A diary of sorts, wherein I moonlight as a games writer. Under haphazard construction.
Evolve’s one of only a couple of games which I am seriously looking forward to at the moment, so it was absolutely awesome to get to see it at London ComicCon a couple of weekends ago. I didn’t actually realise it was gonna be there, or that there were even any builds being shown to the public yet, otherwise I’d probably have tried to get in a bit earlier to avoid the massive queue. I only got to play a single game, which went catastrophically badly, but the two-plus hours felt well worth it, and I can’t wait for the October release.
Following on from Left 4 Dead, Turtle Rock studios’ previous game, Evolve’s another co-op first person shooter built around a team of four players, but that’s about where similarities end. Rather than fighting through linear stages against waves of regular and super-enemies spawned by an AI director, in Evolve a fifth player takes the role of a fucking huge boss monster which the team of four hunters are being slowly (or in our case, quite suddenly) eaten by. Or, like, actually hunting, I guess, if they’re not entirely incompetent like we were. The hunters pick from a variety of distinct classes with unique weapons and abilities from damage skills and traps to buffs and healing, a departure from Left 4 Dead’s colourful but identical cast, and benefit from light RPG elements in the form of persistent skill specialisations. The monster player has a choice of different beasts to play, each with their own powers and stats and different upgrades to pick every time they Evolve.
Evolving’s kind of the core of the game really, as the monster’s ultimately just trying to grow as big and bad and scary as possible as quickly as possible by eating the local fauna, whilst the hunters are trying to do their utmost to swiftly track it by leaving traps and following environmental cues, so that they can deal tons of damage and shut it down before it gets too tough to handle. There’s only three levels for the monster to go up, so each takes quite a lot of work, and every time it manages it is a major headache for the team.
The impression I got was that unless you make significant progress against it whilst it’s relatively weak you’ll stand next to no chance once it hits max level. This is why teamwork and communication are absolutely critical and where we failed hilariously. Running around playing follow-the-leader in a tight, scared, relatively quiet group we just couldn’t cover enough ground to track the monster down and tighten the net. In the entire round, which I think must have been maybe 20 minutes or so, we saw (not even encountered, saw) it only twice before it hit max level, and in this time maybe dealt 1/100th to 1/50th of its total life in long-ranged potshots.
Our loss didn’t actually come from getting wiped out, however. Each map (for I don’t think it was specific to just the one we played) has a timer, which when expired triggers some sort of special objective to mark the end of the round. In our case, this was a power core which the monster could destroy to instantly win. It’s a brilliant bit of design, giving both sides a static location to converge upon and guaranteeing that even in the most cat-and-mouse rounds like ours there will always be at least one dramatic finale.
After we were informed of the power core’s activation we immediately started looking for good defensive positions around the entry points to the building, whilst a string of notifications about unsettled birds warned us of the direction and speed of the monster’s approach. When I sighted it through my sniper scope, doubled in size and ferocity since we’d last set eyes on it, it was just breathtaking. No longer a slinking, skulking behemoth, scared of how much damage we could potentially deal and quick to flee our stinging guns, it had become an absolute mammoth tank, and it was clear that the dude playing just fucking knew it. I hit it with a tranquillizing tag, which sapped its speed and marked it on the map for everyone, but it was a bit late for that.
Given Turtle Rock’s amazing work with Left 4 Dead’s beautifully atmospheric environments it goes without saying that the map we played on was astonishing. Dark trails through the massive forest’s lush undergrowth wound around huge rocky outcrops and boulders, breaking up line of sight and ensuring that the monster never felt too easy to spot, even with the luxury of jetpacks to help us get around. It felt technically as well as visually striking. If our monster player had been so inclined, he’d have had plenty of perfect locations for ambushes, seemingly infinite to our paranoid and slightly terrified minds, and I’m sure with a bit more organisation we could even have used some of them to flip the tables on him.
I love the core concept of Evolve, which has been brilliant fun in the past in mods like Hidden:Source and stuff like Unreal Tournament 2004’s Mutant gametype, but the detail in the map was what really stood out for me. Things like the glowing clawprints on the ground, the flocks of easily-disturbed birds and the remains of dead wildlife, which not only served as our vital clues for tracking the monster, but added a fantastic layer of visual depth to the environment. I’d love to think that one day I could turn of the glow and the flashing UI element screaming “BIRDS WERE DISTURBED OVER THERE” and track simply by reading the environment alone. The fact that it feels like that’d be possible should say a lot about the lasting impression I got from my brief experience with the game.
Only one monster and four classes have been revealed so far, but I can’t wait for the press machine to start ramping up a bit and revealing more info. A new monster or two at E3 would be sweet. The balancing act between making them feel powerful and dangerous but not entirely unstoppable is going to be a very fine one, and its’ gonna be interesting to see just how Turtle Rock go about it whilst keeping each monster and team member feeling distinct and cool. I hope they’re brave enough to experiment with weird stuff, like maybe some kind of constantly-separating gelatinous ooze or something which makes use of false tracks and misdirections.. I’m equally excited to see what other maps are going to be playable and how the different locations (snowy places? rocky places? urban places?) are going to impact upon the tactics each side has to adopt.
So yes, very much looking forward to it! Release is October 21st, which I hope means we’ll get another chance to play it at Eurogamer in September.