It would be far too easy to stomp all over Evolve. Much like the monsters the game so gloriously depicts, I could rampage and wreak havoc on it, tearing it to shreds, so underwhelmed was I by something touted as the next big event in multiplayer gaming. But I can’t. For, as much as I ended up forcing myself to play the game in order to write this review, I can’t deny that what Turtle Rock Studios have produced is indeed different, original, refreshing and wonderfully crafted. It’s just a shame, then, that my own enthusiasm for the game is tepid at best.
As a concept, it’s fantastic. The studio that gave us multiplayer gem Left 4 Dead would build an online-only game which pits humans against a giant monster, in a David versus Goliath situation where all bets are off as to which side will eventually win. Four players would control a team of Hunters, who must work together to take down the savage, two-story tall beast. The twist? The monster isn’t AI, it’s a fifth player at the controls of the brute. It’s player-versus-player in a way we haven’t really seen before.
In practice? Well, it’s more than a little messy. Evolve takes place on Shear, a planet colonized by humanity that transpires to contain monstrous alien creatures, who take umbrage to this puny species building homes, power plants and research stations on their world. The entire story is established in one cutscene, where we’re introduced to the various Hunters the player can control. A full scale evacuation is in order, and the Hunters are tasked with delaying or killing as many of the Monsters as possible, to give colonists a chance of salvation aboard a rescue ship. And that’s it. That’s all the plot Evolve feels the need to tell in order to justify its multiplayer action — don’t expect a lengthy campaign to play through, because it isn’t here.
If there are echoes of Titanfall in this approach, you’re not the only one detecting them. Last year’s Xbox One exclusive was also online-only, and similarly eschewed a story mode in favor of wrapping a vague narrative around its multiplayer matches. Indeed, the two share more than a passing similarity — if you stripped away most of the players and reduced Titanfall to four pilots versus one Titan, you’ll have a better understanding of Evolve’s gameplay. Unfortunately, unlike Titanfall, Evolve’s multiplayer failed to sink its teeth into my bones and drag me into hours of uninterrupted multiplayer battles. Instead, knowing I had to review it, it gently clawed my face, an irritant I could only ignore for so long before I had to attend to its needs.
Really, the core of Evolve’s problems stem from its restriction to four-versus-one gameplay. That’s all there is to play here — don’t expect to do large-scale battle with an army of Hunters fighting hordes of Monsters. It’s not going to happen. That restriction extends to Evolve’s game types, which involve Hunt (the Hunters must track and kill the Monster, before it evolves and kills them), Nest (Hunters must find and destroy the Monster’s eggs, and any minions which hatch from them), Rescue (Hunters must find injured humans and return them to a dropship, while the Monster must kill them), and Defend (the starship tasked with lifting the colonists to safety is refuelling, and Hunters must survive an assault by the Monster and its minions, which will attempt to destroy the refuelling point and thus the starship). Four modes; that’s your lot. In-game pop-ups during loading screens will tell you that there are 800,000 possible match varieties across the game’s dozen maps, but in reality it feels far more restricted.
In battle, your experience will depend on which side you are. Playing as a Monster is arguably where Evolve is at its best. As you may have guessed, one of the key strategies when controlling these beasts is to evolve, achieved by killing and eating the wildlife found in each map. This increases the Monster’s armor, eventually allowing it to upgrade through two stages, building in strength and ability as it does so. Monsters have a basic attack, as well as four special abilities. Your starter Monster, the Goliath, will have the ability to throw boulders, breath fire, smash down on Hunters from a great height, and charge through them, knocking them out of firing range. Unlocking the game’s three other Monsters will bring abilities such as lightening strikes, supernova explosions, lava bombs, proximity mines, decoy cloning and rock traps. Watching your Monster evolve and grow as you play, and then taking the fight to the Hunters, is an exhilarating experience. They’re more than a little cumbersome to control, but there’s a weight and solidity that is more than appropriate given their ginormous size.
Playing as a Hunter offers its own rewards and challenges. There are four main classes: Assault, Medic, Trapper and Support. Each has three characters, which can be unlocked as you play, offering various gun types and abilities. Assault are the main attack class, with a personal shield granting temporary invulnerability against the Monster’s strikes. Guns are big and powerful, as are the the characters wielding them. Medics heal their teammates, and are a vital part of winning a match — lose the medic, and you’ll easily lose the game. Trappers are experts in finding the Monster, and can utilize traps (hence the name) to prevent the Monster from escaping, letting players coordinate their attacks in a smaller area. Support class does exactly what it says on the tin — using a cloaking device to hide from the Monster, you’ll lay down covering fire or provide teammates with additional shields to aid them in battle. Each class can be levelled up, unlocking new abilities, and there is a welcome variety to the way each character plays. Gunplay is solid, with the game’s future tech lending itself well to a wide variety of explosive weaponry.
Unfortunately, in play, is where the game starts to lose you. Each of Evolve’s maps are pleasingly vertical, which adds an extra dimension to gameplay — Monsters can climb surfaces and leap between points, while all Hunters have jetpacks to enable temporary boosts and to scale cliffs and buildings. Outside of that, and especially when playing as a Hunter, the game quickly loses focus. In Hunt mode — the core gameplay type and the one you’ll play most often — depending on who is controlling the Monster, you’re likely to spend the vast majority of your game as a Hunter aimlessly running around. Tracking the Monster is aided by following its tracks, watching out for disturbed birds, fallen trees, and dead animals, or utilizing the tech at your disposal. In practice, and definitely not aided by each map being almost unbearably dark in places, you’ll be wandering through the map, waiting for the game to throw a visual cue at you when it senses that the Hunters have completely lost the Monster. Almost every Hunt game I played followed this pattern — and while we were dithering about, trying to find the Monster, the person controlling it was evolving into a Stage 3 behemoth, which is almost unbearably difficult to kill.
It’s here that a four person team needs to work together, making the most of their skill sets and their headsets to communicate with one another to bring it down. The Trapper can throw up a dome that keeps the Monster within a certain distance, the Medic can take out its armor to highlight areas that will grant more damage, the Support can buff the other players and the Assault can go in for the kill. In practice, not once would anyone speak during a game, and usually players would lose one another and be quickly overwhelmed by the Monster — and this is true for every game type. Single players in a disparate team won’t stick together, which is vital to win. When playing as a Monster, I would seek out the Medic and kill them — once they’re gone, it then becomes a case of taking out the other three and you’ve won. Evolve works best when you’ve got three friends with you, working as a team to do battle — without friends, it’s a horrible, unbalanced mess. It’s somewhat telling that I had more fun playing as a Hunter in Evolve’s Solo mode, which replaces human players with AI-controlled bots. My team of CPU code and I worked wonderfully together to bring down Monster after Monster — we were a better team than any human players I’d come across.
That lack of balance when faced with uncoordinated teammates is what ultimately caused me to switch off from Evolve. Evacuation mode is a five-match “story mode” of sorts, pitting Hunters against Monster across four maps of random game types, with the intention to see how many survivors you can save in the lead up to the final, fifth match type — which is always Defend. Start with a weak team and you’re going to have a long, boring session ahead of you as you slog through the various game modes having your ass handed to you by the Monster — even with auto balancing lending buffs and upgrades to the losing team for the next round. There’s only so much losing as a Hunter I could take before I wanted to eject the disc and play something else.
And yet, I can’t hate Evolve. For those with friends to play with — no one on my Xbox Live friends list owns the game — it must surely be an absolute blast. Working together to take down a Monster must be as exhilarating as it was for me to be the Monster, trying to crush individual Hunters until I won. What’s more, the whole game screams quality. Though predominantly dark, it’s beautifully depicted, with lush jungle areas, rocky outcrops, wonderfully rendered buildings and fantastic character designs — particularly on the Monsters. Audio, too, is sublime. Hunters chatter away to one another, reacting to gameplay moments and commenting on one another’s achievements, as well as the Monster. The booming footsteps of the Monster as it roams nearby are terrifyingly ominous with the right audio setup. Guns, bombs and abilities all crash and bang with appropriate depth. It’s all too clear that Turtle Rock Studios put a vast amount of effort into the game.
Which makes it all the more depressing that, ultimately, I’ve ejected Evolve from my console for what feels like the last time. Perhaps if different game modes are released, I’ll jump back in. If a few friends pick up the game at a later date, maybe I’ll revisit it. In the meantime, though, I have none of the clawing desire of many other multiplayer games to return for just one more round. Personally, I can’t recommend Evolve — especially given that it’s charging full price for a game that is remarkably low on content (and has a somewhat suspect amount of paid DLC available so soon after launch). Everything it brought to the table seemed delicious, but turned out bland. However, for the many people currently playing it, and for anyone reading this and considering buying, it could be the sweetest dish of all. It’s a game of personal taste, and this time, I’m not playing.
Evolve is available on PS4, Xbox One and PC.