In 1980, Pac-Man introduced a classic game mechanic.
The quick shifts between gobbling up dots while being chased by ghosts, and swallowing a Power Pill to turn the tables and eat them, allowed players to continuously transform between hunted and hunter. Almost 35 years later Evolve pits one player against four, and stakes everything on that same rhythm.
Developed over five years by Turtle Rock Studios, the team behind the superb co-op shooter Left 4 Dead, Evolve is a system designer’s dream. Asymmetric shooters, where individual players have different capabilities, are nothing new – but Evolve takes the concept to a different place. It casts one player as a hulking monster, capable of ‘evolving’ into more powerful forms over time, and four other players as human hunters tasked with bringing it down.
On both sides Evolve is a different beast. The monster is controlled from a third-person perspective, with four special attacks and different movement options. Your goal is to avoid the hunters at first while devouring the wildlife – which both builds up armour and takes you closer to the next stage of mutation. At stage one the monster is comparatively underpowered, so the hunters have an edge. At stage two the monster gets bigger and things get more even, while if it reaches stage three it suddenly has the power and size to smash individual hunters in seconds.
Becoming a monster
Evolve’s main Hunt gametype works beautifully when playing as the monster. Matches begin at the spot where the hunters will shortly arrive, so the first minutes are spent trying to get as far away as possible – sneaking will slow you down, but leaves no footprints, while hauling over large distances at speed can also be effective. In this opening period being found by the hunters is a disaster, which makes settling down to feed enormously tense, and smart monsters focus on feints and distractions (like misleading footprints) to buy as much time as possible. As soon as it hits stage two the monster can begin fighting back.
And how. From a monster’s perspective the hunters are ants – but irritatingly fast, capable of quick dodges, and forever peppering your carapace with small arms fire. The size advantage is such that getting any single hunter isolated and trapped is a nearly guaranteed kill but, by juggling temporary shields and using traps, the hunters can also impede the monster’s movement. The key to a hunting team’s success is co-ordinating their abilities well, and so the most important thing as a monster is disrupting this – take out the medic, for example, and even the most foolhardy team will think twice.
Such tactics might get the monster to stage three, at which point its powers are such that hunters need to perform flawlessly and pray. The scales tip, and as the monster you switch from running to chasing. This role in Evolve is the most purely competitive, because in setting one player against four it ensures that the feeling of victory is multiplied – winning against a human opponent is a great feeling, and it turns out this effect stacks. However, it is also devastating to be swarmed by these Lilliputians, trapped in corners, and how humiliating if brought to ground!
The art of hunting
Such duality runs through Evolve – what works for one side twists into an equally great consequence for the other. As a hunter Evolve is played from a first-person perspective: this emphasises the scale of the environments and the monster, and makes the impact of combat much more obvious, decreasing the total view you have over these epic battles.
When a match begins, hunters immediately start chasing down leads – looking for tracks, or carcasses, or birds startled by a large thing moving nearby. Each hunter has a jetpack that can be used for both close-range dodges and, when navigating, gorgeously lazy boosts into the air to zoom forwards. All players control a different class: assault, which deals damage and tanks; trapper, which can spring a giant containment dome and other surprises; support, which protects the team and weakens the monster; and medic, which keeps the team alive.
Fighting against a monster is impossible solo, or even in small groups – all four must co-ordinate their abilities. The trapper’s job is to ‘catch’ the monster in a temporary containment field, the medic will be healing whatever damage the monster’s dishing out. Any decent monster player immediately zeroes in on one of these two classes, hoping to decisively turn the battle, and it’s the job of support to shield them, and assault to become an unbearable distraction in the meantime.
Work together and it can be beautiful. The monster uses all of its abilities crashing into a medic who has just been shielded by support, and turns around into three harpoon traps. While it flails, an artillery strike is called in on that position, and mines are placed. It then runs out into a hail of fire from the assault player as the medic covers the monster’s back in ‘weak spots’ from her sniper rifle.
These fights – no, battles – are always a war of attrition. As the monster it is devastating to feel the momentum slipping from your claws. As the hunters, the moment when a previously cocky monster starts trying to run is exhilarating. There are many more specifics to Evolve’s interplay, but everything serves a purpose – and the skill in balancing not just the opposing teams but the overall rhythm should not be underestimated. Despite all the plates it is spinning, Evolve works beautifully.
A flawed menagerie
There are some fairly sizeable caveats to the overall game, however, and most are consequences of just how well-engineered the core is. There are three monsters in Evolve, and the default is Goliath. Goliath is fantastic to control – he’s brawny, fast, and you can feel the impact as his moves smash teams apart. The second, Kraken, has an interesting moveset but it’s a little more divorced from the action – you end up floating around a lot and aiming lightning strikes and mines at the hunters. Fighting against Kraken as the hunters feel great, but playing as Kraken lacks the immediacy of Goliath.
The third monster, Wraith, is another mixed bag. The Wraith is a stealth-based assassin monster, all creepy body and giant claws, but the problem is that by default the monsters are pretty good at hiding. So when you add extra stealth options, what it means is that hunting a Wraith is more like waiting 15 minutes for it to reach stage three, then kill you. It may be that the teams I’ve played with aren’t efficient enough trackers. But both it and Kraken feel like less enjoyable choices.
This hints at Evolve’s real problem: the core of the game is great, but the ways it has been extended don’t quite live up to it. The Nest mode, for example, places six eggs around the map, which the Hunters have to destroy while the monster races to both evolve itself and protect them. In theory this might operate as a territory-style objective mode, but in practice the monster player sacrifices the first eggs to fatten up as much as possible, before attacking. The actual confrontation is still great, but the first ten minutes or so of each match feels like dead time.
This gives Evolve an unusual problem. The core Hunt mode is brilliant, but the nature of matchmaking means that the weaker modes do end up accounting for significant playtime. On top of this you have to grind with the starting characters to unlock others, a structure intended to make the game more ‘sticky’ but here acting as little more than artificial gates with pointless rewards – a 2% increase in flamethrower range does not excite on any level. Such stuff means that Evolve feels more diluted than it should, bulked-out rather than enhanced. Turtle Rock did such a good job creating an original foundation, you wonder why it settled for such standard structural elements. Which leads us to Evolve’s problem with downloadable content.
The DLC dilemma
You could not seriously argue the Evolve disc is lacking in value-for-money. The 12 maps, 12 hunters, and 3 monsters easily shift this beyond my personal £1-per-hour rule-of-thumb for a multiplayer experience. The biggest problem is that publisher 2K made some bad short-term decisions; Evolve has a fourth monster, the Behemoth, but only for players who pre-ordered or pay extra to buy it at launch. This seems a pointless way of punishing the non-obsessives (i.e. most of us) and isolating a piece of content that, given its Goliath-centred appeal, the vanilla game could sorely use.
Despite this, Evolve stands tall, an original and often brilliant take on both team-based and solo multiplayer. The main Hunt gametype is an exceptional experience that, although featuring some familiar mechanics, feels unlike anything else in the genre. The matches have huge diversity, and all create some thrilling rhythm from the mix of hunting and chasing and fighting.
With the ability to play as a monster against a human team, Evolve offers something unique – and surely one of gaming’s best-ever tribute acts. When you’re fleeing from the hunters and get trapped in their containment field, swatting desperately while looking for an out, you think back to those Power Pills and how far we’ve come. But then you get a lucky shot on the medic, take out the trapper as she goes for the revive, and as you turn, the last two hunters start to run. They’re screwed. Why talk about great design, when you can feel it.
This article was written by Rich Stanton, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 18th February 2015 11.49 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010