Note: This gameplay video was recorded by me, using the PS4’s Share function.
Note: This review is written based on a review copy sent by Matt Roche at 2k Games, reproduced from D PAD Magazine by arrangement with the magazine.
Evolve is an almost purely multiplayer asymmetric first-person shooter featuring big-game hunters versus kaiju-esque creatures, and a game which shows significant potential let down by awkward design features which add little to the play experience. As it stands, Evolve is quite different to the usual multiplayer-centric shooter and so its reliance on the usual mechanical choices of pseudo-RPG progression feel outdated and inappropriate to the theme and structure. Left 4 Dead, the game which in many ways Evolve owes a debt to, dispensed with this trope and had a fixed cast of characters which did not level up, or unlock abilities – as a result, all players were put on a level playing-field, and it was easy to enter a game, know exactly what was happening and simply play.
Instead, Evolve has a cast of 12 playable Human characters (3 variants of each of 4 classes) and 3 playable monsters to begin with, but initially only one of each class is available. Playing that class enough – and contributing via dealing damage – unlocks the next class, while remaining loyal to a specific class upgrades its equipment. This seems entirely pointless as a mechanic, adding nothing to the game except busywork and a false incentive to keep playing. Having to at least partially master a class the player does not enjoy to try and unlock a more interesting variant of it – in a game which randomly assigns classes based on a weighting mechanism but nevertheless reliant on ending up with one of each class present – is a major impediment to the experience of playing. There is no reason not to have all the variant classes and creatures unlocked from the start – each is introduced with a short tutorial film explaining its unique attributes, and the game itself is exceptionally good at using in-setting cues to explain how to play. Similarly the class upgrading system – level-able perks and weapons which upgrade with use – really achieves little. The first weapon mastery level is a 2% damage increase on some weapons, which with the scale of monster health bars is almost negligable. The impression is gained that, because popular first-person shooters use pseudo-RPG progression and perk systems, Evolve had to have them whether or not they suited what the game was trying to achieve.
This clumsy false incentive system is the main strike against Evolve, because it adds little and potentially detracts greatly. The pace of levelling up via a system based on actively using specific tools repeatedly is almost anti-synergy with the core game mechanics of close teamwork. If a player is being told by the game that if they use the lightning gun to deal sufficient damage they will unlock a new character, that is incentivising its use even if the game state does not suit it. With the more supportive characters like the Medic, this is even more of an issue; Evolve‘s medic is positioned in a strange halfway point between debuff class (handicapping the monster) and support class (healing the hunters) – and incentivising aggressive play as mandatory achievements for use of its offensive weapons suggests leads to “bad” medic play in a team-based support game. It is not as grave a problem as in Team Fortress 2‘s early days of achievements, where gimmicky achievements tied to new upgrades led to players playing erratically and unstrategically, because all that is required is that classes use their abilities appropriately – but nevertheless it creates a conflict between playing the game skilfully on a micro level (individual rounds) and playing the game to actually be allowed to make meaningful character choices on the macro level (unlocking locked content).
What is more, permitting players to join games featuring characters they may not have unlocked means unless those new players take the time to read the locked content’s details, they will be unable to play as strategically in a team because they are less well informed. These are, over a longer term of play, minor issues easily resolved with a little preparation by the player – but they present a poor and potentially confusing first impression in a game which could have easily been simple to play but with great strategic depth.
These criticisms aside, on a fundamental level Evolve is a solid game. The movement – a jetpack-based affair a little like the Halo games – is for the most part good (albeit slightly less intuitive for the monster, whose ledge-grabbing abilities can sometimes feel awkward in high-pressure situations). The actual combat is far more satisfying for the monster, but well-realised for both sides – the hunters have an Unreal Tournament-esque armoury including harpoon traps, chain lightning-based weapons, poison gas, personal shields and airstrikes, while the monster levels up by fighting NPC wildlife to learn abilities such as fire breath, a bull-rush and a leap attack. It is this evolution mechanic, which gives the game its title, that makes playing the monster so much more entertaining than the hunters and really sets Evolve out as a game worth persevering with despite its flaws. As the monster, the player must evade detection, kill wildlife scattered around the map without angering larger predators, gain strength and then fight on an even footing – while young, it is easy prey for well-armed hunting parties, but once mature it is nigh-impossible to kill. The tension of tracking a creature by its trail of dead prey and reports of disturbed birds makes playing the human side a very different experience – a race against time to retain the strength advantage, compared to a slow-burning buildup to the ultimate power fantasy of being Godzilla, or King Kong.
The pseudo-campaign mode, of five linked scenarios like the “Assault” gametype of old FPSs, takes this and makes it even better – each mission has some effect on subsequent maps, and more scenario aspects are added to the hunt. Some maps now have stranded civilians who need to be brought out of harms way before the creature eats them. Others have threatening eggs, each of which may hatch at some point into a fresh monster that will be brought into the final battle – and then the campaign ends with an almost-impossible last stand, a final chance to kill the now-mature monster and its spawn before it destroys the last ship home. While there is not a great deal of variety after a while, the formula works exceptionally well for a multiplayer game, and the actual experience of playing Evolve – once one becomes accustomed to its mechanical, system-based flaws – is some of the most enjoyable multiplayer FPS action of the current console generation. Thus Evolve is a curiously flawed game – as a package, a complete video game encompassing interface and progression and macro-scale systems, it is flawed by its inability to strike out from genre expectations. But on the micro-level, when actually playing a single round of it, it is exceptionally well-realised and innovative among its peers.