No one is going to want to play as the monster. Or at least that's what I thought when I first heard about Evolve's four versus one combat. After all, when you're given the option of playing as a hunter with superior firepower and a spiffy jetpack, why would you want to be lumbered with just a set of fists and some sharp teeth? But I needn't have worried.
Coming from Turtle Rock Studios--the same studio behind the original Left 4 Dead--Evolve takes the four-player co-op experience and turns it on its head. Instead of fighting off hundreds of zombies or taking on an alien horde, here there's just one player-controlled opponent for you to tackle--and boy, what an opponent it is. The monster is tough, and brutal, yet elegant. You can just as easily play a strategic, stealthy game as you can an aggressive one, and either way, it's a hell of a lot of fun.
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Evolve will feature different types of monster, but in my demo there was only one: Goliath. As his name suggests, Goliath is no shrinking violet. His physical attributes are impressive, letting him rip boulders from the ground to hurl at hunters at range, charge attack through them, and unleash a stream of fiery death. But he's quick too, an all-rounder of sorts, so he could sprint his way around the environment, and swiftly leap up the tall hills that populated the jungle level I was playing in.
Unlike, say, playing as the zombies in Left 4 Dead 2, there's no real struggle to get to grips with how Goliath moves. It all feels very natural, and viewed from the third-person the sense of scale as he leaps thunders through the jungle is striking, and thoroughly empowering--but it gets even more so as you play. Initially, Goliath has just a few abilities, including simple swipe attacks and one special move that you choose at the beginning of the round.
At this point, Goliath is relatively weak, making him easy prey for hunters. That's not to say you can't go on the offensive, though. In one particularly gruesome round, a Turtle Rock Studios developer took control of the monster, and using some of Goliath's stealth abilities that allowed him to move through the jungle quietly and without leaving footprints, he snuck up on our hunter group and proceeded to slaughter us without a seconds thought. Within minutes the round was over.
More fledging players will want to make Goliath stronger, and it's here that some really strategic play happens. Scattered around the environment are various animals, which, when eaten, regenerate some of Goliath's armor. Eat enough of them and you can choose to evolve Goliath, which gives you access to another special power, and makes him bigger and stronger. The thing is, all those leftover animal corpses don't go unnoticed by the hunter group, and for every one you stop to eat, you're giving the hunters a chance to catch up, and find clues about where to find you.
You leave footprints too if you're sprinting around, while disturbing a flock of birds gives your position away in seconds. If you choose to evolve, you also put Goliath at his most vulnerable. During evolution, Goliath becomes cocooned and unable to defend himself. It's only for a short while, but if you're suddenly discovered by hunters and attacked, those are some agonizing moments.
The increased power is worthwhile, though, and if you get Goliath all the way up to level three, he's a terrifying prospect for hunters to deal with. While there's a cooldown period for each special power, at level three you've enough of them to make juggling between them relatively easy, particularly, as I found, when they're mixed up with some meaty standard attacks and leaping acrobatics. Smashing through the hunters, now a much smaller part of my screen, and watching them tumble with each mighty swing was incredibly fun.
I went into Evolve thinking that the monster would always be on the back foot, at a significant disadvantage to the weapon-wielding hunters, and it certainly felt that way taking control of Goliath for the first time. But it was that very feeling of vulnerability that made that made evolving and getting the drop on the hunters feel even more awesome. It was evident that an awful lot of thought had gone into balancing the two opposing forces, and that became even more apparent as I took on the role of a hunter. There are four classes of hunter in Evolve, each with their own set of skills. In my demo there was Markov the assault class; Griffin the trapper class; Hank the support class; and Val the medic.
Each has a clearly defined role to play within the team--and you really do need to to play as a team in order to take down the monster. Markov is naturally the strongest of the bunch, his job being to inflict as much damage as possible to the monster with his assault rifle, lightning gun, and personal shield. But he's also able to herd the monster with his arc mines, luring it into enclosed spaces, or away from them, depending on how well your team is doing.
His natural ally is Griffin, who can snare the monster with his harpoon to keep it locked in place, deploy sound spikes to detect its movement, and a erect a Mobile Arena (a kind of temporary giant dome) to keep the monster enclosed. The latter also traps anyone and anything else in the dome with it, though, including some of the more ferocious species of wildlife scattered around the environment. There was more than one occasion where a hastily deployed arena trapped us in with a level three monster and some particularly vicious creatures, resulting in some vicious, expletive-filled yelling at the trapper over voice chat.
Evolve's other hunters are there to lend a helping hand to the first two. Hank can block attacks against his fellow hunters with his shield gun, activate a cloaking device and sneak up on the monster with his laser cutter, and unleash an Orbital Barrage, which is essentially an airstrike. The latter only hits a relatively small area, though, and displays a big red column on screen that the monster can see, meaning it's best used when the trapper has the monster on a leash. The medic, meanwhile, has a gun that can heal from a distance, similar to the medic from Team Fortress 2, but it's her other additions that make her more interesting than your typical medic class. There's a tranquilizer rifle that's ideal for using in conjunction with the trapper's harpoon to keep the monster incapacitated, and another rifle that lets her create weak points for bonus damage.
While the six rounds I played weren't enough to come to definitive conclusion on the balance between the four hunter classes, I came away impressed; trying to go it alone as any of them won't get you very far. The assault class needs to shielded and healed to land his attacks, the support and medic classed need the offensive firepower of assault to keep themselves protected, and they all need the skills of the trapper to help find and incapacitate the monster in the first place. Voice chat seems all but essential to get the most of the game.
If that balance had been off, even by a little bit, then Evolve wouldn't have been nearly as fun to play as it was. This is the sort of game that people are going to tell stories about, like the time we my team chased the monster through a tunnel and chucked up an arena, only to get the sinking realization we'd just trapped ourselves in a swamp with the monster and his giant lizard friend, and hearing the screams of "get the hell out of there!" over the voice chat.
Or the time I played as a Hank, when--with some neatly executed shielding--I helped lure the monster into a deadly a trap of arc mines, watching as each member of the team played their part and gradually whittled down his health. Or, playing as a monster, waiting those nail-biting seconds to evolve to level three as my cocoon was attacked, only to emerge and decimate the overly-confident hunters with a flurry of flames.
Four versus one is a simple idea. But the level of depth that Turtle Rock has extracted from that idea, even in this early demo, surprised me--and with more types of the monster on the way, I can only see it getting deeper. A shooter it may be be, but Evolve is one of the most unique ideas I've seen in a while, and a well executed one at that. Definitely one to watch.
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