How do you take down a colossal creature that constantly grows in strength? With help from three other friends, of course! Turtle Rock Studios - the makers of the legendary co-op franchise Left 4 Dead - have released a spiritual successor in Evolve, an asymmetric shooter that carries over many of its gameplay elements from the developer’s landmark zombie-filled FPS. But has Evolve surpassed the near-perfection that Left 4 Dead established in the realm of co-op first-person shooters?
The developers truly have created a game unlike many generic military shooters released in recent years. Evolve features a vast alien world occupied by two uneven teams; one consisting of the Hunters (humans who are trained to track down and kill large game) and the other being a Monster, a beast who's trying to reach its prime form and destroy its pursuers.
I feel that Evolve works really well in accommodating both co-op and lone wolf players. Evolve offers many varied game types such as "Defend", "Nest", and "Rescue" - all of which are fun in their own right. "Hunt," however, holds the bread and butter mechanics of the game. In this mode, the player controlling the Monster begins the game with a head start, giving it time to distance itself from the Hunters and feast on the surrounding wildlife in order to grow stronger. Soon, the Hunters freefall onto the battlefield and the chase is on.
Each of the four Hunters serve different roles for the team, which is where the co-op elements in Evolve truly shine. The Assault class is equipped with enough firepower to deal heavy damage to the Monster, the Medic class keeps everyone as healthy as possible, the Trapper tracks down the Monster and traps it in a mobile dome, and the Support class...well...supports the team in various offensive and defensive ways.
With three Hunters to choose from in each class - all carrying different skillsets (plus their standard class ability) - there's a lot of strategy that goes into crafting the perfect team. I was glad to see that Turtle Rock included this sort of customization, as I felt that it would’ve been a great addition for Left 4 Dead and its sequel.
To get the most out of your team, the key is to choose the correct character for each class while keeping in mind the type of Monster in play. The player who assumes the Monster role has a choice of three beasts to play as: Goliath, Kraken, and Wraith (with more coming as DLC). For more of a ground-based, Left 4 Dead Tank-styled experience, players should pick the Goliath. If you prefer a long-range, aerial combat playstyle, the Kraken is the choice for you. Finally, the Wraith is for the sneakiest of players who thrive on hit-and-run tactics.
Though I do enjoy leveling up characters and their perks through playing matches and using Hunter/Monster skills, there's little in terms of customization overall. I found that only about half of the perks available are really worthwhile during a game of Hunt; increasing your damage output or decreasing the recharge time for your jetpack are both crucial, while other skills are less so. Still, the game gives you plenty of options when it comes to perks, and supports a wide variety of play styles.
Evolve really shines when played with a group of friends. However, I can easily see the game lose its luster over time, as the main objectives in each match rarely ever change. Hunter gameplay largely focuses on hunting and killing the Monster, though players can kill various breeds of wildlife to produce player limited-time buffs. This element wasn’t especially strong, though - I didn't find it very difficult to obtain a buff and keep it before finding another in a short time span (only one buff can be applied at a time).
I also found that Hunters have to do an extreme amount of jetpacking to keep up with a good Monster player, and there’s not nearly enough time to close the gap. An experienced Monster requires the Hunters' Trapper or Support classes to be on their A-game most of the time and have keen insight as to where the Monster is traveling to next. For example, Daisy (the Hunter Maggie's alien pet) can seek out the Monster's exact location, but moves at such a slow pace that any skilled Monster player can easily sneak around, ingest animals, and take its time in evolving to its more powerful Stage 3 state without being discovered, giving the Monster a distinct advantage.
As with most co-op games, doing well in Evolve requires thoughtful planning and constant communication between teammates. This means that having human players is, without a doubt, key to being successful in online matchmaking. While bots occupy any open slots available, I’d still try to find a solid group of four to go into online with, and for good reasons. For example, if you’re not running with your full team constantly - or at least in pairs - the wildlife and Monsters can surprise lonely teammates and destroy them one by one without struggle. Having a human teammate around to fend off enemy creatures and free a player from their grasp faster is a game changer, similar to how players dealt with Special Infected attacks in Left 4 Dead.
Some of the most intense parts of the game are during Stage 1 of the Monster's evolution. This is the Monster’s most vulnerable stage, so the potential for Hunters to track and trap it before it has the chance to evolve definitely changes the pace of the game. At Stage 1, the Monster will either have limited attack options or its attacks won't pack enough of a punch to ward off the Hunters before they do permanent damage.
On the flipside, if the Hunters let the Monster reach Stage 3, there is little chance they'll survive the final attack, provided that the Monster knows what it's doing. Though the developers of the game have stated that the game’s balancing is ridiculously refined, I still feel that core mechanics like the Hunters' locomotion should be retouched, as the Monsters usually have the advantage when it comes to using the terrain to their benefit.
If you simply want to play a few quick rounds by yourself, then Custom mode is a great way to start gaining experience points quickly with characters (coupled with the Evolve: Hunters Quest mobile app). Evacuation mode also plays very similar to how a Left 4 Dead campaign contains multiple rounds in a game. However, some local co-op features would’ve been a particularly nice addition here, in case a friend would like to join in on a moments notice. As of now, is no local co-op in the game at all, only online multiplayer. Both Left 4 Dead games last gen had split-screen capabilities which are sorely missed here in Evolve. Still, I do find the single player aspects of the game very rewarding if you want to practice a particular mode, Hunter, or Monster before running with online players.
It’s also worth emphasizing that Evolve currently has a ton of downloadable content attached to it. While maps will be free for all players (a necessity, to avoid fragmenting the community), skins and monsters won't, though can still be seen during all matches. The sheer amount of DLC will make the game a little hard to swallow for some; the retail price of the game plus the Season Pass and any future Monster or Hunter additions makes it a significant investment. Still, much of this content is optional, and any resulting alterations likely won’t be significant enough to make or break the online multiplayer. I would only suggest purchasing some to help camouflage your Monster or Hunters a bit better.
Evolve is a game that has great co-op gameplay and the potential to be a standout title of the year. What holds it back is the developer's/publisher's choice to include so much DLC that it turned off many players from the get-go. Still, if you're willing to see past the modern business practices of the gaming industry, then Evolve won't disappoint.
When I wrote a previous editorial about whether or not Evolve could top Left 4 Dead's co-op, I was sure that it could at least rival the game. After playing it a bunch, I can say that Evolve might not recreate the same type of gameplay, but it manages to be a distinct experience in its own right. In the end, they are two separate games that should be appreciated differently. Evolve is a solid addition to Turtle Rock's catalog, and it’s worthy of any co-op junky's time.