Evolve Preview (PC)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re not exactly lacking in good multiplayer shooters these days. Call of Duty and Battlefield continue to dominate the charts, Titanfall and Destiny are ready to battle it out later this year, so it takes a special type of multiplayer game to consider going up against them. Turtle Rock Studios (alongside 2K) are going to attempt just that with Evolve, their follow-up to Left 4 Dead (which they made alongside Valve). The L4D games remain pretty unique in the gaming landscape (with only Payday really attempting their style of co-op gameplay) so a brand new multiplayer title from that team would be hugely welcome right about now.

The setup for Evolve follows the best multiplayer games in that it’s quite simple to understand but takes a long time to truly master. There are five players in a round. Four take the roles of human Hunters in four wildly different specialist classes. The fifth player takes control of a large Monster. The Hunters have to track down and kill the Monster over a large open area, using their various skills to trap and destroy it while surviving its attacks. The Monster’s goal is to survive, eat, and evolve into a more powerful creature. When it reaches its highest stage of evolution it can then either destroy a special generator to win or just kill all the Hunters.

Not the best situation to start in

The thing that surprised me most about Evolve is that it actually plays very little like Left 4 Dead. In L4D the four human survivors are constantly pushing down a linear path while monsters attempt to stop and kill them. In Evolve there’s only really one monster and that is being hunted by the four humans, and the levels aren’t linear, they’re very wide open areas. There are unfriendly creatures dotted around the map but they’re a threat to both sides (although not much to the Monster, especially when it reaches Evolution Stage 3). Possibly most important however is that the Hunters are all very different classes, so no longer is a player defined on whether they have a shotgun or a rifle.

The classes in Evolve are very important to stick to. These fall under Assault, Trapper, Medic and Support. Assault is the bruiser, armed with a Lightning Gun for significant close-range damage, an Assault Rifle for long-range and some mines and a shield for comfort. Trapper can restrict the Monster with a harpoon gun and trap it within a temporary shielded Arena. The Medic heals the team of course, as they can’t heal without them, but she’s also armed with a Tranquiliser Gun to weaken the Monster. Support should rely on buffing his teammates with a shield gun and cloaking when needed, but can also call down an Orbital Barrage on the creature. The latter two classes should probably stick to buffing as their guns did little damage, but we often found that they’d be the ones the Monster would go for first so it’s important to protect them.

I played three rounds of Evolve as the Support, the Assault, and the Monster, and enjoyed all three immensely. The map was an overgrown rocky jungle with large Mass Effect-style metal human structures dotted about. It was truly huge and easy to get lost in (which is what the Monster wants), with a lot of excellent and natural-feeling verticality to worry about. It was well designed from what I could see, offering plenty of ways to play and a lot of room to hide in. As a next-gen-only game thankfully it’s looking lovely, with a real feeling of oppression to the jungle that most definitely doesn’t come from small areas. You can’t do maps this big with this amount of flora and fauna on 360/PS3. Character models were a little ridiculous but I think they’re meant to be instantly recognisable stylised designs a la Borderlands.

Matches start with the Monster getting a ten-second head-start to get as far away from the starting area as it can before the Hunters drop in via gunship. There are numerous ways for the Hunters to find out where the beast went. The first and most obvious method is to follow the Monster’s tracks which glow blue on the floor, but as it can leap great distances and climb up most surfaces they’re quite easy to lose (as we did often). Visually identifying the creature is great, but as the jungle is thick and covered in hiding places you’ll probably be right on top of it before you see it. Any flocks of birds the Monster stumbles into will also give away its position, and finally the Trapper can set down Sound Spikes that alert the Hunters to the Monster’s movements if near one.

Often it’s a case of lagging behind the creature and capturing or attacking it while it stops to feed or evolve. It felt like a prudent move to separate from my team and try to cut off the Monster as it skirted the outside of the playing area but the map was just so large I ended quite far apart from my teammates and seemingly no closer to catching it. That led to a rather comic incident however when me and the Monster at last found each other and of course attacked me, whereupon one of my teammates innocently asked “where’s the Monster?” and I yelled down the microphone “IT’S ON ME!!”.

Guns prepped, bullets loaded, facial hair to maximum bushiness

Fortunately players aren’t just on foot as everyone gets a rechargeable Jetpack to zip around with, as well as the automatic ability to climb up any ledge they get close to. I really love that first-person games are seriously beginning to integrate climbing and non-linearity in their map design, and between Evolve and Titanfall I think this will quickly become a staple of next-gen. Expect it in the next Call of Duty to be sure, or watch as that franchise disappears. Cross fingers.

Anyway, when we finally tracked down the creature the Trapper (heavily-moustached) needed to unleash his Mobile Arena to enclose it so it couldn’t escape, giving us the chance to if not destroy it then seriously wound it. Or vice versa. As a Support guy (heavily-bearded) I had to get to higher ground, keep anyone being attacked protected with my Shield Gun and calling in the odd air-strike if the moment was there. As an Assault guy (bald) it was about getting up-close-and-personal with the Monster, leaving mines around the place and generally trying to whittle down its health so much and be such a pest that it leaves the Medic (woman, no beard or moustache) alone. If everyone is still alive when the Arena shield goes down the injured monster probably will beat a hasty retreat to lick its wounds, and if it killed any of our team we’d have to wait a little while until they could be dropshipped back into play – during which time we’d have to continue the hunt but would be at a severe disadvantage should the creature turn on us, or worse evolve.

The Monster we had to play with was a Goliath, a jumping brute who can breathe fire and can climb near enough everywhere. While the Hunters were all played in first-person the Monster was third-person. While starting off at a distinct disadvantage I had to stay as far away from the Hunters as I could while occasionally stopping to stomp and eat local wildlife if not under attack. Once you’ve scoffed enough (rather coolly you can even eat the Hunters if you catch one alone mid-combat! Boy do they scream) and filled up a bar you can evolve your Goliath to its next stage. The game was a little picky on where I could do this which is one of the few complaints I have so far. Evolving also leaves you vulnerable for around ten seconds so make sure you’re away from the Hunters, particularly the Support guy who’s been itching to call that Orbital Strike down on you.

The Goliath could run, jump quite high, grab hold of ledges (not automatically like the Hunters, you have to press a button) and both take and give a pounding. It has a number of special attacks of which you can only choose two as you start and gain more as you evolve. These include Fire Breath (which was especially useful for attacking multiple enemies or creatures), Rock Throw (picking up and throwing a large rock, duh), a Leap Attack and a Sprint Attack. It was a little bit similar to the Tank in Left 4 Dead in design, close range pounding attacks and the aforementioned Rock Throw, but was far larger and far more deadly. It could also “smell”, which sadly wasn’t the ability to fart so hard the humans turned away in disgust, but rather being able to sense where Hunters and creatures were nearby. Also Fire Breath, don’t forget Fire Breath.

One thing you can say about our group was that they had an excellent Monster coach, since it won every round. I was informed though that with a more experienced team of Hunters it can get “nearly impossible” for the creature to win. I personally evolved to Stage 3 and either stomped or ate every Hunter into oblivion, and would’ve won earlier if the Support guy (who was the last left standing) hadn’t cloaked and scarpered long enough for his team to drop back in. Playing as the Goliath was lots of fun, and I’m eager to see what the other Monsters might be like.

Even on the losing human side I thoroughly enjoyed myself, as Evolve, like Left 4 Dead before it, is unlike any other multiplayer game I’ve ever played. The hunter/hunted dynamic is both compelling and addictive, and there’s definitely more than a whiff of Predator in the excellent group-of-tough-soldiers-in-a-jungle-hunting-a-powerful-alien-that-can-destroy-them-easily-if-they’re-not-careful setup. Which is all great, and definitely could help Evolve stand out in an increasingly crowded multiplayer market. Once we get to see the other Monsters, Hunters, maps, and game modes it has to offer, along with how good the AI is for teams with less than five players, I’m hopeful this will be the game that dominates my evenings like the last two Left 4 Dead games did.

Fire Breath baby, it’s all about the Fire Breath

Evolve will supposedly be out Autumn 2014 on PC, Xbox One and PS4, and we’ll undoubtedly be seeing a lot more of it in the next few months. I personally can’t wait, and if Turtle Rock start a public beta or demo I urge you to give it a try and you might well come away as excited about it as I am.

Most Anticipated Feature/Element: Seeing what other Monsters we can expect. The Goliath was a powerful little bastard, but I want to see a real Godzilla of a creature...