Evolve is amazing.
I’m opening with this because when I go into the various missteps surrounding its XP system, its matchmaking, its bugs and its longevity, I want you to remember that I love Evolve. I consider my criticisms necessary, however, given the cost of the game (especially on console) in spite of it being a deeply satisfying, asymmetrical multiplayer first-person shooter that will probably retain an enamoured, highly-skilled but ultimately small fan base.
Evolve is set on troubled planet Shear, home to hardy colonists looking to establish a foothold on a world that, by all accounts, does not want them. Between acid pits, rugged valleys, hostile flora and largely antagonistic wildlife, they had their work cut out for them even before titanic monsters showed up to feast. Now the colonists are fleeing and must rely on a group of professional planet-tamers to match might with wits, cover their retreat and hopefully salvage a dire situation.
Evolve pits four Hunters against a single Monster in 4-on-1 match-ups that come in two forms: Evacuation, which is a five-day campaign set across a variety of game modes, and Skirmish, wherein the Hunters will need to track down and kill the Monster before it transforms into its final, apocalyptic form using a mix of well-timed class skills and perfect coordination. The Monster, on the other hand, will need to stay one step ahead by leading its pursuers astray with false tracks, pouncing on those players that wander too far from the pack and stealthily consuming local beasties to level up.
Evacuation mixes things up by including different objectives (such as destroying Monster eggs or rescuing survivors), with some advantage granted to the victor on the next map, culminating in a tower defence-style scenario where you try to hold out long enough to protect the evacuation ship before launch – or if you’re the Monster, to destroy the colonists’ last hope of escape.
The game begins with a limited cast of characters and monsters, and players will need to improve various skills to unlock more options. Unfortunately, this is the first of Evolve‘s sins, and inexplicably works against the best interests of the game. You see, you’re expected to attain maximum progression with all of a character’s abilities in order to unlock the next character. Skill progression is done across three tiers, and yet you earn no new points in a skill you’ve maxed out if there’s still others to complete in that tier. As in, you can’t work on progressing other skills until all of your skills are at the same level. It’s stupid. Especially so with the Hunters, because it encourages sloppy teamwork as players who should be working towards tactical harmony ignore the team’s needs in favour of grinding for skill progression.
It’s unfortunate, because once you’ve unlocked everything – some 10-15 hours in, based on various accounts – the game itself is elegant in its execution. The hunt is the core experience, and matches are intense and calculated experiences with the right Hunter team and a cunning Monster. Evolve is a far more tactical shooter than most will be familiar with, and eschews the twitch-like nature of other modern multiplayer FPSes in favour of a slower build-up. You’ll rely on the Trapper to locate the beast and lock them down in an arena, while the Support will amplify your team’s potential. The Medic is critical to keeping your entire team alive and the Assault is the only one capable of doing massive damage to the Monster.
When your team is working in sync, it’s an exhilarating experience. Likewise, playing as a Monster comes with its own sense of power. Monsters are formidable in their abilities and you can’t help but feel awestruck when you smash a rock perfectly into a group of squishy humans, or cut someone to shreds with a well-timed Wraith Supernova.
Shear is a vivid place of extreme biomes, and they do a great job of leveraging this in the level design. The maps are plentiful, ranging from harsh desert-like canyons to a tropical aviary built smack-dab in the middle of a frozen wasteland – and they’re huge too, so a degree of map awareness and knowledge is vital once you start hitting higher levels of play. Knowing the best vantage points, hidden paths and areas to force a fight are key to success.
Similarly, Turtle Rock has infused the game’s characters with a ton of personality and ability types. Whether it’s Bucket’s ruminations about why Shear’s wildlife insists on trying to eat him despite being a robot or the Cthulhu-like otherness of the Kraken, they all look unique and feel really fun to play. Given this variety, you’d expect the game to be a horrible mess in terms of balance, but it’s not.
It is, in fact, extremely well-balanced, and aside from the Wraith (a stealthy monster with high DPS potential that seems immensely powerful in comparison to the other two), Evolve juggles its variety with ease. More importantly, it feels like a game with many layers of strategy to unpack, and that’s important for a multiplayer experience looking to appeal to varying degrees of player skill.
Given the design and uniqueness of the setting, the lack of any meaningful story or details is a sore oversight. While Hunters will banter amongst each other at the start of the mission, and occasionally have some in-game observation based on whatever map they’re on and the mix of characters you have, why the monsters are on Shear remains largely unexplained. You can play any of the modes in single player with ineffectual bots, but it’s a soulless affair. It’s not unforgivable given the multiplayer focus, but as Turtle Rock promised the game could be enjoyed solo I would have expected a little more effort in this area.
The game also suffers from some minor bugs and iffy matchmaking. Occasionally falling off the map, losing display of HUD elements while in-game and stuck loading screens (or simply a blank screen) can put a damper on things, especially as matches are sometimes prolonged affairs and finding matches is not as quick as it could be. In fact, I’d say that matchmaking is the biggest concern; I’ve had instances (few and far between, but still), where I’ve not found any matches, resulting in an AI slug-fest which has me leaving and restarting the search process. However, network performance is a non-issue with hardly any lag when I do get into a game with human players.
These problems are surmountable if Turtle Rock takes heed. Evolve has a more pressing dilemma, however: it’s a game that is immeasurably better with friends, even more so with a full group of five. It requires a massive degree of skill and coordination, specifically between the Hunters. Perform averagely in Evolve, and you will almost certainly lose. Like Dota 2, your victory or defeat is held partly by your team, and this is a recipe for frustration given the aforementioned leveling system and relying on the behaviour of strangers if you don’t play with friends.
Should I fault the game because it fails to reward mediocre play? No. Evolve takes its name to its monstrous heart: it is Darwinism in action. The first time I played Evolve, I was concerned that it’s a game of grand first impressions, whose glamour wears off after a short while. Instead, since the public tests, I’ve put some 25 hours into the alpha and beta, and another 20 into the final game. I’ve gone through the grind three times and I keep coming back. I’m by no means the best Evolve player in the world, but I’d like to be.
I think for a certain type of player – one looking for a more thoughtful FPS experience, someone with patience and a group of eager friends – Evolve exists to reach an itch that can’t be scratched by anything else. In its current state, it’s an expensive gamble, and one I can’t fully recommend readers take if they’ve got nobody with whom to play. Like a Hunter who leaves the group to recon the map solo, those going into Evolve alone may find that the risks far outweigh the rewards.
Reviewed on PC using a purchased copy of Evolve.