Evolve is all about the hunt, a game in which you play online with up to four friends (or bots, or complete strangers), and use your first-person shooting and teamwork skills to bring down a hulking, player-controlled alien monster with massive strength and terrifying offensive capabilities.
It’s from the same studio that brought you the Left4Dead games, and comes with four game modes, over a dozen maps, 16 Hunters and four monsters.
Well, sort of, and it’s here where Evolve starts messing up. Its core edition ships with three monsters and 12 Hunters with a fourth monster promised if you pre-ordered; a fifth monster and another four Hunters are coming soon as paid-for DLC that’ll cost you another few hundred bucks, or you can get them in the Season Pass. If you didn’t pre-order, you can apparently buy the fourth monster and a skin for the Goliath for R175 ($14.99), whenever they make it available. For a full breakdown of all of Evolve’s versions, go here.
Yes, on top of the already-crazy (but by-now-normal) console price of R899, Turtle Rock wants you to pony up for additional content that many feel – myself included – should have shipped with the game. It’s mostly “skins”, new paint jobs for characters, weapons and monsters, so there’s no element of “pay to win” here, but that’s entirely secondary to the annoyance that the developer and/or publisher clearly wants to milk their fans for more moolah.
Plus, they’re not exactly cheap. Do you really want to drop R60 on a new colour for your favourite weapon?
Nobody is forcing you to buy any of it, of course, but I’ve spoken to more than a few gamers who feel a bit miffed about the whole thing, so Evolve doesn’t start out on a good footing.
The setup isn’t exactly award-winning sci-fi writing either, or even particularly noticeable (a lot of players I encountered don’t have a clue why they’re even hunting the monster in the first place), but here it is anyway:
Humanity has colonised Shear, a planet located in the armpit of the universe, but after many moons of peaceful productivity the colonies are being attacked by huge, hulking alien monsters, and now the colonists need to be evacuated and the monsters dealt with. Cue the Hunters, made up of various professionals and misfits, brought in to take care of everything.
If you lost interest just after “armpit”, you’re not alone, but that’s okay, this is one game that’s definitely not about the story. No, instead it’s really all about the hunt.
As a Hunter, your goal is to use your chosen class’s abilities, which complement those of the rest of your team, to bring the monster down before it can evolve through three stages into a nigh-unstoppable beast.
You’ll do this across 13 huge sci-fi themed maps, all gorgeously rendered in minute detail in Epic’s Unreal Engine 4. Each one is filled with alien flora and fauna for the monster to hide in and eat (and Hunters to get ambushed by if they’re not careful), varied but uniformly beautiful terrain to jump off and over using your jetpack, and generally a whole lot of delicious eye candy to feast your peepers on.
Graphically, at least, it’s hard to fault Evolve: Turtle Rock has seriously done a great job crafting a beautiful and palpably alien sci-fi world to play in.
When it works, when all team members pull their weight and perform the duties of their assigned roles, the monster has no chance.
A thing of beauty
It’s a thing of beauty to be a part of a team where the Medic makes weak spots on the monster with his or her sniper rifle for the team to exploit, the Assault person takes the brunt of the monster’s attacks with his shield while dishing out good damage of his own with a futuristic minigun, the Trapper stops the monster from escaping with his “mobile arena” doohicky that limits its movement and the Support guy shields team members from damage while staying invisible with his invisibility cloak.
The monster, meanwhile, must play a game of cat-and-mouse with the four Hunters, avoiding them as best he can while he kills and eats the animals needed to buff his armour and fuel his evolution into the ultimate alien badass. Once he’s done that, the hunted becomes the hunter and, more often than not, Stage Three means it’s game over for the Hunters. Unless they can pull off some serious moves to compensate for the monster’s increased strength and toughness, which doesn’t happen in my experience.
When it all comes together, getting everything just right in Evolve and taking the monster down through skilful teamwork, or wiping out an entire team of hunters on your own is incredibly satisfying, and a gaming moment you won’t soon forget.
All it takes is one
Unfortunately, because taking the monster out requires a perfect confluence of events, this won’t be your dominant experience of Evolve when playing as a Hunter. It certainly wasn’t mine.
That’s because all it takes is just one team member to not carry their own weight and fill their designated role effectively, and your four-man team is toast. The monster will tear you apart, whether it’s at level one or level three, and since Evolve’s matchmaking usually pairs you with strangers the chances of that happening are pretty high.
No, to make Evolve really work requires playing with friends, and good luck lining up everyone’s schedules to play long and regularly enough to get the most from the game. You can always play with bots, however, who actually fill their roles quite nicely (better than people, in most cases) but it’s not quite as satisfying as playing against people. Still, good job on implementing a feature so few games bother with these days, Turtle Rock.
The other challenge you’ll face, even when everyone is online and keen to play, is it’s often hard to even find the damn thing. You and your team will spend a lot of time running around the levels searching, often only spotting him when it’s too late, or he’s too far away to actually engage.
In those moments, Evolve can be frustrating enough that even its triple-A eye candy won’t be able to make you feel better.
Playing as the monster, on the other hand, offers a lot more immediate gratification. Levels are big enough that staying away from the Hunters is not hard while you work towards evolving by killing and eating the animals you’ll find, and each monster plays quite differently to the others, giving you plenty of variety.
You’ll start off with Goliath, a melee-focused rock-thrower, then unlock the Kraken who can fly and shoot Hunters with lightning attacks, and finally you’ll unlock the Wraith, arguably the most over-powered of the three monsters, with its serious stealth capabilities that make it a formidable foe indeed thanks to effective hit-and-run tactics that make it really hard to kill.
To the point where most matches you play, whoever plays as the monster will, nine times out of them, choose the Wraith. Sigh.
That said, the feeling of immense power felt when playing as the monster is enormously satisfying, doubly so when successfully wiping out less-than-cohesive Hunter teams.
There are four modes in Evolve, each a slight variation on the theme of hunting the monster.
Hunt is the most popular mode where four players chase after the monster to stop it before it can destroy a power relay on the map.
Nest has the Hunters attempting to take out six monster eggs within 18 minutes while the monster must protect them, occasionally hatching a minion to help out in the fight.
Rescue is all about rescuing – or killing – injured colonists who’re busy trying to escape the planet, and Defend pits a monster and smaller goliaths against the Hunters who’re defending a refuelling starship.
There’s also a scenario called Evacuation that strings together five separate matches made up of different maps and modes, one after the other, ending in a Defend mission in an attempt to provide the game with a bit of a campaign, but it’s hardly the equivalent of a single-player story.
It’s not entirely terrible, though: winning teams earn a boost for the next match that gives them a slight advantage, adding a good motivator and a back-and-forth dynamic that keeps things from feeling too stale, too quickly. Turtle Rock says there are over 800 000 possible combinations of maps, modes and boosts.
It’s all a bit complicated, so here’s an infographic from the official Evolve website showing an example of how wins affect subsequent maps:
One of the biggest problems with these modes has nothing to do with the game itself, but rather with how each match starts.
Levels load incredibly slowly for a start – like, read a chapter of your book slow – and once it’s finally done, Hunters enter each map in a Dropship, a process that takes another 10-15 seconds while you listen to the banter between the Hunters.
Unfortunately, this banter gets old really fast since it tends to repeat quite a bit, so while it’s kind of cool to hear the first few times you play, by match 10 you just don’t care anymore.
And heaven forbid you try a game of Evacuation; each level is separated by these crazy-long wait times, which really takes away a lot of the anticipation for the next match. Sort of like a really long ad break while on the National Geographic channel on DSTV, where you forget what you were even watching.
Behind the scenes, there’s a “mastery” system that tracks everything you do, adding XP to various categories according to how you play towards perks that boost weapon damage and unlock other Hunters and the other two monsters.
But – and this is a big “but” – it means you’ll have to grind a lot, doing repetitive, tedious tasks that you might not naturally gravitate toward. It could be said that it’s a pretty smart way for the devs to encourage gamers to see as much of the game as possible, but really it’s just tedium. Plus it encourages gamers to prioritise abilities they want to level up over ones that might actually help in certain situations, leading to more than a few annoying moments of unnecessary failure in-game. At least in mine, anyway.
If you aren’t mad about the grind – and I wasn’t – you can always fire up Evolve’s Hunter Quest match-three Companion App and earn a bit of XP playing on your phone or tablet. Grab that here for Windows, iOS and Android. It can cut your in-game grind down by half if you fire it up every time you sit down for some you-time in the loo.
As well put-together and nuanced as Evolve is, ultimately I got bored. Even though there are multiple modes to play, at the end of the day when playing as a Hunter they all come down to the same thing: find monster, trap monster, shoot monster, and once I’d done that a few dozen times, the thrill wore off.
Even playing as the monster wears thin; there’s only so many times you can trounce the Hunters or be soundly thrashed yourself before it’s time to move on to something else. As such, Evolve has a limited lifespan, and you may not feel that you’re getting your money’s worth after dropping almost nine hundred bucks on the thing.
Turtle Rock will release a fourth monster soon as paid DLC, with even more in the pipeline, but I’m not convinced that’s going to be enough to keep Evolve going indefinitely. Gamers aren’t exactly happy about the idea of paying yet more for a game they’ve already bought, and it’s not madness to think they could abandon Evolve en masse out of spite.
After all, something similar happened to Titanfall, another multiplayer game but one without masses of DLC to annoy gamers with, how much more likely is it to happen to Evolve?
And then there’s the connection and server issues. Finding matches took ages some nights, and when I managed to find one my connection – which is rock-solid in other games – occasionally dropped me from my game.
And when it didn’t, I’d sometimes see other players quit because they weren’t assigned the class they were hoping for during the match pre-amble, forcing me to find another match, this one hopefully without tantrum-prone children queueing to play.
Even just setting up to play proved a bit of an ordeal some nights, and the questionable payoff of a game I was enjoying less and less had me tempted to just quit and go back to Dying Light instead. But I stuck it out.
A bit lacking
At the end of the day, Evolve isn’t a bad game, it just lacks that special something that will have gamers sticking around for more than a couple of weeks. At present it feels like a solid foundation for a game that will one day be great, but which isn’t quite there yet.
It’s fun while it’s new, and the presentation is top-notch, but the combination of repetitive mechanics, running around while not much happens and the frustration it sometimes inspires may prove to be its downfall in the long run.
And that’s without considering gamer anger at the over-abundance of DLC on offer.
Evolve is out for the PlayStation 4 (R899), Xbox One (R899) and PC (R699). It was reviewed on Xbox One, with images captured from the PC version by Nicholas Soper, aka StNick.