By Ben Griffin.
Picture Left 4 Dead on Avatar's world of Pandora. Picture hordes of exotic wildlife, some friendly and some not so. Picture Bill, Zoey, Louis and Francis replaced by four interplanetary Hunters charged with protecting human colonies in deep space. And picture a 30ft-tall beast gunning for them. Picture that, and you've gone some way to picturing Evolve, the new four-on-one sci-fi shooter from Left 4 Dead makers Turtle Rock.
Founded in 2002, the developers made their name with the Valve-owned Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, and later Counter- Strike: Source. Then after a prod by Valve to design their own property, the Counter-Strike custodians replied with arguably the best zombie game ever. That was six years ago.
“We wanted to do something big before people forgot that we were the Left 4 Dead developers,” says Turtle Rock's executive producer Matt O'Driscoll. “We learned a lot from that game in terms of multiplayer and co-op. Evolve carries the Left 4 Dead DNA.”
In Evolve, up to five players face off in class-based combat. Four of them band together as Hunters, while the last plays the monster, which will be different on each map. On Forest Ruin it's the Goliath – the angry dad of the Star Wars Rancor with armoured skin and fire breath. O'Driscoll likens each 20-minute match to an epic boss battle. Unlike most scripted encounters, where you aim for a glowing weak spot and dodge a flurry of forecasted attackers, fights here are organic. They 'evolve'.
“We learnt that people like playing cooperatively,” says Phil Robb, founder and art director at Turtle Rock. “We're always looking for experiences we want that nobody has given us. That's where a lot of our game ideas come from. As far as what we brought over, it's a lot of small things.” Incapacitations, for example: “People don't just want to die. We want to give them a chance to come back.”
A lot carries over, but much has also been left behind – Valve, for example. “Certainly Valve had a big part in the initial days of Turtle Rock,” Robb says. “We worked very closely with them, we learned a lot from working with them. But some of their things are a little different from the way we want to do things. We have often been asked this question: 'You did Left 4 Dead, but how much did you really do?' We're not going to sit here and say a bunch of words and expect you to take our word for it. We're going to make a kickass game. We'll do our best to prove that Turtle Rock is the real deal, and we don't necessarily need Valve to be great... as much as we respect and love them.”
Turtle Rock want to establish their own identity, and the way to do that is Shear. A topographically scattershot ball of rock spinning on the end of the Milky Way's longest arm, Shear is Earth if humanity languished in the middle of the food chain. We've broken from the bounds of the Solar System and spread out across the galaxy. There are colonies everywhere, and the farther you get from Earth, the more inhospitable they become. There is no planet farther than Shear. It's one big frontier town, and people are settling there – or trying – for the same reason that they settled in the American West. Money. Opportunity. A new life.
“Early on, we tried some experiments with making the planet super weird, but at some point you take that too far and people become uncomfortable,” Robb says. “You want to create a world where people understand the rules... so you draw heavy inspiration from Earth environments.” That's the ice, desert and lava levels confirmed, then.
“I think you see that in pretty much every science fiction movie ever,” he adds. “Star Wars certainly did that with Hoth and [Tatooine]. Avatar did it too. You'll think that you're in a jungle on Earth, but then something pops out and you're like, 'Oh, that's new.'”
That's where our Hunters come in. They're planet tamers – think Liam Neeson in The Grey armed with armour-piercing bullets rather than poems. They drop down from ships and safeguard colonies from sharp-toothed natives. “The thing is,” Robb says, “these guys are used to dealing with a certain level of wildlife, but they get here and the monsters are a bit above what they're used to. So they find themselves in a tricky situation. These things are intelligent and they've got some mysterious unknown agenda that we don't understand.”
Pitting differently-powered players against each other recalls Left 4 Dead's Infected mode. The main difference here being that, rather than monsters hunting humans, for the most part humans hunt monsters. So what's to stop the bigger and faster Goliath simply legging it?
On the mode I played, Hunt, the Goliath must meet its own objective to win: here it is destroy the generators. Thing is, he starts as something small and squishy – no match for a team of heavily armed Hunters. So his aim is to roam the map killing and eating its fauna in order to bulk up. The first of many different types and builds of boss, Goliath is a King Kong type who can scramble up vertical surfaces and leap like Ang Lee's Hulk. In terms of handling he reminds me of Left 4 Dead's Tank – Goliath can charge, wrench and throw rocks from the ground, and flail around with his slab of a forearm.
Only after evolving is he ready to tackle the generators. There are three stages of evolution – think of them in terms of height. Stage one: 10ft. Stage two: 20ft. Stage three: 30ft. Before the match starts you'll choose two abilities, and then an extra one upon each evolution. The general rule with consuming creatures is that the tougher they are, the quicker you'll evolve. Those long-armed sloths are a pushover compared with that imposing herd of dinosaur deer with blue spiral snouts, but they don't drop nearly as much meat. The fiercest animals give health bonuses and damage buffs, but sometimes they're better left alone entirely. Turtle Rock call these 'elite animals'.
One such elite bathes in a cloudy shallow pool on Forest Ruins, an alligator-snapping turtle hybrid the size of a train carriage. Robb explains: “One of the cool techniques as the monster is, say you're a little bit banged up but you need to bring the fight to [the Hunters], go hang out by the Tyrant pool. He's more standoffish against a stage three monster but he loves to eat Hunters. So you sit around there and sooner or later you're going to knock one of those poor buggers into the pool and he's going to eat them and all hell breaks loose. It's a really great strategy for the monster to use.”
Indeed, there are numerous ways to utilise Shear's wildlife. As a stage one Goliath fleeing the Hunters, I spot a reaver den and cut through it. They're too small to pose a threat to me but they'll certainly give humans a hard time. Then, after lengthening the gap, I circle around and gobble up all the freshly killed reaver corpses. Yummy.
The wildlife stands in for Left 4 Dead's common Infected, but they're fewer in number and not as consistently aggressive. Sloths might give you a swat if you walk too close but they're not out for blood. The monkey-like reavers, on the other hand, are. Pack animals, they'll come after Hunters. At one point a Jockey-type jumped on my face and exploded in a green cloud of noxious gas. But what of Left 4 Dead's memorable horde technology? “In terms of that sense of being overwhelmed we were not really aiming for that, but a different kind of tension,” Robb says.
When you've gorged on enough local wildlife to fill your bar, you can evolve. Choose your moment though, because just like a teenager in puberty, you're especially vulnerable during your transitional period. A ground-trembling roar echoes around the level when you grow, signalling that the Hunters are about to become the hunted.
However, if the Goliath instead wants to play it safe and evolve further before risking an engagement, Hunters have ways of finding him. They can follow the roars, feel vibrations in their controllers, and look for flocks of unsettled alien birds that give away the Goliath's position. There are also sound spikes to stick in the ground that alert the team to suspicious movement, electric mines (up to eight of which can be planted at once), and waypoints. For the latter, clicking the right stick paints a yellow marker on the horizon in order to guide teammates towards areas of interest. If you happen to highlight the monster as you do so, this marker glows red.
All Hunters have jetpacks as well. Navigating Shear's craggy terrain would prove impossible without them. They're limited by a cool-down timer, but Evolve is generous with it. If you fall short of a steep cliff, you'll automatically amble your way up to save being separated from your buddies. There are also Hunter-only perils. At one point I plunged down a deep human-sized hole that took an entire jetpack boost to escape from.
Each of the four Hunters has a unique role in the team. As the Trapper, Griffin can capture the monster. His harpoon gun restricts its movement, and he has sole access to sound spikes. His most important ability is the mobile arena. If timed correctly, you can trap the monster under a huge blue dome for a limited time. This is where the Markov the Assault comes in. His close-range lightning gun and long-range rifle make him the ideal damage-dealer, and when the going gets tough a personal shield makes him momentarily invulnerable.
If the Trapper and Assault are the front-man and guitarist of the group, Support man Hank is the drummer. His laser cutter deals moderate damage, but his shield gun makes him great backup: aim it at someone to reduce their damage. He also has a cloak, and anyone inside its radius will be rendered completely invisible to the monster, who will have to It's not just the boss you need to watch for – these sloths are riled, too. The Hunters protect the generator from a third tier Goliath. All the characters have cool little touches, like cigar-chomping Hank. rely on infrared smell-o-vision (click the right stick to take a sniff). Hank also has the fiercest ability of the team, a fearsome orbital strike.
Lastly, Medic Val's medgun emits green beams of health, and her healing blast instantly replenishes teammates within the radius. She's important in tracking, too. Her tranquilliser rifle slows the monster to a crawl, while her anti-material rifle pierces its skin. If teammates target the area where it hits, they'll deal extra damage.
Combining powers is key to victory. For example, restricting the monster's movement with the harpoon gun, trapping it with the mobile arena and then slowing it with the tranquilliser rifle allows the Support to line up an orbital barrage. These characters are designed to be memorable, too. Griffin looks fresh from the outback with his Aussie hat and hunting knife. The bruiser Hank has a lucky playing card strapped to his bicep. Markov heaves a pair of chunky Tesla coils on his shoulders. In both shape and colour, these characters are immediately identifiable in a firefight.
Each class contains several characters, too. “All the Assault guys are big guys. Markov has these double Tesla coils but the other guys have [their own] things. We want the monster to take a look and base his strategy on who he's facing. Once you play it long enough you'll learn what characters can do. 'Oh there's Markov, I'm going to play this way to counteract what he can do.' Each one of the Assault guys does damage their own way,” says Robb. This, he hopes, will lend longevity to the game.
Indeed, there's a lot more to come from the currently pre-alpha Evolve. Despite the absence of Valve, first contact leaves me impressed with its distinctly Left 4 Dead level of polish. Turtle Rock have evidently learned from the masters and grown as a game-maker. They've evolved, and perhaps the very idea of co-op will, too.