It’s not just a name, but a statement of intent. To evolve is to refine, to progress, to mature. In nature it’s about becoming stronger, faster, more efficient. This might not have been quite what Darwin imagined when he coined the term ‘natural selection’, but there’s no doubt that Evolve is all about the survival of the fittest.
Indeed, both the game and its developer have had to fight to stay alive already, suggesting Evolve has the right kind of genetic code to thrive. Developer Turtle Rock Studios was responsible for the Xbox port of the original Counter-Strike, before working on follow-up on Condition Zero and maps for Counter-Strike: Source.
But it’s surely most famous for making the brilliant zombie shooter Left 4 Dead, though before development had finished, the studio was subsumed into Valve. It’s since been reformed and refounded by Chris Ashton and Phil Robb, and after a brief fling with mobile gaming with Leap Sheep!, Evolve is Turtle Rock’s first major project since going it alone again.
Evolve faced another battle of its own in December 2012, after original publisher THQ filed for bankruptcy. Among plenty of familiar franchises, Evolve was one of the quickest assets to sell, with 2K Games clearly seeing the potential of this asymmetrical co-op shooter, shelling out close to 11 million dollars to obtain the publishing rights.
With its struggles firmly behind it, Turtle Rock has been able to flesh out its original idea. Evolve is set in a far-flung future, where humanity has left Earth to colonise distant planets. On a world named Shear, however, the indigenous wildlife hasn’t taken too kindly to homo erectus attempting to move in on their territory. This neatly sets up a war between man and beast, where a group of four expert Hunters combine to take down Shear’s most fearsome monsters.
Left 4 Dead is the most obvious comparison, and not just because of who made it. The idea of four players teaming up to take down a seemingly unstoppable force is familiar, even with a swarm of undead replaced by a single powerful entity, and a human player standing in for the zombie thriller’s AI director.
There’s also a dose of Monster Hunter in there, particularly with regard to your interactions with other fauna. As a Hunter you’ll often have to kill smaller beasts en route to your prey, while the big bad evolves by slaying them, eventually entering a cocoon stage which makes it temporarily vulnerable, but allows you to upgrade your monstrous abilities – assuming, that is, you can find a suitable place to hide before emerging as a much more potent force of nature. Whichever side you’re on, the central objective is obvious: slay the Hunters or fell the beast, though monster players will also have a secondary task to complete – destroying power supplies or bases, for example.
"One Trapper tracks the monster with an alien hound, while another uses a harpoon gun to restrict its movement."
The humans are split into four types. Assault class troops have flamethrowers, miniguns and their own personal shield; Support classes can protect their allies, position sentry guns and call upon drones for assistance; Medics can shoot tranquilliser darts into the monster’s hide to slow it down and revive downed Hunters; while the Trapper has arguably the most important task of all, placing beacons that ping whenever the creature passes nearby, and deploying an energy field designed to contain the target. There are different characters to choose from within each class, each with their own bespoke abilities. One Trapper has an alien hound with which to track the monster, while another uses a harpoon gun to restrict its movement.
As all the most successful creatures must adapt to their environment, so the game has metamorphosed over time, with Turtle Rock making a number of adjustments to better balance the game. Only two of a reportedly wide variety of creatures have been revealed so far: the fire-spewing Goliath and the tentacled Kraken, which unexpectedly uses electric-based attacks, including a ferocious lightning strike. Monster players can choose between perks that give them an armour boost or allow them to feed quicker, but they now have greater choice in how their abilities develop. You can choose to be more flexible and adaptable, steadily amassing a range of skills, or to specialise, upgrading your existing powers to make them more formidable than ever.
Indeed, this is a game that consistently offers an array of tactical options. As a monster, you might opt to feed on the local fauna, but they can also be used as a defensive barrier: hide behind some more aggressive creatures, and you might just buy enough time to enter your cocoon while your beastly allies keep the Hunters occupied. Alternatively, you can munch on their flesh to earn evolution points quicker, before secreting yourself in a dark corner of the map. Not that all animals are helpful – flocks of birds might be disturbed by your movements, alerting Hunters to your position. The same, of course, applies in reverse: you’ll know when your stalkers are close when you hear dozens of wings suddenly beating in unison.
“To become a successful hunting squad, you’ll need to communicate and work as a unit.”
Going it alone simply isn’t an option if you’re on the other side. A successful takedown relies on proper teamwork – this isn’t a game where players have the freedom to rush ahead and do their own thing. There’s a reason it’s four versus one, after all. To become a successful hunting squad, you’ll need to communicate and work as a unit. Not that you can afford to take too long organising a plan of action: a certain element of speed is required, lest your opponent get too strong before you even catch sight of them. Even a well-marshalled group might struggle to trouble a fully powered-up behemoth.
All of which means it’s not the most accessible shooter on the market – though in this case it’s no bad thing. Evolve is a game with strategy, depth and nuance on both sides, inviting you to learn its intricacies before you can become confident of victory. Can human smarts conquer raw natural power? That the result is constantly in the balance is part of what makes Evolve so appealing, and helps explain why it feels like the most progressive new-generation FPS to date.