Evolve comes out tomorrow. It's one of the larger games of the first quarter of 2015, so you've probably heard about it even if you're not one of the people picking it up. The game comes from Turtle Rock Studios, the original developers behind Left 4 Dead. It builds on the same basic gameplay found in Left 4 Dead, but puts an additional player in the antagonist's chair: four hunters versus one monster.
I'm not particularly hyped on the title after playing in the alpha and beta phases. In fact, the overall reception to the game seems positive, but muted: 7.2 million people watched the Alpha on Twitch, while only 1.7 million did the same for the Beta. Like I surmised in my preview in April of last year, Evolve is going to live and die on its matchmaking. This is largely the problem with the 4v1 model of play: in Left 4 Dead, the zombie horde has a random element to it, but otherwise it's a known quantity.
Finding the right team in Left 4 Dead is hard. That's the difference between an awesome Left 4 Dead experience or 10 minutes of sadness and frustration. When Left 4 Dead is on point, it's you and three friends rolling with whatever the game decides to throw at you. Playing Left 4 Dead with a solid group is an amazing experience. Random roll on the other hand tends to be unenjoyable most of the time.
Evolve extends that randomness to the entire game in the Hunt mode. The quality of not only your team, but also the monster player is in contention. Many of the Hunt matches I've participated in have been a shut-out in either direction; either the players are a crack team and quickly overwhelm the monster, or the monster bides its time, avoiding players until it unlocks higher level abilities. The Hunt is Evolve's marquee mode and it's the one that you've probably played the most, but it lacks a real hook compared to the Nest and Defend modes.
Some early reviews are out (we just got our review copies today, so be patient) and rather positive, but I wonder if that's because the limited pool of review players makes it easier to have a consistent multiplayer experience. What will Evolve's primary multiplayer mode look like when it meets the reality a 1.7 million fans?
I'm pondering about the strength of 4v1 because another developer has bid farewell to the model. Bioware announced today that Shadow Realms, its 4v1 action RPG, has been cancelled. Bioware Austin general manager Jeff Hickman said that the effected team members are working on more content for Dragon Age Inquisition, the new Mass Effect game, other unannounced IP, and the next step in Star Wars: The Old Republic. The game was revealed back in August, but it never seemed to have the same fanfare as Bioware's other properties.
This leaves Fable Legends as the last major 4v1 game on the horizon. While Evolve cast the lone additional player as a controllable monster, in Fable Legends, that player is more of a dungeon master. They can drop traps, summon monsters and move them to various positions, and create barriers to split the player party. For the Villain, Fable Legends is more of a light strategy game.
This is potentially superior to Evolve's primary method of 4v1, which is direct asymmetric combat. In Fable Legends, the monsters under the Villain's control are provide ample secondary targets, like the zombie horde in L4D. When the Villain's attention is elsewhere, there's still things to do; in Evolve, if the Monster is gone, you're stuck chasing it around the level. This ends up being less exciting than it could be. Fable Legends also allows AI to take up spots in the roster, something Evolve lacks completely.
Dying Light, a game I recently reviewed, understands this facet of asymmetric multiplayer. It's "Be the Zombie" 2v1 multiplayer mode casts the anatagonistic player as the enhanced Night Hunter zombie. The players have to destroy five zombie hives, while the Night Hunter has to wear the players' ten respawns. The key is that the players have an important secondary objective and there are other zombies to keep them active and occupied if the Night Hunter is incognito.
The thing is, like I pointed out before, Evolve's alternate gameplay modes show that Turtle rock is cognizant of some of the problems in Hunt. Nest has the Hunters talking out monster nests; the Monster can use those nests to spawn smaller monsters or simply attack its foes directly. Defend mode has the Hunters defending power generators while waves of monster minions attack. Both move the focus directly off the monster and the game is improved because of the shift.
Evolve has great potential, but matchmaking and the focus on Hunt remains its biggest stumbling block. The Hunt may be its core gameplay mode, but it wasn't the strongest one in Open Beta. Turtle Rock Studios is trying something new and they should be applauded for that. I'm just not sure that this style of execution is going to work out.