2K and Turtle Rock Studios have brought Evolve to Boston for PAX East 2014, and with the game's introduction to the public comes a pretty substantial change. Evolve, if you'll recall, is a next-gen shooter from the team behind Left 4 Dead that was first introduced earlier this year. It's notable for its asymmetrical structure, in which four players choose a class and team up against a much larger and more powerful monster--a role filled by a fifth player.
The aforementioned change is focused on the monster's ability system, a small tweak with profound effects on the strategic ebb and flow of any given match. Initially, players controlling the monster would begin each match by choosing a particular skill, whether that be breathing fire, a powerful charge attack, or the ability to hurl a massive rock pulled from the ground below. Then, as the monster leveled up within the match a la Dota or League of Legends, players would be able to fill in their arsenal by unlocking those other skills they initially passed over. (Note: We're talking about the Goliath specifically, as Turtle Rock has yet to reveal the other types of playable monsters in the game. The Goliath is the handsome fellow pictured in all the screens so far.)
All of that works differently with Evolve's PAX East build. Turtle Rock has adopted a skill point sytem for the monster, granting you a handful of points at the beginning of the match as well as each time you level up mid-game. What this does is allow players to either unlock a handful of low-level abilities right from the start, or roll the dice and go all-in on one particular type of attack.
"This change was something that we've been cooking up for a little while," says executive producer Denby Grace. "What we wanted to do was add more variety to the strategies you can employ. We saw an opportunity to make things a bit deeper."
A safe approach to playing as the monster might entail choosing several different abilities from the start, allowing you to get a feel for everything your hulking brute character is capable of before deciding if you want to specialize in any one attack. But, as Grace tells me, the more advanced players on the development team often take a riskier approach.
"We were playing a game the other day, and one of the guys dumped all his points into one or two abilities. Then we as the hunters realized he didn't have his fire-breathing ability. So our strategy was to all got really, really close to him. When you're in that close proximity, it's hard for him to use his rock throw effectively, because the rock is very much a ranged attack."
"So he chose all his ranged stuff, and we just got in tight and had our support and medic take care of the assault class. [His choice of abilities] led to a real difference with the way we played as the hunters."
In this instance, Grace and his team were able to spot their opponent's strategy through keen observation and a thorough familiarity with the game. That member of the development team playing as the monster could have easily exploited his maxed-out rock throwing ability to devastate newcomers, but that wasn't the case here.
But it's how that approach can be tweaked and fine-tuned that makes this skill point system interesting. In the earlier version of the game, you unlock a skill and that's it--there are no tiers or levels to each monster ability. With the revised version, you're granted a much more granular level of control. Maybe you still rely on your rock-throwing prowess, but save that one extra skill point to unlock fire--even if it's the least powerful tier--so that you at least have some close-range defensive capabilities against the hunters.
This approach also solves the cool-down dilemma: relying on one powerful attack means leaving yourself idle for those four or five seconds it takes to recharge your attack. By spreading out your skill points, you can get the full arsenal of attacks and just chain those together, knowing that by the time you're done with your last attack the cool-down on the first one has expired. But then again, a well-coordinated team of hunters can see that you've got everything unlocked and they might take confidence in the fact that no one attack is at its full strength. At least until you've evolved a couple times and turned yourself into a walking death machine.
And therein lies the appeal of Evolve: like Left 4 Dead before it, Evolve is a complex shooter in which teamwork and cooperation open up new doorways to strategic possibilities. Grace's team spotted what was going on and pounced on their opponent's weakness, but with this new skill point system that monster is free to take a completely different approach in the next game. What worked or didn't work in one match doesn't always transition over to the next one.
Of course, it helps that the core action in Evolve also happens to be a whole lot of fun. That blend of meta strategy and instant gratification has earned Evolve a spot on my most anticipated games of the year list, and I for one am eager to see more of it before the game's release later this year.