee that takes one of my least favourite parts of boss battles - the health bar being slowly, slowly, slowly chipped away - and holds it up as the reward. After several plays though, it started to become clear that like a lot of the game, this is yet another of those parts where inexperience makes for a poor experience. At the very least, when you get into a skill spam-off, it shouldn't be a random act on either site.
"Some monsters play well in close-quarters, and Goliath is one of those," says Grace, refusing to be drawn on other monsters. "He wants to create that scrum. Even then though, you have options. Goliath can stalk, go stealthy, wait for a hunter to be separated. There's a lot of mechanics in the game that push you together, like the wildlife, but what we find is that more advanced players will split into pairs and then it's 'We got him! Get over here quickly!'"
The big problem with the scrum though, as realised more directly in a later session, was that catching the monster and having a big fight to the death is one of those things that sounds exciting, but doesn't play that well. That's FPS thinking, not hunting, being bad for both the monster who only has one life, and the hunters who can respawn, but go down quickly.
"You can get a lot of ebb and flow, with the power of the battle changing during the course of the game; taking one hunter down or a really key resurrection really shifting momentum. Nine times out of ten you're grinding the monster down over two, three, four encounters... a lot of people expect battles to be one team winning, but that doesn't happen. Usually the hunters will lose if they do that, or the monster will have to run. Experienced players will take on the hunters early to put them on the back foot, or lead them through wildlife. My personal strategy is to get stage three rock immediately, hide in a bush where the hunters are going to land, and as soon as they do - rock in the face! Kill one of them immediately!"
Turtle Rock is also well aware of how difficult all this is going to be to learn. In our play session, help was mostly provided by a developer barking advice through a headset, but since it doesn't quite have the staff to provide that personal a service to everyone at launch, other systems will be in play. "What's really important is going to be the ranking system," says Grace. "There's going to be monsters who are pretty duff and monsters who are not so hot. We have a game coach in there to teach stuff, which reacts to what you're not doing and reminds you that you can heal people and such. What we find internally though is that people soon find the character that suits them. Want to shoot shit? Be an Assault hunter. That's their job. Me, I like playing Val the Medic because she has different roles at different points."The lost art of video game manuals The greatest loss of the digital age.
Exactly how wide Evolve's options will be upon its 21st October launch remains unknown, though it is notable that the pre-order page only promises a new monster "as soon as it's available", hinting that Goliath might be the only star of the show for a while. Neither Turtle Rock nor 2K are ready to talk about how expansions will be monetised either, though the smart money would seem to be on free maps and modes to keep people playing, with paid for hunters, monsters and skins.
What I can say for sure though is that I went in to see it not expecting much, walked away from my first session never wanting to play it again, but having given it a second shot the next day now can't wait for another try. I'm looking forward to finding out how deep Evolve's hunting can get when more experienced players are firing and calling the shots across various maps. And also, when Daisy takes the internet by storm this autumn, remember, we totally called it here.
This article was based on a press trip to LA. 2K paid for travel and accommodation.