On the back of last year’s E3 critics couldn’t stop talking about Evolve, which managed to scoop the lion’s share of awards from critics at the show. I myself previewed Evolve back in February 2014 and was convinced it was the second coming of Christ. So as you can imagine, I was chomping at the bit to play Evolve when it launched.
The colony world of Shear is under siege from monsters, their origin unknown. After the colonial forces realised they were overwhelmed, a team of monster hunters were called in to help hold off the monsters whilst the planet is evacuated. Ignoring the stupidity of relying on a team of 12 people to hold off an invasion of monsters large enough to warrant a planetary invasion, the plot is little more than window dressing for the gameplay. Monsters have turned up, kill the monsters pretty much sums it up. Fine by me.
Evolve pits a team of four hunters against one monster. The monster starts off on the back foot but if it can eat enough wildlife then it can evolve to its next stage, becoming a bigger, stronger and uglier version of itself. By stage two the monster is a force to be reckoned with, but let it hit stage three and suddenly the hunters become the hunted.
The basic game mode is called hunt. The hunters win if they kill the monster, the monster wins if it kills the hunters. The monster can also win by hitting stage three and then smashing the crap out of a power generator. In practice Hunt is a game of cat and mouse, albeit four tiny cats and one enormous mouse. The hunters must track the monster down, trap it and kill it whilst the monster attempts to evade the hunters and hit up the local restaurant scene.
What this plays out like in practice depends entirely on the skills of both the hunters and the monster. You can spend games where you never catch so much of a glimpse of the monster before it hits stage three, whilst other games will end in five minutes as you back a cowering stage one monster into a corner and use it for target practice. Every once in a while you’ll experience the game as it was intended, a game of near misses and close calls, but these rare glimpses into Evolve’s game plan are just that, rare.
Other game modes mix up the gameplay somewhat. Nest mode features eggs scattered over the map which the monster must protect and the hunters must destroy. Rescue mode flips things around and forces the hunters to find and evacuate civilians whilst the monster attempts to turn them into lunch. Finally Defend mode see’s the hunters tasked with defending a series of generators for a set time period whilst the monster and its supporting minions must destroy them.
Each of these game modes features the same core gameplay as hunt, but shifts the balance of power in subtle ways. The monster cannot simply hide and wait until it hits level three in a game of Nest, it simply doesn’t have the time to play so coy. Likewise the hunters can’t run off chasing the monster if they get him onto the back foot in Defend, lest they leave the generator’s to be smashed up by the minions. Like I said, they mix up the focus of the game, but not the gameplay itself.
It’s always the same four versus one set-up, but if you’re feeling anti-social you can dive into a single player game, with the other slots being taken up by AI players. But you won’t because it is immensely unsatisfying to play Evolve against the AI. Evolve is a game of mistake; either yours or your opponents and when you’re up against AI they just don’t make them. The AI is very beatable, don’t get me wrong, but not in the same way a real opponent is. Tactics that work on real players will not work on AI, and vice versa which leaves you fighting the AI players by ticking things off the list. Get to level 3, take out the medic, and make sure they are dead, then bully the other three into submission. A smart team would scatter with their medic dead and hope to survive long enough for the respawn, but the AI will just stand there and shoot you, oblivious to the monster’s efforts to marinade them in Peri Peri sauce.
So if you want a satisfying game, you’re going to have to go online. It’s a multiplayer game and this is to be expected, but a disappointing single player offering is disappointing regardless. Chances are though, your experiences here won’t be much better. Evolve is a highly skilful game and with this comes the dreaded skill gap. In a game like Call of Duty, if one player is a little better than another they will win fights about 60% of the time. Both players have fun and the winner is the better player most of the time, everyone is happy. Increase the skill gap and you widen the win ratio. The better player now wins 90% of the time and suddenly the loser isn’t having such a great time.
The standard response at this point will be get good, usually spelt wrong. However it is a very real issue, especially for a game with a limited appeal and therefore a limited user base. The chances of you having anything approaching a close game in Evolve are pretty slim. If you’re better than the other team you will smash them nine times out of time and vice versa. Now consider Evolve’s campaign mode, Evacuation which pits a team of hunters against a monster player in a serious of interconnected missions. The monster is more skilled than the hunters and smashes seven shades of poop out of them in the first; why on Shear would they stick around for another four butt-kickings when they damn well know they will get thrashed. To put it simply, they won’t and they don’t. Expect half your team to run after the first match of evacuation should you lose.
The other balance issue comes from the game’s asymmetrical nature. The monster is stronger than any one hunter, it has to be. The hunters need everyone to be on the ball if they hope to have a chance of winning, whereas the monster just has to worry about themselves. I might be the medic this side of Team Fortress 2, but it won’t make a lick of difference if our trapper couldn’t catch a Pidgey on Route 2. A bad monster player will get destroyed with little effort, but get even remotely competent as the monster and you’ll find yourself winning the vast majority of your games.
The controls are pretty tight for both the monster and the hunters; movement feels weighty and attacks have a sense of force to them, both ranged and melee. The jetpack will be a source of eternal annoyance to you as a hunter, once again in the name of balance. To keep you from just flying above the monster, staying out of reach of its attacks your jetpack has a limited fuel supply. The problem is that your fuel seems to recharge about as fast as the Earth’s actual fossil fuel supply.
The maps are wonderfully designed with a great sense of vertical scale but they never change between matches, so things get familiar very quickly. The campaign offers modifiers which mix things up, but there are only really a handful per map and they don’t change the gameplay to huge degree. What this means is that good players will very quickly learn the locations of the key on-map buffs and will race to them, making matches both predictable for regular players and impossible for newbies.
The banter between the hunters during the drop sequence gives them a little personality but unfortunately there isn’t much chatter when you’re down on the ground. They occasionally spark up a conversation but for the most part all you’ll hear them say is “I spotted the monster”. It’s disappointing that the characters weren’t given a little more in the way of actual characterisation.
None of these issues make Evolve a bad game, they just make it a niche game. I’m trying to avoid bringing up the marketing fiasco that was the epic amounts of DLC available day one for Evolve, but when compounded with the limited variation and niche nature of the gameplay it all points to the very real possibility that at one point Evolve was free-to-play. It probably should have been free-to-play too. But either greed or pride shoved Evolve into people’s faces for full retail price, a price it’s very hard to recommend anyone pay when the planets have to be in alignment for you to get the best from the game. Even if Mars and Jupiter do decide to play ball, you just don’t get a lot of bang for your buck here.