What a funny old game Turtle Rock has made. Not Joe Pesci 'I'm going to shiv you over this plate of linguini' funny. It's more 'unpredictable downright confounding, but against all olds, occasionally brilliant' funny. There's the core of a great premise here: you can't get much more viscerally primal than dudes going full Neanderthal on a 70ft squid thingie. Yet a good deal of the action you're treated to in Evolve doesn't so much court Darwinism as it burns books over a fire made from monster bones while hollering about Adam and Eve.
At its most base level, this four-vs-one co-op shooter acts as a hunting sim. Either you and three chums/AI bots form a crack hit squad looking to kill the other player's monster, or you take control of a beastie that makes the thing out of Cloverfield look utterly dreamy. Its chief objectives? Survive and gorge... oh, and make basically every other species on the planet Shear extinct. Survival of the fattest, baby.
When you play as a Hunter its your job to track, trap and ultimately settle your differences with the monster through a combination of reasoned discourse and biscuits. No wait... through brutal electrocution and air strikes. I always get those mixed up. As the monster, you must first simply eat any local wildlife in sight; the ultimate goal to evolve into your most powerful, 'level three' form, thereby either wiping out your puny human foes or destroying a power relay. It's a nice dynamic. On paper.
In the game's headline hunt mode, which ironically is Evolve's weakest, you spend much of your time either scouring or scavenging decidedly moist sci-fi forests. These sweltering surroundings act as one giant smorgasbord for the game's initial three monster classes - Goliath, Kraken and Wraith. Monster one is essentially a rock-chucking take on The Thing. Monster the second is a big ol' tentacle colossus that likes to fly and lay down mines. While abomination number three is a serpent-like being capable of teleportation and Invisibility. No fair.
Need some sort of vague narrative to justify you virtual slaughter? So be it. Well, from what I understand the game takes place on a planet called Shear. And naturally enough, there are folk living on Shear. These colonists seem to have gotten themselves into a bit of bother with the local monster population; hence the need for your uber tough Hunters to parachute in to save the day. Think Aliens-meets-Avatar and you're about 63% of the way there. Play the five-round Evacuation mode and there's plenty of scope to save/eat the day.
Hold on there, Timmy/ Tina Teleport. Both the Kraken and Wraith must first be unlocked by reaching level one on all the Goliath's skill trees - buffed up by say, throwing boulders 20 times or doing 20,000 points of damage with its leap attack. It's an unwanted grind in an otherwise sensible progression system, and something you'll have to endure to unlock all available 12 Hunters, too.
Whether you'll feel compelled to snare 'em all depends on how much you can stomach artificial padding in a game that's pretty limited in scope. While later characters are generally better - Griffin the second tier Trapper can fire torpedoes directly at the monster, whereas starting character Maggie has to plant them on the ground - it takes a hefty amount of time to churn through the unlocks. Combined with 2K's unapologetic day one DLC additional character packs and it all feels a tad cheeky.
Still, the idea of basically playing as a video game boss is a brilliant one. In execution, being the Big Bad isn't entirely satisfying, but it certainly gives Evolve a hook. Mechanically, there's much to enjoy about the monster(s). You start each round with a brief head start on the Hunters, during which time you must create some distance from your would-be killers and munch anything within clawing radius to grow bigger. Being chased is fundamentally more satisfying than doing the chasing. And next to the Hunters' cluster of powers, which often make your view busier than a screen of Matrix code when they're fired in conjunction, there's an uncluttered elegance to simply sneaking, eating and occasionally eviscerating.
My main gripe with being monstrous is the controls simply lack the necessary feedback to convey the sense of power you expect. Sadly, you often feel more rodent than Rodan when wailing on a group of Hunters. Too many of your abilities feel weightless, while a hella-naughty camera makes the job of keeping tabs on all the little bastards swarming around your shins a serious chore.
That's not to say occasionally weedy attacks derail the pleasures of stomping about doing your best Godzilla impression. First up, even in the early stages of evolution, monsters are still chuffin' huge. Next, you get to clamber, glide and teleport with well judged, streamlined traversal abilities. Finally, you're allowed to throw boulders, conjure electricity storms and create clones to your disgusting heart's content. Now I see why Mike and Sully are so happy.
On the pesky human (and occasionally robot) side, Hunters are split into four classes: Assault, Trapper, Medic and Support. All of whom get jetpacks for scaling Shear's craggy topography. Hooray! In gameplay terms those classes roughly translate to... Big Shooty Man With Electric Rifle; Canny Tracker; Wait There I'll Save You With My Magic Healing Gun and Mr I like Dropping Carpet Bombs On People. Predictably enough, teamwork is key.
On their own, each Hunter stands little chance against a fully evolved beast. It's only when you combine their complimentary abilities that you really start cooking with monster-frying fire. A well-versed team constantly shield, heal and revive each other. Stuck in a squad full of loners/isn't fully mic'd up? You're in for a world of hurt. Make no mistake: Evolve isn't a game you can just casually drop into and expect to get the most out of. This is very much an experience best played with friends who constantly talk to each other. If you're paired with uncooperative/lone wolf online randoms, this can be an unwelcoming, often dispiriting shooter.
Currently, the balancing doesn't feel quite right, either. While I already talked about the overly effective AI bots in our original review in progress, even playing with pals can often lead to someone getting the short end of the stick... or, in this case, ray shield. While each role has their strengths and weaknesses, it's the Trapper that feels really key. Capable of temporarily engaging a monster in an unbreakable bio-dome (an absolute match-winner if you snag the monster in its first form) or slowing it down with harpoons, this is the class that really dictates the ebb and flow of a match. As a result, if you're playing with someone who's cack-handed at putting down domes in time to imprison the monster, you're pretty much screwed.
Even when your tactics link together harmoniously, battles still often devolve into massive clustermucks. In Left 4 Dead, you'd never be far from a breathless last ditch stand or thrilling chase. Here, you often find yourself confined in a small area; manically spamming abilities in the vague hope of doing damage. Too often the game fails to channel its chaos into truly satisfying matches, even if the end result is rarely less than entertaining. Also, why Turtle Rock turned on friendly fire for that sh*tting air strike, I'll never know. Be prepared to be blown all over the shop. Stupid Support class.
Thankfully, proceedings are less chaotic outside of Hunt mode. Rescue, Defend and Nest all fair better by virtue of giving your more objectives to focus on. Having to save/slay colonists, protect/pummel a ship's power source or put a hurt on/hatch monster eggs moves the action away from overly hectic battles or the monotony of trying to Sherlock your prey's location by searching for flocking birds or footprints. My best matches have all come in these modes - a somewhat damning incitement of Hunt, maybe - but the more nuanced action really saves the game's beastly bacon.
Evolve is currently a smidge schizophrenic. Sometimes you play a match and the game's clever systems all coalesce beautifully; creating a charmingly hectic hybrid that occasionally channels Left 4 Dead's frantically back and forth antics while handling like a monstrous Titanfall. Play without mic'd up pals, though, and the pull of chaos is too strong, with battles struggling to keep their focus. The game also feels a little limited – you've really only got four match types to repetitively chew your way through – leaving you with an uneven, entertaining Jekyll and Hyde. Although last time I checked, Edward couldn't nuke people from above with an electric storm.