Have you ever seen (500) Days of Summer? There’s this one part where the screen splits. You see how Joseph Gordon-Levitt expected a scene to play out on the left, while the way it actually plays out is on the right. It’s a pretty great sequence. It’s also indicative of my experience playing Evolve.
For the uninitiated: Evolve is the first marquee game of 2015, arriving with pomp and circumstance and, if you live in New York City, endless advertisements on the subway. It’s a title with no ties to any existing media franchise, making it something of a rarity in the modern cultural landscape. In Evolve, you join a squad of four specialized hunters—all of whom are, ideally, controlled by other players—who must work together to track and kill a powerful monster. Except there’s a twist: that monster is also controlled by another player.
The Evolve marketing team calls this “4v1,” and while teaming up with three others to face ridiculous odds isn’t new in video games—it’s been a gaming staple since 2006’s Gears of War launched with Horde Mode; Evolve developer Turtle Rock Studios first became famous for its four-player zombie apocalypse shooter Left 4 Dead—there’s definitely a certain novelty to playing as a hulking monster while four friends or strangers struggle to stop your merciless onslaught. But there’s a bit of a disconnect between the expectation of playing Evolve and the reality of it.
Once you know the premise of Evolve, there’s probably one big concern on your mind—won’t the player playing the monster have a crazy advantage? Won’t she be wildly overpowered? What’s the balance like?
You probably shouldn’t worry about those things. In fact, the hunters might actually have the better time of it. Monsters start each match in a pretty vulnerable state (called Stage 1) and must flee the Hunters while hunting and eating wildlife to gain armor and, hopefully, evolve to a much more powerful Stage 3 monster. That’s the first part of Evolve’s expectation/reality divide. The person who plays the monster isn’t a fear-inducing juggernaut from the start. They just have the potential to be—should they be able to avoid the hunters long enough.
Then there’s how Evolve controls. As the monster, movement is lumbering and slow, attacks are imprecise, and you never feel like you’re something that strikes terror into the heart of any hunter. In fact, it is nerve-wracking to take on a squad of hunters unless you’re a fully-powered up Stage 3 monster—and even then, you’re just a few bad decisions from dying.
Part of the reason for this is that there’s a skill gap inherent to Evolve. Everyone knows how to play a shooter, but few of us have been afforded the opportunity to play the giant beast that everyone is already very good at shooting. Maybe practice is all it will take, but playing as the monster in Evolve feels so frustratingly clumsy that I set my preferences so that the game will make me play as the monster as a last resort in online matches, at least until I’ve honed my skills a bit more offline.
Speaking of offline, let’s talk about that a bit more. Everything in an online game of Evolve is possible to play through solo—computer-controlled bots just take over whatever isn’t being manually controlled by a person. These bots aren’t bad at all—the artificial intelligence is smart enough to make quick work of you and your fellow bots when it’s controlling the monster, and capable enough to defeat the monster with minimal micromanaging on your end when you play as the hunters. (You can also hotswap between each hunter if you’re playing alone.)
However, it doesn’t take very long for playing Evolve offline to feel hollow. While you’re still earning valuable experience points that go toward unlocking perks and new playable characters (the base game comes with 12 hunters—three distinct characters for each of the four roles—along with three different breeds of monster), the joy of playing Evolve is in outwitting an actual person, and cooperating with a small team of people with wildly different playstyles and roles to fill. I played through one cycle of Evolve’s Evacuation mode—a five-round set of varied game modes with perks thrown in depending on who won last—and quickly started to feel burned out. However, the moment I jumped back into online matchmaking, I was excited and thrilled all over again.
It’s hard to hold onto that feeling, though. The best competitive online games are almost a compulsion, each round a satisfying rush that you want to experience over and over again. In Evolve, that rush is elusive, slipping away far too often. Maybe it slips away when the monster does, and you spend most of the game chasing it rather than fighting. Maybe it slips away in combat, which is frantic and often fun but can sometimes devolve (sorry) into incomprehensible fireworks as a billion different special abilities flood the screen, making it utterly impossible to know what’s going on.
Maybe it’s when you noticed the barely-there story, which isn’t really necessary to begin with but also indicates a tonal indecisiveness. Evolve can’t quite decided if it’s meant to be a terrifying and gritty game, or a friendly and approachable one that just happens to have some violence in it.
Maybe it’s when you saw the overwhelming amount of paid extra content that the game is shipping with, with the implication that there will be much, much more to come.
Whatever the reason, there’s something missing from Evolve, some sort of irresistible hook to match its excellent elevator pitch. It’s just far too easy to quit playing. Maybe this will change over time—an online game is really only best evaluated after living with it for awhile, and everyone is still just learning how to play Evolve. As people get better at it, as more actual friends of mine take up the game and I don’t just have to play with random strangers on the internet, I do believe it could be better. Maybe. If enough people give it a chance.
One of the most thoughtful touches in Evolve doesn’t happen when you’re playing it, but when you’re not. In between each game you play online, you get to see a sped-up representation of how the match went, with each player represented as an icon on the map. You see where everyone went during the match, where they died, where the monster evaded capture—stuff like that. It’s a post-game tape, meant to be studied and strategized over.
There’s a deeper way to play this game, one that could be genuinely exciting and complex—once we learn how to take advantage of those carefully constructed maps. I don’t know if most people will ever get to play at that level, but the idea is one I very much like.
I’m just not sure that it’s for me.