The pre-release period has not been kind to Evolve, Turtle Rock's post Left 4 Dead 'second album'. The recent alpha preview did it few favours, crippled by broken matchmaking and offering a confusing and unbalanced game of cats ganging up against a rather large mouse. I spent almost every match during the alpha just walking through forests not doing anything of any interest whatsoever. Combine that with one of the most misguided, muddled and overly verbose pre-release content campaigns in history, and Evolve isn't off to the best of starts.
What Turtle Rock's shooter actually offers is far simpler than this befuddling maelstrom of bad information and tedious buzzwords sought to represent. It's a game about four players shooting a monster. It just so happens to be a monster that's controlled by another human. There are great subtleties, nuance, balance and a handful of other rules, of course, but that's the elevator pitch.
As promised then, Evolve gives you the option to team up with three other players in a Monster hunt, or to actually jump into the scaly skin of the beast itself. Clearly, the latter is the most instantly appealing. The first monster on the unlock scale, The Goliath, is simple enough to control. You can bound about the vast maps in third person, clambering up sheer cliff faces with ease and generally feeling rather happy with yourself.
Despite your size, you must keep away from the pursuing hunters in order to raid the environment for wildlife, killing and devouring whatever you see to - yes - evolve. With every stage of Darwin-bothering levelling up comes skill points to add to the Goliath's different attacks. Hit Stage 3 and you can create a reasonably wide range of beasts. Do you pile your points into fire breathing, or build a behemoth that can sprint in and out of battle at pace?
Whatever creature you end up with, though, the rhythm of Evolve's signature Hunt mode is largely the same. Kill wildlife while staying away from the hunters, try to get to Stage 3, then either kill the puny humans or destroy the map's power relay (a static base with a power bar that can only be obliterated when the monster is at full power).
For the hunters, it's all about teamwork. Each of the four classes buff and complement one another in order to first track the monster, then take it down. When you do find the beast, typically by tracking its footprints or spotting startled flocks of birds in the sky, the action is quick and heart-pounding. The hunter team has mere seconds to lock the beast in place with the Trapper's giant dome, then work together to hammer away at its health bar, all while trying to not die brutally. And for the monster, it has to make a snap judgement whether to try and flee or to kick ass.
During the pre-release period, the servers have only been active for a couple of days, and finding a full game has been a struggle. Sporadic appearances by random low-level players meant enjoying the game's online suite was possible, but it's not exactly the way the game is intended to be played. It's tricky to communicate with your team when everyone refuses to speak.
Standard multiplayer comes under the banner of 'skirmish', but there are other ways to play. Story makes an appearance in Evacuation, a promising-looking sequence of matches that move across different maps, with parameters that change based on the outcome of the previous encounter. Sadly, not a soul was playing this mode during my time on the servers, so only bot matches were available. Thankfully the AI is perfectly capable of playing any of the modes, be it the standard 'Hunt', the Rush-style Defend, or a fine-looking effort that sees you rescuing human survivors while fending off the monster. The true value of these game types will become apparent when servers go public.
Still, even while hamstrung by the lack of competitors, it's hard to shake the feeling I've already seen almost all of Evolve's best tricks. Some matches see the hunters take out the monster in seconds. Others are a real struggle as the monster clatters through its evolutionary stages and comes snarling and clawing for the power relay. The best, obviously, are a classic WWE-style back and forth, with the hunters gaining an upper hand early, the big bad monster taking control and storming towards the finish before the heroes rally and launch a stirring late comeback, snatching victory from the rather large jaws of defeat.
Great matches are there to be had, then, but there's something about Evolve's core combat that feels a little hollow. The spectacle of taking on the beast is thrilling, but the battles themselves lack feedback. The game offers a variety box of tools for each class, but the way to use them together to take down the monster is seemingly identical each time. The trapper locks it in place using the big blue biodome, the support drops missiles and buffs the assault, shields himself and deals damage, all while the medic heals everyone up and tags the beast with tranq darts and sniper fire.
As limited as it appears to an outsider, a game like Destiny keeps players locked into its loops through more than numerical withcraft - the physical chain that starts in the trigger finger and ends in the fizzing pop of a exploded alien head remains compelling thanks to an inscrutable army of small design choices that Bungie has spent over a decade refining. Evolve doesn't have this - it rarely surprises, and when the excitement of seeing, outwitting and eventually defeating its monsters subsides, it feels like it lacks the gimmicks to keep you in suspense. It may even be as facile as the fact the monster doesn't really react under fire.
This is all based on the fleeting few hours on live servers (and many more with the competent but predictable bots), of course. Evolve may not need flamboyant physics to keep you on its hooked claws if truly advanced tactics begin to unfold. As it stands, most monster players (including myself) stuck to a routine, with varying degrees of success. Evolve's long term future relies on its player-base discovering new ways to adapt and control the battlefield, and the game allowing for these new tactics to blossom. This is where time on the live servers will be of significant benefit, where we see communicative teams and experienced monster players go toe to toe.
Left 4 Dead's replayability was obvious even during the first run through of every level - the way it toyed with players and how its systems crafted drama with alarming regularity. Evolve maintains some of these qualities - especially when you're surprised by marauding wildlife - but its best ideas are already repeating themselves.
This is an early impressions piece based on three days with retail code for Evolve. Our review will be live once we've had sufficient experience on fully populated servers.