Guess who’s coming for dinner? Evolve pits a single giant monster against a team of four humans, with all five controlled by players.You know a game preview is going well when a bunch of video game journalists decline a trip to the pub so they can play one more round.
Evolve is still at least eight months away from release, but it is already astonishingly well-balanced, tightly designed, and just plain fun. I have never before seen a room full of video game journalists turn down a trip to the pub so they could play one more game.
The brainchild of Turtle Rock, the amateur team of Half-Life modders who turned professional on Counter-Strike, and then produced the seminal co-operative shooter in Left 4 Dead, Evolve feels like a hybrid of everything they have done previously, but turned up a notch.
Like Left 4 Dead, it features a team of four human players who have to work together to overcome a monstrous threat, but in Counter-Strike style these four are now distinct classes with extremely diverse skills. The enemy itself is something new: a human-controlled monster that grows and evolves over the course of the game, becoming larger and more dangerous with each new stage. This four-against-one gameplay is the core of Evolve, with all other game design fitting around it.
During the preview event I had the opportunity to speak to Michael J. Boccieri, Senior Producer at publisher 2K Games, who is overseeing the entire project. As we sat down to speak, I joked that there wasn’t much to say; we could just write “from the makers of Left 4 Dead” and millions of gamers would just start throwing money. Boccieri laughed and agreed. “Yeah, it’s an easy product to sell. We really just have to get people to play it, and it just sells itself from there.”
He wasn’t kidding. Rarely have I seen a room full of game journalists, a notoriously picky and hard-to-please bunch, completely engrossed in a game, complete with celebratory fist-pumps and anguished cries of “No!” Considering it won’t be released until late in the year, it already feels remarkably complete.
Evolve’s origins lie back in the days just before Left 4 Dead was released, when Turtle Rock was considering what they might like to do next. “They came up with the initial idea back in 2008, but they put it to bed while they finished off their DLC for Left 4 Dead 2,” Boccieri told me. “There’s been a lot added to it, a lot of polish, but at its core it’s still that same core idea: monster versus hunters.”
The idea would sit on the backburner for several years while Turtle Rock worked on other projects, but in late 2010 they had split amicably from Valve and become an independent studio and they decided that the time was right to make Evolve. At first it was set to be published by THQ, but after the publisher’s bankruptcy the title was picked up by 2K.
Boccieri explained where the core design came from. “They focused on the idea of four classes on the hunter side because of what they’d learned about co-operative play on Left 4 Dead,” he said. “Four is the magic number, the greatest number of allied players that a player can meaningfully keep in their head and still know what everyone is doing. Outside of that becomes a little more broad, and you end up just putting your head down and doing your own thing, like in Call of Duty or Battlefield, and that doesn’t lend itself to co-operative gameplay.”
“On the class side, that was Turtle Rock wanting to build a little more depth into co-operative play. In Left 4 Dead, even though there’s strong characterisation, the four character pretty much play the same,” he said. “In Evolve, we still have the deep characterisation, but each one has a completely different set of abilities.”
The classes seem familiar at a glance, but the longer you look, the more interesting they become. Take the medic, for example. Her core class ability is called the healing burst, a momentary aura that heals all allies within range as well as the medic herself. She also has a healing gun that can only be used on other players, not herself. So far so standard.
Things get odd when you look at her other abilities. Her offensive weapon is a slow-loading but powerful sniper rifle with a long-range zoom and the ability to punch holes in the monster’s armour that become weak points where her teammates can shoot for bonus damage. Her other weapon is a dart gun, which both tranquilises the monster, slowing it down, but also tags it for ten seconds or so, meaning the whole team can see where it is.
The other classes are equally quirky. The support class has a handheld shield gun that he can use to shield teammates from harm. As long as he keeps the beam on them, they cannot be hurt. However, he can also call down a devastating orbital strike that takes several seconds to warm up, so he needs his teammates to hold the monster in position. He can also cloak himself, an ability that also cloaks any teammates standing near him.
The trapper is stranger still, with a wonderfully diverse set of abilities. He can plant sound-detecting spikes in the ground to detect the monster’s movement, harpoon the creature with an electric tether that may hold it in place just long enough for the orbital strike to warm up, and can also drop what’s called the “mobile arena”, a glowing dome that traps the monster in a small area to be shot to pieces.
The most straightforward is the assault class, which Boccieri and I both referred to as the “bullet hose”. He has a powerful lightning gun that only works at short range, and a weaker machine gun for longer range. He can also drop mines all over the battlefield and enable a personal shield that stops him being hurt for a few seconds.
Here’s the kicker, though: in Turtle Rock’s opinion, these four aren’t diverse enough. “Within each class there’ll be different hunters, and while they’ll fit the description of what that class does, they will have completely different abilities from other hunters in the same class,” Boccieri told me. “They’ll be a variation on the idea of an assault class or a medic class. They really get right down to the core of what any one class is supposed to and really pushing the boundaries of how that role can be performed.”
So while every medic will have the healing burst and every trapper the portable arena, every other weapon and tool will be part of a larger pool that can be mixed and matched, completely changing how that class is played. Even the monster is variable, with Boccieri explaining that the development team considers it to be another class. In the time I played, it could choose between a leaping attack, throwing boulders, breathing fire, and a powerful charge, but I am told there will be even more to choose from in the final game.
On top of that there is an advancement scheme for each weapon and tool, with all of them gradually improving as they are used successfully in matches, and also unlockable perks that can be shared across all hunter classes. “We’re still tuning the final numbers, but there’ll probably be about twelve hours of play to completely max out one character, but then you’ll have all the other characters to try,” Boccieri said.
With all this customisation, then, is there any chance that Turtle Rock will be able to make sure the game remains balanced? “Absolutely,” Boccieri assured me. “The Turtle Rock team playtests every day, and in order for Evolve to balance between being co-operative and competitive, the win rates have to net out towards 50/50. That is the design team’s goal, over time. Any time they tune anything, it’s tuning toward that balance.”
“It’s kind of a bold goal, making the game as balanced as possible while also allowing this breadth of experience that allows players to come back to it again and again, but I think that the pedigree of this team , given their background with Counterstrike and left 4 Dead, means they could really pull it off. It helps that they’ve limited the scope in all cases to four versus one, which keeps it refined enough that the design decisions don’t broadly impact the game and throw things way out of kilter.”
There will also be a variety of game modes, though no others have so far been revealed. Even so, Boccieri explained that they will all share a common theme. “Every game mode is a variation of the four versus one gameplay, where the hunters will have to co-operate to win and the monster is always alone. Other than that, the other modes will be variations on that core structure. There’s also a whole lot of different maps, with a variety of different environments, different wildlife.”
Oh yes, the wildlife. The maps are populated with AI-controlled animals, most of which are benign, but some are aggressively territorial or just plain hungry. The monster can kill and eat these creatures to gain armour and work toward evolving to a new level, while the hunters will just have to defend against them. There will also be tougher elite monsters that will drop a temporary upgrade, like regenerating health or faster reload times, and both the monster and the hunters will want to pick those up.
There is little more I need to say other than, “It’s by the Left 4 Dead guys. Get excited.” It really is a great game on its own merits, though. The monster can be tricky to learn, but it’s exhilarating to play such an unusual character – loping through the dense jungle, eating other animals, clambering up cliffs, and then smashing those puny humans. The hunters are more straightforward, but are still a huge amount of fun to play.
Evolve will be launching during Spring 2014, so somewhere between September and October, on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC.
– James “DexX” Dominguez
Screen Play is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez
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