In a generation littered with server issues, campaign length fears, and a heightened interest in getting more for your money, it seems odd that a title would launch with some online-only multiplayer modes, no real campaign, and more DLC than you can probably afford. That's exactly what Evolve has done. However, this asymmetric shooter from Left 4 Dead's Turtle Rock brings a brave and alternate take on old tropes, and does so in especially pretty CryEngine fashion – but at what cost?
Welcome to Shear, an inhospitable planet colonized by a handful of humans and inhabited by murderous vegetation, exotic wildlife, and a trio of formidable monsters. Pick a side – hunter or monster – and prepare to fight in one of several arena maps for survival.
Choose a hunter, and you'll then have to select your class: Assault is the damage dealer for those that like to fight up close and personal; Support provides personal shields and orbital bombardment; Medic entrusts you with keeping your team fighting fit; Trapper provides the all important Mobile Arena entrapment and other hunting aids.
Each class is expertly balanced and provides a satisfactory first-person shooter experience, both graphically and mechanically. The indigenous wildlife can feel overpowered at times, though, often tearing apart the more spread out teams with ease, and the towering surroundings can often seem overbearing, making the experience quite claustrophobic.
The irony with this class system is that while it keeps everything balanced and maintains each individual player's importance, it's also the game's ultimate undoing. Each class playing a key role means that if a player doesn't pull their weight, everything goes to pot – and it does so very, very quickly.
For example, if a Trapper never drops the Mobile Arena, the monster will spend the whole game evading the hunters. Each role is so important that if it isn't fulfilled effectively, the game simply doesn't work. This is amplified by the necessity to play online to get the proper experience; the all-important teamwork element tends to fall apart when someone won't turn off Taylor Swift's Blank Space in the background. Sure, there's an offline mode where you can play against bots – but it's unranked, and never feels quite as good as besting your fellow man. Your only option, then, is to play with trusted friends, which isn't always viable.
The other side of the coin is a rather different story. Enter the Monsters, of which there are three behemoth specimens to manipulate: the Goliath, Kraken, and Wraith. Similarly to the hunters, each one possesses their own unique abilities that pair them with certain types of play style. They each have four abilities that you're able to allocate up to three points to before a match; one point unlocks the skill, while subsequent points boost its power.
This nifty mechanic means that you can tailor your monster even more to your style; you can lump all of the points in your favourite ability to turbo-charge it, or spread them out to give you more options. Once in the arena, you'll have to find food by killing wildlife in order to accumulate energy to evolve. Evolving is key, as it not only increases your base health and shield capacity, but also allots three more points to spend on abilities, making your monster even more of a walking slaughterhouse. You're able to evolve twice, and once you're done, you'll be at your most powerful (and most spikey), leaving you able to devour the hunters like a heavily armed sushi spread.
Evolving the creature's abilities opens more avenues; do you play stealthily, remaining at Stage 1, or do you hit Stage 3 as quickly as possible and go all Godzilla on your foes? The variety of gameplay feels more open and more personal with the monsters, and unsurprisingly proves to be the best aspect of the game. The third-person perspective has a habit of reducing the graphical fidelity, though, squashing detail down, and while the sluggish controls mimic the monster that you're controlling, they can be infuriatingly slow to respond. It also has a nasty side effect of causing motion sickness and headaches, at least for this reviewer, potentially due to the odd camera movements.
Outside of the core four-versus-one dynamic of Hunt mode, the game also offers up several other options that put a spin on the structure. Rescue mode involves the hunters defending soldiers as they're picked up by dropships, while the monster naturally tries to take them down. There's also Egg Hunt, in which the hunters have to destroy a collection of monster eggs dotted about the arena, while – you guessed it – the beast defends its offspring. The twist comes when you realise that the monster can prematurely hatch eggs to spawn minions – essentially weaker versions of itself – to aid its consumption of the mobile buffet. However, while these modes offer respite from the main formula, they're built from the same blueprints, and feel disappointingly taped on in a bid to serve up some form of replayability.
So, aside from extra modes, what will keep you coming back to a game with no collectibles, campaign, or difficulty levels? Rankings, that's what. Each class and monster has its own tiered levelling system that'll require you to complete challenges based upon the use of certain abilities. These rankings then pit you against both the world and your friends list for added competition.
Not only does this force you to try alternate play styles, but it also breathes a weak sense of competitiveness and replayability into a format that would otherwise grow old rather fast. One of the quickest ways through the grind proves to be the final mode: Evacuation. This is the release's take on a campaign, which serves up five games of different modes picked by players at the start of each round.
The clever bit about this mode is that winning or losing a round will have a diverse affect on the environment, seriously helping or hindering a team's efforts. For example, win on the arena featuring a power station as the hunters, and in the next round you'll have turrets to help you out. Completing a game of Evacuation provides a big sum of XP, and gives you back-to-back opportunities to tick boxes on your character's progression panels, helping you to unlock that tasty emblem that you always wanted and move up the leaderboard faster.
For all its promise of revolution, Evolve seems to consistently trip where its spiritual predecessor – Left 4 Dead – seemed to excel. The balancing is actually too good, causing it to fall apart when someone doesn't play correctly. The monster gameplay is pleasantly the best aspect, but feels undercooked anywhere else but Hunt mode. This is surely a game that'll only improve as its community stabilises, but right now it's hard to recommend unless you've got a group of willing friends.