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Our Evolve Hands-On Impressions

Seeing a game demo is one thing, but actually getting your hands on it is quite another. Anyone can tell you that a game’s controls are responsive or that co-op is fun – especially when they’re on the development team. Turtle Rock let us play Evolve for ourselves when we visited the studio, so we were able to make up our own minds. Did they deliver what the developer promised? Here are our thoughts on the game, based on our hands-on impressions.

The Hunters

Jeff M: The basic controls for hunters are just what you’d expect from a FPS, and I was glad to see Turtle Rock implemented iron sights, considering Left 4 Dead didn’t have them. It’s worth noting, however, that hunters are a lot more agile than your usual FPS protagonist. The jetpack gives you good verticality for scaling cliffs and buildings, and double-tapping the jump button performs a speedy dodge. Because you’re going up against a giant monster and not another guy with a gun, you spend a lot more time trying to dodge your enemy’s attacks. Because of that the gameplay feels a lot more active.

I was also impressed by the teamwork required for players; sticking together in the environment isn’t quite as important as it was in Left 4 Dead, but when you confront the monster, you’re always looking for opportunities to help your teammates or combine your abilities. I also liked not having to worry about ammunition (weapons are balanced by reload times) and figuring out each character’s different skills and tools. 

Ben H: I'm sick of shooting people in games. Even in multiplayer, the few first-person shooter experiences that I play every year wear me out. When I first heard the pitch for Evolve as our potential cover story, I was cautiously optimistic that it would deliver something new to the genre. While visiting the studio we were allowed to play the game for several hours and I came away very impressed. Not only does the game not require you to mindlessly shoot hordes of enemy soldiers, but it's an experience that savors the downtime and tension between encounters. Playing as one of the four hunters can feel like a horror game at times. One match in particular saw the rest of my team wiped out and I was forced to survive on the alien planet for two minutes until the drop-ship returned them to the battlefield. I spent my time hiding in a fern, listening intently, and praying that the monster would stay on the other side of the map.

Jeff C: I'm a sucker for games that let me channel my inner superhero, particularly when it comes to mobility. I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of the hunters are equipped with jet packs. Jeff already touched on them, but allow me to go into them a little deeper. They're accessible by holding in the jump button, and they provide a perfect amount of vertical lift. The guys at Turtle Rock know that banging up against a platform and not having enough juice left to climb up to it can be frustrating, so they created a solution: If you're within a reasonable distance from the edge of a platform, be it a rock or manmade construction, your character enters into a quick animation of your hunter grabbing onto the edge and hoisting herself up. You don't lose much momentum, either, which is great.

Our Favorite Hunters

Jeff M: I spent most of my time playing as the support class (i.e. Hank), and really ended up enjoying the role. No matter what the situation, there was always something to do, whether it was defending allies with Hank’s shield gun, scaring off Goliath with an orbital barrage, or slinking away under the cover of my cloaking device when everyone else on the team was dead. Even though I didn’t spend a bunch of time attacking Goliath directly (although Hank’s laser deals a fair amount of damage), I still felt like I was contributing to the team in a meaningful way, which made me choose him time and time again.

Ben H: My favorite hunter to play as was the Griffin, the trapper. When hearing the pitch for the game I didn't expect the human character designs to be so exaggerated and Blizzard-esque, but it works within the world and the look of Griffin immediately caught my attention. His harpoon gun makes him incredibly valuable to the team as he's able to constrain the monster's movement and keep it on a leash away from teammates that are in danger. The highlight of my playtime with Griffin was employing his mobile arena. His special skill creates a force-field dome that beautifully descends and can trap the monster inside. This is especially useful early in the game when the monster is in his weakest form and is focused on avoiding combat. It's incredibly tense and satisfying to watch the mobile arena descend while you hope that the monster wasn't able to escape its reach. Griffin also has a decent machine gun and it should be noted that all hunters have jetpacks with a generous amount of regenerating fuel. Flying around the map as any of the hunters feels great, and I'm glad that this isn't restricted to one class/character.

Jeff C: I was fortunate enough to check out all of the hunters during our visit, but I enjoyed playing as Val the most. I'll enthusiastically take on any role that allows me to keep my teammates alive, so I generally gravitate to medic and other support classes. I was pleased to see that her role went beyond blasting my squad with a healing ray. In particular, hitting the Goliath with the tranq gun – a weapon that temporarily slows its motions to a crawl – was an effective move. I could hear the Goliath player groaning whenever I was on a roll with the gun, especially when Griffin was also immobilizing the beast with his harpoon gun. Once his movements were slowed, it was easier to chip away at the beast's armored skin with the anti-material rifle, a nasty gun that essentially turns everything it hits into a weak spot like an old-school boss battle.

Playing As The Goliath

Jeff M: Playing as Goliath is a completely different experience than being a hunter. The third-person perspective is great for giving you a view of your surroundings, and for showing off how cool your attacks are.

Starting a round as Goliath is terrifying, as you know the hunters are immediately gunning for you in hopes of catching you before you evolve. Goliath's charge and leap abilities help you stay ahead of the pack, as does climbing up objects in the environment. Evolving to the third and final stage is empowering, as is tearing through your opponents, lighting them on fire, or downing another hunter that’s trying to help an incapacitated ally.

On our second day at the studio, I played against a skilled team of hunters (controlled by Turtle Rock developers) who had no problem running circles around me – sometimes literally. It was a bit overwhelming, and I was reduced to blindly lashing out at whoever was closest to me until I finally died. Even though it was a bit embarrassing, I still had fun, and it made me eager to get in some more practice.

Ben H: Each match allows the monster to get a bit of a head-start, so my strategy when playing the monster Goliath typically involved running a safe distance away and then switching to stealth mode and sneaking off into the forest or up a cliff so that the hunters would lose track. All I thought about when playing the monster was staying away from the other players and eating. There is wildlife all over the map and Evolve starts to feel like Spore at times as you focus on hunting down and quickly devouring smaller wildlife in an attempt to build up enough strength to evolve to the next, more powerful level. There would always be a rude awakening from this cycle as I'd see flashlights from the hunters in the distance or hear a player yell "He's over here!" It amazed me how the monster could seem so scary and imposing from the hunter's perspective, because I felt like a flailing idiot when playing as the monster. Throwing rocks does an impressive amount of damage and keeping a stream of fire on a flying hunter is satisfying, but most of the time I'd find myself forgetting that I was tethered by the opponent's harpoon gun and punching the air in front of me. I used stealth more and more throughout our play session as Goliath. My favorite experiences were when I would sneakily climb to the top of a cliff and watch the four hunters walk below, completely unaware that I was so close to them and about to leap down with a devastating attack.

Jeff C: Playing as Goliath was a completely different beast, in every sense of the word. Starting out as an underpowered creature against four hunters was pretty scary stuff, especially the first time. I made the mistake of bolting away from my spawning point, trying to get as much distance between me and where the hunters would soon land. That enthusiasm/panic caught up to me, since my steps scared birdlike creatures into the air. I may as well have fired off a signal flare. Once I was found, death was a prolonged agony. I felt like an immobilized King Kong, getting tethered from a distance while little people stung me from all directions. Over time, I learned that it paid to use my stealth walk. It was slower, but I didn't startle everything on the planet away or leave telltale footprints. I also got better at efficiently hunting the wildlife and feeding, so I could evolve before meeting the hunters. That made life significantly easier, those times that I managed to pull it off. I still was constantly getting tethered, but once I learned to lash my fury (and boulders) toward one hunter at a time, they weren't nearly as intimidating.

Thoughts On Shear

Jeff M: We only saw one map, which contained some kind of industrial facility in a jungle. The layout of the map was wide open (not linear like Left 4 Dead’s levels), and size of the level was impressive; despite playing as a 30-foot monster, the map was still big enough to lose your pursuers. Despite the size, there’s still a surprising amount of detail in the environment – you can see why Turtle Rock didn’t want to try porting the game to last-gen systems.

There are also a lot of AI-controlled alien creatures in the environment, some of which are even bigger than Goliath. They weren’t as much of an immediate threat as the zombies in Left 4 Dead (some even work to your advantage), but it’s still a good idea to stick together. One giant crocodile-like enemy was particularly troublesome, as were venus flytrap-like plants that can capture you if you’re foolish enough to step on them. Even after about three hours of play I didn’t have the entire layout of the map worked out in my head. I’m definitely excited to see the other maps and environmental types the game has in store.

Ben H: We only played on one map that was set in the jungle, but I can't imagine a better setting for this experience. As a fan of Predator and colossal fan of Jurassic Park, the jungle provided the perfect tense atmosphere to hunt down the giant creature. You follow a path of footprints, surrounded by ferns and cliffs, with dinosaur-esque alien life running in herds past you. I've seen some debate online about the size of the maps in Evolve; by the end of our play session I was relatively familiar with each stand-out feature of the map, but I was still impressed by the size of the arena. When playing Goliath you will occasionally attempt to climb a cliff in the open world before realizing that it's unscalable and marking the edge of the map. You won't be tracking the monster across a world the size of Red Dead Redemption, but there is more than enough space in the map that we played to hide and keep the hunters surprised.

Jeff C: Like the other guys mentioned, we only got to play in a jungle level during our demo. I can't think of a better showcase for the game, really. The place is filled with foliage and dense plant growth, which is more than just effective eye candy. Players can hide in the overgrowth, either for setting up ambushes or to catch their breath. The local wildlife is an important consideration as well. Some of the smaller pack animals that run in fear from Goliath will eagerly attack the hunters. Goliath players can take advantage of that fact by leading unwary hunters through paths that they know will lead past aggressive wildlife, and then join in while the other players are distracted.

Closing Thoughts

Jeff M: To me, the most exciting thing about Evolve is the fact that each hunter and monster has its own unique abilities. Every item I tried out had its own nuances and added some kind wrinkle to the gameplay. After playing the game for a couple of hours, it was hard to imagine what the game would be like without Griffin’s harpoon gun, or Hank’s shield gun; I can’t wait to see what other hunters and abilities there are in the final game.

I’m also excited to see what other monsters are in the game. All of our play time was focused on taking down Goliath, but other monsters will have their own play styles and abilities, and require completely different strategies from the hunters. It all sounds like it will be a nightmare for Turtle Rock to balance, but what we played was already a lot of fun. I’m a big fan of games that offer a lot of replayability, and Evolve seems to have plenty of it.

Ben H: This may sound like an odd comparison, but playing Evolve feels playing Mario Chase from Nintendo Land combined with Left 4 Dead. There were more and more strategies building up as we played, but the hook and thrill of the game is simple to grasp. If you're playing the game with a group of friends, I can't imagine not screaming and laughing throughout. I worry that the thrill of not knowing where the monster is or what it's capable of might go away once the game's community has locked in on the best strategies for each situation, but the development team has been playing for three years now and I still had to keep them from screaming while playing so that I could film some of our video interviews in a neighboring room. I'm very curious what the team has in mind to keep players coming back to the game again and again; we didn't learn much about the progression system in the game other than the fact that you'd get more characters and monsters. I saw it as a good sign when studio co-founder Chris Ashton seemed surprised we were having so much fun with just the "basic" first tier characters and monster. Evolve is definitely on my list of most-anticipated games in 2014, and I can't wait for more people to get their hands on it and watch the enthusiasm spread.

Jeff C: We played Evolve for several hours, and I was constantly learning new strategies and tactics during that time. The thing that's easy to forget is that we were only seeing battles with one monster type against four of the same hunters on the same jungle map. The finished game will have more monsters and more hunters, as well as (notice a pattern here?) more maps. They're still not talking about numbers, but we may or may not have seen some art during our visit that points to a healthy amount of variety in all of those categories. I can't wait to see what makes it into the game, and how fundamentally those additions change up what we've already played.

Have any questions about Evolve? Ask them for our upcoming podcast with the developers at Turtle Rock Studios.

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