Evolve / 14th of February 2015
If there’s one thing Turtle Rock Studios are good at, it’s coming up with original ideas for their games. After all their last title, Left 4 Dead, practically resurrected our recent cultural obsession with the undead. But its success wasn’t down to the fact that the game had zombies in it, they were just popular fallout, something that made the game relatable and easy to explain. Left 4 Dead was a great game because of its original idea, namely to create a game built around a frantic chase, that utilised four player co-op and had - courtesy of the ‘A.I. Director’ - excellent replay-ability. It was a sterling formula that came together to make one of the best games of the previous generation, and now Evolve, Turtle Rock’s latest game, aims to match that success.
On paper it sounds like another home run; set on a hostile alien planet, four players playing as class-specific hunters working together to bring down a huge monster, with the twist being that said monster is controlled by a fifth player, and that should it evade its pursuers long enough the tables turn and hunters become the hunted. But unfortunately for Turtle Rock, and anyone hoping for the next Left 4 Dead, a strong concept doesn’t guarantee a great game.
Upon first inspection Evolve certainly looks ready to impress, with everything from the game’s menus, character models and various locales all absolutely looking the part. It all looks very good, but more impressively the designs of both hunters and monsters do exactly what a game like Evolve needs them to. It presents them as characters, fully formed, arriving with their own backstories and personalities without ever actually needing to convey them. Whether it be Maggie and her bestial companion Daisy or Scrapheap Challenge’s greatest creation Bucket the robot, every character feels alive and maybe more importantly interesting.
So it’s a real shame then that the game - from a hunter’s perspective - is played in first-person. All those interesting characters are completely wasted, as whilst hunting for the monster, you’ll be looking down at the ground for tracks or looking into the sky for flocks of frightened birds, and during combat things become so hectic you’ll hardly have any idea of who or what’s around you. Should you die however, and have to wait the two minutes to respawn, you’ll be given a third-person view of your teammates, and it’s here that it becomes abundantly clear that this would be a far better perspective from which to play. Why first-person was preferred for a game involving jumping, climbing and jet packs I can’t say, but the FPS perspective feels more like a disadvantage regardless of any immersive benefit it may claim.
In any case these interesting characters feels even more redundant when the vast majority of are walled off by an arbitrary XP system (they can be accessed immediately via micro-transactions of course). But it’s this XP system that’s one of the game’s biggest problems, rather than constantly earning rewards and incentivising play as many other games do with similar systems, Evolve’s XP system feels like a laborious grind. For example when three challenges must be completed to unlock the next character and you’ve achieved two already, the completed two will have their XP count frozen. The end result ensures anything you do outside of the parameters of that specific challenge goes completely unrewarded. It’s a major problem not only because it creates an unnecessarily slow reward system, but more importantly it directly contradicts the way the game needs to be played. If players need a particular number of tranquiliser hits in order to meet their next target then they’ll be focussed on doing that one thing over and over, rather than doing whatever might best help the team. The end result is a system that instead of keeping you invested as it should does nothing more than frustrate, whilst also pushing players away from the co-operative play it’s supposed to encourage.
Having such an XP system, one more akin to a competitive shooter like Call of Duty, is an odd design decision in the first place. It gives the distinct impression of something that will undoubtedly handicap matchmaking more and more as time goes on. Evolve is at its very best when all four hunters and the monster are controlled by players of around the same skill level, and when that delicate balance is tipped then matches start to become very short and very underwhelming. Meaning that as time goes on that balance is going to be harder and harder to maintain. Left 4 Dead didn’t bother with classes or XP levelling unlocks, instead it relied on natural complexities such as when was the best time to equip a shotgun or which sections should you stock up health packs for. Evolve has none of these nuances and instead uses an XP system that’s convoluted and will only hamper gameplay as time goes by.
These are the big problems that Evolve has, but they still don’t mean that it’s not possible to enjoy yourself whilst playing. If you’re on with four other friends in a private lobby and you’re main concern is having a good time rather than winning or unlocking the next character, then you’ll no doubt have some memorable moments. It’s just unfortunate that these instances are few and far between. And if a game such as Evolve doesn’t work with both friends, and the random people you’ll team up with online, then in truth it doesn’t work at all. It’s a great concept no doubt, and had the lessons of Left 4 Dead and its sequel been adhered to rather than adopting systems more suited to traditional competitive shooters, then Evolve may have been the game we were all hoping it could be. As it stands however Evolve is a game that feels as if there’s too much to it, a good idea that’s been overcomplicated and spoilt. And although its pre-release marketing has been heavily criticised, not even the various pre-order bonuses and micro-transactions are the worst thing about it. There is a good game in there, but sadly it’s suffocating under a slew of bad design choices and convoluted systems.