Co-op monster hunting in Evolve

My Kraken quite literally fizzes with personality. His four moves are a lightning strike called down from the heavens that deals area-of-effect damage; a gusty vortex that knocks enemies back; banshee mines that, when stepped on, deal electricity damage; and aftershock, which builds an electrically charged shield. And if the attacks weren’t selfexplanatory enough, a two-minute pre-match reel showcases what they do and how to use them. Before the match I’m allowed to pick two, as well as a perk – these range from attack buffs to defence boosts.

Monsters navigate maps in completely different ways. The Goliath sprints on two legs and the Kraken bounds on four; the former scales cliffs while the later soars over them. Speaking of maps, this is a place like nowhere you’ve seen before. Robb explains Turtle Rock’s vision for Shear: “We were going for the feeling of isolation, this being a frontier planet. We didn’t want to make it a big metropolis planet full of cities and things like that. This is a planet dotted with settlements, and the settlements are lonely places, and fairly far away from each other. So there’s that feeling of isolation: you’re on the edge of civilised space.”

The colonists are opportunistic, taking advantage of naturally occurring building materials and using spaceship parts as accoutrements. Turtle Rock call their design philosophy ‘loco-tech’, inspired by steam engines and machinery from the industrial revolution: thick buckles, black pipes, churning turbines and wads of grease. The stage I’m playing is called The Dam, a desert canyon under a starry sky. It’s exotic and hostile, an environment where only the fittest survive. This doesn’t feel like a videogame construct meant to accommodate, but an alien world that’s flourished without intervention, like festering mould behind the radiator. It’s meant for those adapted to it, and repellent to everything else.

On the sides of this half-kilometre map, networks of tall caves converge on a sprawling dam. As the monster, my aim is to destroy it, but first I must roam the level snacking on local wildlife. Much of it is small enough to pose no threat. Longlimbed crowbill sloths flee when they see me approach, as you would, so I cast a bolt of lighting and fry them. Some creatures fight back. Kill elite creatures, like the armadon or tyrant, and you gain temporary buffs. The general rule is the bigger the animal, the more meat it offers.

Evolve isn’t so named merely because it lends itself to a clever logo that visualises the game’s four-on-one angle. You have to actually evolve, and eating meat is how. The Kraken has three stages, growing bigger and more powerful each time. Upon evolving, you unlock another ability, but watch out: get caught in the act and you’ll take greater damage. You won’t want to scrap with the Hunters unless you’re fully evolved, because if they have any semblance of teamwork you’ll be outgunned. Instead, I spend the first two thirds of the match zapping anything smaller than me like an electrical bully, and eating it.

I have to be careful, because certain elements of the game can give away my position. I blaze through a flock of alien birds and their distressed squawks echo around the level. My footprints also leave a temporary breadcrumb trail. Animals react to kills, too: vulturelike harpies show up on Hunters’ huds, while trapjaws arrive in packs like hyenas to contest you. The randomised weather can play a part in your strategy: rain washes away monster footprints faster and reduces the scent range, while fog banks obscures sight lines and aids escape. Weather is a rolling modifier that forces both sides to make on-the-fly tactical decisions and adjustments to their playing style.

Enough fauna munched on, I evolve to my final form, all four powers unlocked. Now it’s time to attack the dam’s generator. The Hunters know I’m heading there because that’s where all matches in Hunt mode end up (other modes have yet to be revealed). Either I destroy it and win, or they destroy me and win. The flat, open space surrounding it feels purpose-built for us to thrown down, like an arena from some 3D beat-’em-up.

I’ve got the advantage here after levelling up my sweeping lightning attack: I’m able to damage all the Hunters at once in one massive blast. They pepper me with shots, but I’ve perfected the art of hitting and running. I knock one man to the ground, using him as bait so that when a friend comes to revive him, I target them instead. Soon they’re all dead, and I’ve got all the time in the world to whale on the generator.

OK, round over, it’s time to switch. There are four Hunter classes: Assault, Medic, Support and Trapper. They’re equally important, but the Trapper is more important. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a Trapper. Paltry machine gun aside, her harpoon gun tethers the monster to the ground, and her pet trapjaw Daisy, which is basically an alien bloodhound, can track the monster’s scent. Best of all is the mobile arena. Deploying it encloses the monster in a shimmering hologram dome for a few minutes, and because your quarry is faster than you, it’s the only way to kill it in the early stages.

These Hunters are a different set from those I saw during the game’s reveal a few months back. Although the classes don’t change, the humans (and robots) in these roles do. There are 12 characters in all – three in each class. My Trapper is Maggie, a tough talker with an even tougher upbringing, as I discover during the opening scene in which our Hunters banter in a dropship. Maggie asks the Assault guy Hyde, a cockney man mountain, if she scares him. He replies, “Nah...Well, yeah, a bit.” Along with random exchanges down on the ground, these moments tell the story and flesh out the characters.

“We did not want these characters to be re-skins of the same character,” Robb tells me. “We’ve tried very very hard to make sure all the characters are very unique. Even within the classes. So you have three assault characters, and we’ve worked really hard to make sure each one of these guys performs their job in different ways... We want to make sure everyone finds a favourite.”

We drop from the sky and land at the generator. Now the hunt begins. We quickly find that following the Kraken’s footsteps is folly, because we’ll always be a step behind. Instead we call on Bucket, the Support. Bucket is a bulky yellow robot who can detach his head and fly it like a drone. Once he finds the monster, he marks it on everyone’s screens. Using this ability at the start of each match is a good routine to adopt.

We split into pairs. Obviously this requires a bit of coordination, so mics are crucial. One thing’s for sure, though: you never want to go it alone. As in Left 4 Dead, natural hazards impede lone wolves. One alien with massive jaws—the megamouth—locks me in a tussle animation that can only be interrupted by a teammate. Later, a giant venus flytrap imprisons me in its gob until I’m rescued. If you couldn’t tell, I’m quite clumsy.

At last we find the monster, thanks in no small part to my trapjaw who sniffs it out. Not being fully evolved. the Kraken tries to flee, but I root it to the ground with my harpoons and lay my mobile arena. Now the other three members of my team can go to town. The Assault man Hyde, our primary damage dealer, is key here, using a minigun, flamethrower and toxic grenades to weaken the monster, then deploying a personal shield when it strikes back. This is where Bucket comes in, using his cloaking field to render everyone invisible. His guided missile launcher and sentry gun mines keep up the damage.

When I get knocked down, Lazarus the Medic helps out. While anyone can revive anyone (including the pet trapjaw), the Medic brings teammates back to life almost instantly. Lazarus excels at creeping round the level with his invisibility cloak, silently using healing bursts to keep the team alive and fighting.

Finally, and only through teamwork, we take down the Kraken. It collapses with a wail.

Evolve feels good, and it works. So what, for Robb, are his hallmarks of a strong co-op game? “It needs to be more than taking a group of people and putting them in a room and saying, run this way... A good co-op game forces you to cooperate. ‘Forces’ doesn’t sound very friendly and very nice but there’s this kind of nice elegance to the way the games go when everyone’s cooperating.”

Evolve marks a continuation of Left 4 Dead’s engaging brand of ‘forced co-op’ but also introduces a competitive aspect in terms of pitting a human-controlled monster against four humancontrolled, differentlypowered, Hunters. It’s a risk. Purely competitive shooters are more popular, but as Robb points out, no one has infused one with co-op in quite this way.

“I won’t say it’s easier, but it’s a different beat to balance a game based on each person being an island in their own way. I don’t like to think of [co-op games] as not as popular, I like to think of the cooperative genre as not fully explored.”