Evolve may be the biggest 2015 release that nobody knows about.
Alright, so that's not entirely true: tuned-in gamers are aware of it, and they certainly know the pedigree of the development team at Turtle Rock Studios, which created co-op classic Left 4 Dead several years ago.
But to nearly everyone else, Evolve remains a vague name in a release schedule packed with reliable sequels and other hot properties. That's about to change, however, as this fresh tweak on cooperative shooting has been wowing players at industry events the past few months. Now it's strutted its stuff to a much larger audience with the Big Alpha online multiplayer test on all platforms.
It's a battle of giant monsters against well-armed humans, and when it comes to raucous online entertainment, perhaps everyone will win come February.
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Choose a side
Left 4 Dead pit a team of four survivors against a seemingly endless horde of zombies. In Evolve, there's only one main enemy: a massive, hulking beast that can climb walls, fling rocks, breath fire, and inflict all sorts of other nastiness on you and your comparatively diminutive human crew.
But here's the catch: there's actually someone controlling that monster. Indeed, Evolve blends the cooperative and competitive sides of multiplayer action, pitting one extremely powerful monster against four well-armed, but very small and smashable hunters that can work together to take it down.
It's asymmetrical multiplayer: almost the kind of game that would've worked perfectly in a local setting with the Wii U and its second screen. Or at least it would in an alternate universe in which people bought the Wii U and third-party developers didn't flee. Instead, Evolve serves up its thrills online for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC gamers.
Be the beast
Evolve will offer a handful of different monsters to embody in the online battles, and in the Big Alpha test, I had a chance to try out the Goliath and Kraken. The goal in the couple of available stages was to level up in the match by eating smaller animals, and then take down the massive generator in each jungle-like environment while avoiding the wits and weapons of the humans.
In terms of sheer power, the monsters have the upper hand by a wide margin. As Goliath, you can breathe fire, charge into humans, and leap into the air and crush them with a well-aimed smash. The Kraken, on the other hand, succeeds through agility, as it can fly through the world and more easily evade coordinated attacks – but it can still whip out crazy electrical assaults when needed.
You get a short head start at the beginning of the match to devour wildlife and start leveling up, but it's best early on to avoid seeking out the four hunters and entering a showdown; you're better served staying in the shadows and powering up in preparation for a certain battle. These matches don't end quickly unless the monster makes itself seen right away.
It's a terribly tense feeling being the monster. Disregarding the fact that you're controlling a super-powered monstrosity, the pressure is immense. Yes, there's a sense of elation to crushing the puny humans and destroying their generator, but on the flipside, losing the fight as a one-person team to four champions is downright embarrassing. Your emotional outcome is the surprising high-stakes gamble at the heart of Evolve.
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Together as one
While you don't stand much of a chance against the monster on your own, it's not so bad being a hunter in Evolve. You're assigned a player class – you can set your order of preference before starting up – and there will be three characters available in each, with distinctive weapons, abilities, and personalities setting them apart.
The Assault class is all about heavy firepower: miniguns, flamethrowers, and the like, with the task of doing the most damage to the monster. The Medic has long-range weapons, but is mostly tasked with healing, while the Support class can shield allies while using a rocket launcher or laser gun.
It's the Trapper that proves the most unique class on offer in Evolve, as it can set up an electronic holding cell of sorts to keep a monster confined to a certain area and initiate a brutal blastathon. But all four players must work together and utilise their special capabilities to have any real shot against the Kraken, Goliath, or any of the other beasts that'll appear in the final game.
Staying close, reviving allies as quickly as possible, using your jetpack fuel wisely, and hoping at least one member of your team survives long enough to trigger the next airdrop – in which killed teammates are brought back into the fray – is key. But avoiding contact with the monster for too long gives it the opportunity to destroy the generator, so it's a constant tug-of-war of priorities. Naturally, that makes for extremely compelling action.
Evolve probably wouldn't have had as much of a chance to shine in its original late 2014 release window, but 2K Games wisely opted to wait until after the new year to launch its property. And the Big Alpha definitely did the job of getting players hyped for its impending debut on 10 February 2015 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
For a long weekend with a small slice of the full game, Evolve's humans against monsters premise held its own – but I'm particularly curious to see if the concept can retain players' attention in a larger package and over a much longer span of time. At least the initial, concentrated dose proved very strong indeed.
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