Outside of 1984’s Duck Hunt and Big Buck Hunter, there have been relatively few (popular) games about hunting, let alone ones that allow the prey to fight back. Despite the lack of peers, it’s a compliment to say that Evolve represents the apex predator of the genre. The addictive class-based rewards, lengthy compendium of achievements, and the overall adrenaline of capturing and killing a trophy monster makes for a compelling game. The method for unlocking new characters is a bit unevolved and frustrating, but on the whole, this is at least clear evidence of a developer’s intelligent design.
Learning all the right lessons from their previous title, Left 4 Dead, Turtle Rock Studios has shifted the co-op experience from surviving a zombie horde to facing off against a kaiju monster, from the Godzilla-like Goliath to the levitating, lightning-blasting Kraken and stealthy, alien-like Wraith, which uses an abduction ability to pick off unsuspecting hunters one by one. More importantly, they allow humans to do away with the AI, pitting four hunter archetypes (the Assault, Trapper, Medic, and Support) against one increasingly powerful monster. Unlike most multiplayer first-person shooters, which tend to get hectic, these matches are tense affairs that leave both sides feeling uneasy—a bit like the sensations evoked by Alien: Isolation. Those who simply charge into battle, guns blazing, will likely die. The same goes for those who scatter randomly across the map, as the flora and fauna of this exotic planet, Shear, tend to pick off unsuspecting humans, whether at the hands of an aquatic Tyrant, a particularly peckish plant, or an animal masquerading as a bolder.
The result is a chilling game of cat and mouse, in which a speedy and extremely mobile monster must creep around the map, feeding on wildlife until strong enough to evolve into a more powerful form, or until armored enough to turn the table on the hunters that are pursuing him. On the flipside, the hunters must remain vigilant and focused in their search for the monster—not randomly shooting the often docile-until-provoked animals, but using their unique skills to track the monster’s footprints and the broken trees and dead animals left in its wake. Each of the 12 characters has a specific and vital use, which makes the game less about mindlessly shooting and more about having the Trapper place harpoon traps or sonar sensors, or using a Support like the robotic Bucket to control a weaponless drone, seeking out the monster from the skies.
When you get a competent team, or figure out how to play a monster (often learned by watching someone else pick you apart), Evolve offers a thrilling, seat-of-the-pants competition that can’t be found anywhere else. At other times, you’ll wish you were playing offline, for at least an AI Trapper knows how to set up a mobile arena, which is pretty much the only way to force(field) a fight against the monster in its early stages of growth. Likewise, while a Medic like Val can usefully tranquilize (i.e. slow) the monster and riddle it with armor-piercing sniper bullets that serve as “weak” spots for the other classes to aim at, her primary role must be to keep the other characters alive. Of course, every cooperative game has this flaw, and Evolve itself isn’t only fair, but likely to grow increasingly so, as Turtle Rock patches out exploitable skills and unbalanced characters. Moreover, the matchmaking is fairly good about ensuring that you play as the class you desire: The only time I ran into trouble was when I was matched with preexisting four-person parties, as that forced me to be the monster, even though it was my least preferred role.
That said, once you understand what you’re doing (and there’s a rather steep learning curve), Evolve grows tedious, particularly when you’re attempting to grind skills so as to unlock additional characters in that class. The inclusion of a five-part, procedurally generated Evacuation campaign, which shifts between the standard Hunt mode and more objective-based tasks like Rescue or Defend, attempts to keep things fresh, but often just stretches a snappy 10-minute match into an hour-long series. Moreover, with a few exceptions (like the Jurassic Park-esque Aviary, the crevasse-filled Dam, or tower-defense-y Colonial Water & Power area), the maps are unmemorable. The brilliant recap that plays at the end of each match, in which you can review monster and party movement on the mini-map (perhaps picking up tricks for next time), only emphasizes how similar the movement on each map is. The real question—which parallels the lifespan of the monster in each Hunt—is whether players will develop new strategies and techniques beyond those in the robust tutorial videos, and whether this evolution will occur before they grow tired of the more repetitious elements.