Evolve Review (Xbox One)
Turtle Rock Studios redefined what a cooperative shooter could be with the original Left 4 Dead. The developer is hoping the pull off the same feat again with its latest, Evolve. Taking place in a future where space travel and planetary colonization is a focus of the human race, Evolve tasks players with defending outposts on the planet Shear from an alien race of dangerous monsters. With a dozen different playable characters, and multiple monsters always on the hunt, Evolve offers players a chance to tame the wilds of an alien landscape. Only in this game, it’s never really quite clear just who is the hunter and who is being hunted.
There's very little beyond the initial premise that Evolve offers as any sort of narrative. Players either take on the role of a monster or one of the hunters, and set forth on a kill or be killed scenario. There are rarely any objectives that are more important than killing the things that are trying to kill you. Where Evolve develops its universe is through dialogue from the rotating roster of hunters available to players. Like Left 4 Dead, the overarching questions of why and how aren't important, but that doesn't mean the various personalities created by Turtle Rock won't try to insert their own reasoning into the narrative void.
The more you play, and the more characters you have at your disposal, the more you'll learn about the elite team of mercenaries hired to clear Shear of its monster problem. The dialogue changes with every different hunter, map, monster, and the longer you play, the likelier you are to hear complete conversations you never came across before. The interactions between some of the more intense characters is especially interesting, and more than conversations will have you cracking up at the absurdity. That's not to say every conversation will be different. There are going to be plenty of repeats, and that's especially true early on when you've only got the base hunters unlocked. Unless of course you purchased one of the deluxe editions or DLC, and you have the whole roster open.
Unlocking new hunters isn't a impossible proposition though, and is actually one of the more enjoyable aspects of Evolve. Each hunter has three distinct weapons and one class-based weapon shared by all, be they Medic, Support, Assault or Tracker. Simply by using a character's specific weaponry enough, you'll unlock the next hunter in that class. When playing as the Medic or Support, it's incredibly easy to rank up quickly, and start experimenting with the others in those classes. The other members in your team will always need healing and shielding. With Assault and Tracker, it's not more difficult to earn new characters, it just takes a little longer than the Medic and Support based on the specificity of those particular class challenges.
It's especially easy to earn more characters when you're working with a competent team of real players, but if you don't have anyone to play with, you can still do everything in Evolve on your own. All the game modes and challenges are available to solo players, and you even have the ability to swap between classes at will to better work out your own strategies, or in a pinch to revive yourself if you go down. The AI is really competent, but not overly so, which was a problem in Left 4 Dead. Often, the computer teammates would sharpshoot zombies from impossible distances, ruining the illusion. In Evolve, the computer is more than capable of holding its own in a fight, but doesn't act like a superhuman.
For the most part, that's also true of the computer controlled monsters. Though you'll likely find yourself playing against another human in that role, you'll come across a game or two where the monster is left to its own devices. Both the Goliath and Kraken are formidable foes, but the Wraith is a complete cheat. It's easily one of the cheapest boss characters we've ever encountered in a game, though we expect Turtle Rock will balance it at some point soon. Seriously, it's almost impossible to take on the Wraith, whether under human or computer control, as its abilities make in an unstoppable killing machine. To a degree, we enjoy a challenge, but the Wraith isn't challenging; it's just plain cheap.
When playing as the monster yourself, Evolve pulls you out of first-person and drops you into a third-person perspective. It's supposed to make it easier for you to grasp your surroundings and plan your attacks, and it does for the most part. There are times however when it can be a bit of a hindrance as it's a bit hard to judge distance to the hunters when engaged in combat. Lining up attacks is crucial when you're forced into a fracas, and there are few things more frustrating than not seeing something in your path because the monster character model is obscuring the view. The longer you play as monsters, the less frequently this will happen, but it does take some time to acclimate to the different view and attack style if you've spent the majority of your time playing on the side of the hunters.
In addition to just straight-up hunting down each other, Evolve does offer a pseudo-campaign mode, Evacuation. Here, you'll play four different game types (Hunt, Nest, Rescue, Defend) across five different matches, with victory conditions that alter the landscape of the next match. These conditions range from orbital lasers that automatically attack the monster to poisonous gas clouds that damage hunters on contact. Winning every match is important in that degree, but ultimately, only winning the final match of Evacuation has any bearing on whether or not the monsters or the hunters survived. Since all of your progress carries over from every mode, you don't have to worry about unlocking anything separately for Evacuation, but know that if you do select a class at the start, you'll be locked into that class for the duration of the series.
Every game mode can happen on any of Evolve's 16 maps, which are all varied and wonderful. It's tough to take in the alien landscapes the first few times you play, as you'll constantly have to worry about being on your toes, but the more you play, the more you'll be able to appreciate the different environments on Shear. It actually almost pays to spend some time playing on your own against the computer just so you can observe all the wildlife and fauna, as well as the derelict ships or busted colony outposts, that provide some context and liveliness to the planet. There are some tremendous sightlines, and the verticality is impressive, too. Every character comes equipped with a jetpack to take full advantage of the terrain, and while it's a great tool for battle, it's also a great way to survey the map from a better point of view.
As great as Evolve runs and looks most of the time, there are some extreme loading times between matches, and connectivity issues do surface more often than not. Evolve's online multiplayer is in no way tormenting as Halo: The Master Chief Collection or Battlefield 4, but dropping from a game mid-match or between rounds of Evacuation is common. There are even times when you'll get dropped from your own private, custom match, which makes almost no sense at all, but the always online aspect can rear its ugly side at any time. When it works though, Evolve's online is smooth and easy, and makes adventuring to the outer range of space a treat.
Evolve stands as a testament to Turtle Rock's unique approach to online multiplayer, and is one of the most enjoyable competitive and cooperative experiences we've had so far this generation. It makes sense given Evolve's lineage, but there was a chance Turtle Rock's great experiment could have failed miserably. Fortunately for everyone, it didn't. Evolve is as beautiful as it is addictive, and even with its online issues, manages to be one of the best examples of what's possible with the current console hardware.
This review was completed with a digital copy of Evolve provided by the publisher for Xbox One.