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Evolve gets bigger with four new Hunters, new modes and an addictive dynamic campaign

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Evolve, the four versus one shooter from Left 4 Dead creators Turtle Rock, is a bigger game than you think. It's not just a game of hunting down a giant monster (or hunting as a giant monster), it's also a game of rescue, MOBA-like base defense and egg-smashing strategy, the developer has revealed.

Turtle Rock's shooter is also a game with a story that's told dynamically, featuring a cast of a dozen unique characters, each with their own skills, strategies and rich back stories.

Last month, Turtle Rock co-founders Chris Ashton and Phil Robb detailed the extent of what it has planned for Evolve— most of it anyway. That includes four new monster-slaying Hunters, new gameplay modes and a robust, variable campaign mode called Evacuation.

During a recent visit to Turtle Rock Studios, we had the opportunity to play with the game's four final Hunters: Abe (Trapper), Parnell (Assault), Caira (Medic) and Cabot (Support). Though they're the last four to be officially unveiled by Turtle Rock, these four characters were actually the first group of characters that the developer created for Evolve.

Not only are the final four the last group to be announced, they're the last group that players will unlock as they play Evolve. That's because the game's other characters — their skill sets, weapons and complementary team strategies — are somewhat easier to grasp for new players. The healing gun that Val, the first Medic character to be revealed, for example, is the easiest of the three characters of her class, Ashton said. And using a character like Parnell effectively takes a bit more skill than, say, Hyde.

"It's just about ease of entry," Ashton explained. "We don't want to overwhelm new players."

Abe, the impressively mustachioed new Trapper, is "like our Han Solo character, a smart-ass, dashing rogue," Robb said. He wields a special shotgun that's designed with an electronic choke; if he fires his shotgun quickly, it will have a wider spread. Slow your rate of fire, and Abe's shotgun will have tight spread, dealing more concentrated damage. He can inflict more damage than any other trapper, Robb said.

Abe's other weapons include sticky stasis grenades, which slow down the monster if it's caught in the blast radius, and a tracking dart pistol. Tag the monster with a dart and the Hunters will be able to track it. Tracking darts can even be used on the wildlife that populates the game's arenas; tag an animal and if the monster eats that animal the tracking mechanism will remain active in its stomach.

Caira, the new Medic, is "kind of a firecracker," Robb said. The only character in the game who was born on Earth, she's "ridiculously smart" and frequently chats with other characters about the science of Evolve, its planets, lifeforms and more.

Caira comes armed with a dual function grenade launcher. She can switch between napalm grenades and healing grenades, which deal damage and heal teammates, respectively.

"She's the only medic who can really heal multiple teammates with her primary device," Robb said. "It makers her really frustrating for the monster."

Caira also comes with a skill called the acceleration field. It's a speed boost that helps her and her teammates move at a quicker pace.

The new Assault class character, Parnell, is described as a "big comic book nerd," according to Turtle Rock. He has something of a "save the world superhero mentality," which feels appropriate for Parnell's so-called Super Soldier ability. Parnell can deploy his Super Soldier boost — kind of like a rechargeable stim pack — that makes him run faster, jump higher and shoot and reload at super fast speeds. Doing so inflicts some damage on Parnell, however, so using his Super Soldier skill requires some tactical thinking.

Parnell comes armed with an automatic shotgun and and automatic rocket launcher. Offensively, he's easy to grasp, but his Super Soldier skill makes him a powerful character choice who's tougher to fully utilize.

Finally, we have Cabot, the Support character. He's armed with a rail cannon that fires big chunks of steel at "insane speeds," but with a sluggish fire rate. He also packs a damage amplifier that doesn't do direct damage to the monster, but augments the damage of another Hunter. More intriguing is Cabot's ability to call in an orbital missile strike that disperses radioactive dust in a wide area. Anything the dust touches gets outlined, letting the other Hunters effectively see through walls, rocks, whatever.

Playing with the four new characters, Caira and Parnell in particular, can be a hell of a lot of fun. But their "tier one" ability sets definitely make them feel like they'll require the most thoughtful teamwork. Evolve's other characters feel more effective independently, where the final four depend on smart cooperation.

Turtle Rock also outlined Evolve's other game modes. We've seen Hunt before, which tasks the Hunters with slaying the monster (and vice versa) and preventing the monster player from destroying some key structure. There are three more game types coming to Evolve: Nest, Rescue and Defend.

In Nest, the monster player is given six eggs to protect. The Hunters' goal is to destroy those eggs (or the monster, of course) which are procedurally generated on each map, so neither the human characters nor the monster know exactly where they'll spawn. Nest has a twist, though, because the monster can hatch one of its eggs at a time, spawning an AI-controlled mini-monster to fight alongside it. That minion comes in the form of a "stunted Goliath," the game's first revealed monster, and can be a powerful ally in a game of Nest. It's incredibly aggressive and helped me win my share of Nest games.

Rescue sends the Hunters on a mission to locate, revive and escort a group of AI-controlled NPCs to an escape pod. Escort a majority of the lightly-armed colonists to safety and the Hunters win. Destroy the majority of them, and the monster wins. As a gruesome bonus, the monster player can eat those colonists to fuel their evolution, if they choose.

Defend is the closest thing Evolve has to a MOBA. The Hunters are tasked with protecting a series of structures (fuel supply depots, generators, etc.) from waves of mini-monster minions and a powerful player monster. The monster automatically starts off in its most evolved form — stage three of its evolution — but the Hunters also get an advantage in that their respawn time is one-quarter of what it normally is. Turtle Rock compared the minions to the creeps seen in games like DOTA and League of Legends, explaining, "As the monster, you want to clear the path, take down sentry turrets, fight the Hunters and keep them busy while the minions go to work on the generators."

While other game modes will work across a variety of multiplayer maps, Turtle Rock has developed four specific Defend maps, one for each of Evolve's biomes.

All those game types come together in a mode called Evacuation, a dynamic campaign mode that draws inspiration from Turtle Rock's other game, the chapter-based Left 4 Dead.

In Evacuation, players battle over the course of five in-game days in rounds of Hunt, Nest, Rescue and Defend. Each round, players vote on which type of mission they'd like to play, and how they perform during each mission affects the following mission. For example, if the monster player destroys a power station in a game of Hunt, the next map may feature deadly irradiation that will harm the Hunters. If the Hunters win a round, the following round may feature a map decked out with auto turrets that will target the monster and its minions.

The mission-altering bonuses in Evacuation include tweaks like flooding, mutated wildlife, teleporter devices, a scent-masking chemical that inhibits the monster's tracking... even an extra stage three monster that will fight alongside the player-controlled monster. Evacuation's various map bonuses, Turtle Rock says, means there are more than 800,000 possible combinations in the game mode.

"I played [Left 4 Dead campaign] No Mercy hundreds of times," Robb said, "and it felt different enough each time. But we wanted to take that further [with Evacuation]."

"It took everything that I knew about Evolve and flipped it on its head," Ashton said.

Between rounds, players will see cutscenes that help frame a story around their campaign and explain the mission-to-mission map changes that each side will get as a reward if they win a round.

Robb said that Evacuation is less competitive than the other one-off modes in Evolve. "I don't want to say it's casual," he explained, "but it's the one you get into with your buddies: Let's just have fun tonight and play a campaign." In the game's we played, Evacuation campaigns took between 30 and 40 minutes to complete.

With Evacuation, Turtle Rock also has what it believes will be a solution to a serious problem that plagued Left 4 Dead: players rage-quitting mid-game when it was clear there was little hope of coming back. In Evolve, the losing team gets a stat boost after each round of Evacuation. Those boosts stack, so even if you're losing consistently, you're still getting a bit of an auto balance that might help you or your team win the next round. And, all the experience points that players earn in games of Evacuation doesn't count until the end of the game. Leave early, and you get nothing.

There's still more from Evolve that Turtle Rock and publisher 2K Games has yet to reveal about the game, including two more monsters — one of which is coming as downloadable content — and some unknown customization options. The future may hold more game types, more Hunters, more maps and other additions that Turtle Rock is still figuring out. Turtle Rock is adding an observer mode as part of a free update, to help players broadcast the game online.

"The creative team is pretty much locked out of the game at this point," Ashton said, as the rest of the studio works on polishing the game's technical aspects and crushing any remaining bugs. "We're looking at some new maps, a monster coming for DLC...

"We don't have another game lined up, and our team is still committed to Evolve. A lot of our effort is going into future content, free DLC ... We don't really know. We kind of have to hedge our bets."

Evolve is slated for release on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One on Feb. 10, 2015.

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