Sixty dollars can buy a lot of game -- from forty-hour single-player campaigns that depict the rise and fall of empires, to hundred-plus-hour multiplayer bloodblaths made addictive by progression and customization. The makers of Evolve ask that you spend the same amount of money on their simple restyling of hide-and-seek. Unfortunately, much like any game you can play for free in the backyard, Evolve is an absolute bore if you don’t know all the players.
Imagine playing hide-and-seek with four strangers. One of you is “it”, the other three can’t talk, and you all have guns or giant monster claws. If you’re picturing a chaotic cluster of frustratingly uneven fun, then you have a good idea of what Evolve has in store for you. The game isn’t ruined by not knowing the other players, but it is made dramatically more inconsistent.
That’s because Evolve is largely about teamwork. Four players have to gather together and use their small toolbox of weapons to hunt down and kill a fifth player cast in the role of the monster. If anyone dies, or fails to pull their weight, then it ends up being like that team project in college where you did all the artwork you were supposed to, but the guy in charge of the summary forgot, and now you’re stuck with a C instead of that solid B you totally deserved.
Man. That guy was the worst, right? He’s far worse when he’s a 13-year-old stoner squeaking into his mic about how you need to “Kill it! Kill it!”
Who Needs Variety?
One doesn’t always need teammates to kill another player. There’s a single-player mode whose tedium belies its origin as a tutorial. It’s great for grinding through levels to acquire new playable characters, but it’s a true grind -- it had me setting up my laptop next to the TV so I could catch up on Scandal as I played. (Have you seen this season? It’s like Homeland and Grey’s Anatomy had a baby with 100 percent more human-trafficking plotlines. It’s also far more entertaining than single-player mode in Evolve.)
Other modes aren’t as bad. Playing as the monster is fine, if you like being in constant motion and weeping because you never seem to be able to catch a break. Unless you’ve had the patience to level up your monster before engaging other players, you’ll be hopelessly outgunned and embroiled in a Sisyphean struggle for the ages.
Objective modes that aren’t merely “kill the thing” are where Evolve shines. Rescuing (or murdering) stranded soldiers and crushing (or hatching) monster eggs pits the team against the monster in exciting ways and requires strategy that goes beyond “squeeze the trigger until dead.”
The gaming mechanics, and the strategy required to use them, function as a double-edged sword in Evolve. Each character class has four unique abilities available to it, such as the trapper who can create a “thunderdome” to force a monster fight, and the healer who can use his or her sniper rifle to create weak points on the monster to be targeted. When four committed players come together with just the right characters, the response is alchemical -- it’s like watching a Rube Goldberg machine in action.
Unfortunately, because success hinges on flawless execution, weak links are exaggerated, as I found when I played a few rounds with my brother. When you (or your sibling/friend/roommate) aren’t fully committed to monster murder, the grief that can be wrought is excruciating.
I spent one entire round trapping my entire team in a bubble and watching the monster level up. On the next round, my brother decided to bail on the group to hunt low-level, irrelevant monsters, while the rest of us were slaughtered. The other two members of our group abandoned us shortly thereafter.
Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems
The genuine flaws of the game are few. While there is little variety in map choices or game modes, and monster controls can feel sluggish, the game is well crafted. The playstyle for each character is just unique enough to be interesting, and the inclusion of a monster class sets Evolve apart from co-op competitors such as Team Fortress, Heist 2 and the Borderlands series.
The real problem is that the game’s focus is myopically narrow. Competition among players and general progression are virtually non-existent. Customization exists, but is so meager it feels more like the illusion of choice. I’ve voted in Texas elections that gave me more viable options.
These issues aren’t so bad when you compare this game to very specific alternatives such as Team Fortress or Heist 2. The real problem lies in the price. Without a single-player campaign like Borderlands’, or a co-op-less multiplayer aspect like Call of Duty’s, that $60 price tag is striking.
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I found myself thinking about that price often as I trailed behind a monster composed of lightning and my own tears, leaping from rock to rock with my jetpack and periodically pinging the monster with my rifle.
Is it fair to ding a game for its price? In six months, Evolve could easily be $40. Would I rate it better then? Would I focus on the joy of the parkour-like mobility of the characters or visceral satisfaction of a well-executed plan, instead of on the tedium in which I’ve found myself mired or the lack of friends online at noon on a Monday?
Yes. Absolutely. If this game were on sale, I would happily tell all my friends to buy it so we could tool around for a weekend, griefing and fighting and murdering which ever friend was tagged “it.”
With four good friends and that bottle of Prosecco that’s been in the fridge since New Year’s Eve, it’s a riotous explosion of joy and friends’ misery. Yet if you’re friendless and alone, Evolve won’t help cure any of that and will, instead, leave you in a pit of despair and weariness. My advice: wait until it goes on sale -- and see if there’s any other gamers in the liquor store.
Alex Cranz is the Assistant Reviews Editor at Tom’s Guide. When she’s not devising tests for new tech she’s figuring out the best way to run Plex on it. Follow Alex @alexhcranz. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.