Editor’s Note: Our full review of Evolve will be out in the days after the game launches on Tuesday to give us a chance to evaluate the servers and online competition in a real world setting. We are also waiting for the promised significant changes for a 3 GB day one patch. These impressions are based on extensive playtime with the game’s alpha and beta test versions, as well as “near-final” sample code provided by the publisher in the weeks leading up to launch.
Squad-based games are hard enough to get right when both teams have essentially the same roster of characters, weapons, and tools to take down the other side. Even if a few of those options are too powerful, at least both sides have an equal chance to take advantage of the broken options, leading to a boring but fair match of equals.
With a game like To develop, balancing is so much harder – and so much more important. In the battle between four fighters and one super-powered monster, if either side is overpowered, the underpowered side will definitely not be much fun to play in the long run. Turtle Rock’s developers have the unenviable task of pumping up one character to be exactly competitive with four others, knowing that a miss by either side could easily ruin the entire game.
So far, those developers seem to have done a pretty good job. In my early play tests with pre-release versions of the game, both the monsters and the hunters have their strengths and exploitable weaknesses. More importantly, both sides are thrown into game situations that make the four-on-one skirmishes fresh and exciting.
Hide and seek with guns
Hunt mode, which is where most of the pre-release focus is To develop‘s various test versions can essentially be split into two very different phases. The first phase can best be described as hide and seek with guns. Gaining a slight head start, the monster tries to hide in the dark, tree-strewn environments long enough to eat some local wildlife and evolve into a stronger force for the final battle. The hunters try to find the monster while it is still weak and easy to kill.
My enjoyment of this stage of the game so far has depended entirely on which side of the chasm I’ve been playing on. As a monster, dodging the hunters is an incredibly thrilling experience in which you constantly have to balance the need to keep moving and the need to stop and kill smaller creatures for power. You’ll also need to be constantly on the lookout, masking your tracks by running through streams or sneaking short distances and using a radar-ping-like sniffing ability to mark any nearby hunters. In this thrilling mode, it’s enough to crash into a loud wooden hut or startle some noisy scavengers to make you jump out of your skin and take cover again.
There’s great freedom of movement when controlling the monsters, who generally seem faster than the fighters and can make use of a slow-charging sprint to get away even faster. The ability to climb up walls by holding down a button gives the monster an easy verticality unmatched by the slow, clumsy jetpacks used by the hunters. Hiding like a monster really makes you feel like a wild beast haunted by an unseen but inevitably encroaching force.
On the hunter side, I found the hunting portion of Hunt mode much more frustrating. Finding the monster usually means hunting the glowing trails it leaves on the ground, but those trails can be hard to find and easy to lose, especially if the monster knows what it’s doing to hide them. Some hunters have special abilities that can help with the search – most notably a super-smelling dog that can pinpoint the monster’s location – but none of these really make the hunt a random walk through what are usually very dark environments.
I’d spend a lot of time following tracks in one direction, only to hear the monster sound an alarm in the other direction, making me wonder how fresh those tracks actually were. Or I would have set out for a distant call of carrion birds, only to arrive there and hear another call equally distant in another direction. Half the time, it seems, I’d find the monster completely random as I hunted aimlessly for tracks with no idea where to go.
Then there’s the matter of sticking together as a hunting party. This is manageable if you’re playing with a group of friends who all have headsets so you can coordinate the quest. However, when playing with random strangers, this kind of team-based game is a total nonsense. Often your teammates don’t have headsets, which means you have to communicate with in-game “beacons” that indicate certain areas on the map.
In any four-person team, there always seems to be at least one person going his or her own way or staying behind to check out every bit of flora and fauna. Then there’s the person who can’t quite seem to figure out how to use the jetpack to jump the wall everyone just climbed. In a game that relies so much on sticking together – and where a monster can pick off a single, unaccompanied fighter with ease – this becomes incredibly frustrating. Perhaps this problem will be alleviated as the player community becomes more sophisticated and experienced. However, as it stands, I’m sticking with playing the monster (or playing the pretty robust single-player mode) unless you can play with people you know you can work with.