Video Game Preview – Evolve (Version Tested: PC)

Evolve feels, at first, like an arena-based mixture of Left 4 Dead and Borderlands with aspects of older multiplayer shooters; asymmetrical multiplayer, with light, low-gravity physics thanks to jetpack movement and an emphasis on characterful classes with names and unique aesthetics. It even shares, apparently, some of the knowingness of Borderlands; the characters are exaggerated in looks and have the same junkyard, redneck look of industry-meets-war, albeit made more serious – the end result evocative of Unreal Tournament more than anything. Yet the overall aesthetic is a little bland; the map provided in the preview build was a quite generic industrial complex in a jungle of strange creatures. “Neat”, smooth-panelled, run-down and abandoned equipment placed Avatar style in a hostile environment is a very standard aesthetic for shooters; Unreal Tournament 2004 made extensive use of it, for example, while similar complexes populate Warframe, Dust 514 and so on.

At this stage, then, the visuals do not stand out; the entire “feel” of playing the human side of the game feels similarly ordinary. Compared to Killzone Shadow Fall, the PS4’s launch FPS, the weapons feel too light and – in comparison to what has been achieved in Battlefield 3 and 4 – the entire sound direction is lacking. The Assault class in Evolve is supposed to be the heavy weapons class, armed with a powerful lightning gun – yet the gun does not feel more powerful than any other weapon in terms of visual, touch or audio feedback. In a game based around hunting giant creatures (that do feel weighty and powerful), the hunters do not feel powerful. This could have been turned into a design feature – the guns the hunters use are supposed to be weak compared to the toughness of their prey – yet rather than feeling like hits are good but ineffective, the result is a general lack of impact at all. When combined with the generally floaty physics, and jet-pack enabled long jumps, the overall effect is that the hunters are too light to control. Playing supporting classes, which rely on keeping allies under the effects of shield or healing beams, feels imprecise at times; the snap-on aiming of the shield beam seems to lose focus too easily and is hard to snap onto the correct member of a crowd in a panic situation.

This is perhaps symptomatic of a general complaint with the supporting classes; they are too uninteractive. A Support class can drop air-strikes, and has a gun, but must spend most of their time shielding others. Played well, the Support can turn a game around – yet it is a very different, and perhaps less satisfying, kind of play. The focus is entirely on defense and survival rather than fighting – few games have managed to make such roles as enjoyable to play, and balanced between attack and defence, as Team Fortress 2‘s Engineer and Medic. The TF2 medic is a good point of comparison with Evolve‘s Medic and Support; both have short-ranged beams which aid allies. Yet playing TF2 as a Medic feels more rewarding; the beam has a reachable goal attached, the Ubercharge while turns games around – rather than simply being something that must be maintained to not lose. TF2 also lets a player change roles mid-game; they are not obliged to be in a supportive role for the entire round. However, the Medic in Evolve is better balanced for this; while the emphasis is still at times on healing, their suite of abilities encourage more interaction with the monster than the Support’s. A tranquiliser rifle and sniper rifle both weaken the enemy and allow damage-dealing classes to attack, and the mechanism of switching from support to offence is far more developed than the Support class’s (whose weapons are an infrequent air strike and a gun which feels like a less powerful version of the Assault’s). Perhaps the most unique and interesting class is the Trapper, a supporting class of a fashion but one based around handicapping the enemy rather than aiding allies. Their weapons comprise sensors to locate the enemy, a harpoon, which restrains the monster, an SMG for combat and the Mobile Arena, which creates a dome to prevent the monster from escaping and force it into direct combat. This class is interesting to play – an asset to allies but one which does not prevent the player from engaging with the monster itself.

Ultimately the largest “problem” with Evolve‘s human side is that it is dull to play compared to the monster side; it is a very standard shooting game, with some class features that work well and some that do not. As a shooter is it competent – the jetpack ability is a change from the usual parkour aspects that modern shooters adopt, and give it a very retro feel which builds on the Unreal aesthetic. Yet science-fiction shooters, with or without classes, are commonplace. Where Evolve really stands out is when the player takes control of the monster, a kaiju-movie-like beast which is played in the third person with its own unique suite of abilities. Truly asymmetrical games are comparatively rare; often the “enemy” side plays under similar mechanical frameworks to the opposition, albeit with different weapons and health. This was particularly evident in those Gears of War games which permitted players to use Locust units – those enemies which did not simply function as weapon-using humanoids were clumsily forced into that framework. What makes Evolve interesting is that the monster player completely plays as a third-person brawler – they have melee attacks and special moves tied to various buttons, and rather than a jet pack can free-run, Assassin’s Creed style, over walls. Their objectives are completely different – level up using player kills and NPC kills to attack a target zone and their movement is based more on long leaps and grabs than short jetpack bursts.

Furthermore, it has what the human side lacks – weight and feedback. The monster feels big and weighty, moving with simulated force and attacking with moves that send enemies flying. Duels with large predators moving around the map feel epic in scale, and as the game progresses and the creature grows this is reflected in significantly increased jump distance and health. Furthermore, the play-style – an inherently solitary one – is paced very differently. The humans must always be pursuing and trying to corner the monster, while the monster has a library of moves to escape pursuit and shake off enemies. Leaving clues to where it has been via footprints, disturbed birds or dead wildlife will alert players, and so it must know the terrain far better. Furthermore, it kills players comparatively easily and thus gives the feeling of strength that emptying magazines into a boss health bar does not; swatting a human into a rock-face and then eating them is as visceral a kind of player feedback as Killzone‘s lengthy melee animations. Games rely on the intersection of mechanics and aesthetics to make actions seem meaningful, and the entire way the monster moves in Evolve captures this far better than its human characters.

At this stage, with only four classes and one monster and map available out of a larger number in the finished product, it is hard to say for sure what Evolve will be like as a completed project. As it stands, it has several good ideas – the Trapper class, the well-realised asymmetrical gameplay and the entire experience of playing as a “boss” enemy from most shooters – but similarly some shortcomings in the form of a Support class that can feel unrewarding to play, and a general lack of the aesthetic feedback for the humans that the monster enjoys. The framework exists for a fun twist on arena-based shooters, as giant monster games are a relatively untapped genre; it remains to be seen if this is capitalised upon.

I played Evolve at an event hosted by 2k Games which I visited as a representative of D-PAD Magazine (www.dpadmagazine.com), against both other games industry representatives and delegates from the company itself. The event also comprised a complementary dinner and refreshments, and some merchandise provided to all attendees.

The build provided at this event offered a single map, game mode, class setup and monster class; promotional material for the game claims that the finished version will contain a wider variety of content, and mechanics and design elements may yet change. It was run on PCs operating Xbox 360 controllers or keyboard and mouse inputs.

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