If you've been keeping a track of game trailers and teases for the past few months, chances are you've stumbled across Evolve, an upcoming game from Left 4 Dead developer Turtle Rock, featuring rampaging alien monsters, treacherous local wildlife and hardened, veteran hunters with an impressive arsenal of varied weaponry. Unfortunately it won't be released until Autumn this year, but if you visited Multiplay's i51 LAN festival this weekend, you'll have had a chance to play a pre-alpha build. I was one of those lucky ones, managing to get three rounds of play in, once as the monster and twice as the hunters. Here's what I thought of the experience.
The game looks very pretty, in both third person (monster) and first person (hunter) perspectives. It's a little drab in places, but I think that was more of a symptom of the dark map and that the brightness on the monitors seemed cranked way too high – possibly due to the lighting of the show floor. However it still looks good, especially when it comes to the sense of scale. The power plant is enormous and the jungle feels busy and varied enough that I didn't really get a sense of direction throughout my time playing.
Thankfully there's plenty of indications to help you out. However they seemed almost too obvious at times. Instead of looking up and seeing birds taking off in the distance – like the trailer – you're given a red indicator that quite literally says the Monster has disturbed some birds X number of metres away. There was also a prevalence of health bars, with everything from the monster, to the hunters, to the local wildlife featuring one as soon as they start taking damage. These are all useful things that definitely made the game an easier experience to pick up and play, but I'd like to see a hardcore mode without them, to make the hunting experience feel a bit more authentic.
There were custom Chillblast machines powering each of the set ups with GTX 780s pumping out excellent frame rates. I didn't notice a single stutter while playing however, so it seems likely that the final build will be compatible with much more mid-range GPUs. Despite it being a PC build though, gameplay was entirely through an Xbox 360 controller (the game will not be coming out for last-gen though). This felt more intuitive as the monster than the hunters, since I'm a stickler for a mouse when it comes to shooting, but even though I'm a much heavier PC than I am console gamer, I didn't find it inhibiting.
We only had one map to play on during the show and it was the one you've seen in previous trailers, with a darkened jungle surrounding an industrial powerplant. It would have been creepier without the gamma being so high, but the level has some areas that really lend themselves to different tactics for both sides of the hunt. There's rocky formations to be climbed or jetpacked onto, tunnels to hide in should either party gain the upper hand and choke points to utilise. There's also wide open areas which are a godsend to the hunters should the monster make it to its final evolution, raining down death in a variety of ways.
Local wildlife is a little sparser than it seems in the trailer, with the majority of mob monsters being far smaller than the rare and gargantuan swamp crocodile that became a dangerous hazard to anyone that got too close – even the monster in its earlier stages of life.[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7UMGoDcOPw']
Chances are, unless you have a friend group that lets you get your own way all the time, you're going to playing hunter more often than monster, simply by virtue of the numbers being in favour of it. However that doesn't mean it's any less of an exciting experience, though it is different. There's also a lot of variance between the hunters themselves, with very distinct playstyles and weapons. I played trapper on my first run through and support on the second, preferring the former – though that might be because we won.
The trapper's energy shield is brilliant when you get it right, as it's wonderfully satisfying to pin the monster in when it's been eluding you for several minutes, flitting away at the edge of your vision. Similarly the harpoon gun, which gives you a temporary pin on the monster – until it slaps away your puny human weapon – is great fun to implement, giving you a mini-game mid action as you try and stay close enough to keep it tethered, without getting swatted at. The sound sensors are also incredibly useful, letting you set up a grid of audio-receivers around the jungle which when triggered by the monster's roar, gives you a heads up as to where it is.
The support I found a little less exciting, but that's likely because you're more of an augmenter than a direct attacker or debuffer (though his damage output is second only to the assault). He has the ability to shield allies while in range and turn allies and himself invisible temporarily, keeping everyone putting out damage and pins as long as possible.
While I didn't get a chance to play as the medic or assault, the former has a sniper rifle that does damage and paints a weak point on the beast's armour and can heal from a distance with a Team Fortress 2 medic-like gun, while the latter can put down mines, shoot out electricity at close range and pump bullets into the monster better than any of the others.
When you drop into the environment as the hunters, you'll want to get on the monster's tail quickly. We stumbled around on our first play through trying out abilities and gave it far too much time to get away. Even using our jetpacks didn't help much, which while not offering Titalfall levels of manoeuvrability, do give you a lot of freedom – holding lets you glide upwards for a short period, whilst double tapping shoots you in the direction you're pulling the stick, letting you dodge, forward or side to side to help chase down the monster, or avoid its attacks.
In that first playthrough we didn't see the monster at all until it's final evolution, but when it attacked the generator we were ready. I ultimately fell to the creature's attacks after getting stuck under a set of stairs – you can be knocked out and revived three times before a two minute respawn counter kicks in, or the monster can attack your still-down body several times to give the same effect – but made it back in time to help finish it off. I finally got the hand of throwing the energy shield and trapping it on top of the giant crocodile might have helped, even if the thing did manage to eat our medic before we brought the monster down.
This was an epic moment where all our abilities seemed to come together, making us far stronger than the sum of our parts.
While I was support, we didn't fare as well, despite heading out after the Goliath straight away. We were on its tail for much of its early evolutions, only losing it once or twice when the player got clever with the rock formations, climbing and jumping between them to avoid leaving footprints. However when one by one we were cornered after falling down a whole and others charging in to try and save the day, it became very clear that when hitting maximum level, it's important the hunters stick together and don't get isolated. If they do, the others need to back off and draw the monster away or allow it to retreat before trying to save a downed colleague – or at very least, be smarter than we were.
Overall I found the hunters very satisfying to play with, offering a lot of different options for your class and if Turtle Rock can offer more loadout and hunter perks, I can see there being a lot of personal preferences on what equipment to bring to best hunt down whichever monster you happen to be chasing.
My only real gripe with the hunters was that the weapon equip buttons were left and right trigger and Y and B. It may just be a force of habit, but I'd have preferred the d-pad do the same, though that's likely to be remappable in the final game.
As fun as playing the hunters was, with their early power and late game fragility, I have to admit I had the most fun playing as the hulking Goliath, the only monster we've seen so far. His abilities are well documented at this point, but a recent change has them levelling up at your behest rather than in a set pattern. When you begin you get three skill points, letting you fully level one up to do more damage and (I think, but don't quote me) cool down faster, or split your points and have a more varied move-set.
They include: throwing a giant boulder, breathing fire, charging forward and a leap smash. My personal preference was for the last too, though I didn't actually throw a rock at all in my playthrough – I forgot – and I never seemed to get the hang of the fire, it tended to fire sporadically rather than when I wanted.
However it's the monster's manoeuvrability which makes it a blast to play. You can climb anything, from trees, to rocky formations, to certain parts of the man-made buildings – all you have to do is leap at it and hold the left trigger. Animations for those are incredibly fluid and in-fact much of the monster's movement looks very nuanced. There's no sudden jump from a loping run animation into a charge or jump, it all looks very natural. Likewise in the way it grabs hold of the edge of a building or rocky ourcrop and hauls himself bodily to the top. This is often a very good strategy for avoiding pursuit since the hunters can't see footprints up a cliff face. Several times during play I hid on top of a giant formation, watching the puny humans run around below, only to drop down on them like an avenging angel and smash one of them to pulp before running off to continue feeding.
Stealth isn't so much the name of the game when it comes to evolving, but more speed. Your general run isn't particularly fast, but leaping and charging help you get around much quicker and are in-fact necessary to catch some of the smaller and nimbler local wildlife which you must eat in order to ‘level up.' Doing so grants you three more skills points, more health and damage and makes you look far more imposing. By your final evolution you're a hulking monstrosity able to wade right into the fire put out by your enemies. You aren't undefeatable though, as we showed in my game as trapper.[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ofvvsztOCk']
However, in my single go as the monster I managed to emerge victorious, not through brute strength, but cunning. After delaying my pursuers enough to reach the final stage of evolution – often hiding atop my favoured rock formation while going through the 10 second vulnerable stage of growth – I made my way to the generator, where destroying it is – at the moment at least – a little less exciting. You just stand next to a piece of machinery and hold down the trigger again, which causes the monster to flail away at it with a gradually reducing health bar. It was only at this stage of the game that I noticed I had one of those of my own, sitting at the top of the screen. You have a shield too, which was quite quickly depleted while my back was turned, so I smashed a few of the hunters down, managing to knock two of them out of the game by continuing to hulk-smash double fist them while they were down.
However the final two quickly had me at death's door, so I retreated from the facility, leaving the generator heavily damaged and was lucky enough to find one of the large jungle animals nearby. Having killed him and regained some health from his sustenance, I tried to draw the hunters away from the facility in order to sneakily return, but when that didn't work I hung around on a walkway above the entrance and waited for them to poke their head out.
When that happened I rained down death and followed it with my own bulk soon after, smashing the last two hunters into the granite floor until I achieved victory.
There were so many great moments and so many different strategic options for just this single match and with a single monster that I'm really excited to see what other creatures Turtle Rock has in store. I used stealth, speed, brute force and a variety of other tactics in order to bring about an end to the hunters, with them no doubt doing the same. There's also a wonderful moment when you feel the odds change. As you land in the jungle your immediate response is fear – you have 20 seconds to escape before those nasty humans chase you down and pump you full of lead – but before long, you're watching them run around thinking they have the low down on you, while you wait for the perfect opportunity to jump onto their faces.
The monster moves fantastically, despite presumably being the most hulking and least dextrous of the lot. Yes there's going to be more monsters (my guess is five, though the 2K representative had a great poker face) with one piece of recent concept art hinting that the next one could be an insect or arachnid. Developers have also made mention of a Viperfish as an inspiration for one of them.
Playing Evolve was the most fun I had all weekend and that includes three mammoth Age of Empires II HD games I had in the BYOC hall. It's fast, fluid, intuitive and I absolutely adore the way that Turtle Rock is mixing up multiplayer with its 4vs1 mechanic. It's the epic boss battles we've loved for decades, without so many of the drawbacks.
Your experience fighting (against and as) the monsters will of course vary depending on the skill and temperament of the people playing, but when the game gets it right – and it rarely didn't in my short time playing it – it's fantastic. This isn't a dissapointing horde mode end-boss type battle, or a repeating attack pattern that means you need to get three hits in to win, it's a tough 10-20 minute slog against a determined and dangerous opponent, on both ends, with each side feeling the tick of the clock at times. It's frantic, epic and undeniably fun, making it one of my most hotly anticipated games of the year.
At the end of each of my playthroughs, as hunter and monster, me and friends found ourselves eagerly recounting the most epic moments and there were loads of them. I've no doubt that the final game will feature a lot more.
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