I grew up with shooters. There I was, silly grin plastered on my face, blasting those pig baddies in Duke Nukem and having a grand ol’ time. I still remember the early days of Wolfenstein 3D and I distinctly recall each new evolution, from the days of Unreal vs. Quake (pick a side!) to the emergence of groundbreaking franchises like Half-Life and Call of Duty. I’ve seen variations on the standard FPS theme, including great RPGs that opted to fuse the two genres (Deus Ex comes readily to mind). I’ve seen the highs and lows, the successes and the failures, and the ensuing stagnation.
As such, I’ve been one of many who have called out developers to do more with the aging genre. The good news is that such an outcry appears to have had an impact; last year’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare featured inspired freshness, for example, despite maintaining the familiar core. Then comes Turtle Rock Studios and the refreshing, entertaining Evolve, which, while not exactly revolutionary, still provides gamers with a new perspective. It’s a 4-on-1 battle that emphasizes teamwork, timing and strategy. The lone wolf dies fast. The rash and the brash typically die terrible deaths. This is an action game with a functioning brain and that I will always support.
The visual dynamic in Evolve is pretty special. Designed specifically for new consoles and PC, the developers could take that all-important step and add another layer of polish and gloss. But beyond the great detail found in each of the Monsters, and beyond the stellar effects, there’s an atmospheric element that plays into the mentality of the hunt. It’s always there, ratcheting up the anticipation and fun factor. This atmosphere is what makes the game so engaging, and it’s due in part to fantastic design and world creation. I still say some of the environments are just too dark (devs have a fascination with the dark and gritty these days) but otherwise, this is a sound, striking graphical presentation.
The sound is even better, thanks to a top-notch soundtrack, a bevy of invigorating and often creepy effects, and solid voice performances. Of course, the latter disappears when you’re playing Evolve with friends, which isn’t a bad thing, as the AI characters tend to repeat themselves too often. The music cements the experience as a remarkably tense affair, and the effects take center-stage when facing down one of those mammoth beasts. It’s interesting because what you see and hear changes significantly depending on whether you choose the Monster or one of the Hunters. This leads me to the gameplay segment, which hinges on such variety throughout the experience.
On the surface, the game is straightforward: Four Hunters are tasked with taking down a super challenging Monster; human players can step into one of the four Hunter roles, or they can assume the role of the massive Monster. But this concept amounts to so much more. You would anticipate that each Hunter has a distinct set of abilities, and his or her unique strengths and weaknesses. You’d also expect – or hope – that each Monster would be radically different, allowing for drastic alterations in each side’s tactics. But beyond that, you might not realize the added depth and diversity that makes Evolve a pulse-pounding action extravaganza that rewards the quick-thinking strategist.
Let’s start with the Monster. The beast evolves through three stages and with each transformation, it becomes much more powerful. Obviously, it’s the goal of the Hunters to track and defeat the Monster before the nasty thing has reached the third – and outrageously devastating – stage. That’s why, early on in any given encounter, the Monster likely won’t be rushing the Hunters; the enemy will be attacking surrounding wildlife and trying to “evolve” as quickly as possible. You’ll want to increase your armor and amp up your abilities before facing the very capable Hunters, so evasion might be the name of the game. At least for a while. And it depends very much on which Monster you’ve chosen.
There’s the Goliath, which is basically the tank; he comes straight forward, tossing boulders and spewing fire. It can wreak widespread havoc and toss Hunters about like they’re puppets. However, he needs time to reach this level of power and intimidation; at first, he might just strike and run. Then we get the Kraken, which soars up into the air and sends bolts of lightning down on its prey. This forces the Hunters to change their approach, especially if one of them is holding a close-range weapon. The Kraken really encourages you to explore the formidable land called Shear, because getting an environmental advantage is a huge benefit. Last is the annoying Wraith, who strikes from the shadows and makes it exceedingly difficult to corner her.
Yep, we’ve got the wildly diverse Monsters. That’s a huge plus right there, because it means you have to fight each with a completely different mindset. Playing as the Monster is an absolute rush and one I admittedly prefer to being a Hunter, just because I very often like being the lone wolf. There’s just so much damage to inflict and so much flesh to ingest. It’s actually intriguing that because the Hunter characters are the same, regardless of the side you choose, you actually feel a little closer to those characters. There’s really no story here but I have to admit, chomping on Daisy, despite her hideous exterior, made me wince a little. She’s just such a good little guide for the Hunters, you know?
Speaking of Daisy, she’s this bizarre mix of dog and beast and she can lead the Hunters to their quarry. She can also lick them to restore health…see why Daisy has to go when playing as the Monster? Anyway, Daisy is Maggie’s pet; Maggie is your original trapper and leader of the squad and she’s invaluable at the start. Other trappers, Abe and Griffin, have their own tracking tools, but Maggie is the one who gets you started. Getting started is when you really start to feel the game; when you’re on the hunt but you’ve got the creepy suspicion that you’re being hunted, too. You feel as if you need your allies. You’re worried that when you encounter the Monster, you won’t be ready. You envision the catastrophe if you’re not ready and the beast has fully evolved. Herein lies the main appeal of the game for me.
Hunters also have to deal with surrounding wildlife but it doesn’t feel tacked-on. Killing other baddies might net you valuable buffs for the deciding round against the Monster and besides, it’s a nice piece of variety. Shear is a dangerous place and you’re constantly turning ‘round and ‘round, searching for the next possible threat. This, combined with the highly effective atmosphere, makes for an experience that’s tough to resist. However, there are problems that keep the game from being an elite production and it begins with the pacing and progress system. Plus, one might argue that there are simply too many great ideas jammed into one package, and they don’t always work.
The unlock system is a little troublesome, for instance. A Hunter must utilize each of his or her abilities enough times to level up and unlock the next Hunter. The issue is that when a player really needs to increase a certain skill, he’ll just keep using it over and over, which can tick off teammates. On top of which, I’m not sure all this locking and unlocking is even necessary; it often feels tedious and boring. Of course, you can pay to bypass a lot of this grinding, but I’ll never do that. The game is the game; if I have to pay anything extra to change it or make it better, that’s a problem. Much has been made of all the extra DLC at launch but I will say that all of it seems purely cosmetic. This is definitely a complete product.
Getting back to the drawbacks, I must emphasize those aforementioned dark and sometimes oppressive environments. Such an atmosphere often works wonders, but it can also be detrimental to the player’s immersion. Then there are the various modes beyond the standard Hunt Mode; Nest Mode, for example, has the Hunters searching for Monster eggs before those eggs hatch. Rescue Mode has the Hunters reviving fallen civilians and protecting them long enough for a dropship to show up. Evacuation is another option, but not an especially well-balanced one, in my opinion. Lastly, while you can use bots, the game is clearly designed for human play; the bots aren’t incompetent but the experience is greatly lessened.
It always bugs me when a game that has the option for single-player action falls short. It’s why I absolutely hated Turtle Rock’s Left 4 Dead franchise; if you put in a campaign and it sucks, why should you get a pass? Is that not part of the package? But in Evolve, there’s not a campaign; you just opt to play with AI instead of humans and it’s not a great option. There’s no lame attempt at a story and besides, playing with bots isn’t that bad; it’s just not preferable. I will say that if you play with those who don’t know what they’re getting into – i.e., twitch gamers who just want to run around in circles shooting anything that moves – you’re in trouble. Not everyone will embrace this learning curve.
In the end, Evolve is a wonderful concept that boasts a surprising, appreciated amount of variety and strategy. Many may not anticipate the level of depth and practice required to really be proficient, which is why some shooter fans might feel a tad misled. Then again, I hesitate to even call this game a “FPS” because it’s just so much more, and it’s different when playing as the Monster. The environment can be a little dark and foreboding, the unlock system is indeed a little tedious and irritating, and not all gameplay modes seem properly balanced. But the intensity of the encounters, the ceaseless tension and emphasis on strategy, and excellent level design make for a robust, rewarding experience. Provided you don’t go in expecting a simplistic “humans fight monsters” FPS and you’re willing to embrace every element of Evolve, you’ll be more than satisfied.
The Good: Great detail and special effects. Awesome audio. Excellent world design that encourages strategic assaults. Each Monster is distinctly unique and powerful. The Hunter feels drastically different than the Monster. Cool Hunter classes with very useful and effective skills. Playing with dedicated gamers is immensely fun.
The Bad: Environments can feel a little dark and oppressive. Unlock system might seem tedious and annoying. Learning curve might turn off a lot of people. Playing with bots = meh.
The Ugly: “When someone needs that one skill leveled up and he keeps using it over and over in battle, well…”
2/13/2015 Ben Dutka