Evolve PlayStation 4 Review: Deadliest Catch

Evolve PlayStation 4 Review: Deadliest Catch

Evolve's core is sublime, but its infrastructure doesn't do it justice.

Evolve is now available on store shelves (and digital... and wherever else you want to buy it); but with all the problems that online shooters have experienced over the past few months, we're holding off on assigning a score for now. Instead, Kat and Bob will conducting a review-in-progress over the next week or so with their extended thoughts. Keep checking back for more updates as the week continues.

Kat Bailey Day 1: The Basics

At its best, Evolve is a battle of wits between two evenly matched but disparate forces: four human hunters on one side, and a giant, malevolent monster on the other.

My first real taste of that high came during a random multiplayer match. Playing as a Goliath, I was paired against a relatively experienced team that worked well together. After having endured a string of ignominious defeats as the monsters, I finally got off to a good start and managed to evade my enemies for quite a while, slowly but surely building up my armor and finally evolving to Level 2.

Evolve offers monsters a variety of ways to succeed. They can create false trails and move at high rates of speed across the map, enabling them to escape pressure and keep their hunters off-balance. This is good because the humans have a wide variety of gear at their disposal, from lightning guns to tranquilizer darts. If they corner the monster, they can knock off a huge chunk of health in mere moments.

Keenly aware of the danger, I worked hard to stay out of sight and keep moving; and my patience was finally rewarded with a monster at full health and full armor. Realizing that my foes were in hot pursuit, I hunkered in a cave and waited for them to appear, then scattered them like bowling pins with a vicious flanking attack. After all my initial struggles, this was the moment I had been waiting for.

It takes a bit to get to this point. When I first picked up Evolve, I found myself struggling to keep up with the action as the monster roared around the map, constantly knocking me off-balance. No matter which side you take, the pace is relentless, and it can be hard to get your wits about you enough to enact any kind of strategy. My first few rounds were akin to how the space marines in Aliens must have felt as the Xenomorphs came at them from all sides. The monster seemed to be everywhere.

Eventually, though, the game began to slow down, and the learning curve became a bit more manageable. If you're playing as a hunter, then you start to get a feel for your role on the team, whether you're a member of the Assault, Medic, Support, or Trapper class. You start to get a feel for the monster as well. When I first picked up Evolve, I worried that a lack of communication and coordination would sink the team-based multiplayer. But it's not long before everyone starts just falling into their assigned role. In Evolve, success is often a matter of simply doing your job to the best of your ability.

Unsurprisingly, Evolve's brand of asymmetric multiplayer finds its best expression in the monster versus human hunts, which serves as a sort of de fact Team Deathmatch mode. Evolve has a variety of tertiary modes ranging from protecting survivors to killing monster eggs, but the hunts are the most straightforward and the most entertaining. Once I got some online games going, I hardly wanted to play anything else.

There is, in fact, a solo mode that can be played offline, but it's not an especially desirable way to experience Evolve, as it's much the same as the multiplayer only with computer-controlled bots standing in for humans. The problem isn't that the bots are incompetent; if anything, the computer knows its role a little too well, making the hunters unrelenting killing machines with excellent coordination. It's just that, outside of grinding for XP and weapons, it doesn't bring that much to the table. Evolve is very much built around its 4v1 multiplayer.

In that environment, Evolve's strengths become apparent. Human players are far more devious than the killbot computers, making the back and forth between the hunters and the monster that much more compelling. Happily, the servers seemed to hold up pretty well on the game's first night online, and I had no problem getting into matches, which tended to last between 10 to 15 minutes (less if the monster wasn't very experienced, which tended to be the case).

Looking ahead, my long-term concerns revolve around Evolve's staying power, as the structure can be a bit rigid and the other modes just aren't as interesting as the hunt, opening the possibility that it will eventually prove repetitive. Short-term, I've had some really excellent matches, culminating in the battle I described above, which I unfortunately ended up losing when I got careless. And I can look forward to unlocking more characters and monsters as I keep playing.

We'll see how I feel about Evolve over the next week; but so far, it's proving itself a very good multiplayer shooter.

Kat Bailey Day 3: The Secret Ingredient

I've now spent three days with Evolve; and while I still find the basic gameplay loop to be entertaining, I'm now really questioning its replayability. I just can't shake the nagging feeling that I've already seen all there is to it.

As I discussed before, a basic game of Evolve goes something like this: You either play as the monster or as a group of hunters. If you're the monster, you want to avoid the hunters until you get to Level 2 or Level 3, then either ambush and kill the party, or knock out the power generator. If you're one of the hunters, then you want to try and bring down the monster before it gets to Level 3 (or at least hurt it really badly). If you don't, you're pretty much sunk.

I've now won a bunch of games as both the monster and the hunters; and having done so, I find that I'm starting to lose interest in the basic mode. I think the difference between Evolve and, say, Call of Duty is that the latter has the added of challenge of reaching the top of the scoreboard. In Evolve, you will either do more or less damage than average; but in the end, the results are more or less binary—you either win or you lose, with each match playing out more or less the same each time.

Turtle Rock Studios tries to remedy this problem by adding in a handful of alternative modes, though none of them stack up to the core hunts. Trying to protect eggs mostly boils down to a race against time as the monster tries to level up before the hunters can knock out the entire nest, while the colonist protection mode reminds me of the frustrating escort missions I used to play in X-wing vs. TIE Fighter and the like, with the attacker holding a decided advantage over the defenders. Both prove to be shallow even in comparison to the hunts, which at least have the taut hide-and-go-seek element going for them.

I see two main issues. First, I've been playing almost entirely with randomly matched teams, which removes a crucial element of communication and camaraderie. It's not a coincidence that I've enjoyed Evolve the most when playing with my friends. Playing with a premade group also opens up Evacuation, which pits the hunters against the monster over the course of five maps—something that isn't really tenable with a random group. Communication and friendship are really the two secret ingredients that Evolve needs to work. If you don't have those ingredients, it gets old fast.

Second, there just aren't enough monsters. At present, there are three selectable monsters, with a fourth available as a preorder bonus or via one of the many special editions (a fact that has caused no small amount of consternation among fans, and deservedly so given that it's a pretty cheap way to make some extra money off what is just short of on-disc DLC). Even with the Behemoth, though, the lack of variety quickly becomes apparent. It would have taken more balancing, but Evolve probably should have shipped with at least eight to keep the hunts fresh. As it is, I've seen a lot of the Goliath, the Wraith, and the Kraken, and I feel like I know all of them like the back of my hand at this point, rendering even the relatively large selection of hunters kind of moot. What does it matter if you can play one of three variants on a medic if your foe is almost always the same?

So that's pretty much where I stand with Evolve at the moment. Over the next couple days I'm going to try and round up a regular group to play with, at which point I'll report back. Here's hoping my current boredom will pass.

Kat Bailey Final Thoughts

Well, it's about time to put Evolve in the books. It's been a strange ride, much different than I was expecting, but also an interesting one.

So I'll begin by cataloguing some of Evolve's strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, the Hunt mode is almost perfectly designed, and it's obvious that the bulk of Turtle Rock's resources went into balancing it out. Every single class has something to recommend it, and it's fun to uncover the strengths and weaknesses of the nine individual hunter, all of whom have totally different abilities. On the monster side, there's the basic fun of playing hide-and-seek, only with the opportunity to turn the tables and destroy your opposition.

Evolve's infrastructure, however, does not do it justice. Last week, Bob and I got together with a couple of his friends and formed up a party, then hit the queues and waited. And waited some more. We did manage to draw in one random player to serve as the monster (they were really bad), but the matchmaking was ultimately not in our favor. We ended up creating a custom game and hunting CPU monsters, which was fun insofar as we got to work together, but also not so fun because the A.I. in this game is incredibly unbalanced. As I mentioned before, A.I. allies are dumb as a box of rocks and will often fail to accomplish even the most basic tasks for your team, but are merciless killbots when they serve as the opposition. The CPU monster slaughtered us mercilessly, seemingly able to regenerate armor and evolve at will even on the balanced settings, and with no way to adjust its aggressiveness (the only difficult setting rebalances the damage to either favor the hunters or the monster, which seems inadequate).

When playing with public groups, meanwhile, Evolve suffers many of the same problems as games like League of Legends. Put simply, in a game where teamwork is paramount, too few players are willing to do their job as the hunters, often failing to stick together and getting picked off one by one. Finding a good public group is possible, but it's rare, and losing to the monster in just a few minutes gets tiresome after a while. And with it being so hard to get a good game going as a premade group, the question becomes: Is there such thing as an optimal Evolve experience?

The answer, I suppose, is that Evolve is great if you can get a group of five together, with each person taking turns as the monster. It's a pity that Evolve lacks local splitscreen multiplayer ala Left 4 Dead, since it would make it that much easier to get such a group together. As it is, the conditions for really getting the most out of Evolve are extremely narrow, with even the human vs. bot experience not really being that enjoyable. Add in the onerous DLC plan, the lack of monsters out of the box, and the somewhat underwhelming tertiary modes, and Evolve's flaws really start to pile up.

The reason I'm not knocking it lower is that there's a really good shooter in there. Get a group of five together and play hunt mode, and Evolve's strengths really shine through. There are few moments in gaming as exciting as spotting the monster, getting the dome down, and then coordinating a perfect assault with your teammates. Those few moments of chaos where everyone is shouting and the monster is leaping around wreaking havoc are just perfect. Unfortunately, you really have to work to get to them. In that light, Evolve is a gem, but one that is extremely rough and unpolished.

Bob Mackey Second Opinion

This may sound strange, but Evolve's design strikes me as very board game-y—and that's no insult. As with any tabletop game reliant on a cardboard playfield and tiny pieces, it falls back on a simple-but-reliable ruleset, where every possible action comes with some sort of meaningful risk attached. The variables may at first seem limited, but the real fun is found in how the constant, important choices of players make for a fresh experience nearly every time. How else could any of us stomach staring at those nondescript Settler of Catan pieces for the hundredth game without falling into a coma?

If this description gives you warm memories of 2008's Left 4 Dead, you wouldn't be wrong. Turtle Rock Studios pioneered this kind of experience during the last console generation, opting to make a more deliberate, focused game far different than the de rigeur open-world experience. Those who didn't understand Left 4 Dead wondered how Valve could possibly justify selling such a relatively small chunk of content at full retail price—but those who did knew it was a game meant to be played and replayed.

Left 4 Dead's situation isn't far removed from Evolve's, though that seven-year gap has made Turtle Rock a lot less confident about selling this kind of experience. (To be fair, having a publisher (2K) without the pluck and mettle of Valve certainly doesn't help.) What Evolve should have been is buried somewhere within this full release, and to find it, you'll have to invest quite a bit of time. Instead of making all of the characters available from the outset, Turtle Rock has gone for an obvious progression system, where you're forced to play with one character multiple times before the next one of that respective class is made available. I've unlocked thousands of things without complaint in video games, but here, it seems particularly egregious, mostly because Evolve doesn't have a particularly large cast of characters. Imagine a version of Monopoly where you can only build hotels once you've built 200 houses over the course of your past sessions, and you'll get a sense of how artificial these unlocks feel in Evolve—really, they only exist to get a substantial amount of "minimum play time" out of the experience. (Important for PR blurbs, but not necessarily player enjoyment.)

Still, even if you have to suffer a bit through the many justifications to make Evolve a $59.99 retail release, the game hiding under all of this bullshit can often be sublime. Turtle Rock has included a handful of modes for the sake of mixing things up, but once "Hunt" clicks with you, don't expect to have even the slightest bit of interest in these variations. There's a bit of a caveat, though: If you expect to enjoy Evolve, it's almost necessary to have a reliable group of friends with headsets and a willingness to stick with the game. As expected, playing with randos is always unpredictable, but in the case of Evolve, you need people willing to cooperate with each other, since even the slightest fracture in a team's dynamic can be absolutely devastating. Luckily, I came to the experience with my regular game group, and had an absolute blast in every session—even the absolutely hopeless ones.

Thankfully, Evolve four different player roles (not including the monster) go a long way toward preserving its longevity. Each one serves a different—but vital—purpose in every match, and since their skills are limited to four or less, experimenting with a new role doesn't amount to an overwhelming experience—and the tutorial videos available for each class do an excellent job of summing up their essential function. That's important, because you're not always going to be assigned to your favored role. I had some trepidations about trying out some of the support roles—I didn't want my team blaming me for our failure, after all—but halfway through a match, everything clicked, and soon I had no reservations about bouncing back and forth between different duties.

Speaking as a huge Left 4 Dead fan, I really wanted Evolve to be the next iteration of that experience—especially because Valve doesn't seem all too interested in retail releases anymore. Again, I'd feel a lot better if I didn't have to work to unlock essential features of the game, but regardless, Evolve comes really close to meeting my expectations. At the very least, it'll dominate my weekly game nights for months to come.

Visuals
Evolve is a very good looking game. The monsters are an obvious strength, but credit must also go to the excellent environments, which really help to set the scene.

Sound
Evolve's sound design is tremendous. The distant roar of the monster, the nervous (if slightly repetitive) conversation between the hunters, and the distant flutter of birds all convey the feeling that you're on a deadly safari.

Interface
Evolve does a decent job of getting you setup and into a match. In a game where timing is of the essence, the abilities are thankfully easily accessible and easy to use. Special credit goes to the Trapper's abilities, which are surprisingly intuitive to use.

Lasting appeal
Evolve can be great if you get a regular group of five together. Alternatively, finding a fansite and engaging in some real competition is interesting. Beyond that, though, the shallow pool of monsters and the problematic nature of random co-op hurts Evolve's replayability quite a bit.

Evolve is somewhat difficult to recommend outside of a fairly limited context. The core gameplay is great, but everything surrounding it is problematic. As Bob says in his second opinion, hunting a monster with a group of friends really is sublime. But its attempts to add value outside of that core mostly fall flat, and its lasting appeal is hurt by the inherently problematic nature of random co-op and the rather shallow pool of available monsters (unless you're willing to shell out the extra money for a Behemoth). It may have been beyond Turtle Rock's resources, but Evolve really could have used a single-player campaign. Without it, it feels unfortunately limited—a single great idea buried under matchmaking queues, unbalanced A.I., and underwhelming tertiary modes. It may eventually be a lot more; but for now, Evolve's weaknesses outweigh its strengths.

3/5

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