Evolve: Open Beta Impressions

Turtle Rock’s new shooter Evolve recently began an open beta ahead of its February launch date. We were lucky enough to participate, and can confirm that it is a monster-sized barrel of fun, with fast-paced action, group tactics and heaps of individuality.

Evolve is a five-player, class-based shooter with a unique structure: instead of balanced teams slugging it out for control of an objective or competing for the highest killstreak, the title pits four hunters against one colossal monster. The hunters must use co-operation and superior technology to slay the beast, whilst the monster relies on strength and cunning to triumph.

Online multiplayer generally comes in two flavours; the frenetic ‘every man for himself’ free-for-all of Call of Duty, and the more methodical action of class-focused titles like Team Fortress 2. Turtle Rock has done an admirable job of marrying these two styles together, however, with gameplay styles to suit both the lone wolf and the budding squad leader.

Those that prefer to go it alone, for example, will find themselves best suited to playing as the monster, using a combination of stealth and brute force. Rather than relying on your fellow weak, squishy humans to aid you, you can simply tear through the map laying waste everything in your path.

For the hunters, on the other hand, teamwork is absolutely essential. Evolve features four playable classes: assault, whose main function is knocking chunks out of the monster; support, who augments the team’s abilities with buffs; the medic, who can tranquilise and weaken the monster in addition to making sure everyone stays vertical; and the trapper, whose job it is to find and contain the creature. These skillsets combine to form a greater whole; kind of like Captain Planet, but with guns.

I tended to favour assault (big, dumb bullet-sponge that I am), but after playing as all four classes, I can safely say that they’re all incredibly well-balanced. They all have their various strengths and weaknesses, but no one feels especially useless or needlessly over-powered. Instead, they complement each other, necessitating co-operation between players.

The different skills of the various classes also mean that there’s no room for glory-hunters – try to run off on your own, and you will undoubtedly end up as monster chow. While this encourages a level of tactical play that can be incredibly rewarding, it could also prove a barrier to casual players.

The most enjoyable and successful matches I had were with other players using headset mics, which enabled the hunters to work as a more effective team. When playing as part of a group without headsets, I found that the hunters lacked focus and organisation, and Evolve’s often steep difficulty curve could punish casual gamers that don’t make use of voice chat.

Incautious hunters will frequently find themselves smacked into a different timezone.

Playing as the monster is somewhat less tactical, although there’s plenty of room for strategic thinking. Simply rushing in and stomping all over the hunters is always an option, but you can also bide your time. Sneaking around means the hunters will have a harder time tracking you, which gives you more time to consume the local wildlife. Eat enough, and you can evolve, becoming stronger and more powerful, until you’re a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut.

The controls for monsters are somewhat sluggish in comparison to the hunters, but the game does a great job of making you feel like a huge behemoth, swatting at your ant-sized opponents. The attacks feel weighty and powerful, and the climbing mechanics let you traverse the environment with ease.

The in-game environments are also notable. The maps are well-varied, with plenty of different terrain to explore. Huge amounts of verticality also offer a wide range of tactical options for both sides, and the hunters’ jetpacks make exploring the maps a lot of fun. They don’t handle quite as well as in earlier versions of the game, but I’m inclined to give any jetpack mechanic a pass based purely on how awesome they are.

The visual aesthetic is incredibly strong. Turtle Rock has clearly taken influence from one-time parent Valve in their character design, and each individual character in a class has an immediately identifiable style. They’re all unique and interesting, both in terms of their look and in their incidental dialogue. The banter between characters is also among some of the best I’ve heard recently. It’s plentiful, well-written, and really helps flesh out their personalities.

Evolve’s monster classes feel like playing as Godzilla’s cousin. It’s pretty rad.

The monsters are similarly impressive; each one looks distinctive and intimidating, and the different stages of evolution all look appropriately badass in relation to their strength. There’s a definite feel of the ‘kaiju’ about them, and fans of Pacific Rim will feel right at home with these suitably epic-looking monstrosities.

In terms of pure graphical fidelity, the game looks great. The textures, animations and character models all look impressively detailed, even at the lowest settings. In fact, I didn’t even realise my settings were on low until I’d been playing for over an hour. It’s also got just enough of a cartoonish edge to the visuals to make me think it’s going to age a lot better than other current-gen shooters.

As with virtually all current-gen multiplayer shooters, there’s also a levelling system. By completing matches and specific challenges, you earn XP, gaining perks and stat boosts as you level up. However, there’s also a ‘character mastery’ system, through which you can improve a specific hunter’s gear and abilities. This involves meeting certain requirements with your equipment, such as inflicting a certain amount of damage, or healing your teammates a certain amount.

The catch is that, in order to progress to the next tier and get the big, juicy unlocks (such as new playable hunters), you have to meet the quotas with all of your gear. This forces players to make the most out of their arsenal, and change up their tactics by including strategies they otherwise wouldn’t have. For example, as Assault, I was neglecting the proximity mines for being too fiddly, but after being forced to use them more, I found them incredibly helpful.

One of the main perks of using this system is unlocking different playable characters. Aside from the obvious cosmetic benefits, this also carries tactical advantages, as different hunters have different gear. It’s an interesting idea, and one that provides scope for expansions and DLC in a non-intrusive manner.

Minigun-toting cockney Hyde is a particular high point.

There is one giant problem with this, however. As part of Evolve’s marketing plan, customers who pre-purchase the game will have one additional character automatically unlocked as a bonus: one hunter per class, and one monster. This monster is called Wraith, and it is ridiculously overpowered.

Purportedly a “stealthy assassin”, this monster’s abilities include short-range teleportation, area-of-effect explosions (that also grant buffs to the monster) and the ability to cloak itself and create decoys. This skillset is supposed to make it best suited to hit-and-run strikes, but it’s still a whacking great beast, and can easily go toe-to-toe with a well-organised team of hunters.

While starting monster Goliath is big and strong but hampered by comparative slowness, Wraith can easily run rings around the hunters whilst engaging happily in extended brawls. In six consecutive matches, as part of a well-organised hunting group co-ordinating via headset, my team beat the Wraith a grand total of one time. Most of Evolve’s pre-purchase bonuses remain fairly unegregious, but the sheer level of power at Wraith’s disposal is straying dangerously close to the territory of ‘pay-to-win’.

Aside from this though, Evolve is a blast to play. It’s fun, varied, and puts a unique take on what is by now a well-worn genre. I suspect that this, barring a few minor tweaks (and hopefully a small amount of monster-nerfing), is what we can expect to be playing come February 10. Personally, I’ve got absolutely no problem with that.

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