"Was the title ‘Metamorphosis' taken?" I asked, crossing my arms with a know-it-all grin on my face. I'd done my homework, you see, and wasn't about to let Turtle Rock Studios get away with passing off the process the monster goes through as you level it up as evolution. "That was the original title," producer Chloe Skew replied with an equally powerful smile that both put me in my place and made my cheeks feel warm, "but it wasn't very marketable". In a conference room across the hall from the studio, I played around with the complete build of Evolve along with journalists from around the world and can safely state that it is not only marketable, but promises to be game-changer to any group of friends who want to put their coordination skills to the test.
While Mike Holmes' article detailed the two monsters on record and their powers, in addition to the eight hunters already announced, we got our hands on the latest four additions to the gang and all the game modes featured come launch. My initial scepticism about the game (that it would entertain for a couple of weeks and no more) was thoroughly squashed with the introduction of four new game modes, one of them being an hour-long mini-campaign encompassing all the other modes, reaching its climax with an epic stand-off between the hunters and the monsters. Before we delve into that, however, let's meet the team we'll be getting intimately acquainted with as we set out to hunt monsters in the land of Shear.
Abe, the new trapper, is a bounty hunter and somewhat of a morally grey character. A smartass who swears a lot, the developers described him as "the Han Solo of the group" (a Han Solo who shots first naturally). As a weapons expert it's no surprise that he's got a custom shotgun in his arsenal. Featuring an electronic choke, if you fire slowly, the pellets will get pulled together causing a lot of damage to the target, even at long range. The faster you shoot, the more the pellets will spread, so at close range you can pretty much go wild with that thing. Abe's stasis grenades emit a dampening field causing any beast caught within its radius to slow down. His tracking pistol fires tracking darts that activate when they hit the monster or when monster eats an animal tagged with the pistol. Even corpses can be tagged with it, so there's no reason not to spray everything that moves (or doesn't) with it along the way. The monster will be wholly unaware of the dart until it activates in its stomach, and no, it cannot ‘panic-shit' or puke it out. What separates Abe from the other trappers is that he doesn't find the monster as easily as the others, but once he does, it's next to impossible for it to get away.
Caira, the medic, is the brains of the team. A smart-ass biologist who loves confusing the lesser educated among her teammates by spewing out scientific jargon at every turn. She's got a grenade launcher which can toggle between napalm grenades and healing burst grenades. The only difference visible on the gun is the colour, which changes from orange to green as you switch. Both projectiles have a splash radius, so she'll either damage multiple enemies or heal multiple friends, depending on their location and her aim. As such, she's the only medic who can actively heal herself as the healing grenades don't differentiate between allies. As there's no friendly-fire in the game, she can freely dole out the napalm grenades without regard to where the other hunters are standing. In addition to her launcher, her suit features an acceleration field makes every hunter within its radius move much faster. When tracking a monster, she comes in very handy for the whole team.
Parnell, the new assault, is an ex-soldier and Cabot's right-hand man when it comes to tactics and strategy. He's an unlikely comic-book nerd who loves super heroes and other geeky things, which is a side of his rounded character that plays out in dialogue. His experimental suit, which was built for war, was shelved after it killed most of its test pilots. Abe has managed to modify it so it doesn't kill Parnell. It only maims him slightly. When he activates his super soldier ability, which the suit grants him, he's able to run, shoot, and reload faster, but he takes a hit to his health every time he activates it, making it good to have a medic on the team who knows how Parnell plays and can anticipate the need for topping up his health. He's got a fully automatic double-barrel shotgun and a fully automatic rocket launcher. Both of these do a lot of damage, but as the rocket launcher simply fires straight, you've got to be accurate. If you are, however, you have the potential of doing a lot more damage than with the other assaults.
Cabot, the new support, is the leader of the merry band and the owner of the dropship. An ex-cop who got sick of the politics and bureaucracy that came with the territory, he started his own band of monster hunters, putting his skills to use in quite a different setting. His rail-cannon can shoot through solid objects, but as soon as it hits its first solid, the slug fragments, sending shrapnel flying in a cone 40 meters from the point of impact. He can call in radioactive orbital dusting which will highlight any indigenous wildlife in the area of the impact zone. A combination of dusting and his cannon works wonders as the outlines of the monster will be highlighted once dusted and you can then proceed to fire at will. Cabot also has a damage amplifier, which is a beam weapon that softens the surface of the monster's hide, amplifying the damage done by the rest of the team by a factor of two. "At one point we had four characters and a shitload of gear," co-founder Phil Robb stated during the presentation, and these four are the originals. It is no wonder, then, that they've become the darlings of the development team. Now that we've met the band of brothers (and sister), we should be on track to take a look at the new game modes introduced to the game.
Hunt mode is the one we're most familiar with as that's the one showcased at E3, where the game received the coveted "Game of Show" award. Hunt is a straightforward chase where the monster gets a head start as the hunters parachute in from their dropship. The monster then has to feed in order to gain enough strength to level up, becoming bigger, stronger, and more deadly. This, the monster can do twice, allowing the player to distribute three skill points between four powers at each stage. While levelling up, however, the monster is cocooned and will be completely defenceless until the process is complete, and even then, the monster will have to eat some more to get its armour up as the process of levelling up depletes its defensive layer. While the monster is doing this, the hunters are following on its trail, using foot prints, broken foliage, animal corpses, and the movement of birds to guide them along the way. If the hunters don't manage to kill the monster at stage one, they'll have one hell of a fight on their hands. At stage three, the monster will be powerful enough to attack the hunters' power relay, which adds another dynamic to the game as the hunters are forced to turn offence into defence.
In Nest mode, monster eggs are strewn across the map. The objective of the hunters is to destroy all the eggs while the monster attempts to defend them. The monster can choose to hatch an egg, gaining an AI controlled baby Goliath as a teammate, but only one egg can be hatched at a time. This mode presents an interesting challenge to the monster as the hunters can easily split up, attacking two eggs at a time, but doing so makes them pretty easy meals for the monster. When all of the eggs and potentially the hatched minion are destroyed, the hunters win. If all the hunters become monster chow, the monster wins.
Rescue mode has the hunters attempt to find and revive nine fallen civilians in the map and escort them to safety. Both the monster and the hunters get a rough indication as to where the survivors are, followed by a detailed location once they are in range. The monster, surprise surprise, is tasked with enjoying nine free meals. The first one to save or savour five civilians wins. The first two groups contain two civilians, so the match always comes down to the third group. If the hunters rescue the first and second groups, the monster can still win by obliterating the third group entirely. In that case, however, the hunters would only have to escape with one surviving civilian to win. It's worth noting that the survivors also have guns once revived, so they're not simply dead weight while making their way to the evacuation point.
In Defend mode, a horde of Goliaths, lead by a stage three monster, is making its way to a dropship full of civilians. The hunters must stop the monsters from destroying the generators powering up the defensive walls for as long as it takes the ship to refuel. If they manage to hold them off long enough, or kill the alpha monster, they win. If the monsters manage to break through the defences and destroy the ship, they win. In this mode, the monster cannot win by eliminating all hunters and the respawn timer is drastically reduced, leading to an action packed match with a high kill-count. While Hunt, Nest, and Rescue can all take place in any of the game's maps, Defend has maps of its own, one for each terrain setting on Shear.
Evacuation mode is essentially a five round mini-campaign, starting with a Hunt and ending with Defend. After the first round, the five players are presented with a choice between two maps, each featuring a different mode. The one that gets the most votes is the one played next. Each round will play a role in the one to follow as a victory in one will introduce a bonus in the next. An example would be that if the monster wins the initial hunt destroying the power plant found on the map, it'll introduce a radiation cloud around it that will slowly damage the hunters but not affect the monster. If the hunters win, however, the power plant will be operational in the next map, bringing defensive turrets online which target the monster when in range. Other effects include rabid wildlife, an extra Goliath monster, overgrown man-eating fauna, orbital ships scouting for the monster, and many more. Factoring in mission types, environments, and win/loss effects, a total of over 800,000 combinations can be experienced. You'd have to play for a long time to get the same game of Evacuation twice.
The game was originally supposed to be purely a first-person shooter, with both monster and hunters represented in that perspective, but the developers decided that the monster felt slow and claustrophobic as the perspective made it difficult to keep track of four hunters beating on it and the movement speed looked dreadfully slow with a camera hovering 20 feet off the ground. "The big thing was awareness, you know. The hunters spread out and surround you and you couldn't tell that you were surrounded. If you were in first-person, you might see one guy or two guys." said Chris Ashton, co founder of Turtle Rock Studios. "There's a claustrophobia, I think, in first-person, that lends itself well to being a hunter because, as the hunter, we don't necessarily want you to always feel confident and badass. We want there to be those moments where there might be something behind me and there's a tension and a fear there," Phil Robb added.
When asked if they had considered implementing hunter vs. hunter or monster vs. monster mode, Chris Ashton responded: "Because all the monster's abilities are aimed at fighting hunters and all the hunters' abilities are aimed at fighting monsters, they're not very good at fighting each other." "That is essentially a different game," Phil Robb added.
The game has a robust hotswapping system, allowing you to jump between the characters as you please during a solo match and, if you're playing with only two friends, you'll be able to do the same with the AI controlled supporting characters. If you lose connection during a game, you'll be able to jump in as if nothing happened. The online matchmaking system is skill based and should result in some exciting, evenly matched bouts. Balancing during Evacuation mode is a bit more tricky, as we found out during our time with the game. As mentioned before, the winners get a leg up during the subsequent map, but they also suffer a slight handicap. The exact nature of this handicap is a mystery, but it was clearly felt during the last round of our evacuation. Having won all four previous rounds, it was as though we were firing nerf guns at the horde of Golliaths bashing our generators to bits and the match was over in minutes with a devastating loss suffered. The nature of the game, a complex mix of elements in a 4vs1 multiplayer arena must have been hell to balance and I predict the developers will still be tweaking the variables long after launch.
The game is definitely not easy to get into as there is a lot to learn. At first, you'll have to learn how each class plays, then each character within said class. After that, you'll have to figure out which characters best complement each other under which circumstances within specific maps. The same goes for the monsters as each map presents new challenges and each situation calls for a rethinking of one's tactics. That's what the game boils down to for the hunters: communication and tactics. If you don't coordinate your efforts, you might as well smear the barbecue sauce on yourselves, but if you manage to time every ability just right and work together as a single organism, even a stage three Kraken doesn't stand a chance.