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Is Evolve emerging as 2014's online sleeper hit?

By Nick Cowen on Thursday May 22nd 2014 at 5:00 AM PDT

It's rare that a hands-on preview event ends in a roar of approval from the hacks in attendance. As a rule, games journalists are a pretty cynical bunch, our anticipation having been dulled by continual PR spin, jetlag and crushed expectations - to say nothing of the flames in the comment sections under our articles.

So it was a real thrill to see a room filled with these miserable sods staring enrapt at the five journalists involved in the last match of Evolve from 2K's pre-E3 slate last week. We were all like kids crowded around an arcade cabinet, watching the battle between beast and hunter go right down to the wire over a stretch of twenty-five minutes. There was a palpable buzz in the room.

From a purely analytical perspective - and hey, that's part of the reason you're reading this - it was proof that Turtle Rock's newest co-op FPS is a meticulously balanced affair. The momentum in Evolve's frenetic matches can roll easily between monster and hunter and back again, and the key to maintaining the pressure in this exchange is tied up in experience and skill.

Players controlling the monster have to be intimately acquainted with the beast they control. For the purposes of our hands-on, we only had Goliath, the same snarling, boulder-pitching, fire-belching monstrosity that was made available at the first hands-on back in February and, incidentally, we were playing on the same map - although the developers had added a ton of content to it. However, Turtle rock has introduced some new kinks to the monster's load-out that allows players to customise how they approach the carnage.

Players still get a perk - the ability to consume prey faster, damage resistance and the like - but the leveling up system has been rejigged. In the February's demo, players were locked into opening abilities for Goliath that they may never use - such as his jump attack or his boulder toss. Now, they can plug three levels of damage into one or two abilities, allowing them to deal more damage with them.

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They'll always have a melee attack, and they'll always need to chow down on NPC beasts to evolve, but they can also boost Goliath's fire belch to hellishly damaging levels. They can also shelve powers they don't need or that don't work very well in the environment they're in - in the map I played on, there were very few wide-open spaces, meaning Goliath's ability to hurl rocks was limited at best.

Players controlling the monster also need to learn the map a bit. Since they're on the run from the other four players from the get-go, it's worth taking note of where the most dangerous beasts on the map are, so they can lead the other players towards them. The Hunters will then have to spend precious minutes dealing with gigantic toads or man-eating plants before they resume chase. Best case scenario: a Hunter dies and the player controlling the monster has managed to thin the number of pursuers they have.

The changes to Evolve on the Hunter side of the fence, however, are more pronounced. Turtle Rock unveiled four brand new characters for players to control, although all of them were based on the four class templates introduced in the first hands-on event: Assault, Support, Medic and Trapper.

First up, Hyde stands in for Markov in the Assault class. He's armed with a chaingun - great at a distance - and a flamethrower - the most damage-dealing gun in the game, but only decent up close. Other than that he has a personal shield, which makes him invulnerable for brief periods of time and gas grenades that can flush the team's quarry out of any safe zones.

"The momentum in Evolve's frenetic matches can roll easily between monster and hunter and back again"

Bucket is the new Support character. He's a robot who can pull his own head off and fling it into the map, enabling the player controlling him to gain a UAV view. Bucket also has deployable gun turrets, which are great for turning bottlenecks into kill chambers and a launcher that fires rockets the player can guide with the reticule. He can also cloak the entire group for brief periods.

The new Medic is a shifty-eyed soul named Lazarus - whose name may or may not owe a debt of inspiration to a couple of Batman comic storylines. The reason being that Lazarus is able to resurrect fallen comrades as a secondary attack. His main weapon is a silenced sniper rifle that highlights weak points on the target for the other players. Rounding out his equipment is a health boost burst that heals anyone in his vicinity and a personal cloaking device.

Finally, there's Maggie, the new Trapper character. She comes armed with a machine gun and harpoon turret deployment gun. Unlike Griffin, who has to aim his harpoon gun to slow down the team's quarry, Maggie can simply plant a battery of harpoon turrets, which will activate the moment a monster runs past them. Like Griffin, she also has a portable arena to box the monster in, but interestingly, her final asset is basically a fifth member to the Hunter team.

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Maggie has a pet quad-pedal alien - okay, a giant dog called a trapjaw - named Daisy. Daisy is able to track the monster swiftly, meaning that players spend less time trying to seek out footprints left behind by their prey. Daisy is also able to revive downed team members, provided they still have a pulse.

While it may sound like the Hunters have the edge on Goliath with their collection of new toys, it's a testament to the work Turtle Beach have put into their game that every single battle could go either way. As was mentioned earlier, this depends largely on the skill and knowledge of the terrain.

It's not data you can process in one afternoon, which is why it was handy to have a couple of 2K representatives quarterbacking the action through headsets. As useful as their knowledge of the game was, their participation served to highlight two very important aspects of Evolve.

First, if you're in the Hunter pack, you really need to coordinate your efforts. As was the case in Left 4 Dead, teamwork is paramount and lone wolves are poison. Second, as the monster, you really are on your own and you will only succeed through a combination of resource management - knowing when and where to feed - biding your time before striking and a little bit of luck.

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This is probably why a room filled with gaming hacks cheered when the player controlling Goliath managed to down his last pursuer with just two inches of health left. After a twenty odd minutes of brutal cat-and-mouse we all felt drained and the final denouement came as a heaven-sent release. I can only imagine how it felt for the players involved.

Trooping out of the event I heard several of my colleagues announcing that they'd take credit for that win as it would make a better narrative for their preview. I doubt many of them meant it. But in the interests of keeping us all honest, I can faithfully report that it was none other than Geoff Burrows, the Johannesburg-based deputy editor for South Africa's NAG Magazine who piloted Goliath on that epic win. Way to represent.