Evolve Game Review
Available on Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PC
N.B We have given Evolve a score, even though it’s early days for the 4v1 shooter. We are continuing to play the game and will update this review later in the week.
The idea behind Evolve is fantastic; an asynchronous online multiplayer FPS that pits four hunters against a hulking monster, it’s like all the best bits of Kong Kong, Jurassic Park, Godzilla and Predator rolled into one. The way that the idea is executed isn’t too shabby, either. This is a smart, thoughtfully constructed, carefully balanced game that does its best to deal with a reasonably challenging learning curve, and doesn’t stint on choice or depth. Evolve’s only real weakness is the one faced by so many online games before: it’s only as good as its players.
On the side of the hunters, that means knowing and playing your role. In each round, four players take on one of four classes – Assault, Trapper, Medic and Support – with each class offering a choice of four characters. Assault class characters work as your basic tanks, with a shield to soak up the worst of the monster’s attacks and a good selection of close-range, long-range and explosive weaponry. Trappers don’t have the same defences or the same firepower, but they have a range of tools with which they can spot and then pin down the monster. Medics, well, you can probably guess where the medics fit in, while Support class characters have abilities to weaken or distract the monster and buff their fellow hunters.
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With a good team, each round of Evolve is a tense sci-fi thriller, as you track the monster using tracks, sounds and startled birds, then attempt to close them down. With jetpacks strapped on you speed through the jungle and over rocky outcrops, avoiding the hostile indigenous fauna and searching for signs of the beast.
When you find them, it’s a question of mastering the panic and trying to think tactically in the middle of chaos. The trapper traps the monster in the area in a glowing energy dome, then slows them down with harpoons or stasis grenade, or simply tags them so the team can find them more easily. The support class exposes weak points and uses heavy weapons and automated defences to wear the monster down, all the while giving the hunters vital boosts. The medic takes potshots while healing and reviving downed comrades. The assault guy gets up close and personal, blasting the hulking varmint with a lightning gun or flamethrower, trying to tear down its armour so that permanent damage can be done.
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On a good round, there may be three or four exhilarating encounters, the hunters doing their best to tear chunks out of the monster’s health, the monster doing its best to deal as much damage as it can before fleeing to fight another day. Each time the monster returns, it’s stronger, able to dish out more pain to the hunters, and better equipped to cope with the incoming attacks. At the end of a match, either the monster or the hunters could triumph in one last bombastic smash-up, go down in a blaze of glory, or pull out an unlikely win just when everything appears to be lost. At its best, Evolve is a taut, unpredictable and hugely exciting game.
Of course, that also requires a great monster. If Evolve is as much a group performance as a game, then the monster has the leading role. It spends the early part of the game killing and feeding on the local wildlife, each critter eaten bringing the beastie one step close to its next state of evolution. Fill the circular meter, move somewhere quiet, and you mutate into a bigger, more heavily armoured version, with points to spend on beefier attacks and special moves. At this point, playing the monster becomes more tactical. Do you try and sneak up on the players and harass them, push for an all hunters in a bodybag win, or simply marshal your strength, evolve again, the mount an all-out attack on the map’s now vulnerable reactor?
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We have three monsters to play with so far. Firstly, we have the fire-breathing, rock-chucking, in-your-face monstrosity that’s Goliath – King Kong meets Godzilla in one ugly brute. Then we have Kraken, a Lovecraft nightmare of a monster, who glides through the air with a disturbing grace and speed, coming down to dispense a range of lightning-based attacks. Finally, we have the Wraith; a stealthy, viciously aggressive beast that can come in fast, invisible and brutal, then move out of trouble just as quickly.
Whichever monster you play, you need to play smart. Sneaking makes it easier for the hunters to catch up with you, but it also means you don’t leave tracks or scare up birds. You can jump and climb to cover ground or gain advantage, and use your abilities to ambush or escape. Most of all, you need to keep feeding, choosing your moments to harvest lesser creatures and prepare for your next evolution. Dumb, overly-aggressive monsters don’t last long. Sneaky fiends that play to the strengths of each monster come out best.
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Without a great monster, Evolve can be a walkover for the hunters. In fact, despite some excellent tutorials and videos, some of your first attempts may well end in a humiliating battering, possibly before your first evolution. It’s not much fun for the hunters, and it’s even less fun for you. Without good hunters, meanwhile, Evolve is just a mess. We’ve seen hunters getting too obsessed with blasting the wildlife to even start tracking the monster, teams of lone-wolf players where everyone ends up as monster meat, and teams where everyone plays assault, even if they’re playing the medic or the tracker. Unless the monster is as hopeless as the players, the big guy with the claws inevitably wins.
Evolve’s matchmaking does its best to match players of the same capabilities, but in the end there’s only so much that can be done. At the moment, Evolve can be awesome and deeply disappointing within the same two-hour stretch, and that won’t change until everyone understands their role.
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There’s no shortage of potential here once that happens. While it’s spoilt by occasional texture pop-in and the odd bit of lag, it’s mostly a deeply impressive game, with huge maps that offer plenty of opportunity for combat, trapping and traversal, and some lovely verdant jungle scenery. It uses Crytek’s CryEngine 3, and if you’ve seen Crysis 3 on a decent gaming PC, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect, though on a much larger scale. And if the characters might appear to be the usual Dudebro clichés, but they’re more thoughtfully designed than you might think, with brilliant visual touches, great voicework and a decent script. Sure, you’ll have heard every phrase within the first ten hours or so, but that doesn’t mean they’re not entertaining.
Though Evolve has us feeling concerned about the long-term appeal of the central Hunt mode – there are only so many ways that a hunt can go down – the game expands outwards with additional modes for custom matches, and an Evacuation campaign mode which cycles through them over five chapters, with the outcome of each chapter having consequences for the next.
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Despite all the talk of millions of possible combinations, Evacuation won’t be endlessly replayable, but it will be fun for a long time to come. There’s a mode where hunters attack eggs while the monster defends them, another where the hunters try to rescue people while the monster tries to eat them, and a mode were the monster and some AI-controlled minions do their best to destroy a series of generators, and the hunters try to stop them. Evacuation is playable solo or co-op against an AI beast, and it’s a great way to acclimatise yourself to the game, particularly as the AI plays better than many human players – though sometimes to a fault when you’re the monster.
Like most big shooters, Evolve has an experience system, with a persistent level for the player plus individual Masteries for each character or monster which result in new perks as you progress. There’s some risk here that perks might unbalance the game later on, but the biggest issue is that you won’t gain your Mastery unless you use all the character-specific capabilities, whether you find them effective or not. At times we’ve been torn over whether to use grenades, for example, because while they weren’t the best tool for the current situation, not using them was holding us back. It adds long-term objectives and a considerable amount of depth to the experience, but we still suspect that some players might find the mastery system a grind.
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As far as stability goes, there’s little to complain about so far. We’ve had a couple of moments where matches locked up before starting or we were stuck on the matchmaking screen, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed by quitting and restarting the game. Overall, it doesn’t appear to be another troubled launch.
By now it’s probably clear why slapping a score and a verdict on Evolve in its current state is at best a challenge and at worst a Kraken-sized nightmare. On the one hand, we love the game for its scale, its attention to detail, the way that each role seems essential, and the way it feels when you’re having a cracking game with a great bunch of players. Good hunters and monsters are emerging, and it’s a pleasure to fight with or against them, and learn from the way they play.
On the other hand, it’s just as possible – and often easier – to find a game where nobody knows what they’re doing, or where you simply get swamped. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the game, but you have to bear in mind that it’s not always going to be brilliant.
We’ve been here before. Battlefield and Battlefield 2 had the potential to be great, but fell flat with rubbish players. Left4Dead and PayDay were a nightmare when players either messed around or failed to understand what the game is all about. That hasn’t stopped any of these games becoming awesome. The same might soon be true of Evolve.
At its best, Evolve is tense, thrilling and what pundits like to call a game changer, with periods of frantic hunting/fleeing punctuated by explosive confrontations. At its worst, nothing comes together and it all feels strangely flat. We suspect that, with time and experience, we’ll see more of the first than the second, and the game will reveal its true potential. We just hope that this resolves any remaining doubts about long-term appeal.
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