Evolve should be a hit in the making—but it could just fall flat on its face.
It's a great concept, a brand new game from a company with form—Turtle Rock, creators of Left 4 Dead—and a fusion of two of the most popular genres around right now: shooters and MOBA. (Replace that with whatever term you prefer to use, in the certain knowledge that not one shit is given about what that is.)
On the face of it, it's not a game whose name should be said while shuffling awkwardly, or coming on a wave of pre-order bonuses and DLC that smacks less of a title with a long bright future stretching ahead of it than a fire sale being run out of a building that is actually, literally on fire. An Evolve-themed Match-3 game on mobile devices, anyone? With microtransactions?
Evolve – Wraith interactive trailer
But not all Evolve's problems are down to anything it's doing wrong. It's likely, for instance, that everyone would be much more excited for it had EA's Titanfall not burned out so quickly—and that was an easily picked-up game with mechs and jetpacks and big explosions. The history of online games has rarely been particularly kind to those that tried to offer something radically different, and even less that demands as much from its players as Evolve does.
Any multiplayer game lives and dies based on its community, and communities are fickle. Not for nothing have most recent successes been in the free-to-play world, rather than full $50+ games with no real solo content to fall back on if the online side doesn't take off.
The basic premise of Evolve is a four-against-one battle between hunters and a monster, all player controlled. The monster begins weak and has to avoid the Hunters early on while it levels up and unlocks its ability, while the hunters have to track it, catch it in a force-field dome, and combine their skills and weapons to take it out. There's more to it than that, including dangerous flora and fauna that forces the hunters to stick together (much like Left 4 Dead used Smokers and other super zombies to punish lone wolves) and the monster getting a choice of skills to power up, but that's the gist—a fast-paced game of hunter becoming hunted.
When everything clicks, it's great fun. The hunters each have special skills to deploy, and the choice of who to take into the field radically shifts the battle. Pick the human character Val as your medic and you get a powerful healing ray for keeping allies alive at the expense of being very visible, while Lazarus prefers to hide in an invisibility cloak and pop-up to revive the dead when they fall. Robot support Bucket can fly his head around the map to track the monster, while Hank can slap shields on the party and call in orbital strikes. Skills are built around character synergies and only come into their own when properly combined—much like a MOBA (see earlier comment about the genre's name), even being a heavy hitter only gets you so far.
The catch is that, before you get a handle on the game's singular selling points, Evolve is a thoroughly miserable experience. It's not just that it feels like a weak shooter—it's that it feels like a bland trudge through a map before a straight-up scrum against a monster that, being piloted by another new player, is likely just thrashing around. To appreciate what the game actually is requires either proper tuition or much slogging through, and more importantly, four other players willing to do the same.
This is very unlikely to ever be a PuG-friendly game you can just jump in and play for an hour. Its reliance on everyone pulling together—hunters and monster alike—to make things fun as well is a recipe for hostility, with the specific character classes and load-outs both helping and exacerbating that. Your job isn't to come up with clever ideas and schemes and feints and tactics, but to play your character as designed and draw variety primarily from the team composition and developer-designed synergies and tactics. It's all very mechanical, making the overall game more interesting, but not without cost.
With friends it's inevitably a far, far better game. At that point though, the risk becomes one of simply getting tired. Evolve's monster-hunting concept doesn't have the raw kick of Left 4 Dead's zombie apocalypse, or the expertise curve of something like Dota 2. It's one thing to be hooked on it, but you really need a full team of friends on voice comms and a competent monster player to go up against before it becomes interesting.
Evolve – Evacuation Story trailer
Having played a few rounds though, it's hard to see Evolve holding its interest. Changing the characters will certainly switch things up, but as yet and from beta reports, you're still functionally doing the same things—a limited strategy hunt, and a boss fight. The monster type Goliath especially suffers here, despite being the game's mascot. It's a bullet-sponge bore that quickly stops being scary to fight.
The result of all this is a game that it's hard to get too optimistic about. It's easy to imagine getting hooked on it for a couple of weeks, playing the maps and modes, trying out the new characters, learning the rhythms and teaming up with friends. It just doesn't feel like something most people will be playing a couple of months from now, when the community has hardened up and learned how to dominate their games, and new players just farting about are no longer welcome.
What made Left 4 Dead such a great co-op game was that it was easy to pick up and, for the most part, intuitive. There were painful lessons to learn, like not bothering the Witch, but they were one-time things and to at least some extent having a complete arse on the four-player team felt appropriate to the zombie apocalypse setting.
Evolve, meanwhile, is a game that looks simple on the surface, whose complexity could—with enough additions, like new maps, monsters and mutations—be what keeps it interesting, but not without being a real barrier to entry. Its rules will either be what makes it more than simply a scrum, or completely suffocates the fun in its crib. It's also unfortunate that despite the DLC and special editions being sold, there isn't a cheap four-player pack that would make it possible for friends to play for less than $200.
However it turns out, right now Evolve is one of the year's biggest, yet most intriguing gambles. The frustration of it is that, in most ways, it's exactly the kind of game that we should want to succeed—something brand new, something that dares to go its own way, something with a cool core concept that deserves to succeed. It's maddening to doubt its chances while less-ambitious games like the latest Call of Duty dance happily into the sales charts, and that's made worse by the fact that Evolve is genuinely a good game when everything clicks.
While such a big question mark hangs over its longevity and players' willingness to play by its rules and take such a huge chunk of the responsibility for making the hunt worth going on, though, it's hard not feel The Fear for its chances. It's just unfortunate that even if Evolve has what it takes to succeed, this could end up a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Evolve is released for Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on February 10.
Follow Richard Cobbett on Twitter.