Evolve is like playing hide-and-seek with big fat guns and a super-sized , super-agile, fire-breathing Rancor.
You'd look at a game that touted 4-v-1 multiplayer and perhaps scoff at the seeming imbalance. You'd wonder why anyone would possibly want to be the "1" -- after all, wouldn't everyone else be having a good time, laughing and joking around together, bonded by this virtual camaraderie and the spirit of teamwork, and you're just kicking your heels in the corner and weeping once more into a damp rag at the unfair loneliness of it all and... wait... I just clawed a guy out of the sky, toasted his support unit by vomiting fire everywhere, threw a rock at his head and now I'm pounding his lifeless corpse into the ground and I'm eating his face.
We got a chance to go hands-on with Evolve's Hunt mode recently, and Turtle Rock's latest multiplayer extravaganza is shaping up very nicely indeed. The game is set on the planet Shear -- a lush sphere home to a large variety of wildlife, some more dangerous than other -- and four hunters team up to take down one player controlling an enormous leviathan of a monster.
The hunters are split into four distinct roles. The Assault class comes locked and loaded with a long-range automatic rifle and a short-range lightning cannon. He's the main damage dealer, and comes with a nifty little shield that comes in very handy when getting up close and personal with the monster. The Trapper is all about containment. As well as being able to more efficiently track the monster's trail, the Trapper has the ability to create a shield bubble arena to lock the monster within a short-range field, making it impossible for the beast to escape. He also has a very handy harpoon gun that can further restrict the monster's movement and lock it in place. The Support class is all about buffs, but also has the ability to employ a short cloak, and call in a useful mortar strike if you can contain the monster.
Finally, there's the Medic. If you've been a medicine man in games before and felt short-changed, prepare to find your calling here, as having a competent Medic is undoubtedly one of the most important things to bear in mind when creating your hunting party.
The Medic is decked out with an anti-matter sniper rifle that can create weak points on the monster's hide, making it slightly easier to dish out major damage if you target those areas. Medics also carry a very useful tranquiliser rifle that not only slows the monster down for a few valuable seconds, but also makes it glow, flagging up its position and making it easier to spot for others. But more often than not it'll be the Medigun in your hands that makes you invaluable. Players do not have regenerating health, but you can heal them from range with that life-giving chalice in your hands, sending out streams of restorative green light to fellow hunters who need it.
And they'll definitely need it.
We only had access to the Goliath monster in this build, but that was more than enough to be getting on with. As the name suggests, the Goliath is an absolute beast. It's an enormous, bipedal predator with an intimidating reach, extremely powerful jumping legs, and an anger management problem. You start off slightly weakened, choosing from two of the following four abilities -- rock throw, fire breath, a leap attack, and a devastating charge. We went for the first two options, feeling that the ranged attacks would stand us in better stead as we went hunting too. The monster gets a ten-second headstart, and that time is used to run away, find some food, and start gobbling up dead creatures to try and evolve into a more powerful form.
Slay a few grunts in the underbrush and snack upon their meat, and soon you'll be powerful enough to evolve and gain another power; only problem is that you're vulnerable during the few seconds it takes for the evolution process, and so you need to find a safe spot first. However, being a massive, lumbering beast, the Goliath will leave tracks and make noise, and as the monster you need to be mindful of this. Passing by flocks of birds, for example, will scatter them into the sky, and pop up on the HUDs of the hunters, giving away your position. Jumping is crucial for breaking up a trail of footprints, and your angle of vision relative to the horizontal will determine the length and height of your jumps. If you can confuse the trackers in your wake, you can buy yourself more time. Water features -- lakes, ponds, rivers etc. -- are good places to mix up your trail too, as you won't leave tracks behind in the water. Better yet, sometimes there are other NPC predators lurking in these areas, and luring the hunters into the lairs of these other monsters can be a neat way of distracting them from the task at hand before you spring an ambush.
For the hunters, winning involves taking down the monster; for the monster, victory comes from killing all of the hunters, or by reaching evolution stage three and by completing a certain objective: in the level we were playing on, that meant getting on top of the roof of a factory in the jungle and destroying its power generators.
So that's a little appraisal of how the game plays out, but is it actually any good?
Well, it's no surprise that Turtle Rock have the team dynamics absolutely spot-on. These are the guys who made Left 4 Dead, after all, and that combination of accessibility and supportive, co-operative depth is fully evident in Evolve, if not more so. For the hunters, there's simply no way of winning if you're a team of mavericks. Sticking together is absolutely essential, as is making use of the verticality of the large, open maps. The Assault and Trapper classes are units suited towards ground-based tactics, whilst it's generally better for the Medic and Support characters to make good use of their jetpacks (oh yes, another game to have embraced the awesomeness of jetpacks!) and keep up high as much as possible.
Knowing when to run and when to stand your ground is crucial too. In the early game, the line of pursuit is clear: the hunters are hot on the trial of the monster, and that's a genuinely thrilling thing for all parties. As the monster you're fleeing for brief pockets of respite so you can feed and grow. As hunters, you're frantically following the signs and keeping eyes and ears alerted for signs of disturbances and glowing footprints, never knowing when or where your powerful nemesis might pop into view. Of course, as the game progresses, that relationship changes, the hunters can become the hunted, and that back and forth can change direction many times during the course of a game.
Protecting the Medic became the number one priority for the hunters, and we failed to get it right several times. When downed, there's a brief window of opportunity for revival, but that's made incredibly difficult if the monster is standing over the felled body of your companion, guarding against such methods with devastatingly powerful melee attacks. But if you can approach the monster successfully, using the Assault and Trapper in the vanguard, and keeping your supporting classes out of harms way with judicious use of the harpoon, well-placed mines, and that energy shield dome, you can whittle away at its shield and then start to deal some real damage.
It strikes me that Evolve might not be the best game to play with complete strangers, not as the hunters anyway, as you really have to trust your team and work together if you want to bring down the beast. But with a group of friends, or at least like-minded folk, Turtle Rock's shooter looks like it's going to be an utter blast. Our demo was running on PC, and I was impressed by the aesthetics, but I'll be honest, I wasn't looking too hard at the graphics in great detail, mainly because from the very beginning Evolve had me hooked on its simple mechanics and high concept appeal. I bought in straight away and began to delight in the expansive level design, the perfectly-balanced classes, and the variation on an incredibly old game that we've all been playing since we were kids.
There are still questions over how this will all be fleshed out and how this core gameplay will be expanded out in terms of modes and progression and matchmaking -- the framework is yet to come -- and playing as the monster is so much fun that I wonder how that might affect queue times and finding matches. But what's been evidenced here is a game that excels at providing a deep, engrossing, multiplayer experience -- both as a group, and also solo. After a couple of hours, I can say that what I played of Evolve was frantic, fabulous fun.