Better late than never.
There’s a certain irony when looking at the shooter landscape -- as it currently stands -- considered against where its modern uber-popularity seemingly
stemmed from. Call of Duty and Battlefield both have a lot to answer for and as part of that irony, a facet of both games’ most talked about features is in the single-player experience.
Those talks often stem around a need to pull the narrative experience from both games completely, given the life and longevity of both is in multiplayer. Moreover, a campaign isn’t necessarily needed when you consider the context of the fields of battle both games take place on. If you’ve seen the news at all in the past 12 or so years, Call of Duty and Battlefield’s setups are going to make sense to you (even if senseless
in principle foundation).
Evolve has been out for a little while now, but its polarising beginning, its late-to-the-party fourth monster and its DLC and micro-transation monetary system has made it a difficult beast to review, fueling that polarisation.
Peppered throughout this longform breakdown of the game will be boxouts like this one painting gameplay pictures based on modes, characters maps and more. Segregating this type of review this way just makes more sense and should hopefully keep the clean info you want in ready reach to the more philosophical and analytical breakdown as it's presented in the body proper.
None of the above is to say either game doesn’t offer something from a campaign perspective, but it could be argued their oft short lengths and corridor-shooter checkpoint-to-checkpoint design is a flawed concept when stacked against lateral play in multiplayer sandboxes. In short, intriguing as their stories might seem, you’re only getting half the potential, and when a team is split between two disparate design goals, you’re maybe only getting half the game(s), too.
All or nothing then? Well, that’s what Titanfall set out to achieve with a campaignless
multiplayer experience and, while mostly excellent in design and concept, the game still fell short. Limited platform availability, a questionable AI ducks-in-a-barrel economy system and negative press where some server issues were concerned (not here, we got lucky with this one) could all be attributed to Titanfall’s grounding, but I’d argue that it’s more a question of context and divulgence. And it’s in these two areas (coupled similarly with other nagging ‘issues’) I think Evolve has fallen short of its potential, too.
Interestingly, it’s in Evolve’s wonderful setting and through its gorgeous presentation that the game’s pitfalls begin to shine. As mentioned above, with games like Call of Duty or Battlefield, it’s not hard to relate to setting -- we’ve been hearing about those situations for the better part of a decade and you might either know of someone those situations have affected personally, or even been involved yourself. But I highly doubt any of you have piloted a mech or been sent to a dangerous planet to protect colonists from some very large and very angry native beasts. Nor do I think you’ve embodied a boss-like character in real-life, which leaves the purpose of Evolve more alien than its alien setting.
Evolve's myriad modes break up gameplay in fun ways, but the game's gameplay principle remains the same: 4V1 skirmish. Killing survivors as the monster, or running around the map with a hatched Goliath minion doesn't shift the gameplay paradigm enough, which is one of the game's more prominent hurdles. Less volatile objectives beyond kill or be killed would have been a huge welcome.
That certain irony then, comes in the form of Evolve’s dedication to both a PvP and co-op experience, and how that experience lacks in offering the experience
(or context) required to ultimately deal with either side’s plight. Humans are human, of course, so it’s easier to see the field of players gravitating towards that end of the exciting spectrum here, and so our monster is a misunderstood Frankenstein of game design: a mindless, slow and hulking mess of a character whose investment requires a soft heart and a hard touch for it to be truly rewarding.
While this review is as lumbering in its timing as the monsters I’m talking about, we’ve at least been able to watch the customer and user feedback to what I considered last year would be a competitor for 2015’s Game of the Year, which has been a big boon in wrapping my head around just why such an excellent idea on paper -- why a game I played countless times ahead of release both last year and this year and had copious amounts of fun with -- is potentially tanking.
The two obvious culprits here are environment and deep-ends. The environments in which I played most of the game pre-release were ideal setups with good connections and rooms full of people yelling and screaming at one another. Evolve is a social game; it requires teamwork on one end and sledging on the other. And in its current environment that just likely isn’t happening -- at least not with random matchmaking. It’s an unusual situation because the pedigree here is PC, where LANs and asymmetry do make a lot more sense. If you consider console and what’s the norm there, it’s run-and-gun 12-year-olds smashing older people like me in Call of Duty (at least they sledge, though, I suppose). And that’s where deep-ends come in, because run-and-
clawing at heavily armoured humans capable of even mildly working out a base strategy for dealing with a boss creature in co-op, is not a fun way to learn the ways of the monster.
So there's that Solo option then, but again it's a problematic premise because of the specific roles and abilities of all of the hunters on offer. The AI is going to do what it's required to do and you're going to have to die and be pummeled and trapped and tethered and burnt myriad times before you have the big ugly chops to jump into a game confident of your abilities. Your knowledge of the environment and your poise as that aforementioned boss will take time to grow, and simply mashing your way to victory actually won’t work here -- you’re better off trying this against a bunch of low-level hunters unfamiliar with the game, but I digress.
Playing as the monster is a lot of fun if you know what you're doing, but it can also be a single-track experience. Especially in the basic Hunt mode. There are options to play quietly and with stealth, but your basic tactic is to avoid the hunters, eat and Evolve then either attack/ambush the humans or take out a generator.
The humans, however, have teamwork and exploration to draw upon, and the multi-tooled roles of each creates an engaging flurry of overlapping systems with interesting and rewarding outcomes. Playing as the humans is like being The Avengers against a single Hulk who just wants to be left alone or to Smash!, sure it's cool, but he really only has two gears.
Evolve’s premise is pure and good and games
. Its roots go as far back as boss battles against Bowser, only in the interest of fairness, we get to be
Bowser trying to stomp out Mario. The only problem is we need to learn to be the King of the Koopas before we can do that and that means a lot of dying, and with a field of players that isn’t, at the very least, growing (enough), you’re stuck fighting players who are levels and levels above you if you’ve just jumped in. The unfortunate side to this is the progression system, much like the premise itself, is wonderful on paper. Lose and you’re still rewarded. Win and you’re rewarded more. Focus on specific abilities in said win, and boom, it’s go-time. But the reality of actually playing, using matchmaking as the basis for everything already mentioned, means it’s not as forthcoming or rewarding as that, and a hard slog at best.
What Evolve needs is a bridge that invites context and meaning to the monster, so that you can better understand his or her abilities and their place in the world. Hunting challenges without humans that require taking down an Elite, for example, would free up the tension of being hunted. You could have rival monsters on the same map vying for a specific goal where you’re not required to hurt one another (Phil Robb explained to us out at Turtle Rock last year that they’d tried monster PvP and it just didn’t work) -- or, basically anything where you can play around with the monster’s abilities and traversal capabilities without looking over your hulking shoulder every few minutes. The obvious conclusion I’ve been building to here then, is that Evolve wouldn’t suffer the same schizophrenia as other games if it had a campaign that allowed for player evolution as far as the monsters go. It’s too late now, obviously, but in the interest of chipping away at the increasingly large barrier of entry, it’s an idea that feels right to bring into play in the process of review.
In future it would be great to see some additions to modes and maps like the ones suggested above -- even simple concepts like traversal time-trials where you have to activate gates at varying parts of the map, teaching you to work with a monster’s quick escape cool down, or the basic climbing mechanic -- would be helpful and welcome. It’s stuff a community would likely relish and could allow for more engagement in the game-world and the game’s monsters, beyond basic skirmish or hide-and-seek gameplay.
It really is early days yet, but with such a rich world with great characters and, of course, unique monsters, Evolve could well be suited to allow for community support by way of modding.
Whether that's an official toolset released by Turtle Rock or not would shape how any such initiative played out, but fresh consumer-based eyes on a product that has been long-gestating inside a studio could net some interesting and expansive results in favour of the game's future. Even offering a voting system for modes or maps through the community would help draw players in. Plus, it's part of the studio's heritage with Left 4 Dead still actively being played because of it.
It’s also good timing to publish as the ‘complete’ Evolve package is now available with the game’s fourth monster, Behemoth, available to everyone (for a price, mind) but that barrier of entry starts with the game’s price of admission as well, in that it’s milking DLC perhaps a bit too much for the average person to really buy into. That’s a broader discussion, and not one that sits squarely on the shoulders of Turtle Rock, but needs to be said given, without pre-order bonuses or a season pass, you’re paying $50-odd for four new hunters and a new monster, and as fun as they are (Behemoth is awesome, while Crow and Torvald round out the new humans brilliantly, plus there’s a fricking alien character), they shouldn’t need to be bought this early into a new IP’s lifecycle and, honestly, should have been free and part of the base game in the first place.
There’s so much to love about Evolve in design principle, and even more to love about the world Turtle Rock created here. Shear and its dangerous, native inhabitants are wonderfully realised backdrops and impediments to an ambitious and fundamentally good design goal -- one that sets out from the very start to flip the competitive and co-op shooter landscape on its head. The money side of things should not overshadow the outright shift here to make a smart and engaging co-op and multiplayer experience, but in that ambition an alien barrier has presented itself and it’s easy to see why people have been turning away. Get into a balanced game with friends or colleagues, and you’re almost always going to have a good time, but out in the wild with no general support where matchmaking is concerned you can quickly find yourself in the Wild West. And while the game-modes on offer are fun and engaging, and the scope of a full Evacuation can look good in terms of time-investment and map/environmental outcomes and shifts game-to-game, it can still leave players on a frustration precipice.
What all of this leaves is a Jekyll and Hyde experience for players. There's little room for human vs human real-world match-ups if you're leagues apart in level and experience, and the Solo option lacks the dynamism well-matched human players can offer in a competitive space. The design and thought that has gone into every available aspect of the game is clearly above and beyond the capabilities of so many other studios, but they all fall within the same, simple skirmish arena which, for some, can get old fast. And the lack of context behind map and environmental dynamics is too little to care about, which is a shame considering how much story is bursting at the seams of Shear's native and colonised self.
If it can withstand its apparent lull and plod along with new and interesting additions that not only invite new or scared players into the fold, while mixing up the skirmish component of the game, there's a good chance it will find its legs as a late bloomer. But there's no denying it has an uphill battle. Evolve is a gorgeous and ambitious product that should be celebrated for its lofty goals and ideas, but that it's being brought down to Earth suggests those ideas and goals aren't in line with what punters want. The price of admission should also see some adjustments, and the ability for the game to engage players in PvP, Co-op and Solo needs to be bolstered in a way that changes out the repetitive complaints most who've walked away from it continue to sing.
Evolve deserves its time in consumer hands and is a game that should not be so easily forgotten, but it does need some work to regain momentum.