Evolve review: monster squad

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher 2K Games
Developer Turtle Rock Studios
Release Date Feb 10, 2015

Evolve isn't just the name of developer Turtle Rock's first game in six years; it's their mission statement.

Turtle Rock made a name for itself with 2008's Left 4 Dead, but it did it with the help of Half-Life developer Valve. Left 4 Dead introduced the twists on the idea of competitive multiplayer that Turtle Rock has made their calling card — narrative driven scenarios for asymmetric, competitive multiplayer. After Left 4 Dead's massive success, Turtle Rock left the sequel to Valve and struck out again on their own to work on Evolve, which pushes the same ideas to higher concept, more difficult to execute places.

In many ways, Evolve is exactly what a follow-up for Turtle Rock should be, presenting an even-more ambitious conceit with its uneven humans-vs-monster setup. It's different, ambitious — but there are points where that ambition takes Evolve out of its comfort zone.

On one side you have a team of four hunters — on the other, one monster

Evolve takes place on the planet of Shear, where a human outpost researching the planet's bizarre wildlife and varied ecosystem comes under attack by a strange plague of alien monsters responsible for death and mayhem elsewhere. A team of ex-soldiers, operatives and hunters is assembled to hunt down the monsters and extract as many colonists as possible.

It's a good enough setup for the real conceit of Evolve: four versus one multiplayer. You can play solo against bots in various scenarios — in fact, you'll probably have to — but the linchpin of Evolve is imbalance between teams of human players and one adversary.

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On one side you have a team of four hunters, each with their own class. Assault players are the damage dealers; trackers are responsible for finding the target, and for deploying the mobile arena, an energy-based dome shield that confines a battle to an area of their choosing; support players tend to have large area of effect damage at their disposal and also offer protection to their teammates; and medics are responsible for keeping their teammates alive (or bringing them back from the dead).

On the other side are the monsters, who are (mostly) on their own. Each monster starts at level one, and as they feed on wildlife — or dead humans — around the map, they earn the ability to evolve and grow more powerful. Hunters and monster clash across a variety of levels full of their Shears own native hazards both flora and fauna.

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There are 12 hunters total, three in each class, and while each class has certain common elements, there's a fair variety in secondary skills and abilities. Maggie, a trapper, uses a pet trapjaw (a half-lizard, half-dog ... thing) to chase after the monster's trail, while her fellow hunter Griffin places spikes around the map to detect the enemy's movements. Meanwhile, the third hunter, Abe, has a track dart gun, which can track monsters or, more cleverly, tag the monster's food, which will in turn mark the monster when it eats the tainted creature.

There are in turn three tiers of monster. Goliath is a massive, charging, rock-throwing, fire-breathing killing machine. Kraken is a chthonian nightmare, unleashing lightning as it flies through the air. And Wraith is the assassin of the trio, her (strangely well-endowed) form likely to vanish from sight before a hunter ever gets close.

There's a pattern here based on my time with the game, in that the first character in each class feels like the least complex and, over time, the least interesting to play. They seem like introductions to the concepts of Evolve, which is valuable, since you're going to be stuck with them for a while.

In an effort to introduce a sense of progression to Evolve beyond the genre-standard perk system and banner customization it offers, additional characters must be unlocked by reaching a first rank of "mastery" in each of their skills. Some hunters have it easier than others — Markov, an assault character, pretty much just has to hit things with his different weapons. But Maggie has to follow her pet trapjaw Daisy for multiple kilometers, for example, which only unlocks one of the three masteries required to unlock Griffin, the next hunter.

In approximately 25 hours of play with a pre-release version of Evolve, I only unlocked five additional hunters of the eight who aren't immediately accessible, and made little progress on the monsters. Turtle Rock has reportedly reduced the amount of time required to unlock Evolve's roster after beta feedback, but it still feels like this could be a process dozens of hours in the offing based off my time with the final version.

The problem here isn't just the time required to unlock each new character but also the process, which forces a set amount of usage of each character's skill, regardless of how useful they are at any given moment. The only practical way to really unlock everything is to play solo matches in specific modes to grind out masteries.

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This is mainly annoying because it feels like unnecessary padding. Evolve's basic mechanics are fine — even good. There's a lot of variety in secondary skills and the strategy required to use them for hunters, and weapons are generally fun to use. Hunters are mobile, and monsters feel powerful, physical and huge. There's a great dichotomy between the technology of the hunters against the raw destructive potential of the monsters.

In Hunt, Evolve's marquee mode, the monster is dropped into a level and given a short head start to get away before the hunters drop in from above to attempt to kill it. In a perfect world, the chases in Hunt are exciting and unpredictable. By killing and eating, I moved closer to the unstoppable power of stage three of my evolution, but I also risked attracting attention-generation carrion birds and giving away my location. I dreaded having to fight at stage one and avoided conflict even at stage two. When I reached the top of the food chain on Shear, I felt powerful and murderous in a way other multiplayer titles rarely touch.

As a hunter, my goals were inverted, trying desperately to track the monster down before stage three. When I was with a team on top of their roles, we felt like a well oiled machine, distracting the monster from our softest targets and dragging out fights to take down its armor and health before it could fully evolve. To beat a monster felt like beating an end-stage boss, and shares that level of satisfaction, especially with friends.

Evolve is best as a group experience, where everyone knows everyone, including the monster player. It adds a strangely organic party atmosphere to the whole thing, reminding me in some ways of the explosion of asymmetric card and board games that have become so popular in the last few years. Trading off roles, switching players into the monster role, makes for something that stays fresher, longer. And you'll need that to curb some of Evolve's problems.

In my experience, Hunt matches often feel lopsided. Either the monster finds a fast path away from the hunters, using its sneak ability to avoid leaving tracks or backtracking to distort their trail. This gives it plenty of time to feed mostly uninterrupted. Conversely, the hunters will often find the monster early enough that it will never have a chance to get away and feed.

This leads to a big potential for unsatisfying matches on both sides. As a hunter, I found chases were often a series of annoying misses, always showing up where the monster had been too late, constantly being led on a snipe-hunt from one end of the map to the other. As the monster, I found myself flustered fleeing from hunters, since there's no real way to hide outside of breaking line of sight. Because deaths in Hunt  mean the match is likely over — you only live once as a monster, and when you die as a hunter you have to wait as long as three minutes before you can drop back in — it's all or nothing. Hunt isn't a game of small triumphs in a larger campaign, which left me feeling a little useless when I lost, whether as monster or as a hunter.

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I found chases were often a series of annoying misses, always showing up where the monster had been too late

Evolve bends almost as much under the its complex attempts at character and monster balance. It's not surprising, given the inherent differences in its four versus one dynamic. But some abilities and some classes seem far too powerful, particularly on the monster side. Once I unlocked the perk that allows for faster feeding, I saw little reason to take anything else, and as a monster, spending all of my initial skill points in escape and mobility usually let me stay far away from hunters.

The "tier three" monster, Wraith, seems particularly broken, with her ability to cloak and send a decoy version of herself towards targets on the map. Her abilities grant her fast escape, and, later an insane amount of damage potential that carries over to that decoy. In my numerous matches using her, I never lost; I don't attribute that win streak to skill.

In Evolve's open beta, Wraith had an approximately 70 percent win-rate, which anyone following character-based competitive games can tell you is a Problem. Turtle Rock has made some changes to the monster since then, including removing her ability to warp forward while cloaked, but my matches with her haven't felt less lopsided.

Hunt isn't the only way to play Evolve though, and in fact I'd say it's the game's weakest link, despite being its featured mode. Evacuation, Evolve's "campaign" mode, cycles through five matches, as the hunters attempt to save as many humans as possible by completing different missions. Each match has a special result depending on whether the hunters or monster win, which will have an effect on the next map. A hunter win may enable healing stations around the next level, or giant mutated plants might result from a triumphant monster.

The objective matches in Evacuation mode allow Evolve some room to breathe and provide a chance to do more than run around for 10 minutes and fight for two, which is a good thing. But my favorite match type was Defend, a sort of tower defense scenario where hunters have to hold out and protect generators fueling an escape ship. The monster player begins at stage three and has "minion" monsters that help it try to destroy the generators and prevent an escape.

In Defend, Evolve comes together more. There's more room for error, more room for matches that feel close regardless of who wins. Losing Defend matches didn't annoy me the way losing a hunt did. With different rules in place, Evolve is the playground it should be.

Defend is also a great place to grind out masteries for each character, in case you were curious.

Wrap Up:

Evolve offers something different, even if it doesn't always succeed

Evolve occasionally brushes against a real breakthrough for Turtle Rock, with its distinctive take on a different kind of multiplayer shooter. New territory always presents new problems, and Evolve doesn't always solve them. But it distinguishes itself from the pack of multiplayer options out there with the flair of something truly different.

Note: At this time, we haven't had what I would consider to be an extended amount of play time with Evolve in an environment approximating its final retail release. While Evolve's Beta ran reasonably well, this review will remain provisional until we're able to ascertain that 2K's servers can handle its launch.

Evolve was reviewed using both pre-release code and "advance" retail code for both PC and Xbox One. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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