When aggressive aliens invade Earth in popular science-fiction, humanity is portrayed as the good guys bravely defending our turf from the grotesque villains. The calculus that drives the story isn’t moral but logistical—how we will stop the invaders with all of their fancy death rays and cloaking devices, not why. Things get more ethically sticky when we’re the ones doing the intergalactic intruding. Sure, it’s not very nice when bloodthirsty beasts treat colonists like meaty snack food, but aren’t we getting our just deserts for an imperialistic attitude toward outer space? Perhaps the insect-like beasts from the Alien movies or the locust horde in Gears Of War don’t represent evil incarnate but the universe’s perverse idea of instruments of karmic justice meant to punish our hubris. By attacking us, they’re essentially saying: “Hey Earth, go terraform your own shit. Don’t be greedy.”
At least, that’s what I convinced myself of while playing Evolve. The experience of inhabiting the tough hide of the game’s three main creatures is so much more satisfying than suiting up as the monster-hunting humans that I felt myself subconsciously identifying with their cause and getting Stockholm syndrome of the third kind. This is probably not what Turtle Rock Studios wants to hear. The developer behind Left 4 Dead abandoned its lucrative zombie-slaying series and spent the last four years fine-tuning a new kind of “asymmetrical shooter” with the promise of two different but equal sides: a team of four gun-toting humans pitted against a monster with innate superpowers.
It’s a shooter, but Evolve ironically doles out less physical pain than most of its multiplayer brethren. Whereas the Call Of Dutys and Halos of the world focus on small arenas designed to funnel players into constant shoot-outs, Evolve refreshingly lavishes in the tension of pursuit rather than the kill-or-be-killed rush of confrontation. A majority of an average match of the default “hunt” mode (which ranges from five to 20 minutes) is spent either running from or chasing the enemy. The monster starts out as a bit of an underfed weakling, so the early moments of a game are about its ability to escape the humans’ dogged pursuit. The creature is more agile than its pursuers, but it must stop to dine on the lesser fauna to build up its health and armor. Once it reaches a specific threshold of feeding, it can “evolve” into a bigger and badder form. After its third stage of evolution, the tables turn and the monster surpasses the collective four humans in power. Suddenly, the Hunters become the hunted—or potentially become the hunted, at least. Part of the appeal of Evolve is being forced to constantly evaluate your situation and decide whether flight or fight is the best option.
Choosing a Hunter is less exciting. They’re quite similar to the space grunts we’re used to commandeering in shooters, both in function and form. They’re a motley crew hired to protect an outpost on the far-flung planet of Shear from a sudden monstrous threat. It’s a diverse group as a whole, but they don’t feel like characters as much as familiar archetypes armed with guns and humorous quips: The cowboy, the grizzled vet, the psychopath. That’s fine; story and characterization are little more than Evolve’s window dressing. What’s more important is that each member of the quartet fills a specific and vital role in the hunt. The trapper, for example, wields contraptions like harpoons and force fields, which are deemed “mobile arenas” meant to temporarily prevent the alien from fleeing to safety while the assault-class hunter gets the glory of going in with guns blazing.
Still, the main attraction is the opportunity to play as one of the three species of monster. Each represents a different kind of power fantasy. The bulky Goliath looks like Godzilla dipped in lava with a King Kong-like arsenal of attacks that rely on brute strength and fury. Unlike his water-bound namesake, the Kraken claims the power of flight and sends down bolts of lightning from afar. The best of the bunch is the Wraith, who looks ripped from the pages of H.R. Giger’s inspiration for Alien—all claws, tentacles, and teeth. It embodies a stealthy assassin, using decoys and quick bursts of damage to compensate for a lack of hardiness. Inhabiting any of the three is empowering, but the Wraith adds a psychological edge to the experience. Hunters that stray too far from their teammates could be abducted. That alien charging them could be a mirage, while the real version sneaks right behind, waiting to spring. It’s like you’re Batman, preying on the Hunters’ fear of the unknown.
But the Wraith’s competence is also part of the chink in Evolve’s armor. In my experience, the Wraith wins roughly two-thirds of the matches it’s involved in, which upsets the game’s teetering sense of balance. There’s a bigger issue that Turtle Rock can’t solve by improving its code: your flesh-and-blood teammates. The monster player relies solely on his or her own wits, while the Hunters rely on other human beings of varying levels of skill and know-how. (You can play with computer-controlled bots, but they kind of defeat the purpose of competition.) In a game that demands constant communication and coordination, many of my matches turned out one-sided because a companion got eaten by a man-eating plant and didn’t ask for help, or wasn’t healing comrades when playing as a medic, or quit after a teammate died. A canny combination of teamwork and a steady trigger finger can mean a well-earned victory as a Hunter, but more often than not, it’s an exercise in frustration and futility.
Evolve is an ambitious concept that flies in the face of what conventional wisdom says about competitive balance. The easiest road to theoretical fairness is to flatten obvious biasing factors like numbers of participants, age, and type of equipment. It’s why boxing has weight classes and football penalizes for too many players on the field. It’s why we don’t see a basketball game between LeBron James and an entire high school team. Asymmetry just invites unnecessary subjectivity and chaos. Under the right conditions, Evolve emerges from its chaotic approach as something sublime. But there are too many moments where I feel like a skinny 17-year-old kid hopelessly trying to guard LeBron.
Developer: Turtle Rock
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed On: Xbox One