Multiplayer-centric games like Evolve are a bit of a bastard to review. You’re looking at the game right out of the gate (or, in the case of some of my press colleagues who published reviews before the public servers were up, without even waiting to see if the gate opens properly,) and effectively being asked to predict how it’s going to fare over the long term.

I’ve given Evolve about a week, but that still doesn’t put me in a position to write authoritatively about every aspect. As an individual with one review key and no psychic powers, I’ve no idea how things like the top-tier, co-operative Hunter meta-play will develop. The early tactics on show during these formative days could well be naive and quaint in another month. If, that is, the PC audience persists.

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Hello Mr. Kraken sir.

Judging by how aggressively front-loaded 2K’s marketing has been, the publisher looks to be squeezing as much money out of people at this early juncture as possible. Evolve is a game which announced pre-order DLC bonuses before the title even had a release date, or much of a description of its contents. It has multi-part, pre-order extras spread over a myriad of confusing versions (none of which actually give you everything,) and an in-game cash shop full of premium priced skins, packs and BEST VALUE FEATURED DEAL.

Evolve costs $60. Or $80. Or maybe $100, or more. It’s hard to say. If you find a cheap PC key at a reputable site it should be closer to $45-50. But who knows which bits of the game you’ll end up with.

First impressions matter. Before most people had even been able to toss a monster-sized rock in anger, Evolve’s first impressions were rotten. And it’s a stench which the game has found difficult to shake.

Developers Turtle Rock have actually done a decent thing and made sure none of the DLC extras split up the player-base (anybody can play with anybody else, no matter what DLC they own,) but that lone piece of very good news has been swallowed up by a sticky marketing quagmire of 2K’s own making.

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Free-to-play style cosmetic items in your $60 game? Boo, etc.

But look, I adored Left 4 Dead. Steam says I have 64 hours in that game, which is a wild underestimation (I think the game existed before the “time played” counter.) Asymmetric multiplayer, in my view, is by far the most interesting type. Source mod The Hidden, which adopts a similar powerful predator versus pathetic humans set-up to Evolve, is an excellent thing. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s multiplayer (before Ubisoft made that lousy with in-game payments) had some terrific modes too. I’m tacitly cheering for any title that doesn’t just say “fuck it, have another team deathmatch.”

Evolve fits that bill. While it’s not the only method of play available, the mechanics of the centerpiece Hunt mode form the basis (if not necessarily the tactics) for the majority of the game. No matter whether you’re stalking the beast, rescuing hapless civilians (Rescue) or trying to destroy monstrous eggs (Nest,) the same broad rules of four hunters (who need to really, really work together and play to their class strengths) versus one mega-monster (who must also know what they’re doing) apply.

There’s also Evacuation mode which pieces together five maps with a very loose story about having to save colonists from a doomed world. It begins with a Hunt match and always ends with Defend, a mode with minor MOBA influences where the monster player gets some minion ‘creeps’ and has to bash through guarded barriers to a transport ship. In Evacuation, the winner of each round gets a slight thematic environmental bonus in the next (better visibility to see the monster if you protected the weather station, more armour for turrets in Defend mode, and so on,) while the loser gets a behind-the-scenes balance boost to make sure nobody runs too far away with victories across the five maps.

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The monster can also win Hunt mode by breaking some industrial machinery, if he gets the chance.

No matter what the mode of play, when Evolve’s pieces slot together and players of equivalent skill (either good or bad) come together, it can be exhilarating and fantastic. An ideal round sees regular hit-and-run (or hit-and-wait-for-the-tracker’s-dome-to-come-down) attacks between evolutionary stages from an astute monster player, leaving a hunter or two with a health penalty and some of the monster’s health whittled down as well. When equally matched, this back-and-forth ebb of play can continually switch which side is hunter and which is hunted. It’s unpredictable, tactical and thrilling.

Evolve has some structural issues which we’ll address in due course, but here’s the main problem: that scenario I’ve described above happens rather infrequently. Turtle Rock keep waving around their 50-50 win statistics as a badge of balancing pride (with some justification,) but what the numbers can’t show is the quality of those matches.

I don’t have the capacity or data to run statistics anywhere near as accurately as the development team, but my anecdotal experience says that one in five games turn out to be pretty magnificent could-go-either-way battles. Forty percent or so are closer to aimless ambles through jungles and jet-pack hops over cliffs, as the monster buggers off for most of the match and then shows up at level three to smash everybody (hello, Wraith players.) The other forty percent are hapless monsters (possibly people who stuck the beast as their “don’t want to play this” option but got thrown into it by the inconsistent matchmaking system, sometimes just me being crap) getting picked off by adroit hunting teams. It’s a 50-50 win rate alright, but I’d only ever want to play a handful of those matches again.

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This isn’t going to end well, but at least it’ll end quickly.

The game seems incredibly dependent on bringing together five people of roughly the same skill set, and unfortunately there’s no consistent way to make that happen through level-based matchmaking; especially when players can also be quite easily bumped from their “comfort zone” character type. Over time this may well improve, as the player base settles down into those who are in Evolve for the long-haul, and skill-gaps start to narrow. The progression of time, though, will also make the game utterly fearsome for newcomers.

Playing exclusively with friends can probably mitigate the effects, but if five people want to play together they must bafflingly do it through ‘custom’ game creation rather than matchmaking. The restriction is actually harmful, because it increases the instances of lone players who may have the monster quite far down their preference list being paired up with co-ordinated parties of four hunters.

This is presumably Turtle Rock’s attempt to prevent people gaming the system by ‘throwing’ matches against people they know, or exploiting the gated progression system to advance faster … except that you can do all of those things in custom matches too (or single player, to some extent.)

Speaking of the levelling and unlocks-based progression system: it’s almost entirely superfluous, and Evolve would be a better game without it. To unlock the next monster type, you have to do certain amounts of damage with each skill. To unlock the next hunter of each class, you have to do likewise. In order to achieve character ‘mastery’ with anyone, you need to make lots and lots of use of your class abilities. The reward for doing these things is increased damage output/duration/capacity for a given weapon or power.

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I have no problem with levelling up fire breath. Fire breath is great.

It would make more sense for less experienced players to receive buffs like damage outputs, especially in a game of this type where skill balancing is so crucial for a enjoyable match. But even leaving that aside, the hunter and monster unlock gating is rather irritating. Both hunters and monsters have four skills that they’ll generally use throughout a match, but many are playable in styles which don’t really utilise all four. The Kraken monster, for example, has three long-ranged skills and one close range ability. It’s a flying monster, so it’s quite possible to develop a style that doesn’t use the close ranged one all that much (if at all.)

But if you want to unlock the next monster (the Wraith,) you have to use that skill. And if you want to reach higher, three-star tiers for the other abilities, you also have to use that skill. A lot.

Likewise, the hunter called Maggie has to follow tamed trapjaw Daisy around the place a great deal. This is fine at first (especially as players learn the basics,) but toddling after Daisy all the time is not optimal play. Rather than rewarding playing to a class, the unlocks system is often just encouraging people to use abilities they may not wish to, and which may not even be all that useful in given circumstances.

Turtle Rock actually seem to have done a terrific job balancing Evolve’s team-play. No matter which combination of hunting characters is selected, they should work well together. It would make a lot more sense to show this off right from the start, rather than hiding characters behind a pointless gating system that just forces people into grinding certain abilities in single player mode.

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Here’s me being rubbish and standing too far away for Hank’s shield to be any use.

Evolve’s bot matches are pretty useful for doing that, and for getting a bit of no-pressure practice with a new character. The AI isn’t so hot at playing objective-based modes, but it’s fairly relentless as a monster and knows how to co-ordinate a team of hunters (albeit sometimes by using superhuman AI powers to predict precisely who you’re about to attack and shielding them ahead of time.) It’s not a single player game by any means or description, but the bots are about as competent as you could reasonably hope for.

The overall user interface is less satisfying, often cluttered with officious little tips that you learned hours ago. Listen, Evolve, I know that the monster needs to eat wildlife to gain armour and evolve. I’ve been playing for several hours now. Sniffing helps me see hunters. I get it, thank you. It doesn’t help that the gun models are absolutely gigantic, and take up rather silly amounts of screen space. A narrow default FOV of 60 makes things feel even more cramped (though thankfully you can tweak that on PC.)

Map quality also varies. For each memorable arena like the Aviary, there are another scattering of orange or blue hued bush-and-rock-formation combos, with a random Industrial Thing in the center. Rather than scenery, it’s often the lovely CryEngine weather effects which do more to spice things up.

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This map is from the “gloomy rock formations and bushes” set … oh wait, that’s all of them.

PC performance is improved from the beta, particularly when it comes to server wait-times. It can still take a few minutes to actually get into a game (including, at times, sitting through unskippable cut-scenes which presumably mask loading,) but it’s faster than it was during testing. My i3-2100/8GB/2GB 7870 system, unsurprisingly, can’t hold a solid 60fps, but flitters around 35-50 on a custom set based around the default medium settings (and a modded hunter FOV of 90.)

I found it would sometimes tank during effects-heavy firefights though, which is a bit of a nuisance given that this is precisely when you’d like the frame-rate to stay steady. Getting the Goliath’s flame-breath full in the face seems to take an especially heavy toll on my PC. Evolve isn’t exactly glitch-free either. Players can sometimes be downed in positions where no revive prompt can actually pop up.

Steam’s daily stats for the game have dropped off a bit from the peaks of 27,000-odd at launch (to 19,000 or so,) but seem to always be around at least 11,000-12,000 whenever I’ve been looking. That bodes fairly well for medium-term longevity, and helps to explain why I’ve never had a problem finding a match at any time of day.

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This sort of thing made my PC a little bit unhappy.

Evolve, then, is a real rush of highs and lows. If it could dependably provide the type of fantastic matches I’ve sporadically enjoyed across the past week, then things like semi-forgettable map design, aggressive pre-launch marketing, and the unnecessary “I guess this is how all multiplayer games work now” system of unlocks would be easier to overlook. The central, asymmetric concept is one to be celebrated, and when conditions are right it’s utterly magnificent. But you need considerable patience and the tolerance to put up with an awful lot of nonsense to keep chasing Evolve’s distinctive dragons.

Peter Parrish

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