First Impressions: Evolve
Look, I get it Evolve. Monsters can be a problem. They’re big and scary and breathe fire. Dealing with them in a proportional and considered way is something I’m in favour of, but an orbital fire bomb attack on one is a little bit overkill. Sending a dropship full of four jet pack hunters with laser guns and bombs to kill a confused animal isn’t going to win you any conservation awards. It’s no wonder that the monster is so grumpy.
The ‘Big Alpha’ for Turtle Rock’s latest creation went live recently, and I’ve had time to get jump onto some monster hunt expeditions and give you some first impressions. The principle behind Evolve is really rather simple; there is a monster and a team of four hunters to kill it. It sounds similar to Left 4 Dead, which is unsurprising considering that Turtle Rock were L4D’s creators. Like Left 4 Dead, Evolve’s simple premise gives way to some fascinating possibilities. The monster the hunters go after isn’t just an A.I. construct; it’s another player, hopefully using their conniving human capacity for shenanigans to thwart the hunters in their mission. The 4 on 1 structure of the game can lead to some intriguing cat and mouse escapades and brutal battles.
It is, however, often limited by the skill of the monster player. If the monster player is too unskilled or naive (compared to the opposing hunters), then the game won’t last long at all and be an altogether unsatisfying experience. Making a tiny mistake right at the beginning of the game will likely put the hunters onto the trail of the monster too early, and in those circumstances the monster is most likely to come second in the ensuing battle. The monster goes through three stages of evolution (I’m forced to suppress my palaeontology and evolution graduate pedantry and just roll with it) as time progresses in each match. Fighting the hunters whilst still in stage one is not recommended. If a skilled monster gets good distance on the hunters at the start then there’s a good chance that old monster pants will be able to stay out of the team’s way until fully evolved. The hunters will barely see the monster (if at all) as they run around for fifteen minutes or so before they get killed by a stage three monster. The hunters do have various ways to track the monster, but a good monster player will be able to leave as little a footprint as possible and make the hunt pretty frustrating for the humans.
Being matched up with players of similar skill is essential for these kinds of asymmetric game. When the alpha started, everyone benefitted from being just as baffled by the new game as everyone else and we were all equal. As it’s gone on some people have managed to level up (because of course it has levelling up, it’s the law these days) far quicker than others. I’ve been in a few matches were the matchmaking has pitched me and a few other similar levelled players with an unstoppable killing machine. These kinds of mismatches are annoying but hopefully the system will get smarter at pairing you up with teams as the game gets closer to its finished state. Hopefully the game lobby will get a bit more polished too. As it is, it seems rather stale and barren. There’s a list of the players along the bottom and a minute timer showing how long until the next loading screen comes along, and that’s about it. You can type messages by pressing the return button, but there’s nothing to actually say or show you that you can. I only found out by smushing my hand on the keyboard when a more experienced player sent a message moaning about the wait times. The lobby lacks anything interesting to do or interact with to justify the long wait times you spend in them.
My first experience of getting into a game went like this. Load game, choose preferred character (a nice touch but it would have been handy to be given info on what each character’s abilities were before asking players to choose their orders of preference), load lobby, wait in lobby for all player slots to be filled, load to character selection lobby, customise character (no customisation was available), wait for other players, load into game, opening cut scene. It all seems a bit unnecessarily long winded. On other occasions I got plonked right into a game, bypassing the lobby completely. On a couple of occasions I got to play the timeless alpha meta-game of ‘Has the game crashed or is it still loading’. Of course the game is still only in alpha, so there’s plenty of time to spruce up the lobby system and make it smoother. Turtle Rock have already tweaked it slightly, but it’s still a frustratingly off-putting lobby.
When in game and paired with suitable team mates/opposition, I really enjoyed my time on planet Shear chasing monsters/human meat sacks. Although my frame rate was a bit low at times, I didn’t run into any serious bugs that hindered my ability to play. I had to turn the graphics settings down to low; even then it’s still a pleasing enough spectacle. It should be noted that a DirectX 11 graphics card is required, so that may preclude some folk with systems that may be otherwise suitable. I can’t say the different levels stood out too much to me. There was the snowy one, the rainy one and the one with the dam, if indeed they were separate maps and I wasn’t just confused by the weather. The maps didn’t play or look especially different to me, but the important factor is how they played.
The maps contained plenty of areas for ambushes to be set up, the monster to run away and get lost in, caves to explore, environmental hazards to avoid and heights to scale. Although perhaps lacking much distinguishing features, all three maps in the alpha are well crafted arenas for a big game of hide and seek. Certain features like flocks of birds that get startled or trees falling can give hunters clues as to the monsters whereabouts, whilst remaining expansive enough for the possibility that a gigantic monster could remain undetected and safe. The hunters also have A.I. wildlife to content with. Whilst not much of a threat by themselves, they can slow down and hamper a group enough to cause them headaches if they aren’t careful. Once the monster has been tracked, the game is essentially a big brawl until one party is dead or the monster escapes, in which case it’s back to tracking. There is a lovely mini map feature that shows everywhere that you and the other players have been, always interesting to see how close the tracking got throughout a match. In theory, once the monster gets to stage three, it can start attacking the buildings in each map and achieve victory by destroying the human base or power plant. I never saw a game end this way, because humans and monsters just can’t get along and violence always took precedence. Once a monster did try to attack a building, but the hunters just descended on it quickly and the monster-battle raged until all the humans were dead.
The hunters themselves each have different roles that, when used well, can become invaluable. The trapper can not only trap areas with a harpoon trap, but also erect an energy dome over a large area that stops the monster escaping. Trapper Maggie also has a pet named Daisy that can help track the monster and generally save your life. Daisy is awesome. Support guy can shield team mates, cloak and order orbital strikes. Assault dudes are your Heavy Weapons Guy for the game. Medics can heal or revive fallen team mates, plant tracking beacons on the monster or erode its armour with a sniper rifle. In the heat of monster-battle, no character is useless and team work is essential to success. They all have their own distinctive look but could do with more in the way of personality. The brief cut scene at the start of the game has a couple of them exchange words, but they aren’t exactly memorable or funny, in stark contrast to the characters from Left 4 Dead. Hopefully the full game will expand on the characters a bit more and infuse a bit more substance into their game world.
Despite my annoyances with its long winded and, at times, uneven match making, I have been enjoying Evolve quite a bit. It doesn’t yet possess the same level of personality as Left 4 Dead, but it is early days and it’s a very promising start. With more polish, a cleanup of the lobby and tweaking of the game interface Evolve could be a very handsome beast indeed. When we get to see it in its full glory with all the hunters, monsters and levels, it should feel a fuller and deeper game. The big alpha is an encouraging sign that Evolve has been intelligently designed to be a marvellous creation.