Evolve Preview: A Monster On Our Hands

 

Other bits of kit include a waypoint system (good for keeping the Hunters together and marking points of interest) and a flashlight. Though the latter didn’t become necessary during my time with the game, O’Driscoll assures me that other levels will require its use — the prospect of hunting in the dark is certainly an enticing one.

Visually, each class is a wonderful bit of characterization, slightly stylized, with an appealing, used-future aesthetic. The Trapper looks like a game warden, with a floppy hat and grizzled muttonchops. The Support resembles a sci-fi construction worker. The Assault is a hulking, cyborg brute, encased in power armor. The Medic, the only female, is coolness and professionalism defined, with a Special Forces beret and an arched eyebrow. Each outfit also includes distinctive, colored details that are repeated in the UI to easily identify a waypoint or a downed teammate.

Evolve will eventually provide multiple variations on each class, giving players further control over which tools they bring into battle. The preview event only gave us a look at the initial four described above. On the other hand, it did tease a perks system — as players gain experience with a particular class, they will unlock additional reservoirs of jetpack power, say, or the ability to switch weapons more quickly.

Playing as a Hunter, of course, is only half the fun. Evolve’s PR team was careful to give each journalist a chance to go on a rampage as one of the game’s distinctive Monsters. Eventually, there will be many to choose from, and they will all play differently, but my initial look was at the “Goliath” a hulking brute that the developers patterned after King Kong.

The Goliath has four abilities: it can dash forward, crushing things in its path; it can perform a leaping body slam; it can grab and throw huge boulders; and it can breathe fire. At the beginning of each round, a player selects two abilities to start with and is spawned into the world with a 20-second headstart on the Hunter team.

 

What ensues is a captivating game of cat-and-mouse. As Evolve’s title suggests, the Monster must change to become more powerful. This is accomplished by eating the AI-controlled critters scattered around the map. Not all of these are push-overs, however. Powerful, unique alien life forms pose dangers to Hunters and Monsters alike, though killing them can yield useful power-ups for both sides.

When a Monster has eaten enough, it can cocoon itself and evolve into a more powerful form. Though leaving the Monster temporarily vulnerable, this process restores armor and health, and also unlocks a new ability from the initial group of four. Monster players can evolve twice each round, and a Stage 3 behemoth with a full compliment of offensive abilities will pose a serious challenge, even to an experienced team of Hunters. Once a Monster reaches Stage 3, it has the option of either trying to kill all the Hunters, or attacking a generator, which powers a force-field protecting a number of helpless civilians. Destroy the generator, track down and kill the civilians, and the round ends.

Even with one map, one Monster, the four basic Hunter classes, and limited amount of time, Evolve’s huge potential and infinite replayability was enticing. Each role was fun in its own, well-defined way, without feeling constricting. Playing as a Hunter is a breathless chase around the map that can suddenly explode into a chaotic battle. Speed is of the essence — finding and cornering a monster before it evolves makes the fight that much more manageable. Once the encounter begins, communication and teamwork can and does tip the balance — pairing a well-timed harpoon shot with a well-aimed aerial barrage is really quite thrilling. Jetpacks provide plenty of frantic movement, and without a Mobile Arena, fights spill up and down cliff faces and in and out of lakes. Sometimes, a Monster who doesn’t fancy his odds will suddenly flee, to evolve and fight another day.

 

This kind of stick-or-twist tactical decision is crucial to controlling the Monster. Players will have to balance stealth with the need for food, evading the pursuing Hunters along with flocks of birds — when startled, they fly upwards, temporarily revealing the Monster’s location from across the map. Monster players must also decide which abilities to select, and in what order. When the Hunters do catch up, do you stand and fight, or try to escape? Is it worth the risk of setting up an ambush, or trying to pick off stragglers?

These gameplay systems are supported by the polish and assurance of Turtle Rock’s game design, which picks up where Left 4 Dead’s user-friendly efficiency left off. The art style is well-chosen — futuristic but not cheesy, hyperbolic in a fun way. The UI is useful and carefully laid out. The animations and the physics feel chunky and real, giving true heft to flying boulders and anti-materiel rounds the size of a dry-erase marker. Even the connective fibers of the game, such as the brief scene of the four Hunters preparing to bail out of the back of a hovering dropship, evince a careful and effective design sense.

Thanks to the 4th-generation CryEngine, the game has a technologically impressive look that could be described (cynically, perhaps) as Next-Gen. The sprawling level available at the preview event encompassed a steamy jungle, a sci-fi factory, and a crashed spacecraft. Other, unrevealed maps will take players to other places on the planet with radically different flora and fauna.

Textures were on the whole razor-sharp, and the lighting and particle effects drove home the sense of being stuck on a fecund, alien world with a terrifying creature ready to leap onto your head from a nearby cliff. Despite the chaos that ensues when a Monster goes toe-to-toe with four Hunters, the frame-rate remained stable, despite the early build.

The final evidence of Evolve’s burgeoning potential was provided at the conclusion of the event. As the caterers packed up, I watched Turtle Rock executive Chris Ashton, playing as a Monster, take on a team of four Hunters, drawn from the assembled PR representatives. His view was projected on a huge screen in the back of the room, and it was like watching a concert violinist play his treasured Stradivarius, except instead of a violin, it was a 30-foot, fire-breathing monster with razor-sharp teeth. The Turtle Rock honcho used every trick at his disposal, swooping in to incapacitate stragglers, beaning their comrades with sniper-like boulder shots, and then melting away to eat and evolve. Eventually, the last Hunter met his end in a curtain of fire.

The executive’s expertise was a testament to the depth and sophistication of the game his team has designed, which will reward both skill and cunning, both careful teamwork and solitary, sinister guile. Evolve, based on my early experience, is a potential triumph, and a title worth following closely as it approaches a release date, sometime later in 2014.

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