Evolve is all about the thrill of the hunt, the chase, the kill. Four hunters drop into the alien world of Shear and have to track down and kill a monster that is threatening the humans left on the planet. Except that these are just four humans and this is a monster that is far bigger than them… and it’s getting bigger still.
So it’s vital that the hunters work together as a closely knit team, with each taking on a specific role. The Assault is pretty self explanatory, trying to deal as much damage as possible to the monster, while the Medic and Support are both clearly intended to lend a hand in the fight. The Trapper, however, is the most unique new class, and one that doesn’t fit into the usual archetypes that we see in most games. Their role is perhaps the most important in letting the humans gain the upper hand as, while all the players can see the highlighted footprints of the monster, the Trapper’s main role is to actually pinpoint where the monster is and then to restrict its movement and stop it from escaping by bringing down a large arena shield.
Each class has a trio of characters, each with their own loadouts and abilities alongside a single class ability. Importantly, each of them feel unique in how they play, such as how Val has a health beam gun that can heal or revive from a distance, yet Lazarus can only revive those that are downed, but can also bring back to life those that had fully expired. Interestingly, there is a degree of overlap between certain characters and classes, so that the Trapper Maggie’s pet Trapjaw – think alien St. Bernards – will go and heal downed players in addition to helping track down the monster, while Bucket is a Support but can detach his robot head and send it flying round the map as a UAV to track the monster.
There’s a great deal of complexity to how each class and character works, and it’s important to learn to play as part of a unit, especially when there are more threats on Shear than just the monster. It’s easy to step into a carnivorous plant or bungle your way into the territory of a big beast that will grapple onto you, and if you’ve become separated, then you’re done for. If the Medic isn’t proficient enough with their healing abilities and has become too fixated on dealing damage, then your squad won’t be able to go toe-to-toe with the monster for very long, and if the Trapper isn’t quick enough to bring down the arena dome, your prey may escape.
Of course, there’s no guarantees that trapping the monster will result in success, and perhaps the biggest and most iconic draw for the game is the ability to play as these hulking beasts. With three monsters included in the game, there’s again a broad set of play styles catered to, with the raw force of the Goliath juxtaposed with the more standoffish, lightning-based distance attacks of the Kraken and the stealthy misdirection of the Wraith.
Whichever monster you play as, you simply feel big and powerful, breaking trees in your path and shrugging off damage. It’s something which is only emphasised when you switch back to playing as a hunter and see the environment towering over you, sometimes feeling like you’re barely scratching a monster with your gunfire. Admittedly, there is a learning curve to controlling them and getting the best out of their attacks rather than simply button mashing, as well as the need to learn how to try and control the pace of the match in your favour.
If you move at speed, barreling through the verdant environments, you will leave visible tracks behind you for the hunters to follow, but if you crouch and move more slowly or move through water, no tracks are left behind, making their jobs more difficult. Sometimes, just crouching and staying still within a bush will see the hunters run right past you, allowing you to avoid a potentially costly engagement before you have evolved to be able to withstand more damage.
This shifting balance of power also means that a round of Hunt can often be quite slow paced. The monster always has something to do right from the off, but the hunters will often spend their time following footprints and guessing where the monster might be heading. It can lose some of the tension and the thrill of the chase at times, but recaptures it during the frenetic pitched battles or when you have the monster in your sights and hound them from one side of the map to the other.
In truth, there are probably only a handful of overarching tactics and sneaky tricks to play, as you lead the hunters on their merry goose chase, but the game’s other modes completely change the complexion of the battle. Nest sees the hunters trying to destroy six eggs on a map, while the monster tries to stop them by quickly levelling up and even hatching the eggs into minions. Rescue isn’t too dissimilar, but sees the hunters trying to revive and escort three groups of survivors to an extraction point, while the monster tries to kill them, with the first side to 5 the winner.
However, it’s Defend which is the most strikingly different, with the monster spawning in fully evolved and trying to destroy successive generators alongside spawning pairs of minion Goliaths. Though simply going after the opposite side has the potential to result in success in these modes, playing to the objective will often give better results if the other side gets distracted or caught up in combat.
These are tied together in the Evacuation campaign, which spans five rounds, letting players vote for maps and mode befores culminating in a round of Defend which determines the overall winner. Each round victory grants your side assistance in the next, varying based on the map and a loose story of humanity’s withdrawal from the planet. It could be that the water is now filled with flesh eating eels, automated turrets dot the map, portals let you teleport back to a central location, and plenty more beside. This is, however, is compensated for by a small degree of auto-balance which shifts back and forth as rounds are won and lost. Generally, it has felt like two points in either direction will do enough to shift the balance, and it does help to make things feel a little closer and fairer, even on a subconscious level.
Most will likely stick to playing Hunt though, with Rescue already seeming quite unpopular when it appears as a voting option, and it’s here that the game’s raw mechanics really come to the fore, and within that context that you can best appreciate the fantastic audio work. You might be following the glowing footsteps of the monster on the floor, but if they’re tramping around in the distance, you’re much better off listening for the direction that those sounds are coming from and try to anticipate where they might go next. It’s endlessly reminiscent of Godzilla or King Kong.
Shear is a quite alien albeit familiar environment, with trees and overgrowth that hides a variety of odd looking animals. While there are 12 maps for Hunt, Rescue and Nest, with a further four for Defend’s unique design, they all blur into one with only a few standout highlights, such as the Aviary which features a snow covered outdoors section. They maintain a dank and hazy jungle-like feel to them with a shifting colour palette. They’re still rendered in quite gorgeous detail and with some rather fantastic weather effects, that can see some maps lashed with monsoon-like rain or with thick snow falling on others, but aren’t quite distinct from one another.
For better or for worse, if you tear away the new environments, the new gameplay mechanics and the fancy new graphics engine, and you’ll find many of the same foundations upon which Left 4 Dead was built. Each round starts for the hunters with a small introductory cutscene and some banal conversation, but while this set up the situation and the story in Left 4 Dead, here it just feels generic, bland and quickly becomes repetitive, rather than character building. You’ll soon be cursing the inability to skip these cutscenes, but they serve the important purpose of giving the monster a head start.
There are also unskippable tutorial cutscenes for each character and mode, which underlines the complexity of the game for newcomers. This has surely also factored into the game’s lacklustre unlock system, whereby you must complete certain tasks with each of your abilities before the next class character or monster is unlocked. This might demonstrate your mastery of a given character, but can often fly in the face of how the game plays out in the heat of battle. Yes, it’s good for you to try out Hank’s orbital barrage, and it can deal an awful lot of damage if coordinated well with a Trapper’s harpoons, but far too often, the monster has quickly leapt out of the target zone and is dealing more damage to your team.
In the end it just feels like you’re being forced into playing in a certain way just to get the next character, with boosters to their abilities the goal after that point, rather than naturally exploring them for myself and discovering which characters and which classes suit me best. It’s the consequence of not having a dedicated single player campaign, during which the core mechanics of the game’s multiplayer can be laid out within a flowing narrative context.
Yet, you can play the game offline with and against bots, and this will probably be the best proving ground in which to play with each character and learn its nuances before heading online. The AI actually does a good job and deals well with the different modes put in front of it. Sometimes the monster will come at you when just in its second stage of evolution, other times it will wait until fully evolved, or disappear off to the other side of the map in order to restore its armour before attacking you once more.
The hunter AI can be ruthless in opposition, hounding you into submission if they catch a whiff of your location, but as co-operative partners, they will follow your lead when tracking a monster or heading off to objectives, split so that players are rarely left alone, and will always use their various abilities in a logical manner. That you can play with a mixture of humans and AIs, and the game adapts on the fly to people joining and dropping out, is as much a boon as having AIs in the first place.
If the AI are dependable mainstays, it’s the addition of human players that can make or break the game and the enjoyment that you get from it. Playing as a monster will always be a solitary experience outside of a custom game with friends, but as a hunter, Evolve is at its best with four humans, chatting away and coordinating their efforts against a human controlled monster.
However, if that ideal situation isn’t possible for you, there is the robust matchmaking system. Unfortunately, this can be more hit and miss to finding you an enjoyable match – especially with the current prevalence of newcomers to the game – and obscures some of the balancing work that Turtle Rock have done. Sometimes people will wander off or groups will split up, but every once in a while, everyone starts to fill their role, sticks together in silent agreement resulting in some rather tense matches. Even then, I found there simply wasn’t as much enjoyment to be had in the game without someone to talk to, and plugging in a microphone and chatting to stubbornly silent players just isn’t the same.
At its simplest, Evolve is one of the best new ideas to be turned into a game of recent times, invoking so many monster and alien films along the way. Its attention grabbing hook can only take it so far, though, and Evolve needs you to persevere through the first few hours as you get to grips with the hunt and learn how to play the game. Admittedly, it can be hit and miss when paired up with AI players through matchmaking, but as with so many games, it can be pure gold when played with friends.
Version tested: PlayStation 4