Review: Evolve

Evolve is the 2010 Miami Heat of video games.

Wait, what? Before you jump straight into my throat to criticize this admittedly bizarre comparison, take a moment to think about it. Some games, like January’s Dying Light, find a way to accomplish everything they set out to without exceeding expectations. Think of these solid, but not necessarily great, titles as the 2013-2014 Brooklyn Nets of the video game world (the sports metaphors will end soon, don’t worry); they’ll find a way to be above average throughout the course of a playthrough, but there are always lurking weaknesses holding them back. Like the aforementioned Miami basketball squad, Evolve hits incredible highs and crushing lows. Its gamer-unfriendly DLC practices are the talk of the industry, much like the acquisitions of LeBron James and Chris Bosh rocked the sports landscape nearly five years ago. There are moments where Evolve seems like the best multiplayer game we’ve seen in years, but its lack of meaningful content and a series of questionable choices leave it weeping on the doorstep of greatness.

Turtle Rock Studios’ 4v1 asymmetrical multiplayer shooter/action title has been the talk of the town at every event its been shown off at. In short bursts, Evolve feels unlike anything else on the market; it’s absolutely loaded with the watercooler moments competitive players are looking for. Whether taking on the Monster as one of the four Hunters, or annihilating everything in said beast’s path, instances of pure bliss will be experienced. At its peak, Evolve is the innovative multiplayer title the world has been waiting for, and to its credit, it’s a brilliant idea (in theory).

Evolve is most easily explained through a description of its heralded Hunt mode. Four Hunters are dropped onto the surface of the mysterious, but forgettable, planet Shear with a simple task: take down the hulking creature terrorizing the area. Each of these four characters (Assault, Trapper, Support and Medic) has a specific role, be it causing damage, trapping the Monster, supporting the team, or healing wounded teammates. As the team of four tracks the Monster using both equipment and environmental clues, their brutish foe has to both evade attacks and eat wildlife in order to evolve into a more powerful version of itself. A Hunt match ends in one of three ways: a Monster victory through destroying a power relay after hitting Stage 3, a Hunter victory by killing the Monster, or a Monster victory through killing every Hunter. It’s a relatively simple idea that occasionally works phenomenally in practice, but lulls in combat can occasionally make games unbearable. Players flock to Evolve for frenetic four-on-one combat, not to follow glowing tracks through a series of environments that often look exactly the same.

When Evolve hits, it hits like a Mack truck plowing through a wall of cardboard boxes. It’s difficult not to laugh when you’re coating an aerial squid beast with flames using a wrist-bound flamethrower. Raining down a barrage of dust in order to coat the elusive Wraith (more on her later) with identifying powder is as ridiculous as it sounds. How can you not appreciate the lunacy in throwing giant rocks at massive sleeping toads? Evolve succeeds when it highlights its inherent wackiness; at its best, it’s the goofiest game of chess imaginable. The problem is that these moments don’t happen frequently enough outside of the appropriately-named Defend mode, Evolve‘s take on tower defense. By targeting the fight on series of singular targets, starting the match with a Stage 3 Monster, and continuously spawning AI minions, those crazy moments you’re seeking occur every round. Of course, Turtle Rock did its best to hide its most exciting game type at the very end of, Evacuation, its “not-quite-Titanfall-but-almost” take on a multiplayer campaign. It’s quite the enigma: if you know what your game’s most spectacular gameplay trait is, why not find a way to highlight it more?

The other two modes, Nest and Rescue, feature exciting moments of cost-risk analysis for the Monster player. Nest tasks Hunters with destroying six eggs, that the Monster can hatch into bloodthirsty minions, before succumbing to the lone beast. Rescue, somewhat similarly, requires the Hunters to heal five NPCs and deliver them to recovery points on the map without letting five of them die at the hands of the Monster. While both of these modes are essentially the same thing (one side defending a number of objectives while the other side tries to destroy them), they provide a nice change up from the standard Hunt mode. However, like Defend, these modes are largely tucked away into the ever-changing Evacuation campaign, which provides a distinct advantage to the team that wins each of the four rounds before the final Defend showdown. Both the Evacuation Campaign and each of the four individual game modes can be played alone against some smart, but frankly not smart enough, AI for a combination of mild pleasure and progression reduction. According to one of Evolve‘s many unskippable tutorial videos, there are over 800,000 different possible Evacuation campaigns, though said video fails to mention that a minor twist to the same four game modes doesn’t equate to endless replay value.

Perhaps the biggest issue with a given match, especially for those playing as the Monster, arises when Hunters discover the enemy too quickly. This generally leads to one of two situations: the Monster dies within five minutes, or a painfully drawn-out chase sequence. Evolve is at its most satisfying when a group of thoughtful Hunters manages to outsmart a high-powered foe in one or two intense bloodbaths. While dispatching a Stage 1 Monster strikes the ever important badass chord the first few times, quick matches eventually become frustrating. There’s simply no way to create enthralling moments of all out lunacy when the main battle occurs before it should. Think of it this way: would Call of Duty or Battlefield be half as captivating to its audience if every other match ended in four dominant minutes?

Each of the twelve Hunters fall somewhere on the spectrum between bland and awesome to the point of being game-breaking. For example, Evolve‘s worst character is arguable Griffin the Trapper. Instead of sporting a pet trapjaw that continuously tracks the Monster and heals downed Hunters like Maggie or a downright overpowered tracking dart like Abe, Griffin is able to place five sound spikes around the map with the hope of the enemy stumbling within one’s radius. Take a second to let that sink in. Players can chose between the NPC that heals teammates with literally no effort, the one weapon that completely eliminates the need to actively hunt the Monster, or straight-up guesswork. Admittedly, a vast majority of the characters can be used in interesting ways, especially by a team that understands how to set up a proper squad. After gaining access to the eight locked Hunters (two from each of the four classes), however, player favorites quickly emerge, eliminating experimentation. In a game that needs to maintain its novelty if it has any hope of keeping its player base in a month, the quick development of a permanent player routine is crippling.

The three playable Monsters each have their strengths and flaws, but Turtle Rock has succeeded in making each of them entertaining to play as. Goliath serves as a great introduction to Evolve‘s unique third-person gameplay (which functions phenomenally with a keyboard and mouse), as his ground-based attacks are far less technical than those of Kraken and Wraith. Goliath shares the same biggest flaw with Kraken in that he’s rather slow. In fact, if all three Monsters had their speed buffed, it wouldn’t necessarily hurt the moment-to-moment gameplay, as matches that turn into fifteen minute chases can grow tiresome. The air-based Kraken, winner of the completely arbitrary Whittaker Choice Award, has some of the most exciting attacks in all of Evolve. Evading capture using well-hidden Banshee Mines or using accurate mouse movement to line up a powerful Lightening Strike never seems to get old, and the highly-encouraged top-down battle perspective adds a new layer to combat. Of course, it wouldn’t be a controversial game without at least one highly controversial playable character, and Wraith is no exception to the rule.

Even if Wraith was nerfed to the point where she isn’t winning roughly 70% of her matches (which was the case in the most recent Beta), the so-called glass cannon monster is zero fun to oppose. Because she sports the deadly combination of the highest damage per second and greatest degree of elusiveness, hunting Wraith is an absolute drag. She absolutely can be beaten, as she has the lowest health and shield level of any of the three currently available Monsters, but catching her is more of a testament to willpower than skill. The best Evolve matches tend to arise when a Stage 3 Kraken or Goliath makes one final push for the power relay; the worst come about when a Stage 2 Wraith warps around a mobile arena slashing up players using the Decoy, Warp Blast, and the obnoxious damage-boosting Supernova abilities. There’s nothing less epic than hitting a rapidly moving blur with a bullet or two here and there only to see said blur escape over and over.

All of these early criticisms aside, it’s easy to buy what Evolve is selling (pun fully intended) after a few rounds. It’s nearly impossible to not enjoy those first few hours of frenetic fighting, but a game cannot survive on novelty alone. There’s no way to beat around the bush, Evolve has a bona fide lack of content. Turtle Rock and 2K are banking on players getting hooked into its exciting gameplay moments and never letting go, even if there aren’t any sturdy handholds to grab onto. What makes Call of Duty an annual phenomenon, aside from the hive mind mentality that exists among a portion of its user base, is the fact that there is always something to do. Maybe a certain emblem is catching your eye; perhaps an easy to understand leveling system has you prestiging over and over again. Why not take the time to become a master at one of its numerous modes? Hell, maybe you enjoy unlocking all of the neat weapon camos and class customization options. This isn’t to say that Call of Duty games aren’t without their own set of issues, but it’s tough to argue that each title doesn’t give you a reason to keep playing. Evolve, on the other hand, feels noticeably light on substance, be it unlockable rewards, customization options, or game modes. If your game doesn’t include a single player campaign, you better make sure that it’s loaded with more multiplayer content than players know what to do with. For a title that’s attempting to become its own platform, it certainly starts to get stale around the 15-20 hour mark.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper Evolve review without addressing the expensive elephant in the room, and how said elephant negatively impacts the grind-fest that is the progression system, so let’s dive right in.

Evolve feels like an incomplete game that expects gamers to open up their wallets in order to get the full package. While its $136 of Day One DLC merely contains cosmetic upgrades, the fact that potential unlocks are hidden behind a paywall make the entire progression system feel meaningless. Hypothetically, if players were earning cool Monster and Hunter skins every few levels, there would be a tangible reason to continue playing after unlocking every character. Instead, we’re left with the framework of a progression system that simply asks players to level up for the sake of leveling up (and for a large number of inconsequential perks, of course). After completing a challenge for each of a character’s weapons and/or abilities, the next character in that class is unlocked. It takes roughly 15-18 hours to unlock every character, and far more than that to hit the overall level cap of forty. To be fair, there is a single skin that can be unlocked for each character through hours of stat-bar filling, but only those who play a single character for an insane amount of time will earn these. At best, Evolve is a low-content game that gives players the option to pay for unique skins. At worst, and more realistically, this is the world’s first $60 free-to-play title that hopes to turn the average player into a microtransaction-loving whale.

What’s worse, after insinuating that DLC would never be intrusive, the first message players currently receive tells them to visit the in-game store. Add this to the downright insulting load screen hint that encourages players to equip skins that they likely won’t get without spending money, and you have a palpable example of the issues within the AAA marketplace. Those who paid $60 for Evolve have every right to be offended by what Turtle Rock and 2K are trying to pull off here, and no one will blame them for detesting presence of sneaky DLC peddling.

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Closing Comments: 

Much like TitanfallWatch Dogs and DestinyEvolve likely serves as a good proof of concept for what will probably be a superior sequel. Turtle Rock’s unique title has enough novelty to capture player interest for the next few weeks, but it is not a Left 4 Dead level game that will keep everyone engaged for years on end. You’ll be in awe of its peaks and frustrated by its valleys. For a brief moment, Evolve seemed like it was every bit as good, if not better, than the pre-release hype suggested. Unfortunately, its shocking lack of content, offensive DLC practices, occasional balance issues and gameplay lulls hold it back from being everything that it had the potential to be. Don’t be surprised if, two months down the line, you find yourself asking, “Hey, whatever happened to Evolve?”