Turtle Rock hasn't been shy about getting Evolve into the hands of players. The developer provided play sessions at virtually every gaming convention over the past year, and offered fans extended alpha and beta sessions before release. That "proof is in the pudding" approach revealed the core gameplay experience of Evolve, but also opened the door to questions about its breadth and longevity. At long last, the final game is here, and remains true to what we've seen before; Evolve is a concentrated and highly replayable experience, if you can accept the limitations of its unique format.
Evolve offers up the flimsiest of narratives to frame its endless 4v1 conflicts. A burgeoning human colony on planet Shear has been overrun by giant monsters, and it's up to a ragtag crew of disparate hunters to hold them off and save whatever fleeing civilians they can. Like in Left 4 Dead, all of the character building happens through in-game chatter, which gets repetitive since players are limited to the first four hunters until they unlock new playable characters to spark additional conversation.
Turtle Rock has made a concerted attempt at fleshing out these hunters' personalities, but Evolve lacks the emergent narrative of Left 4 Dead; it simply feels like a series of loosely connected multiplayer matches. As such, gameplay is king, and Turtle Rock succeeds in serving up two very different experiences depending on which side of the fight you're on. While I enjoy the occasional bout as one of Shear's untamed beasts, the cooperative focus of the hunters is the greater draw for me – especially when teaming up with friends.
Friends aren't a necessity when playing Evolve, but it's important to note that single-player is just multiplayer with bots, and the A.I. performs admirably in some cases and falls flat on its face in others. Computer-controlled monsters are appropriately challenging, knowing when to feed and stage up, when to attack, and when to retreat. A.I. hunters are usually competent, but a single mistake can spell doom for your entire crew, and those errors often stem from your bot companions. You can take over A.I. teammates with the press of a button, but staying on top of your own abilities in the middle of a showdown is work enough, so trying to juggle another character's skills rarely ends well. That said, humans are far more compelling to play with and against anyway, and matches don't require much in the way of verbal communication, so even random online squads are a viable and fun option (after you mute the insult-spewing mouth breathers that plague every online game).
Matches are surprisingly fair, regardless of who is playing. A certain balance in the chaos comes from the sheer variety of playable characters, abilities, and match-affecting bonuses. My win/loss ratio has stayed impressively even, especially in the main attraction: evacuation mode. These five-round pseudo-campaigns sport an auto-balance feature, an overarching puppet master that keeps things as even as possible between rounds. Evacuation mode still doesn't tell much of a story, but the civilians you're saving (or killing) carry over from one round to the next and give a greater sense of weight to each victory and defeat – not to mention a healthy amount of bonus XP that speeds up the leveling process.
Evolve's progression system was criticized during the beta, but is less of an issue in the final release. Unlocking the next hunter in a given class requires gaining a one-star rating in each of the current character's weapons and abilities. A few of these challenges are annoying distractions (like stealth resurrecting creatures as Lazarus), but most make sense in the context of your role on the team and force you to use your whole repertoire. I had every character unlocked by about the 20-hour mark. New hunters and monsters pop up with satisfying regularity, and you can always spam custom and solo matches for the more obscure challenges.
Longer-form progression is largely absent. After you've unlocked the last playable character, all you have to look forward to are incremental stat upgrades to your weapons, a few character skins, and customizable avatar badges. If you're a Call of Duty player who needs an endless stream of unlockables to you keep you interested, you need to look elsewhere. Loving Evolve requires loving the minute-to-minute experience.
Ultimately, that experience is rather limited. No, not because of Evolve's monster count – despite all the pre-release whining about there only being three monsters, I still have fun going up against each beast after countless matches (even if Wraith is a total pain). Rather, the limitation lies in the 4v1 format itself. Nest, Rescue, and Defend are all interesting variations on Evolve's base Hunt mode, but they're still only variations (and are also not currently available as one-off skirmishes in online matchmaking). I would've liked more in the way of variety and challenges, even if it means occasionally straying from the asymmetrical five-player formula.
As it is, Evolve does its one thing remarkably well, and the few other gripes I have – including long, multi-stage load times and the inability to customize A.I. teammates when playing with friends – don't dampen my enthusiasm for playing more. Evolve's matchups offer a lot of replayability and competitive thrills, and I can see myself returning to it consistently in the following months – even if those play sessions do inevitably end with me lusting for more to do in the world.