Don’t look now but I’m pretty sure the game demo is dead. In its place are “betas” that accomplish a multitude of things simultaneously. They act as a demo without needing to polish a vertical slice of the game. That’s because they can slice out a portion for QA testing by the general public without paying professional QA testers to find problems with the game. And by limiting access to betas, devs and publishers drum up demand relative to supply to goad people into pre-ordering the game to get into the beta.
Shockingly, this doesn’t bring us to Heroes of the Storm. That’s a column for another day. It does bring us to Evolve. Turtle Rock Studios left E3 with the whole world in its hands after cleaning up most of the major E3 awards. However, 2K seems hell-bent on throwing it all away with their utterly confusing and transparently greedy pre-order, season pass, deluxe edition and DLC scheme.
So when Turtle Rock gave us one last chance to get a taste of Evolve before its February release date, everyone who could jumped at the opportunity. But was this one last taste of Evolve enough to convince me to spend $60+ on the game from the Left 4 Dead developers?
In case you haven’t been keeping up with Evolve, it’s a 4-v-1 asymmetric multiplayer player game that sees a team of four hunters take on one monster. The hunters are tasked with killing the monster. The monster can win by either killing the hunters or destroying a map’s power relay.
Each hunter represents one of four character classes with each class in every game. There is the Hunter class which is your DPS class. There is also the Trapper whose job is to slow or contain the monster to make it easier to kill. The Support class combines a bit of buffing with damage dealing. And the Medic is the healer of the group. Originally, I heard the monster meta was to take out the medic first and maybe the support next because the group will quickly fall without the former and quite quickly without both. I thought it worked well.
Each class currently has three characters with varying abilities with a fourth and maybe fifth characters coming as DLC. The additional characters are unlocking by achieving various goals related to your character’s unique abilities. Achieve the three goals for your character and you unlock the next character in that class. Unlocking monsters works in a similar way.
In order to determine which character you play as, you rank your class preferences between the four hunter classes and monster from one through five. The game will then allocate the classes between the five people in a lobby.
You go through two lobby stages which makes the time between matches agonizingly long. If I was to have timed it out, I’d guess it would have been close to five minutes between lobby and loading times. I’m probably being favourable to Evolve with that estimate because it felt longer. You enter a sort of pre-lobby where you rank your class preference and tweak whatever you need to tweak in the options or whatever. Then you enter the match lobby where you pick your class’ character and a boost for that round. When that’s done, then you load into the game.
Ostensibly, the point of Evolve is for one side to kill the other. The four Hunters are supposed to work together to kill the Monster to win the round. The Monster has two ways to win. It can either kill all the Hunters or it can destroy the Power Relay at the end of the level. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually destroy the Power Relay to win a level. I think I came the closest when I thought I had battered the Hunters into submission but had to kill them all to make a point.
While playing as the Hunters is pretty straight forward as you play how you enter the game, the whole crux of Evolve is the Monster. The Monster enters the game at Level 1 and any half-decent PUG team can beat a Level 1 monster. As the monster kills and eats wildlife, it adds armour and eventually can level up. That unlocks new or more powerful abilities, something not available to the Hunters. At Level 3, the Monster will have a total of 9 ability points to spread between four abilities that max out at three points each.
Once the game gets to Level 3, it’s almost always the Monster’s game. Take out the medic or support and the rest quickly follow without much problem. I’ve been on teams that have taken a Level 3 monster down to half-ish health but the fight gets nearly impossible at that point.
I suppose that swing in balance of power over the course of the game is really the interesting mechanic of the game. If you’re playing a good tracking team, the monster is in trouble. I only really found success as the monster when I went full stealth mode from the start. Without leaving a trail for the Hunters to follow, I was able to go about my business and get to Level 3 with only one close call. I didn’t even really use more than a third of the map either. They had no idea where I was. I went in circles for five minutes until I got to Level 3 and they were none the wiser.
So I suppose that brings me to the issues with the gameplay. As much as I like the idea of asymmetric multiplayer and the changing balance of power, the only time you’re going to be in a straight-up fair fight seems to be when the monster’s at Level 2. Early game goes to the Hunters. Late game favours the Monster. At those points, only pro level skills can save the disadvantaged side of the battle. I doubt the game’s design is going to change at this stage of the game but there are some buffs on the map. Finding a way to increase access to those for Monsters early and Hunters late can help balance the game from being lopsided at those stages.
There is a campaign mode in the game that was available for players in the Xbox One beta to preview. The Evacuation mode is playable in both single player (as what seems to be the only single player game mode prior to some seemingly inevitable unannounced DLC) and multiplayer game modes.
The Evacuation mode cycles you through the five maps and four game modes that will be available at launch over a five-day evacuation period. The game modes are the standard Hunt mode, Nest (where hunters have to destroy a bunch of monster eggs or kill the monster), Rescue (where monsters will attempt to eat more colonists than can evacuate) and Defend (where hunters are defending an evacuation point that the monsters are trying to destroy).
Turtle Rock’s big claim is that each play through will be unique as the game will factor in a boasted 800,000 variables in determining what happens in the next stage of Evacuation. On the official website, they use examples of an AI companion and increased wildlife as benefits for the monster if it wins and fences and turrets should the hunters win rounds. How many different benefits we’ll see and whether Evacuation sessions will actually seem different probably won’t be known until people get some time with the game.
The beta also included a tutorial mode to guide you through play as the Assault class and the Trapper class (if memory serves that was the second class). There was also a tutorial on playing as the base Goliath Monster as well. While they were helpful in getting up to speed, getting thrown into a game that someone else dropped out of as the Kraken monster showed that they could be a little more extensive so that people aren’t hung out to dry when accidentally or intentionally thrown in control of a new character.
The addition of a single-player campaign will help immensely. After all, if you can try a new character, be it hunter or monster, you can get up to speed with a little bit of a safety net. That’s why you’ll see people in MOBA play against bots. It’s not to feel good about being better than noobs. It’s about learning what they’re doing with a new or rebalanced character. The same principles would apply here.
The game itself is built on the latest iteration of the CryEngine. It’s a graphical powerhouse of an engine but it isn’t cranked up to full Crysis-level photorealism. That’s probably a good thing because of all the foliage and effects that have to be rendered on screen. Now, my rig has aged quite quickly in the last year-and-a-half but it still has some pretty good specs. The problem is that there’s a lot of foliage. If you want to salvage some framerate, turn down the foliage detail.
Apart from that, I often found that I was hurting for framerate in combat. If the Monster ever tried to engage me in close-quarters combat: 1) I was probably dead very quickly; and 2) I never had a chance to save myself because my framerate would tank when the monster tried meleeing me. If I was able to keep my distance, I never had a problem with the framerate. It’s just in CQC situations that I would have that problem. I suppose that it would be ideal for a Hunter to keep that distance but it’s not always possible.
In terms of internet connectivity, I had a few instances where I was stuck searching for a pre-lobby forever. It wasn’t going anywhere after five minutes so I tried restarting the whole game to get into a match. I don’t know whether that was a server problem or just the actual availability of games but if it’s the server, launch day will be a nightmare. I also heard of some lag issues but didn’t have anything to noticeable myself. I guess that’s unless those framerate drops were really lag spikes.
I’m going to dodge the DLC and season pass arguments when assessing Evolve’s beta since those weren’t being tested in the beta. That being said, it’s probably worthy of its own column in the next week.
But Evolve isn’t too bad a game in its beta state. The multiplayer hunt mode is likely to be where everyone is going to spend their time and it’s apparent that Turtle Rock spent a lot of time working on it. I couldn’t really tell you what makes one map different from the next but they have their own little nooks and crannies to help and hinder both hunters and monsters alike. And the hunters and monsters do have some personality built into them which is hard considering that story is really an afterthought which isn’t surprising for the devs behind Left 4 Dead.
There are some downsides that keep me from giving this an unqualified endorsement. We’ve only seen one game mode. One game mode does not a game make which means there’s a lot we haven’t seen. The somewhat random selection of your class in a game is a problem if you aren’t a fan of the class you’ve drawn. When I play a MOBA, no one wants to play support except for me (for the most part) so I don’t have that problem here. In this instance, I’ve seen people uncomfortable with a class blow it for the rest of the team because they don’t know what they’re doing and getting ripped into as a result.
So until we actually see what’s waiting beyond Hunt mode, I’m not sold on spending the $60 (plus who knows how much for all the characters) at launch. I’m sure it’ll be available for closer to $30 when we get to the 2015 Steam Holiday Sale. I’ll reconsider when we’re at that point or maybe even at $40-ish in the summer. For now, I’m not seeing anything that draws me in compared to the rest of the FPS crowd and I’m starting to come around to playing games like Titanfall and CS:GO. This just isn’t for me but I never thought Left 4 Dead was the greatest thing since sliced bread either.
The Evolve closed beta was reviewed on PC but was also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (where it included a preview of the Evacuation single/multiplayer campaign mode). The game will be available on each of those platforms on February 10th. The impressions of the game as written do not necessarily represent the state of the game at final release. Your impression of the game may differ based on platform played on, PC specs, your fondness for Left 4 Dead and your personal views on how much of this world mankind should actually share with the other creatures on it.