Stace Harman tracks down Evolve and examines the DNA of Turtle Rock’s promising new multiplayer experience, with hands-on impressions and interview input from publisher, 2K.
"Ultimately, everyone has to have a good game as their chosen role because otherwise you’re going to get tanked pretty quickly"
When I received the invitation to attend the preview event for Turtle Rock’s online multiplayer shooter, Evolve, I was initially sceptical of just how much I might derive from it. Clearly, the developer knows its way around such experiences having previously created Left 4 Dead and worked for a time on Counter-Strike, but frankly I’ve long grown weary of shooting things in the face for points and glory. I’ve also never really been a huge fan of Left 4 Dead’s versus mode, preferring instead to play collaboratively against the AI horde, and so I was unsure of whether I’d get on with its four vs one competitive structure.
It’s with a certain degree of happy bemusement, then, that after a couple of hours spent playing as each of Evolve’s four human hunter classes and having a crack at playing as the beast of the piece, that I’m pleasantly surprised to find that Turtle Rock’s new title has the potential to be one of the most satisfying multiplayer experiences that I’ve enjoyed for quite some time. Its strengths are immediately obvious and there’s a great deal of fun to be had right from the off; even as you’re mastering the basics, you’re catching a glimpse of the longer-term strategies for both sides of the human/monster divide.
Evolve’s title is elegantly reflected in various facets of its play. Playing as a human hunter you take on the role of one of four classes: Trapper, Support, Assault or Medic, each of which has a jetpack for boost-jumping, a two weapon load-out, a unique item and a class-ability, all of which are governed by cool-down timers. There can only be one of each class in the field and every class must be represented, with AI bots standing in for any missing players or for people that go AWOL part-way through a game. Each of these classes has a clearly defined and specific role to play in hunting down the monster – also played by a human player or, again, the AI if needs be – and points and XP are awarded for fulfilling that role adeptly as you attempt to bring down the beast.
The better you understand and play the role you’ve chosen the more likely you are to earn the necessary points to level-up your skills and thus become a stronger, faster, more productive member of the team. This highlights another key difference with Turtle Rock’s work on Left 4 Dead; in that game which of the four survivors you chose really came down to an aesthetic choice (but obviously Zoey and then Ellis were the correct choices) as each could wield the same weapons and items.
Here, though, the four human classes play differently to one another, so while the assault class is the obvious choice for high-damage dealing, the trapper carries a more tactical feel with a load-out geared towards tracking the monster and forcing it into confrontation, ideally before the player controlling the beast feels ready to take on the hunters. The medic and support classes carry some familiar tools, such as the heal-gun and a cloaking device for stealth but also some more exotic items, too, that aim to help you play each class as a productive member of the team, rather than all trying to score damage and nothing else. Within minutes of browsing its character-selection screens, it’s apparent that Evolve is an all together more in-depth proposition in this area than its zombie-infested precursor.
"The game has been playable now for two and half years so it’s an ongoing process of refinement."
“The guys felt like they only scratched the surface with Left 4 Dead and while they proved some things about co-op play they really wanted to push it to that next level here,” says 2K executive producer, Denby Grace.
“By giving people a really defined role – and rewarding you for being good at your role – it means that when you win as a team you really feel like it’s because everyone played their part. Ultimately, everyone has to have a good game as their chosen role because otherwise you’re going to get tanked pretty quickly.”
As the monster, it’s your job to do that tanking but initially you’ll want to evade confrontation until you’ve gorged yourself on the local wildlife to the point that you can evolve to stage two. At this point, you’re granted an additional ability to bolster your two initial powers and you become stronger but also slower. Progressing to stage 3 is really where the tables are turned on the hunters and at this, the final stage of evolution, the focus also changes from flash-point confrontation to a directed end-goal. On the map I played that meant being strong enough to destroy a generator that the humans are then tasked with defending, thus forcing you into a endgame and preventing the humans from running away once you reach your ferocious zenith.
“The game balancing is a difficult challenge but it’s something that the guys and us work very hard at,” assures Grace. “Between the multiple locations working on the game, we probably play around 300 games per week and that outputs a lot of data that we analyse on an ongoing basis. The game has been playable now for two and half years so it’s an ongoing process of refinement.”
Having survived the wreckage of original publisher THQ’s demise, the evolved state of the game’s mechanics and balancing bode well for a launch later this year. It’s already apparent that the many elements of the mechanics tie together wonderfully, with a number of the strengths and abilities of both the hunters and the monster having a carefully balanced riposte that leaves both sides feeling empowered but never unfairly overpowered nor disadvantaged, quite a feat for its four vs one asymmetrical structure.
The wildlife, too, comes into play and while smaller creatures are fodder for the monster and fuel its evolution process there’s also much larger creatures that, if agitated, can turn on either team. This then opens up tactics for deliberately leading the hunters through a heavily populated area, pissing-off the wildlife and then leaving them to deal with the consequences.
"The dynamic weather can really change the game, so if it rains heavily your tracks wash away much quicker and the sound is more muffled which makes it harder for people to hear you as the monster."
“There’s a lot of stuff in the game for the momentum to be able to shift very, very quickly,” explains Grace. “Things like the dynamic weather that can really change the game, so if it rains heavily your tracks wash away much quicker and the sound is more muffled which makes it harder for people to hear you as the monster.
“The AI Game Director of Left 4 Dead has evolved to become this thing that Turtle Rock is calling the Zoo Keeper system, which controls all the wildlife and environmental stuff, which all affects game play and can be used to your advantage or disadvantage.”
The most exciting element of Evolve is that everything here forms just the basis of the game. Each hunter class will sport multiple characters who, while fulfilling one of the four basic roles, come equipped with their own specific load-outs and strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, the goliath monster is just one of several that will feaure in the final game and while his focus is on the easy to grasp melee and area of effect attacks, others are promised to have varying focuses allowing for a breadth and depth of play; some leave tracks while others don’t, some will attempt to scatter the hunters to divide and conquer while others will excel at a more head-on approach. Add in environment variety, the fact that character and monster selection is hidden from the opposing side and the currently unrevealed potential of several other game modes (all variations on this four vs one set-up) and Evolve is looking a very promising proposition indeed.
It’s rare that a major new IP should be announced and then released within the space of eight or nine months, but that’s what’s on the cards here. We’re so used to the long-tease of details being revealed over a couple of years of development time that nine months is a relative blink of the eye. However, such is Evolve’s promise that having to wait several more months for it to emerge from its gestation period already feels to me like a very long time indeed.
Evolve is slated for a Q3 release on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.