We first looked at Evolve late last year when the game was still in its alpha phase, finding a new take on the team-based multiplayer shooter that felt fresh and fun to play, built upon the first multi-platform outing we'd seen for the powerful CryEngine middleware. However, while graphics and gameplay shaped up rather nicely, the experience was hit heavily by server issues and inconsistent matchmaking, leading to extremely long waiting times between matches, not to mention irksome disconnections during play.
Three months on, the Evolve beta test is intended to allow for last-minute balance and gameplay tweaks before launch, in addition to large-scale testing of netcode optimisations made since the alpha. The new sampler also gives us more content, showcasing two new maps and a brief training session. In addition to the single-round skirmish mode seen in the alpha, the beta also introduces multiplayer and single-player campaigns in the form of Evacuation - though selecting them simply plays a video trailer, as opposed to offering up any playable content. The final game is set to offer these two primary modes and four different game types (Hunt, Nests, Rescue, and Defend), but only Skirmish and Hunt are available in the beta.
Getting stuck into the multiplayer portion available, the good news is that online stability has clearly improved over the code showcased late last year, although not to the extent that we'd hoped so close to the game's launch. Of the two console versions, it's the PS4 game that currently feels as though it needs a little more work, particularly in terms of general matchmaking. Right now, quickly getting into a game on Sony's system is often an inconsistent process: sometimes we were matched up with other players in under a minute, sometimes we were left waiting up to 20 minutes. In comparison, matchmaking generally took between a few seconds and maximum of five minutes on Xbox One and PC.
Disconnections remain an issue - but not one we experienced ourselves. Rather, we noticed it happening a few times to other players. It happened more often while playing on the Microsoft console, accompanied by a message reporting server connection issues 'that may cause disruption'. Our final gripe? Well, the beta occasionally froze during matchmaking, forcing us to close and reload the software to fix the problem. It didn't happen frequently, but this - along with all the other lingering issues - make us think that some more work is required behind the scenes to polish up the experience before the game launches.
Moving on from connectivity gripes, the Evolve beta operates on a similar level to the alpha code we sampled last year: frame-rates are sometimes impacted during intense combat scenes loaded with pyrotechnics, but otherwise we see things mostly adhering to the desired 30fps target. On the whole, frame-rates under load are hit a little harder on PS4, with drops in smoothness occurring a little more frequently when all hell breaks loose. In comparison, the Xbox One game better sustains 30fps in similar situations on the same maps (Fusion Plant, Refinery, and Dam), with smaller frame-rate drops when the engine is stressed, although fluctuations in smoothness are still seen and felt when they occur.
Curiously, performance on Microsoft's console appeared to a little less stable when we played on one of the new maps (Orbital Drill), where we encountered judder and an additional weighty feeling in the controls while exploring the terrain outside of combat. We tried to replicate the same issue on the PS4, but encountered a major stumbling block preventing us in performing a comparison: over several hours of matchmaking we never encountered a game taking place across the two new maps playable for the first time in the beta. However, they are definitely present in the PS4 game, used for the training modes you play when booting up the game for the first time. Full performance comparisons will need to wait until we tackle the finished game for our Face-Off closer to release.
Elsewhere, not much has changed from the alpha build showcased late last year. The rendering set-up remains identical between platforms, with the PS4 game offering up a native 1080p image against 900p on the Xbox One, while the quality of the effects work remains unchanged. The broken SMAA on the PC alpha - which caused significant ghosting artefacts - appears to have improved slightly, although the double image effect is still visible when using stronger versions of this anti-aliasing technique, particularly on the characters as they quickly move across the environment. This is odd, as the SMAA used in other CryEngine titles like Ryse and Crysis 3 doesn't exhibit the issue.
On the whole, the Evolve beta shows that the hunter/hunted team-based gameplay still feels fresh and original, while the reveal of a campaign mode and multiple game types suggest that there will be more to the single and multiplayer experience than the straightforward single round Skirmish/Hunt combo used to test out the game before launch. Quite how much longevity the game has is the big unknown right now, but talk of dynamic environmental changes depending on how well you play sounds particularly interesting.
From what's been revealed so far, Evolve shows a lot of promise. Graphically, it's a treat and the gameplay is exciting, but our key concerns still centre on the stability of the multiplayer mode. Turtle Rock deserves kudos for its duo of public tests, with the developer seeking to stress-test its game to the point where an email 'call to arms' was sent out to beta participants last weekend in order to really put the game through its paces. However, while vastly improved over the alpha in this respect, it's clear that there's still some work to do in shoring up the reliability and consistency of the online experience. The beta test ended on Monday, but here's hoping that the developer got all the data it needed to polish up the code in time for release. It's worth noting that Evolve went gold back on January 5th, so it's likely we can expect improvements made as a result of this latest round of testing to be deployed via a day one update.