By dint of being caught up in the fall of former publisher THQ, Evolve has remained under the radar, but this week we were lucky enough to experience the game with only the strong surviving the steep learning curve.
Developer Turtle Rock knows the formula here, bringing all the experience gained on multiplayer games such as Condition Zero and Counter Strike Source, and of course co-op multiplayer under the Left 4 Dead moniker in 2008.
As an overview Evolve is a game of four versus one, 4 hunter classes (Griffin the Trapper, Markov the Assault dude, Val the Medic and Hank on Support) up against one bad-ass monster. In this hands-on preview we were only exposed to the Goliath and his brutal skills. The final game will ship with multiple monster options, varied Hunters within the mentioned classes and plenty of environments.
I faced my first game of Evolve as the Goliath. Played in third person perspective, your monster role is pretty clear. Hide from the hunters during the early part of the round, use your abilities to scale the terrain avoid flocks of birds (startling the wildlife will alert those tracking you), but also try to feed on the smaller denizens of this deathworld known as Shear.
If I can manage to stealth my way to stage two, or pick up some power ups from eaten creatures, then I can take on those pesky hunters. Killing a hunter however does not guarantee victory, upon first death, a hunter will return via the drop ship a few minutes later. Second death sees them get a chance to return via resuscitation from a team mate. Kill them a third time however and you are well on the way to victory.
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Certainly staging up is of great advantage to the Goliath. Each stage sees the monster grow bigger and, more importantly, gain a skill. By the top stage three my Goliath is armed with the ability to toss boulders, breath fire like a dragon and leap at the frightened hunters. Stage three is certainly liberating, and the shocked looks of the humans across the table from me playing the hunters is well worth the level up.
On this map, in this mode, the monster reaching stage three unlocks the ‘generator’, destroying this structure is a further way the Goliath can win the round. But it also gives the hunters a place to retreat to, set up a defence and lie in wait for the monster that now must finish the round before a timer expires.
My first game left me shaking from tension. It soon becomes apparent that destroying the generator won’t work, the counter is nearing zero, and the hunters are pouring on the pressure and damage, taking down the Goliath’s armour and depleting his health, a resource that cannot be replenished.
The Goliath needs to go on the offensive, so I turn his giant claws, leap at the nearest hunter – I feel it is best to take out that pesky medic first – pound the ground in a devastating thump and start scorching the unfortunate hunter with my fiery breath.
Without their medic, the remaining trio of hunters start to panic, and lose their team work. Instead of coordinating the attack they begin to jet-pack leap around in a frenzied attempt to destroy my monster. I remain calm and target each in turn. Finally only the cloaked Assault dude is left, and he runs.
We needed to calm down a little before taking on a role as a hunter. So we grabbed a cool beverage and sat down with Jon Bloch the games Producer at Turtle Rock.
Bloch explained how the original vision for Evolve was something bouncing around the mind of Chris Ashton – co-owner at Turtle Rock, CEO and design lead on the game- for a long time: “He’s been tossing around the idea in his head for many many years, even before Left 4 Dead.” Says Bloch “Certainly the vision has changed from the original, one of the reasons he never made this before is that the technology would not have been able to realised anything close
Throughout the development of Left 4 Dead, there were certainly elements that shone through that helped develop the concept for [evolve] Particularly in Left 4 Dead, the Tank battles certainly relit the fire behind this concept, that concept of boss battle, or one on four, so much fun, such a great memorable moment from Left 4 Dead.”
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Even after a single game as the monster, it is clear that Evolve has a round that consists of not only dynamic pacing, but layers of strategy and techniques that will take some time to master. This poses the obvious question about how the team balanced the game.
“One of the great things about Turtle Rock Studios culture, forever, for as long as it has been around,” says Bloch “is rapid prototyping, play-testing, integration. We like to rapidly prototype ideas from paper to actually trying one out, as quick and dirty as possible. See if they are fun, see if they are worth doing, perhaps a different version might be worth pursuing.
Once we got to that point, with all the playtesting and telemetry we are able to make sure that any idea that comes to the table –ideas come from all directions – we try almost all of them, “ Bloch continues “the truly fun ones came out in the end. There has definitely been an evolution over the development cycle, the biggest part that has shone through and stayed pretty much the same all the way through is that core idea of what evolve is, that conflict between man and monster.”
Bloch acknowledges that the complexity of the four versus one gameplay with the added elements of tools and abilities will strain the design of the game when it comes to balance: “That is where the play testing comes in,” he explains “at the studio we play test every day, it is kind of a requirement that we have at Turtle Rock Studios, it’s not something we have to enforce, because everybody wants to play. But it is so important to us that we get that feedback, that data, to ensure that we are balanced and that we are fun.”
The team at Turtle Rock look at the telemetry data produced from this extensive play testing.
“[The] raw data of what happened [is looked at], there could be fifty matches and people can come out of that and feel that this thing is overpowered, or that element was not as effective,” says Bloch “but then we can look at the telemetry and say, well, actually, you had the wrong numbers, you were pretty powerful with that, but let’s look at why you felt you weren’t. So there is a lot of data we can get from that to make sure we are on the right track.”
Surprisingly to me given my recent close shave, Bloch hints that the balance is pretty much on track: “Right now we are seeing a 50/50 win ratio for both teams” he explains. “The monster has a 25% chance of winning at stage one and then around 50% at stage two or three.”
But what of the hunters, I needed to get back into the game. Evolve feels really good as a co-op game, the mix of skills and equipment requires the four hunters to work as a close knit team.
With one of the Turtle Rock folks helping three journalists gang up on a journalist controlled monster, things run pretty well.
The Trapper lays out some sound spikes (essentially alarms), whilst the rest of the team tracks the monsters footsteps, or bird-sign. It is important to work together, yet cover as much ground as possible. It is clear that the ambition of the monster early in a round is to hide and feed, as we learn the map we can use this to our advantage.
Once the monster is located, the Trapper can lay down an Arena, trapping both monster and hunters in a restrictive temporary dome. He can then attempt to harpoon the Goliath to hold him further in place whist the other team members rain down the hurt.
The Medic and Support provide healing and shields as needed and Assault continues to pump round after round into the monster and avoiding return attacks.
Coordinating all this requires a high level of talk and understanding between the quartet, but it is not overwhelming despite the layers of strategy and flow of combat. Ultimately, winning a round as the hunters is a high-five-moment.
We asked Jon Bloch if more hunters will be in the mix.
“The way that will work is, the four classes you saw, they are the classes, but within those classes there will be different hunters that will bring more unique items, weapons and game-play styles.” He says “They will all still fulfil that functional role of that particular class, but within that class they will have different ways to achieve that goal, and different tools.”
Turtle Rock were coy about how characters level up, but it is obvious that such a system is in place. At the end of each round a graphic shows individual experience gain for skills used during the round. The guys from Turtle Rock indicated this experience will open up opportunities for new equipment and will be applied to a player’s career profile.
It goes without saying, there will also be different monsters for those that want to lone-wolf Evolve: “With the monsters, each one is pretty vastly different game-play style beyond physical appearance” says Bloch.
Finally, the maps or planet Shear itself??
“We are not going into too much detail just yet for this,” says Bloch “the main idea is that both the Hunters and the Monster are foreign to this world, this is a frontier colony world, and the hunters are ,, we like to call them planeteers, they go in and deal with the local wild-life for the settlers or colonists. Now there is this even larger threat, they are probably best equipped to deal with it even though it is something they are not used to.”
This gives the designers some room to play with map design, particularly objectives such as the Generator.
“So the objective that you saw, is more of a game-play mechanic to encourage conflict, we want the two sides to come together at different times. Because the game is non-linear, non-scripted we cannot directly cause conflict, but we can do things to encourage it. So something like an objective like that is used to…. That’s one way for the monster to win, so once he gets to stage three, if the hunters are hiding, he can just go and destroy the generator. If the monster is going towards the generator, he feels he can get a quicker win that way, then the hunters know exactly where he is.”
Rollercoaster it is, the game is still six months or so away, and we played in optimal conditions, four hunters wired up with mics on one side of the table, facing the monster on the other side. However I hold out high hopes for Evolve taking some of the Titanfall audience away when it launches on PC, Xbox One and PS4.