First person shooters are often overly similar. Sure, there are slight variances in physics and weaponry, but many fall prey to the tried-and-true formula of “run into a firefight, shoot everyone that isn’t on your side, get blown up and respawn in ~5 seconds, while your kill-cam shows who shot you”. They’ll occasionally toss in new mechanics and playstyles to freshen it up, but it still tends to reside comfortably in its niche of “kill/be killed/respawn quickly”. A lot of gamers love those franchises for its fast paced, instant gratification gameplay—or as I often refer to it, the THP, or Tony Hawk Paradigm. Back when Tony Hawk first graced consoles, it was a game that you could play for a couple quick minutes…or for multiple hours, and still manage to get a consistent level of enjoyment out of it. Twitch shooters, no matter how steeped in lore, history or gun technicality, all seem to scratch this itch for gamers with a short amount of time to play. Given that Call of Duty, Battlefield, Borderlands and others have practically become household names, it’s no surprise that they’re so popular. Plus, the fact that you can literally jump on at any hour of the day or night and expect to see thousands of other faceless people playing certainly doesn’t hurt.
Shooters like that scratch a particular itch…but for every ten (or twenty!) twitch FPS titles that come out each year, there’s one or two dark horses that buck the traditional trend, and throw a completely different twist on the genre. Evolve is one of those games. We’ve spent the last week learning the ins and outs of Planet Shear…and we feel like we’ve still barely scratched the surface. For starters, Evolve is a dynamic game, much like Turtle Rock’s previous gold-star franchise, Left 4 Dead. Each game is literally unlike the one before, thanks to a constantly shifting set of dynamics, weather patterns and local fauna–and given that 80% of Shear’s wildlife is out to kill you, means that you’re constantly on guard. There are several biomes to traverse while playing, and each has a set of changing weather patterns, which can also be affected by an in-game modifier (which we’ll get to in a little bit).
If you’re a dyed in the wool FPS junkie, you’ll immediately notice the mechanics are radically different from most other shooters. For example, each hunter (and monster) has a set of special abilities that are set up in “crossbar” fashion on the lower right hand side of the screen. Two relegated to the left/right bumpers, B and Y, respectively. Each of these buttons act as a toggle for the ability or device, and if it happens to be a launch/shoot item, you’ll aim with the left trigger and fire with the right. It’s interesting, because knowing how to optimize your players’ abilities is key to survival…and even though there are four classes, each class has THREE hunters to pick from, and each has their own distinct play style. For example, when playing Assault class as Parnell, it behooves you to pop your “Super Soldier” ability in conjunction with your multi-rocket launcher when you’re on top of an enemy (to maximize massive damage), but to hold off on using your personal shield until you’re near death, as you’ll instantly become a target. If you can pop your personal shield during the overlap period of the Super Soldier perk, you’ll deal MASSIVE damage while taking none. Sounds like a bunch of gibberish, right? To put it far more succinctly, successfully playing either side is a matter of asset management. During each game, you’ll constantly be weighing whether or not to activate a special ability, use your jetpack, or simply utilize your “regular” attacks. Of course, your actions are only 1/4 of the key to winning; the rest is learning to choose complimentary hunters for each outing, as many of their abilities work incredibly well in conjunction with each other. For example Parnell is a warrior class in every sense of the word: all of his abilities/weapons (minus the shield) are designed to be in-your-face aggressive towards the monster. Now, it would behoove you to choose Parnell if you happen to have a team with Val and Hank, as Val can highlight weak points (via her sniper rifle), while Hank can use the Energy Shield to keep you safe while you’re literally shooting rockets into the monster’s face. If all goes according to plan, Parnell will become a target to the monster–which means Hank can send down an orbital barrage on top of Parnell, which will also deal massive monster damage, while effectively blasting Parnell to safety.
Combinations like that are one of the hundreds (or likely, thousands) of the ways you can play each mission…and figuring out Hunter’s nuances is what makes the game incredibly interesting. Each hunter can rack up experience during each mission by utilizing their skills effectively, which in turn unlocks new hunters and can give their weapons/abilities a permanent buff. Leveling up also unlocks and modifies perks, which each player can choose prior to the mission. There are four main mission types: Hunt, Nest, Rescue and Defend. In Hunt, you’ll be tracking the monster throughout the level, trying to catch it before it can Evolve…and once it reaches it’s third evolution, it can destroy the power relay, which results in a victory for the monster. Nest has you searching for six monster eggs, which the monster must protect from hunters for ~18 minutes, and it can “hatch” one egg, giving it a Goliath minion to assist in aid; the hunters must destroy all six eggs and/or minion before time runs out.
Rescue has you following the distress signal of fallen colonists, and you must revive them and keep them safe until the drop ship returns to rescue them. The monster must eat five survivors (or the hunters rescue five colonists) to win. Defend is final “for all the marbles” level in Evacuation: hunters must defend a set of power relays from a fully evolved monster, in addition to a stream of its AI minions. If a monster successfully destroys all of the relays, then the ship explodes and everyone dies. Pretty grim, huh? Oh and regardless of which mission type you’re on, if a monster is successful in killing all of the hunters, the monster wins.
The monster is truly a finesse character: unlike the hunters who can all rely on each other, the monster is alone (unless you spawn a minion) against the squad. Because of this, it’s a necessity to cover your tracks, kill stealthily and attempt to survive under the radar for as long as humanly possible, especially while in Hunt mode. As I mentioned before, the world of Shear is incredibly aggressive, and just because you’re a big, scary monster doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll scare smaller predators away. Plus, you’ll encounter things like Tyrants, which are massive elephant/alligator hybrids that lurk in water ready to attack monsters and hunters alike, and like the MegaMouth and carnivorous plants, can trap and lock a hunter in a single bite. There are also swarms of birds that exist simply to give your position away, either by taking flight when startled, or circling around a fresh kill. Using “smell” (R3) allows you to scan the environment for potential food sources and/or aggressive wildlife, and constantly scanning the environment is a necessity for survival. The primary way a monster gains strength, armor and the ability to evolve is by eating local fauna. In the early stages, it behooves players to sneak (B button) and stealth kill and quickly feed (L trigger), in order to evolve early on. Like hunters, if you happen to take down a “rare albino” version of fauna, you’ll get a temporary buff in addition to your normal “meal benefit”. Be warned, though–killing a rare animal works for both sides: hunters can scavenge a buff from your meal, and monsters can also get a buff from the hunters’ kill. Also worth a note, scaling in Evolve is unparalleled: when playing as hunters, the world of Shear is massive, and you’ll often burn out your jetpacks trying to traverse the planet’s terrain. Conversely, while playing as a monster, the maps feel incredibly small…especially when you’re being attacked. That’s not to say that the levels are poorly designed…quite the opposite: playing as a monster forcesyou to pay attention to your surroundings and utilize the small world to your advantage.
Like the hunters, each monster has a radically different play style: Goliath is primarily an “in-your-face” bruiser, while the Wraith is a stealth character that must rely on surprise and obfuscation to win. Our personal favorite, though, is the Cthulhu-inspired Kraken which excels at both long- and short-range attacks, thanks to its honing Banshee mines, localized lightning strikes and Vortex knock-back attack. While each monster is deadly in the right hands, the in-game progression of Goliath –> Kraken –> Wraith is fitting, since each is more finesse-based than its’ predecessor. Probably the most amazing thing we’ve experienced while playing is the shocking degree of balance that the game has. Turtle Rock has released several infographics which put the monster wins/hunter wins at a near-constant 50/50…and that’s incredible, given that you’d tend to expect the hunters as winning far more of the time. Hell, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that during random match-ups, you’d often hear the person assigned to be the monster loudly complain, since the team dynamic is just so damn good when playing as a hunter. Still, if you’re 100% against fun (er, chance), you can opt to play “Co-Op only” missions, which will feature a constant AI-controlled monster. Be warned, though–the AI is simply brutal and you’ll often wish for the more accident-prone human-controlled monsters.
One last stellar point: all of Evolve can be played offline. All of it. Sadly, unlike L4D, there’s no local (IE couch) co-op, but you can play through all of the game’s modes, unlock all of your hunters/monsters and complete Evacuation modes, all while hosting AI bots…and the AI is pretty damn good. Almost too good sometimes. In fact, I’d recommend playing a couple matches for each class/monster offline, if only to get a handle for each style. Honestly, we could spend 15+ pages outlining the ins and outs of Evolve, and still feel like we were leaving massive chunks out. It’s such a sprawling, shifting title that it really needs to be experienced. Really. It’s easily a must-buy, if only for the departure it makes from traditional FPS gaming.
The only real downside we’ve experienced is the odd graphical glitch that will sometimes permeate a match, as well as the hit-or-miss matchmaking when trying to add a party into a game. Certainly not deal-breakers, but annoying nonetheless. Insofar as continual annoyances, we could only really come up with one: the stupid, godforsaken countdown clock.
When you die as a hunter (and you WILL), so long as you have party members alive, it will trigger a dropship respawn: you’ll warp back up to the ship, and be parachuted back off like you are in the beginning. The only problem is that the dumb clock is misleading. Sure, a dropship will come when the timer reaches zero, but it’ll still take another 30+ seconds to get back into the game. Those precious seconds are agonizing, especiallywhen a pack of monsters are attacking the relay. It’s truly controller-smashing frustration…and yet we still keep coming back for more.
Still, petty annoyances aside, Evolve has captured our hearts…and it didn’t even take a Mobile Arena to do it.