Evolve Preview: A Monster On Our Hands

 

“We need to eat more,” mutters the Turtle Rock Studios employee sitting next to me. He’s not referring to the buffet of finger foods on the other side of the room — this is no time for sliders. Instead, I am busy guiding a hulking grey monster through an alien landscape, pursuing fauna through the underbrush. Across a table laden with rented, high-end gaming hardware sit four fellow journalists, intent on hunting me down. Mauling and devouring the smaller creatures I encounter might give me the power I need to defeat them, but only if I eat more of them.

I’m at a San Francisco preview event for Evolve, the latest game from Turtle Rock Studios, due out in the third quarter 2014 for PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4. Turtle Rock isn’t exactly a household name, but its previous efforts, Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, are well-known and highly regarded. Both games were created while the studio was working under the auspices of Valve. Independent once more, Turtle Rock began work on Evolve in 2011.

A brief speech by studio co-founders Phil Robb and Chris Ashton introduced the basics. Evolve is a largely first-person, 4v1, multiplayer-only experience, designed for “broad appeal.” As the description above suggests, four players take control of “Hunters,” who land on a sparsely populated frontier planet and attempt to hunt down a fifth player, who controls a terrifying alien adversary.

Left 4 Dead veterans will appreciate the careful cooperation required on the Hunter side, and playing as the Monster can be similar to controlling one of that game’s special zombies. But Evolve is very much its own animal, as I was to find out through hands-on experience with all five of the game’s distinct roles. Robb described it as “like an intense, drawn-out boss battle,” and he’s not far wrong. In this case, he explained, Turtle Rock has “taken that boss monster and given it to another player.”

 

In an interview with executive producer Matt O’Driscoll, I learned that “the idea of 4v1 was actually knocking around before Left 4 Dead.” After finishing up the last round of Left 4 Dead 2 DLC, Turtle Rock threw itself into designing Evolve. The studio adapted some ideas from its former employers, including Valve’s flat organizational hierarchy, along with desks on wheels that can be rearranged to encourage collaboration, but according to O’Driscoll, “a lot of playtesting is the core.” At the end of every day, the entire team sits down for hours of frantic competition.

The result is a game that feels very complete at this early stage, despite a few hiccups. Each round begins with players selecting a class, though at the preview event, rotating assignments were determined in advance. Evolve’s classes each have specialized roles and abilities, and deploying these abilities with good timing and clever coordination is the key to success.

Confronting a Monster head-on can feel like an MMO boss encounter, with different players taking responsibility for damage, healing, tanking, and debuffing. These dedicated roles came relatively late in the design process: “We never had classes to start with,” O’Driscoll explained. “We just had items…so you could choose different load-outs.” This approach was flawed: “You just got situations when it became really easy to sort of cheese or unbalance the game,” the developed confessed.

 

Support, the first class I tried at the event, is a jack-of-all-trades. When it’s time to do damage, it carries a short-range cutting laser that’s perfect for shredding a Monster’s armor. But the Support also shines on the defensive side of things, wielding a medium-range shielding device that provides crucial protection for any teammate the Monster might be wailing on. For Monsters that are cornered, slowed, or otherwise immobile, there’s the long-cooldown orbital barrage ability, which rains down heavy damage within a small circle.

For even more utility, the Support also carries a cloaking device, which renders him and nearby teammates invisible. This is useful for planning ambushes or sneakily reviving injured allies; like in Left 4 Dead, a downed comrade is a huge liability, and though respawns are allowed (on a long timer), one player out of commission can lead to a domino effect that will quickly end the round.

Next up was the Trapper, another class laden down with gadgets. A submachine gun provides decent damage, but the Trapper is better suited for finding the Monster, then keeping it in one place. “Sound Spikes” driven into the ground around the map will sound an alarm when the monster passes nearby. Once the beast is found, the Trapper’s attention turns to keeping it locked in place. A harpoon gun is the perfect tool for this purpose — land an accurate shot, and the Monster is slowed until it can break the tether connecting it to the Trapper. Even better is the “Mobile Arena,” a long-cooldown device that emits a dome-like force-field, which prevents to Monster from fleeing. A deftly deployed Arena is key to denying the enemy freedom of movement.

 

The Assault class is perhaps the most straightforward archetype, though nonetheless very satisfying to play. An assault rifle provides good multi-purpose damage, but for close encounters, a Lightning Gun is preferable. The Monster will also have to watch out for high-damage mines, which the Assault class can deploy in groups of six. A personal shield acts as a kind of panic button — despite the Assault’s large health pool, it will often receive the brunt of the punishment.

Finally, there’s the Medic. Not simply a squishy healer, the Medic has important offensive roles. A long-range tranquilizer gun can slow the Monster from a distance; this ability often casts the Medic in the role of temporary scout. Then there’s the handy anti-materiel rifle, a high-caliber, scoped menace that punches holes in the Monster’s thick exoskeleton for the Medic’s teammates to aim at. Of course, there are also the more traditional healing tools: a medium-range healing gun that recalls Team Fortress, and a long-cooldown healing burst that heals the Medic, along with all nearby teammates.

All classes are also equipped with a Tribes-style jetpack, with a limited reservoir of power that recharges quickly while not in use. Though Turtle Rock initially intended the jetpack as a optional piece of kit, it was so popular in internal playtests, according to O’Driscoll, that the team made it standard feature. The jetpack makes it easier to traverse Evolve’s sprawling levels, and enables the Hunter team to keep up with the Monster, which moves quickly and can effortlessly scale cliffs and walls. It can also be used for quick, dodge-like leaps to avoid incoming claws and fangs.

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