New and more involved asymmetric multiplayer experiences are just one of the many possibilities given the emerging power of the new console hardware, engine development, cloud computing, and other innovative software development. While there's nothing wrong with symmetric multiplayer titles, indeed providing some of the largest and most competitive multiplayer experiences of all times. But what these more complex and forward thinking asymmetric titles could accomplish is to evolve game design and may even be able to revolutionize what the gamer expects from an online title, or what being "online" even means.
Evolve, the latest title from Turtle Rock Studios and 2K Games, takes inspiration from the primordial exercise of hunting, the eternal struggle of fight and flight to create a next-generation asymmetric competitive online struggle. In Evolve, 4 player controlled characters hunt a titanic alien and constantly evolving monster, possessed as well by another player. The thrilling "Xbox, record that!" moments that this multiplayer scenario could incite is exciting to consider. And for the most part, Evolve realizes this concept quite well. But what holds Evolve back from ultimate greatness is that which plagues most asymmetric design: game balance and barrier to entry for players to achieve the perfect hunt, for both hunter and monster alike. This makes Evolve matches less hunts, and more like slaughters for new and unfamiliar players.
What is immediately evident by simply picking up the controller is that Turtle Rock Studios succeeded in one of the hardest task to accomplish: making both the hunters and monsters extremely fun to play. Turtle Rock Studios' previous title, Left 4 Dead, was in all actuality a rather clumsy and incapable shooter, with the playable zombie side of things being surprisingly entertaining and capable in comparison. In Evolve, Turtle Rock have made both sides of their asymmetric coin fun to play and engage with in their radically different systems.
On the hunter side of things, there are 4 classes that each player can inhabit during the hunt, from the damage dealing bruiser Assault, the healing Medic, buff and debuffing Support, to the monster tracking Trappers. Each class has a clearly defined goal, but what makes things more complicated is that these classes have 3 different characters each, with four different active and passive skills or weapons for each hunter. What Turtle Rock nails here that Left 4 Dead failed at is that the shooting and movement mechanics -- including the new jetpack feature which allows you to quickly traverse the environment -- are all quite satisfying, making the good ol' humans extremely fun to play.
And at the other side of the ring are the monsters, which there are a total of 3 different types: the bestial Goliath, the hovering Lovecraften-esque Kraken and the shadowy Wraith. Each of these monsters are actually cut from the shape cloth as the common RPG archetypes of warrior, wizard and the rogue, respectively, with their skillsets based around these concepts. The Goliath can throw boulders and charge at people, while the Kraken kites around the hunters throwing lightning bolts and the Wraith can turn invisible and create decoys of itself. Following these RPG archetype means that each of these creatures are radically different from each other, making mastering each one its own unique reward.
Once the hunters and the monster select their characters, the real Evolve experience begins with its primary Hunt game mode. To give them a fair shot, the monster gets a brief head-start before the humans drop into the alien jungle to hunt them. The early going objective for the monster is to consume enough of the wildlife to get stronger and level-up your skills via evolution, while trying to outrun, sneak around, or attack the hunters at optimal moments. On the other hand, the hunters are charged with killing the monster before it reaches its final, ultimate third evolution when its goal is to then either kill all of the hunters, or to destroy an important map-based human structure which then ends the game as well.
With over sixteen maps total filled with different patterns of wildlife and geography -- twelve of these maps are playable in the standard Hunt game mode as described above -- in addition to taking into account the many different combinations of hunter and monster characters, no single match of Evolve will ever be the same. My most enjoyable moments with Evolve are intense cat-and-mouse matches between capable players, in carefully tense and tight matches full of a wild, natural atmosphere which I've never felt before in a video game, much less in a multiplayer game. This made both successful and failed hunts extremely satisfying.
But to be perfectly honest, such matches were slightly less than 50% of my experience with Evolve, as it was quite uncommon to get such capable players on both teams. Because of how demanding and complicated each class of hunter and monster type is, there's a high chance that somewhere in the great chain in Evolve, someone will probably have zero idea of what they are supposed to do. It'll take over several matches before you can wrap your head around any single character in Evolve, which will mean someone will be fumbling around, getting killed by the NPC wildlife hundreds of miles away from his hunting party, or a monster getting caught immediately at the moment go because they have no idea of how to navigate the maps or are unaware of the correct feeding paths.
When this happens, the delicate and sophisticated push-and-pull of Evolve is almost immediately broken, either resulting in matches ending quicker then it took to get into them, or matches dragging on boringly forever making it feel like a giant time-waster for everyone involved. As Evolve doesn't do a great job in explaining its myriad subtle yet extremely important systems for both the hunters and monsters, there's a really rough ramp-up time for players to wrap their head around all of the maps, characters and roles they are expected to master instantly.
What makes things even harder for new players to get into the swing of things in Evolve is its progression system. To unlock new characters, hunters and monsters alike, you have to grind out using every single skill and weapon of the first hunter in each class and the first monster. This is frustrating as characters further down the progression chain are not necessarily harder to grasp than their predecessors, forcing new players to potentially learn characters or use skills that they hate. This could cause players to give-up instead of forcing themselves to bang their head against the progression wall over-and-over again. While you can technically grind this progression system against bots in the game's "single-player" mode, this is incredible boring to do so and regardless, shouldn't be an issue for a highly competitive $60 game. All of this should be open from the get-go for potentially great Evolve gamers to emerge immediately, instead of potentially chasing them off with this hostile progression system.
This makes matters even worse as for a recently released game, Evolve's meta game is pretty wacky and not ideally tuned. There are clearly very powerful hunters who are significantly better than their fellows, and most of the monster feel just slightly overpowered, with the Wraith being straight-up broken in how powerful, survivable and mobile it is. What this generally means that if the hunters make any mistake, it's very easy for the monsters to snowball these slight errors into a clear and divisive victory. This is because when the monster knocks out a hunter they lose a portion of their maximum health, allowing the already strong monsters an easy path to absolute domination as they'll only get stronger while the hunters become permanently weaker. It has only been a couple weeks since release, but Evolve could use a healthy patch to keep the current Evolve community engaged and make it easier for newcomers to jump in.
Only after about 20 hours of dedicated time playing Evolve have I just started to get my feet under me, having obtained a good chunk of the hunters, getting all of the monsters unlocked and memorizing most of the maps. Evolve is a demanding time investment, and exposing this number will help a number of you decide if Evolve will be worth or time or not. Hopefully with future patches and updates this amount of wind-up time will be reduced, but with the current state of things, some variation of this final number is probably what you're looking at to achieve basic competency. And this is in learning to play the purest form of Evolve, its Hunt mode. This isn't a huge deal as the other modes from rescuing human NPCs to hunting monster eggs are gimmicky, so the real meat of Evolve's feast being its Hunt mode.
Production-wise, Evolve is an extremely well-put together product with slick menus and a great interface for both hunters and monsters alike. The character design is strong, creating easy to identify silhouettes for players to spy from a distance, and each map has a strong personality, enhancing the already great map design with clear environment design and easy to recognize the docile and hostile wildlife. The sound design is also incredibly strong, bringing these hunters and monsters to life with good sound cues from the eerie scream of the Kraken in the distance to human gunfire taking down an aggravated wildlife creature. Jason Grave's electronic score for Evolve is completely serviceable, but is barely noticeable and largely unnecessary when the hunt begins as you'll be too absorbed by the matter at hand, your ears peeled from the sound of your prey, not the highly produced musical beats. The strong production values do bring the jungle environment of Evolve to life, giving players an atmospheric alien hunting experience.
Evolve is an extremely complicated, demanding title which you'll have to not only be interested in engaging despite an annoying progression system, but also a currently slightly unbalanced title that favors the monsters in its modern balance state. But if you stick with Evolve for a long while, learn your damn class and how to cooperate with your fellow hunters or correctly engage with the hunters as the monster, then Evolve is the most compelling and entertaining multiplier experience I've played in this new generation, by far.
When everything clicks together well in an single Evolve match -- which happens slightly less than I would like -- then it's one of the only multplayer games that I leave a match highly satisfied, regardless if the actual round turned out to be a success or failure. And that marks Evolve as a worthy hunt as a whole in my mind. Hopefully, this is a trend future multiplayer games take, symmetric or asymmetric otherwise.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)