Unbalanced mechanics get in the way of the asymmetric multiplayer fun
When Evolve's 4 vs. 1 multiplayer was first revealed, it seemed like a fairly original idea. In a world where the online competitive scene is dominated by acronyms (CoD, FPS, LoL, Dota, MOBA) and sports games, Evolve’s asymmetrical design threatened to usher in a new kind of game. The team at Turtle Rock Studios - perhaps most famous for their zombie shooter, Left 4 Dead - challenges the conventions of multiplayer in ways which few games have done, truly honing in on the idea of 4 vs. 1 so vigorously that it’s evident in the very title of the game. Evolve treads a new path for online multiplayer in video games, but it definitely does so with some major stumbles along the way.
The game is set on the planet Shear where giant monsters are currently at the top of the planet’s ecosystem. One player assumes control of the monster, the other four control a group of hunters who have been sent to take the monster down. The monster is controlled in a third-person view, while the hunters are controller in first-person. As the game progresses the monster grows in power, putting pressure on the hunters to track and kill the monster as quickly as possible.
Evolve begins with a small tutorial which allows players to get a handle on how to play as the four characters available at the outset. Each of the four classes (Assault, Medic, Support, and Trapper) have three different characters, with more to be unlocked at later stages in the game. Initially, the tutorial is appreciated as the game tries to impose upon the player how important it is to work together as hunters, and how important it is to keep moving as the monster. But there is so much going on in Evolve that a tutorial can only cover the basics. Soon you are out in the wild, desperately trying to grasp the nuances. As you unlock new characters, it seems the game wants you to practice your skills in solo mode before using them with human teammates or enemies. The problem is that the AI in the solo version of the game is incredibly boring. They each carry out their roles in robotic fashion, failing to adapt to the characters they play with and the monster they play against. It’s like playing any other multiplayer shooter against only bots - what’s the point? It feels like there is no advantage to playing alone, just simply the promise of getting better.
Once you have spent time with the tutorials and sampled your character in solo play, you can get into what Evolve is really about and join up with people online. There are two different versions of Evolve - Skirmish mode (where you play the Hunt Mode of the game on repeat) or Evacuation (a campaign-like string of matches where the modes change and variable conditions come into play). Joining a match can take a while - I had varied experiences with the servers during my time with Evolve. At times it would take minutes to find a game, other times I’d be playing in a matter of seconds. Some of this depends on the way you ranked your roles. Evolve allows players to rank what class they would like to play and will try to fit you into a match based on that preference. People who are looking to play monster should find a game quickly, whereas people looking to play as Medic might have a longer wait. If your first choice is highly contested, you might find yourself stuck in your third or even fourth choice. I had the monster listed as my third choice for a while, and got stuck playing the role for ten games in a row.
The role selection screen leads to a loading screen, which leads to a load out screen, which leads to another loading screen. Needless to say, hopping into a match takes a while. This is particularly frustrating when you’re loaded into the very end of the match - when a monster already is caught and down to its last stand, or a Trapper is one of two teammates left alive. Furthermore, Evolve’s matchmaking is wildly erratic, pairing up lower class hunters with high class monsters and vice versa. Matchmaking has long been a finicky part of online video games, but if you’re playing on a bad team in other games, you can focus on your kill-death ratio or wait as more players shuffle in and out and the teams change. In Evolve there’s no K/D to improve upon and when someone is dominating as the monster there’s no hope that lower ranked teammates will balance them out. It makes you want to logout and log back in with the hope of a better team or a more even match, but the threat of sitting in a lobby for five minutes, waiting for a game, pushes you into one more masochistic attempt.
After the tutorials, the waiting, and the matchmaking you are finally ready to play Evolve as Turtle Rock Studios envisioned. The monster will begin the match shortly before the hunters. Its main focus is to stay on the run, leading hunters on a merry chase while feeding and evolving until it reaches its most powerful stage and attacks the power generator which the hunters need to defend.
The cat-and-mouse relationship between monster and hunters can be a lot of fun. A support named Bucket is a robot that can use a UAV device to fly through the jungles of Shear quickly and track the monster for his teammates, but most of these tracking skills are saved for the Trappers of the group. Trappers have special abilities to help them detect the monster and lead their teammates to the beast. Once they have found it, they can use a mobile arena to trap the monster for a short period of time. Ideally, the hunters want to catch the monster as quickly as possible - killing it before it has a chance to grow into a real challenge. The issue with this stage of the match is the balance between Trappers and monsters. If you have a monster who isn’t good at hiding, you’ll find them in seconds and kill them before the game gets off its feet. No one will get much experience for the effort and the match is mostly a waste of time. If you have a Trapper who isn’t good at tracking the monster, you are in for ten minutes of staring off into the darkness while the monster grows into its largest form before coming back and wrecking your squad. You would hope these previously mentioned scenarios were rare, but they are common.
The best part of the game is when the monster gets trapped late 2nd stage or early 3rd and the hunters have an even fight on their hands. The Assault characters are critical here as they act as the damage dealers. With their shields and heavy weaponry, they are responsible for actually hurting the monster. Support can usually use certain skills to amplify damage or protect teammates from harm. Medics are critical in healing characters and reviving them. Meanwhile, the monster attempts to hide or separate the hunters to more easily kill them. Once one hunter falls, it's only a matter of time before the others follow suit.