Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Next Best Thing Is Coming; Evolve First Impressions at PAX East 2014

Over my gaming years, I've learned to tame my excitement and anticipation for upcoming games. The latest game developed by Turtle Rock studios, Evolve, was one of these curbed when it was announced earlier this year. There are only so many modern shooters, sequels and heavily marketed games one can consciously be aware of [and play for that matter]. Evolve entered my radar in January of 2014 by making it as the cover story on the newest Game Informer issue. At the time, it seemed like different take on the Left 4 Dead formula (also conceived and developed by Turtle Rock studios), where four “survivors” take on a giant monster. But it wasn’t until I got to play Evolve at PAX East where it became obvious this was NOT just a different take on Left 4 Dead, it was something entirely different … and awesome.

                It is true; Evolve is heavily developed around cooperative play very similar to the four player format in the Left 4 Dead games. The tagline is even 4V1, representing four versus one. Four players, or hunters, are teamed up against a player controller monster called “Goliath”. The hunter’s goal is to kill the monster and the monster’s goal is to kill all four hunters OR a generator in the center of the map after evolving to level 3. (more on that later)

Being the Monster:  Waiting in line at 2K Studios, we were asked which character we wanted to play during the demo and I volunteered to be the monster/ Goliath. You can tell Goliath is heavily inspired by Tank from Left 4 Dead. In fact, one of its special attacks is borrowed- the Rock throw. When we were setting up our characters, we were allowed to assign 3 XP points to four special abilities; each ability allowed 3 slots for XP points. The Monster’s four abilities are: Rock Throw, Fire Breath, Jump Attack and a Charge Attack. I assigned 2 points to the fire breath and one to the rock throw, although I could have maxed out one ability. The Goliath can then level up (evolve) 2 more times during the match and assign up to 6 more XP points to the remainder of the slots available. To level up, the Goliath must kill and eat different wildlife in the map. It seems simple enough, but with four hunters on your trail and hostile creatures to kill, players need to strategize when to evolve or when to attack the hunters. To make matters worse for the Goliath, the hunters can track the monster’s footprints through the jungle while he is hunting prey and evolving. The Goliath can then hide its footprints by walking through water or entering stealth mode.

What Turtle Rock did right: Gave Goliath a bigger purpose- Playing directly across from the four PAX attendees playing the hunters, I could hear their frustration in trying to track me, which only encouraged me to use the stealth mode more, jump incredibly long distances (which makes you feel like you’re the Incredible Hulk) and climb tall cliffs. All of these things make it increasingly difficult for the hunters to find you. When you’re playing as the monster, it shouldn’t just be a single minded “Go Kill the Hunters” mentality. But Turtle Rock knew they had to make playing the monster more dynamic or being the monster would be a chore. Using the stealth tactics bought me more time to eat more wildlife and evolve to the level 3 Goliath which was my goal from the beginning. Knowing the hunters are frustrated while tracking made evolving to level three even more enjoyable. But once I reached the max level, I felt unstoppable. My Fire breath, rock throws and leap attacks were maxed out and the hunted became the hunter.

Taking out all four hunters was a lot harder than I thought. Griffin/Trapper, Hank/Support, Markov/Assault and Val/Medic working together will be a challenge, especially if the players know what they’re doing. The Trapper’s unique role is equipped with a harpoon gun, restricting movement of the Goliath. The only way for me to breakout of the restriction is to use a physical attack against the Trapper. And you are typically engaged with one of the other three hunters when the harpoon gun is deployed, so breaking out of the trap is frustrating. The Support’s role is using the shield gun which produces a shield around another player, much like the Medic’s role using the medic gun for healing, which functions similarly to the medic gun used in Team Fortress 2. And finally, the Assault’s role is to inflict as much damage as possible against the Goliath.

The Goliath doesn’t just have a health bar as you would expect, but also a shield bar, which can be refilled by eating wildlife and evolving. Once the Goliath evolves to level 3, the Goliath can now choose to destroy a generator in the center of the map instead of killing the hunters. This also changes the strategy of the hunters; do the hunters now continue tracking the Goliath through the jungle? Or do they retreat and defend the generator? It’s this kind of gameplay shift that is a formula for an incredibly successful game- player don’t want the same thing over and over again, they want variety and they want surprise and Evolve appears to have added this dynamic.

Using the fire breath is great for when the hunters are bunched together- the attack releases a powerful stream that does heavy damage to players. The jump attack works similarly to how the hunter worked in Left 4 Dead. When you press slightly on the jump attack, a target area appears on the ground for where the Goliath will land. If any enemies are in the area when the Goliath touches down, he performs an earthquake shattering move that will knock players down. The rock throw also works this way and is good for players that are just out of reach of the jump attack and fire breath. There are cooldowns for all of these attacks so switching between the different attacks as well as making sure you are attacking the correct enemy class will be a strategic and fun way to keep players keen to their HUD.

My overall experience was extremely positive. I was only able to incapacitate 2 of the 4 hunters before I was killed; but it was a good 20 minutes of exploring the jungle, evolving and learning the Goliath’s special abilities. I was playing on an Xbox controller which I did not enjoy and prefer mouse and keyboard, so getting used to the controls was tricky. The option of destroying the generator never crossed my mind; I was confident that once I evolved to my full form, I could take out all of the hunters, but I underestimated their abilities. I also misevaluated my plan for taking out the medic first, thinking that role was the backbone of the hunters, but the trapper and support roles were just as important. Attacking the hunters needs to be carefully evaluated during the battle and the Goliath even has opportunities to escape, replenish health return to battle if needed.

What Remains to be Seen: It is unclear whether Evolve will have a single player campaign (probably not), but I don’t think one is needed. The big question mark I have is replayability. What is Evolve going to do to make the game continue to be fun after 100 hours of gameplay- Will it have some kind of “Director” that changes the environments in the map that forces the Goliath or players to change their strategies? This could easily be done by adding/subtracting different power ups and wildlife etc, but will Maps be different every time they are played? Will some maps have less terrain to make playing as the monster more challenging? Or less that allows the hunters to track the monster easier?

It is also hinted that more monsters will be revealed- will these monsters have different abilities? Will there be more hunters introduced? Will this formula be supported in the form of future DLC or free PC updates like the Left 4 Dead campaigns saw? Will the game be released on steam? (hopefully).

We also don’t yet have a release date; hopefully the planned Q3 2014 release is accurate and we’ll see the game later this year, but I won’t be surprised if it gets pushed into 2015.

Bottom Line: My prediction is Evolve will be the new hotness; the buzz surrounding the Evolve booth on Day 1 of PAX was heavily positive and after waiting in line for 2.5 hours the playable demo did not disappoint. Evolve will also fill the void that Left 4 Dead 3 should have filled these past couple of years and will most likely even knock Titanfall down a peg on the hot FPS multiplayer GOTY. This game will have legs if launched correctly, and given Turtle Rock’s history, we have no reason not to believe this.