From Secret of Mana to King Kong, how Evolve changes the FPS
Turtle Rock's co-op shooter is a monster movie played out by your friends.
Monster movies make fantastic fodder for video games, so it's a little odd to think back on how few video games have ever grasped what it is that makes monster movies fantastic. That stony silence cut short by a flock of birds fleeing in a panic from distant trees; the rustle in the grass that suggests a sudden threat of claws; that burst of blind panic brought into submission by a rough-edged order of heroes. It's a formula that's been good enough for films as varied and great as Godzilla, Jaws and King Kong, and it's one that flows through Turtle Rock's co-op shooter Evolve.
"Predator's a great example, and Alien is another - and King Kong certainly," says Turtle Rock's co-founder Phil Robb of the many films that have fed into Evolve, as he fails to let an early afternoon onset of jetlag get the better of his enthusiasm. "The most recent one that Peter Jackson did - the whole scene where they capture Kong? That was really epic. I remember watching that and being like, there's a game there! It's this huge accomplishment, with a bunch of dudes getting smashed and beaten up."
If you're after a neat summary, then that's Evolve in a nutshell. It's a playable monster movie where you get to be the beast or one of the rag-tag crew facing it, and it's a game defined by the action, horror and straight-up awesome moments that lend the likes of King Kong, Alien and Predator their greatness.
Evolve's also much more than that. It's an online shooter that's learnt from the world of the MOBA, an asymmetrical experience that's got the tight design sensibilities of some of Nintendo's Wii U experiments and, quite obviously, a continuation of Turtle Rock's own fascination with co-operative play. This is the strong common link between Evolve and Left 4 Dead - which Turtle Rock originated - and it's the next step forward in a fascination that began during the early days of the Californian studio's existence.
"It goes way back into our history," explains Robb of the appeal of co-op. "We worked on Counter-Strike for many years, and even back then we play-tested our game like crazy. It's one of those things that, after our playtests, everyone f***ing hated each other. It's like goddamn it, you've headshotted me with a Deagle like 200 times, I feel like I want to strangle you.
"I remember sitting at lunch one day thinking, dude, we need to make a game where afterwards you don't f***ing hate each other. Let's do a co-op thing. I've always been a fan of co-op games, and I go pretty far back. I remember Secret of Mana - that was one of the first games I played that I felt like was a good co-op experience. Me and my buddies just sat and played it for hours."
Evolve's concept has been knocking around since not long after Robb's marathon SNES sessions. It passed from THQ, where Danny Bilson was an early champion, before finding its way to 2K. Its genesis, though, can be traced in some small way to Robb's western Pennsylvania roots, where deer-hunting is big sport.
"I've been deer-hunting," says Robb. "I remember getting up at four in the morning and going out in six inches of snow freezing my f***ing ass off waiting for this stupid animal to walk by so I could shoot it. I was like, 'what am I doing?' I was wondering, why do people do this?"
It's an idea that stuck, and one that was spun out by Robb and his team members back in the early days of Turtle Rock. A lot has happened since then - not least Turtle Rock being subsumed by Valve before being re-founded a handful of years back - but the idea has lingered and advanced, with some of the experience gained working with the Seattle studio seemingly having rubbed off in the balance and polish evident in Evolve.
In its pitched battles between a monster and four hunters, there's a neatly judged asymmetry, and throughout the layers of chaos that are laid on via panicked battles, a simplicity of design that never wavers. You're either one of four hunters or a monster, and in the one mode that's being shown off right now - rest assured there are plenty more within the game, including a single-player component, and rest assured they'll be drip-fed over the next few months - you're out to defend or destroy a generator that's perched in the thick tangle of an extra-terrestrial jungle.
As a monster, you're granted a third-person view and access to no small amount of power. We're given the Goliath to play with (again, expect more variants to be revealed over the coming months), a hulking beast sporting a savage maw who is at once agile and powerful. It's possible to bound from surface to surface, lining up jumps with the reticule and traversing the rocky environment like a slightly unwieldy Assassin's Creed lead. It's also possible to just tear things up.
"I think it's a pretty common thing to want to be King Kong and smash s***," says Robb in another animated outburst. "You remember Calvin and Hobbes? You remember the strip where he makes a whole bunch of little tiny snowmen. He puts a whole bunch of little tiny snowmen and then goes f***ing crazy, he's smashing them and eating them." Playing as the Goliath gives the perfect outlet for that slightly clumsy brand of primal rage, as you tear rocks up from the ground and hurl them at your attackers, or simply charge them down in a snarl of snappy aggression.
All of that anger and energy when playing as the monster is balanced out by some moments of quiet tension. You start off relatively underpowered, and have to feed off the strange fauna in the jungle to progress through three stages of quick evolution. Oddly enough, it felt like a neat inverse of Nintendo Land's excellent Animal Crossing: Sweet Day. That aside, it makes for a certain creep of fear as you attempt to stay out of harm's way and chow down during the opening stages.
"We love that horror vibe, that sense of being scared," Robb says, taking delight in the fact I'm still a little shaken, having just finished a stint as the Goliath. "I really love to hear that kind of thing - 'Wow, I was scared as the hunter, but I was also scared as the monster.' Early on, you need to be. You're smaller and less powerful, and you need to evade more. It's always a tense moment. In terms of contrast, it's really nice. As you get bigger you get to experience that, going from 'I'm scared s***less' to 'I'm badass now, and I'm coming to kick your ass.'"
Not that it's any less tense when playing as a hunter. There are four classes, and within each of those there's a range of characters that will introduce subtle variations, MOBA-style. The foundations are drawn from existing archetypes, but all neatly massaged into Evolve's world. There's the Assault class, your standard muscle complete with rifle, lightning gun mines and a personal shield. A Medic can generate a healing field, but also complements a firefight by being able to tranquilise and slow down the monster, and also create weak points for team-members to exploit.
It was the Support and Trapper classes that really got under my skin, though. They're both rugged off-worlders, drawn in an art style, consistent throughout Evolve, that's slightly reminiscent of a Borderlands stripped of its lo-fi aspirations. The Support's a squat, slightly gnomic soldier with a laser cutter and shield projector that buffs team members from a decent distance, and he can call in air support via a thunderous orbital barrage. The Trapper could well be the best of the bunch, with the ability to generate a shield that entraps the monster, and a harpoon that can tether him down while squad members pile in and deal damage.
He's also got something of Jurassic Park's Muldoon or Jaws' Quint about him, an aspect that plays beautifully into Evolve's well-defined interplay of classes. Within seconds of a match starting you're acting a role, acutely aware of your responsibilities within the team. The wily Trapper heads out in front, the Support class following just behind, the pair searching the ground for tracks while the rest of the squad holds back, waiting for telltale signs. And once that flock of birds makes for the skies - one of Evolve's in-game signs of the monster's presence, triggered if they run rather than walk through the undergrowth - there's instant panic and fumbled co-operation.
It's the monster movie through the same thoughtful interactive filter that Left 4 Dead used to spin out the tropes of the zombie genre into something endlessly playable. It's a spin on a well-trodden cinematic genre that's absolutely in love with the idea of being a game, and one whose cinema comes purely from the moments created by the players. Most importantly, Evolve has clearly been created by a team that's head-over-heels in love with video games in the first place.
"You look at all these games out there, and some are great, some are mediocre, but sometimes a mediocre game will have one little gem," Robb says as our interview time draws to a close. "You're like, Jesus, this game sucks, but this one little part is really cool. And we should just take that out, plant it and nurture it and it'll grow into something really great. It doesn't start with a story. The story's a wrapper. For us it's about coming up with an experience that you've never had before. We're gamers, and we've played games a lot. But you kind of get tired with the same old s***. Fortunately we have the power to actually make the stuff that we want to see that no-one else is giving us."