Developed by Turtle Rock Studios. Published by 2K Games. Released Q3 2014. PS4, PC (previewed) and Xbox One.
Billed as a "4v1 competitive cooperative multiplayer experience", Evolve stands to improve an already strong lineup of shooters coming in 2014 which aren't just sequels to existing franchises. With so many games leaning on simply the greater graphical fidelity that new hardware affords, it's fantastic to see a developer also working to redefine and, well, frankly evolve gameplay as well. While this isn't the first time we've seen asymmetric gameplay, it's perhaps at its most refined and considered state in Evolve. Based on a few hours of hands-on time, I can say that Evolve is well worth getting excited about.
That's not to say that Evolve will be completely for foreign or alien for players. Turtle Rock Studios might not be a name that's immediately recognizable to most shooter fans, but this is the same team that worked on Valve's Left 4 Dead and Counter-Strike franchises. More recently they've gone independent, but it's easy to see how Evolve grew out of the company's previous work. There was a small hiccup in development when Evolve's original publisher THQ imploded, but thankfully 2K Games saw something interesting in Evolve and snatched it up at auction.
While Evolve will feature a number of ways to play, including singleplayer, the mode we were introduced to in this preview was called "Hunt". Hunt is considered to be the core mode for Evolve, best representing the mechanics and tenants of the game. Hunt pits a player-controlled monster against four player-controlled hunters. We got to play as the Goliath, which is a physical bruiser style of monster along with an initial variation of the Medic, Trapper, Support and Assault hunter classes. Both the monster and the hunters will have different types and variants in the finished product.
One aspect I really appreciated was how subversive the various hunters were from preconceptions. When I say Medic, that brings about a certain role to mind, and certainly the Medic is responsible for keeping the group on their feet. However, the Medic also carries an Anti-Material sniper rifle which blows weak points into the monster's armor for the other characters to increase their damage, provided they hit that spot. The Medic also has a Tranquilizer Rifle to tag and outline the monster for easier spotting. Similarly, the Support class must switch roles between offense and defense. The Support's primary weapon is essentially a laser heavy-machine gun, which does a fair bit of damage. His other abilities include shielding allies, emitting a cloaking field to get out of sticky situations - like when you're trying to revive someone and the piece de resistance calling in an orbital bombardment to rain fire down.
The Assault is the most straight forward of the bunch - you're just there to deal damage. Your Assault Rifle is good all-round, the Lightning Gun works best up close and a Personal Shield and mines round out the package. This contrasts nicely with the Trapper, who has, in my opinion, the most interesting role. The Trapper is there to find the monster and then keep it from running away. He can plant sonar or sounds spikes into the ground that trip and alert everyone when the monster is nearby. His Harpoon Gun fires a line that tethers him to the monster - it impedes the monsters movement, but it can be snapped by attacking the line. His last ability is to throw down a mobile arena; it's basically a force field that keeps everything in rather than keeping things out. The Trapper's gameplay clashes choices are interesting nicely since its outside what you're normally used to in a shooter.
On the flip-side, when you play as the monster, you start out as stage 1 with only 2 of the 4 abilities unlocked. Evolving to stages 2 and 3 will make you stronger and opens up your full complement. The monster is naturally very mobile and agile, able to leap great distances and nimbly climb across the often vertically oriented spaces in the maps. Each skill will cooldown between use, and you'll want to chain them together for maximum effect. For example, the Goliath has access to the following four abilities. Flame Breath emits a constant stream of fire in front of you, which is especially useful if the hunters try to hide in a cloaking field. Leap Attack jumps you up into the air to crash back down on the designated spot, this can also be used to quickly leap away. Likewise, Charge will knock hunters around while you dash down a line. Rock Throw is the Goliath's most devastating ability though, and smacking a hunter with a rock will almost always incapacitate them. Taking certain abilities early often informs how you intend to operate, do you want to engage the hunters early or try and avoid them long enough to evolve. Rock Throw and Fire Breath are purely offensive, whereas Leap Attack and Charge can also be used to escape an encounter.
At the beginning of the match, the monster is given a head start with the hunters spawning in on the same point shortly after. The map is full of other wild life that takes on a number of roles either as threats for all players, food for the monster or indications of the monsters location for the hunters to track. The monster is trying to hunt and eat in order to store up enough energy to evolve, along the way flocks of birds can be startled which will let the hunters know where the monster is. There are also elite creatures that will drop perks for either side to grab. These create some natural contention points like if either side is low on health and aims to grab the health regeneration perk. Not all of the creatures are docile either, giving players something to contend with when they are not in direct confrontation with the monster. A large crocodile-like creature was particularly nasty, snapping up hunters and dragging them into the water.
Where this all really comes together is all the various strategies that either side can employ by working within all these little gameplay details. The monster leaves tracks as it runs, but it can also sneak. Sneaking forces the monster to move slowly, but it no longer leaves behind tracks. This can lead to situations where you intentionally leave tracks into an enclosed area and then sneak out to ambush the hunters as they enter. The hunters can work together to better utilize their skills too though. The Trapper might attempt to tether to slow the monster down so it takes the full brunt of the Support's Orbital Bombardment. Learning these little tricks and natural interactions gave players on both sides a great feeling of discovery.
After the first few matches all of the gathered game journalists were quickly falling into the excitement of the action, and there were some extremely close matches that came out of it. The monster is a blast to play, if you're not the sort to get overwhelmed by having to deal with multiple opponents. It's often best to single out a specific hunter and try to chain a few abilities together to quickly incapacitate them. Hunters will eventually respawn if they are not revived, but if all four of you go down, that's the end of the match. Having the monster controlled by a player and not the AI just brings a whole new level to the experience. Like the ambush trick, there's a wonderful dynamic aspect that a living person will bring. This will hopefully continue to keep the game feeling fresh over every match.
Evolve has a great feel for it already. Any preview that leaves me wanting to play more is a pretty good foot forward. Turtle Rock Studios kept things simple knowing the strength of what they were showing. No smoke and mirrors or distractions, just pure hands-on time. It's a fun game with a killer premise and they've executed perfectly on the central idea. I'm interested to see what other monsters the folks at Turtle Rock Studios have in the works and how well the game holds up over longer sessions. Look for Evolve sometime later this fall.