Turtle Rock Studios hit the big time with the Left 4 Dead games, but that didn't help them to avoid a rocky road with their new title Evolve. After the original publisher THQ filed for bankruptcy in 2012, 2K Games bought the publishing rights and gave the asymmetrical first-person shooter a chance to grow and evolve into the game that now looks to be one of the hottest multiplayer titles of the year.
Evolve was first shown to the public in February and its basic concept was made clear from the get-go. The game is all about 4vs1 multiplayer matches, where four co-operating human hunters have to take on one great beast of a monster that is constantly growing bigger and stronger.
Interestingly the monster starts at a decisive disadvantage compared to the hunters. All it can do in the beginning is to run for its life and try to stay out of sight. While on the run it can however feed on the local animal life and collect evolution points, which allows it eventually to evolve into the stuff that hunter's nightmares are made off.
On the third and final level the tables are finally turned upside down and the hunters get to feel what it is like to be hunted. At this point the monster also gets a secondary objective like destroying a key location on the map. A single match normally lasts less than 20 minutes, and the time is ticking down for the monster. If the hunters and the monster's objectives remain as time runs out, the hunters win the day. The time limit and the steady build up in the monster's power means that things inevitably escalate towards a dramatic and often explosive conclusion.
We were lucky enough to get an in-depth look at Evolve at 2K Games' pre-E3 event in Los Angeles this month, and got also some info about the story behind the game. Evolve is set in deep space on a remote planet called Shear, where humans have just began to colonise. This effort to make a new home is nastily interrupted by the sudden appearance of numerous dangerous monsters that threaten to undo everything. The only solution is to call upon a team of distinguished mercenaries and hunters to seek out and eliminate the threat, at the same time as finding out where these creatures are coming from and why they suddenly appeared.
Turtle Rock's co-founder and game designer Phil Robb also confirmed that Evolve will provide some sort of story campaign. Even if the main focus is heavily on multiplayer, the studio wants to allow the solo player something to play around with. This also means that the game will have bots and custom play modes. The character classes and amount of players however can't be touched. Monsters have to form a line - only one is allowed each time.
There was plenty of playtime at the sunny Santa Monica hotel during two evenings as we got to play for over three hours and spectate many more matches on top of that. Before playing we were introduced to our four newly revealed hunters and one new map called The Dam, which featured a huge hydro plant with a rocky river canyon below it.
The bad news was that the main attraction was a no show and we didn't get to see any new monsters. We had settle for wrecking havoc with a familiar monstrosity, Goliath, the one seen in previous demonstrations.
Saying that, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, a turn of phrase that applies to Goliath. It may not look like it, but by Turtle Rock's standards it is an average-type monster. The gorilla-like appearance can definitely be deceiving as the Goliath can be very fast, both running away from danger and in attacking. Its fire breath is devastating at close range and reveals cloaked hunters. Rush attack is great in tight corridors and a well aimed Smash leaves enemies scattered. On the other hand Goliath's ability to sneak without leaving tracks proved to be one of the most valuable skills for the monster player. Health doesn't regenerate so staying unscathed as long as possible gives the monster an advantage in the endgame.
The four new faces on the hunters' side softened the slight disappointment at not getting to play with a new monster. Teamplay is the key to victory and these new characters seemed to have even more synergy than the previously revealed quartet. Quickly recapping, there are four classes: Assault, that is the team tank and main damage dealer. Trapper, whose job is to track and prevent the monster escaping with a huge force field called a mobile battle arena. The third and fourth are self explanatory roles, Medic and Support, both oh which have various skills and devices to support the group effort.
The new addition to the assault class is Hyde, who is fitted with some hardcore weaponry including a personal defence shield, a flamethrower (strongest weapon in the game but with very modest range) and toxic smoke grenades, which are very useful with the new trapper Maggie, who can set up traps that fire hooks to hold the beast down for short periods. Maggie doesn't join the fray alone. She brings along her pet beast/hound, Daisy, who is an expert in tracking the monster. This faithful companion can also revive fallen hunters. With her ability to follow the monster even when it's sneaking, Daisy is a nasty threat that is well worth of getting rid off if the opportunity should arise.
Lazarus takes up the spot as the team's new man of medicine. His rather messianic main ability is to bring companions back to life even if they have already perished and are waiting for a new drop ship. This has a huge significance since it can cut down the normal two minute wait to next to nothing. The drawback is that Lazarus is very weak in combat and should stay as far back as possible. With his resurrection he is always on top of the monster player's kill list. Killing him will immediately make the monster a clear favorite in the match. To help him survive against the aggression he's equipped with a cloaking device and a nifty sniper rifle that tags weak points on the monster, which other players can then exploit.
The final new acquaintance is a robotic support fellow called Bucket. He'll join in with a laser guided rocket launcher, as well as setting up small hovering sentry turrets. Bucket can also help track the monster with an amusing ability. He can detach his head and set off flying for the monster. When found he can then highlight it for other teammates to see. On the other hand this scouting leaves the rest of his body vulnerable to wildlife or if the monster player decides to double back.
As much as it would have been great to see a new monster, the fresh hunters did make for a positive impression. The abilities and weapons seemed very different compared to the original four, whose tools seemed somewhat more straightforward. Combining all eight of them has already produced some really interesting and dynamic teams.
Still, I do think it's fair to say that variety and longevity may pose the biggest challenge to the success of Evolve. The matches are fairly short and it could be that the key content can all be seen pretty speedily. Phill Robb did try to remove my doubts by promising that the final version would provide more than enough variables to keep the game interesting for a long time. He wasn't willing to shed more light on how many hunters or monsters there would be in the end though. Instead, he did reveal that the map count should pass the dozen mark, which doesn't sound bad at all. Regardless of these specifics, we sincerely hope that Turtle Rock has time to have a fleshed out single player campaign in the game too.
The multiplayer aspect of Evolve looks and feels very solid and fun. The matches we played were constantly balanced and tight even if the somewhat steep learning curve did pose some difficulties and mismatches, where one side dominated. Every character has four important weapons and abilities so it's vital to know them inside and out and be able to fluently cycle through them. The hunters' rocket-powered jet pack also proved to be a minor challenge. It's not nearly as easy to use as, for example, Titanfall's counterpart, and we often found ourselves at the bottom of a wall or other large obstacle with an empty fuel tank. Luckily it recharges quickly but we think it clearly needs more tweaking to make it less of an effort traversing maps this rich on verticality.
The best part about Evolve is, without doubt, the atmosphere and dynamic gameplay. At its best the action was incredibly intense and the asymmetric power shift between four deadly hunters and one big scary monster goes down very well. All in all it far surpassed my expectations and offered much more depth and team-play possibilities than the studios' previous titles. Then again this kind of harsh and demanding team-play may not appeal to as many players as their zombie killing co-op adventures. Though, if the content is as abundant as Robb and others at Turtle Rock Studios promised, Evolve could very well turn to be the best multiplayer game this year.
Evolve hits the stores on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on October 21st. You can see our interview with Phil Robb above, or head this way to see our recent chat with the game's international producer, Iain Willows.