Like many children, I was afraid of the mythical monster under the bed, but in time, this nightmare fodder gained a face and a name. It was the Sasquatch, a creature I came to fear when watching a cheap television film late at night which demonized the fictitious (or is it?!) beast. I refused to go into the woods by myself for years afterwards, for fear a giant hairy fiend might grab me and abscond with my limp body, for Lord knows what reasons. By avoiding the woods, I could avoid the monster lurking there.
Evolve doesn’t let you hide. This unusual and entertaining team-focused shooter forces you to face a grotesque monster in each and every match, and should you find it, you cannot always flee. Here’s the setup: a four-person team of hunters, each touting very specific talents, is on the prowl. The quarry is a single creature with an appetite for flesh. Not just the flesh of the hunters, but indeed, for the flesh of anything that moves. By attacking the wildlife and chomping down on its meat, the monster evolves through three stages of being, each more powerful than the last. Clearly, the hunters would rather tear the monster down with the least resistance possible, and thus finding the creature quickly, and efficiently destroying it, is a good team’s opening goal.
Would that it were so easy. Should you join a team of hunters, you rely on a particular squadmate to lead you to the beast. That would be the trapper, and while you eventually unlock two other trappers to chose from, Evolve smartly taps Maggie as the initial leader. Maggie makes for a good guide through the ins and outs of pursuit, for she is not a lone ranger. Instead, she relies on her best friend Daisy, an animal called a trapjaw that you might think of as an ugly beagle, or perhaps the result of a hyena and a shark’s unholy coupling. In any case, Daisy is truly woman’s best friend: she follows the monster’s tracks, and leads you to its current location, should all the proper pieces fit in place.
I describe the trapper first because she is the de facto team leader. Trappers Abe and Griffin have their own tracking tools--a pistol that shoots tracking darts, in Abe’s case, and sonic spikes that alert you to the monster’s whereabouts for Griffin. Yet Maggie and Daisy are crucial in those early learning hours, and if they join your team frequently, your first match without Daisy feels rather lonely, as if you’ve lost a buddy and have been forced to fend for yourself under duress. With or without her, this phase captures the essence of a true hunt: it’s tense, simmering with the possibility of a sighting at any moment, and, like a real-life hunting trip (or Sasquatch search, depending on your predilections), there might be stretches of boredom. A sneaky monster crouches to hide its tracks, or doubles back on its own path, thus leaving a befuddling set of paw prints. Even with a veteran crew, Evolve is occasionally the Blair Witch Project of online shooters, replete with creepy noises, signs of a deadly presence, and a whole lot of running around, hoping for something to happen, at least in its central Hunt mode. How long it takes Evolve as a whole to become stale is difficult to gauge, but after close to three dozen hours, I'm not yet ready to leave it behind. If anything, I'm eager to discover more ways to use the landscape as part of my strategy, though I find this world a fascinating enough place that time outside of battle still engages me. If you prefer to run your engine hot, the hunt may not satisfy you.
The hunters chat it up from time to time, trying to keep you invested in the chase, but the dialogue repeats quickly and often. Hunting with my grandfather was as much about telling stories as it was about bagging an eight-point buck (we thankfully never encountered the Sasquatch); if only Evolve had taken the opportunity to regale you with tall tales. Nevertheless, Evolve goes out of its way to mitigate any potential tedium, forcing the monster to attack a power generator, and the hunters to defend it, once the monster achieves the final stage of its evolution. In any case, hunts don’t usually hit the boredom breaking point. There is wildlife to contend with, for starters, though you’ll ignore most of the critters when possible. Yet you can’t always bypass them, either because killing one rewards you with a temporary (but still long-lasting) buff, or because a not-actually-a-rock comes to life and starts chomping on your tasty bits. The world of Shear isn’t hospitable, though humans have certainly tried to tame it, going so far as to build a verdant bird sanctuary on its most chilling map. There’s no story to speak of, but the poisonous creeks and carcasses left by the monster’s predations speak volumes. The visual design deserves some credit for the oppressive atmosphere, bringing to life a planet that clearly isn’t Earth, but is just enough like it to unsettle you--a biological uncanny valley, if you will. Audio wields the true power in Evolve, however, freaking you out with the chitter-chatter of Lord-knows-what, and the squishes and crunches of what-the-hell-made-that-noise...
And then the moment arrives, and the foreshadowed attack occurs. Battles remain fresh and exciting due to an in-game conspiracy devised by Evolve’s many variables: rising plateaus that provide vantage points and break up the line of sight; the trapper’s vast dome, which traps the monster within its confines and creates corners and cul de sacs; nearby creatures that might enter the fray; and the hunters’ own weapons and skills, of course, which damage and limit the monster in various ways. Assault expert Hyde uses toxic grenades that poison the monster and help drive it to different areas; support-class robot Bucket drops floating turrets that pelt the monster with bullets; and tracker Abe slows down the target with stasis grenades.
Audio wields the true power in Evolve, however, freaking you out with the chitter-chatter of Lord-knows-what.
These battles are invariably intense. There are three monsters in total--the ground-pounding Goliath, the airborne Kraken, and the Wraith, master of the hit-and-run. A Goliath skirmish is the most straightforward, typically: the brute attacks head on, throwing boulders and breathing fire, wreaking havoc on your health bar while dramatically tossing you and your comrades through the air. A fight like this can be beautifully disorienting when you find yourself thrown into the underbrush and your visibility is limited, or fall into a nearby river, wholly impotent until you can crawl out. Should you catch the monster early in its evolution, it might take flight, potentially instigating a game of cat-and-mouse as you attempt to trap it before it escapes--which it most often does. That doesn’t mean, however, that Parnell’s rockets might not land a few good shots as it runs, and perhaps Goliath will frighten a flock of birds as it trudges away, alerting you to its current location.
A battle with the Kraken plays out differently, as this peculiar beast rises above you and spits down lightning, a cryptozoological Zeus punishing every hunter with zaps of electricity. The downside of facing the Kraken is that some weapons simply won’t do; if I’m playing as Hyde, I may never get close enough to the thing for my flamethrower to be effective. (Thank goodness for Hyde’s minigun, which spews forth an enormous string of ammo before needing to be reloaded.) Well, there are other downsides, of course--the possibility of your medic getting cornered and annihilated, and the Kraken zapping anyone that should mindlessly rush into harm’s way to revive her. Situational awareness wins and loses matches. As you become more experienced, you learn how to exploit Shear’s vertical spaces, using a jetpack to float to better locations, and putting obstacles between you and your flesh-eating stalker. The game warns you to stick with your team should you wander off too far, and few warnings in video games are so meaningful. There is no room for a chest-thumping supersoldier: Playing hero means your charred corpse shall become monster food.
If you’d rather be the feaster than the feast-ee, you’d best play as the monster yourself, and I confess there are few greater pleasures in Evolve than gulping down a fallen hunter as you would Shear’s grazing fauna. You can eat Daisy too, should she die during battle, though I have pangs of guilt when doing so. She’s such an innocent participant in the proceedings, and besides, she’s cute in her own disgusting way. On the other hand, she needs to die: not only does she lead the hunters directly to me, but she also revives her teammates by licking them to full health. Might as well fill my belly with some Daisy-meat when the opportunity presents itself.
Indeed, playing as the monster is deliciously evil, particularly when choosing the Wraith, which can swoop in, grab a hunter, and rush away, depositing the target somewhere else in the vicinity. Presuming you buy only the basic Evolve release, and avoid collector’s editions, season passes, and the like, you need to unlock the Wraith by playing Goliath, and then Kraken, and leveling up your profile appropriately. Fortunately, doing so is not too time-consuming, though given the limited choices of monsters and hunters, these gates seem unnecessary and unfortunate. (And, of course, they remind you that Evolve has plans for downloadable hunters and monsters that will surely cost you some cash.)
Monstering it up is just as fulfilling as engaging in the hunt, though the pace is different. You spend the early minutes sniffing out the wildlife and satiating your hunger, which not only reinforces your armor, but also brings you that much closer to evolving. You might be a hulking beast, but you’re more vulnerable than you think, particularly at stages one and two. Smart play can yield victory even so, though you’re best bet is to avoid confrontation until you are the brawniest bully you always knew you could be. Just as good hunters are constantly in motion, so too is a good monster, and in this way, the tables turn: the hunted becomes the hunter, and it is the four-person squad that has most to fear.
The tempo changes considerably when you abandon Hunt mode and experiment with other possibilities. There is Nest mode, for instance, in which the hunters must gun down a half-dozen monster eggs ready to be hatched before the monster annihilates the team. The monster, in turn, can hatch an egg to spawn a minion, which tears through the jungle en route to the pack of hunters. Even at stage one, following a minion into a warzone is incredibly tempting: not only does a duo do more damage, but the addition of another combatant can confuse the team. Rescue mode requires the hunters to revive fallen colonists and protect them while waiting for a dropship to appear and whisk the survivors away to safety, but it has something important in common with Nest mode: it uses specific objectives to keep both the hunters and the monster in motion, and brings them together early and often as a result.
A battle with the Kraken plays out differently, as this peculiar beast rises above you and spits down lightning.
Defend mode, meanwhile, takes its cues from battle arenas like League of Legends and Dota 2, tasking hunters with shielding generators while minions spawn onto the map at specified intervals and go on the attack. Taking the monster’s reigns is rather like playing a Dota 2 hero: your minions are creeps, automatically hammering on targets and distracting the opposition so you might pounce, damage your enemies’ health and resolve, and steal away in order to grab a snack and replenish your armor. It’s Evolve’s most action-packed mode, and as such, it is an appropriate finale for the game’s Evacuation mode, which combines five matches of varying modes into a single smorgasbord. The winner of each match gains a boon for the next--monster-targeting turrets might appear in various nooks, for instance, or a beam might occasionally appear from space, frying hunters that get caught within it.
Evolve apparently rebalances matches even as it adds these map gimmicks so that winning the first match does not initiate a five-match steamroll. Even so, it’s hard to tell whether the behind-the-scenes rebalancing properly matches the gimmick. It’s profoundly irritating to deal with those turrets as a monster, for instance, because they might gun down wandering wildlife, and thus not only damage you if you creep too near, but overcomplicate the simple act of eating. Not every gameplay variant feels as fair as the last in any case, and while some map ploys usher in welcome diversity, others are mechanica non grata.
It’s worth noting that Evolve supports bots, an all-too-uncommon feature, and while the AI reveals its imperfections as time goes on, it’s strong enough to make playing offline matches rewarding on its own terms, and bots will fill in for disconnected teammates, or will leap into action should you not be able to find a friend to take that particular role. As with Turtle Rock’s Left 4 Dead, Evolve is best when you play with buddies; getting matched with a novice can lead to ghastly results if your newfound friend constantly seeks out the nonexistent “I” in “team.” It doesn’t take long to whip a newcomer into shape, at least, meaning you can usually focus on Evolve’s unique brand of greatness: the suspense of the hunt, the exhilaration of battle, and the drive to dominate Shear. Even Sasquatch would shiver at the dangers.