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On The Origin of Mediocrities

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    Rating: 2.5 – Playable

    On The Origin of Mediocrities

    Turtle Rock Studios, apparently named for the first two things its founder saw outside his window that day, is largely known for its work on Left 4 Dead. It was perhaps one of the best multiplayer gaming experiences in the past decade, combining fast paced, team based combat with everyone’s love of murdering zombies. Thus, when the studio behind this game announced it was making a new multiplayer focused gaming experience called Evolve, and that it was their “dream game”, people were justifiably excited. Still, despite all this promise and passion, there isn’t something about Evolve that just doesn’t quite click. It is one of those games that is flawed basically from its initial premise, and although asymmetric multiplayer gaming is hot at the moment, this is not a particularly good execution of that idea due to limitations based on how the game was designed. It is appropriate that Turtle Rock Studio called Evolve their dream game then, because it is likely to put more than a few people to sleep.

    Asymmetric multiplayer games have been in vogue as of late, particularly ones where one person is a monster/scary person trying to do very not nice things to a group of people that are soft and squishy. Evolve is the same sort of game, where one team is comprised of a group of four intrepid hunters and the other team is a one-man (err…monster?) squad of some sort of hulking monstrosity that is definitely HIDING IN YOUR CLOSET RIGHT NOW RUN RUN RUUUUUUUN. There isn’t much of a story here. Big monsters are on a planet where they’re trying to start a colony, which is very bad for the colonists (and probably even worse for whoever was in charge of colony planning because they are almost certainly fired). The monster wants to eat people, and people want to not be eaten. So we’re at a bit of an impasse here. There is some banter between the hunters at the start of each mission, which is just enough to get a glimpse of their personalities and hints at their backstory. The total amount of dialogue here is extremely limited though, and it feels like a missed opportunity. This sort of game doesn’t absolutely need a story and it plays fine without it, but it would’ve been more fun to really flesh these characters out in some way. Instead you just go out there and kill monsters or kill hunters, depending on your team. That’s all the story you need to know, WUSS.

    After deciding on what sort of match you want to play, you come to the very important decision of picking your hunter or monster. There are twenty hunters in total, although eight are DLC, and five monsters, two of which are DLC. DLC is for suckers (and I wasn’t having enough fun with the regular C to justify purchasing it), but I played through all the standard characters and there is plenty of content from just that alone. There are four classes of hunter, from assault to medic to support to trapper. Each class has a definitive role in combat, leading to a lot of variety between the way different roles play. While assaults are straight up damage dealers, a class like trapper will instead focus on ways to contain the monster so the rest of the group can deal some damage. And, even in the same class, there is a good amount of variety between characters. Giving each class completely unique abilities and making each one important for taking down the monster is a very cool concept, but raises some issues in terms of the actual gameplay. To prevent weird scenarios from occurring, like four medics storming the battlefield and trying to heal the monster’s emotional wounds while he laughs at eats everyone, only one person can play as a specific class per game. You can rank which classes you like to play as most before starting a match, but there is a possibility you may not always get your top choice depending on who else you’re playing with. You can play everything offline with four AI if you so chose, but if you jump in online then you aren’t going to be able to play as who you want to play as all the time.

    And that right there is the primary issue with Evolve. It is a perfectly good asymmetric multiplayer title that takes way to much effort to set up a decent game. This isn’t Left 4 Dead or Dead By Daylight, where all of the players on the survivor side basically function the same way. Sure, there are some minor differences here and there but if you get skilled at playing one you can play any of the others (or, in Dead By Daylight’s case, you and several other people can play the same character no problem). Here, the assault is enormously different than the medic, which is enormously different than the trapper, who is enormously different than the support. Each class plays totally different and takes time to learn and become familiar with, and this makes jumping into a random game so much more difficult than the aforementioned titles. What happens if two players like playing assault? Well one gets to have fun while the other gets a slap in the face and is forced to play as some other character they may or may not be comfortable with. And, if even one member of your team doesn’t know what they’re doing, you might as well douse yourself in ketchup and crawl up on a big plate because you’re going to be dinner. This isn’t the kind of game you can just jump into and have fun. It takes preparation and maybe even finding a dedicated group of players to play with as a team.

    They also didn’t do a great job figuring out the balance here, and it is rare to get into a match where both sides are truly equal. This is particularly true if you go outside the signature hunt mode, and the other matches tend to either greatly favor the hunter or the monsters depending on the match type. But even hunt itself can be extremely unbalanced, depending entirely on the coordination between the hunters. The monster is going through his emo phase apparently and is forever alone on his own one man team, so how well you do is entirely dependent on how skilled you are as the monster. The hunters, however, need coordination to be competitive and there is a weird dichotomy here where things are rarely ever fair. If the hunters just sort of do their own thing, or if one guy is new/unfamiliar with the position he got saddled with/is drinking paint by himself in the corner, you have no chance. You simply cannot defeat any halfway competent monster in this game without a good team, but at the same time a well coordinated hunter group is simply too much for even the best monsters. Most multiplayer games have a little bit of wiggle room, where one weak link on a team isn’t going to ruin everyone else’s fun. Here though, the balance is very precarious and really relies on everyone doing their job.

    There were a handful of games I had that were really competitive, but for the most part playing with others in a game like this wasn’t as much fun as it should be. There are too many moving parts, too much to take into consideration to get a good balance. It was like they were trying to cater to both the hardcore and casual crowd, and the end result is not going to appeal to either of them. You simply cannot jump into an online game here without any preparation and expect to have fun, and at the same time you can become an expert in your role, but if you get saddled with weak teammates you’re going to be screwed anyway. It is a really ambitious title, but it also proved extremely difficult to balance because of how specialized all the roles are. This level of specialization is one of the game’s greatest strengths, really, but at the same time it is also perhaps its greatest flaw. I’m not even sure there was much they could’ve done to fix the balance here. By making the game the way they did, they ensured that it would be extremely difficult to get a truly competitive match, and because of this a lot of the online play wound up being kind of boring. Everything can be played offline in single player mode, but that is even more dull and removes what was most fun about this game entirely.

    There are some things they did well here, though, most notably in making each of the characters feel genuinely unique and well suited to different play styles. There are huge differences between classes, sure, but there are also big differences inside the same class. For the medics, Lazarus can bring players back from the dead (so long as the monster has not gone and had a feast on them) and cloak himself so the monster can’t find him, but he has no other direct methods of healing outside of his class skill all medics have. In comparison, Val has a great tool for direct and constant healing with her healing gun, but her secondary skills aren’t quite as valuable and she cannot cause any direct damage. Each hunter has the skill specific to their class and then three unique player specific skills while monsters have four unique monster skills. What is amazing is that all of these feel vastly different, and yet almost all of them are genuinely useful. I played through with every character and every monster, and honestly there was only three or so that I felt like were fairly useless. It is impressive not only how they made all the characters have unique skill sets, but more impressive that they made almost all of the characters playable in spite of the big differences between them.

    While they mostly did a good job here, there are a couple issues with character specific balances. Like I previously mentioned, there are a handful of hunters that don’t feel as useful as their brethren. It isn’t that they are unplayable by any means, but rather that they are at a slight disadvantage when comparing them to other members in the same class. On the flip side, there are a couple that are vastly overpowered, to the point where it almost doesn’t make sense to play as anyone else. The greatest example of this is the wraith monster. The other two both are useful and can hurt a hunter squad in the right hands with their unique mixes of abilities. But the wraith can absolutely steamroll a hunter team even in mediocre hands. He’s fast, can deal huge damage, can throw up decoys, and can fly all over the screen while the hunters best weapon for countering this is to sit quietly in the corner and cry, hoping they look so pitiful that the wraith becomes afraid eating them will give him indigestion. I’ve seen multiple threads online where people complain about people playing wraith, and this is one of the few instances of community moaning I’ve seen that is largely justified. While character balance here is mostly pretty good, there are a couple instances like this where a bit more work needed to be done to make things truly equal.

    After you find which character is the best fit for hunting monsters/eating tasty hunters, you can select from a handful of different match types. Hunt is the only one you’re really want to play though, as it seems to have been specifically the match type they had in mind when developing this game. The monster gets a thirty second or so head start and has to go run and hide before the mean ol’ hunters find him. See, the monster starts at level one which means he is kind of a wuss and hasn’t quite grown into his murder-y big boy pants yet. By eating a certain amount of creatures inhabiting the world, he can level up and boost his heath and effectiveness of his skills. Level 2 provides a fairly even fight, while level 3 makes him an absolute beast that can likely simply overpower the hunter squad. It is a very interesting concept and leads to some fairly unique and fun gameplay. The hunters have a tracker, which will have skills to hunt down and trap the monster in a mobile arena, and the monster needs to try and outsmart the hunters as long as possible. Get caught to quickly and it can be a bloodbath, so there is a nice element of stealth to the proceedings early on. It is a well thought out setup, and provides some decent fun in short doses.

    The hunt mode works very well, and there is a nice interaction between hunters having the advantage early on and then shifting it to the monster does if the match goes on long. It adds an element that isn’t always in asymmetric multiplayer games like this, and there is more to this mode than simple direct confrontation. It isn’t impossible for the hunters to win if the monster makes it to level 3, but they will be at a distinct disadvantage while a monster jumping right at the hunters from the get go is probably a good way to end the match quickly if you’re feeling suicial. So there is a real element that the hunter becomes the hunted and it is interesting to see how the match can evolve over the course of a couple of minutes. It can be a bit dull at times, particularly early on where basically everyone but the tracker is simply going to be following the tracker and checking their watch every couple of minutes. There is a reason a lot of multiplayer games just jump right into the action, and while hunt is the mode that makes the best use of everyone’s abilities, the slow start to the matches will likely drive away the more trigger happy of players.

    Sadly, the other modes aren’t as interesting. There is nest where hunters need to destroy eggs and the monster than hatch smaller, henchmen kind of monsters to help him fight off these mean baby murderers. There is rescue where hunters need to go pick up downed generic colonists and get them to an evacuation ship, and monsters needs to kill/eat them instead. And then there is defend where the hunters try and prevent the monster and his respawning minions from going around and damaging three different points, thus blowing up an evacuation ship and everyone on it. None of these are nearly as creative as hunt, and for the most part they play out similarly to other similar modes featured in much better multiplayer titles. They can be fun in some short doses, but these are far less balanced than hunt and take away the interesting “get out there and level up as quickly as you can” mechanic. The monster has a significant advantage in defend and nest, while the hunters have an advantage in rescue. These are the sort of modes you might play a couple of times once you get bored of hunt, but there is not nearly enough staying power here to keep people playing more than a couple of times. I think TRS knew this as well, because the only match that is tracked online is hunt, the bread and butter of this title.

    Finally, there is evacuation mode, which is a haphazardly thrown together “story” mode. Here, you take part in a series of five matches of the previously described group of modes. Essentially, it is just the same as five single matches smushed together and forced to be played in one big chunk, but there are some effects previous matches have on future matches. Things will be autobalanced so if you lose in one match, you will gain a slight advantage in subsequent matches. At the same time, winning will provide the victors some bonus in the very next map depending on what the brief cutscene detailed at the beginning. For example, one tells you to fight off the monster so you can save some nearby colonists. If the hunters win this, then some will join them in battle for the next round to provide some extra damage. If the monster wins, then they will be dead at the start of the next match and the monster will get some free food to quickly boost up on. It isn’t a terrible idea, but a lot of the effects are very minor and the game oversells this by telling you “there are like a bajillion different combinations in evacuation so you can play forever!” which is technically true I guess but only in the same way that ten thousand photocopies are technically on different sheets of paper. The differences are minor, and the matches all sort of blend together regardless of what little modifier it has on.

    Also, the entire evacuation campaign is set up in the most mindless way possible. There are five matches in total, where you get to pick between two different modes for the first four matches and the fifth match is a definite game of defend. So, you would assume, whoever won the majority of matches would be the victor because you are good at logic and understand three is greater than two. In Evolve, however, they go with the “Harry Potter and the golden snitch” rule of gameplay, where absolutely nothing matters besides the final match. If you lose the first four matches by an absolute blowout because you fell asleep and left your controller unplugged, but then wake up and sneak out the teeniest of victories from the final match, you win. So, then why even bother playing the first four matches? Well, and this is where it gets interesting, for each match you win in the first four it will automatically shift the balance in your opponent’s direction. So if you win one, the next match becomes easier for the other team. If you win two, then the next match becomes even easier for the other team. So then, you obviously want to play all the previous matches. So you can lose.

    The entire set up here is bonkers backwards, and completely discourages even playing the evacuation campaign at all. You play five matches, four of which don’t matter in the final results, and doing well in the first four matches actually makes it harder for you in the final match. The balance here is all off, and you might as well take out a book for the first four matches so you don’t go and do something stupid like accidentally win and set yourself back for the only match that matters. I have no idea why they would possibly set it up this way, other than they themselves weren’t so crazy about the game and tried everything they could to stop you from playing it. Now, you can just pretend whoever wins the most matches wins, but the ending scene (and the trophy for winning the evacuation mode) is determined solely by this final match so it is very clear how the game wanted it to be set up. You’re far better off playing some individual custom matches instead, where you can either stick to default settings or tweak things slightly to your liking. It is significantly more enjoyable, and a lot less dumb than a round of evacuation.

    Visually, there is something slightly off with the aesthetic as well. Everything looks fine from a technical standpoint, but it just feels like the game has no soul. The design isn’t as strong as it could be, particularly when it comes to the levels. I am actually not entirely sure how many maps there are because they all blend together. I’ve played the game for likely one hundred hours now, and if you showed me any given map and asked me to identify it, there is a zero percent chance I could pull that off. Part of the issue is almost all of the levels are outside in some forest area, and there is only so much you can do with green and brown, but more could still have been done to design the levels in a more memorable way. As it is everything just looks sort of drab, and the green and brown forest-y jungle looks almost exactly the same as the brown and green jungle-y forest. The characters and monsters are slightly better, but even they aren’t as striking as they should be. It is weird to call a giant monster “kind of boring” but that’s really what they are, and the design as a whole could’ve been much better.

    Evolve is likely to find some acclaim with a very, very limited sort of audience. There are some good ideas here, and this game isn’t as much of a bust as I was lead to believe. It can be a good deal of fun if you get a good group together, and a lot of thought went into the various interactions between the characters and the monsters to create a unique take on the asymmetric multiplayer genre. And yet, there are too many hiccups here, too many issues that are going to keep this from reaching a large audience. Getting a good game together is more work than fun, and trying to join some random game and hoping to have a good time is like grabbing five people off the street and hoping one of them can perform surgery. This isn’t a very good jump in and play kind of game in online multiplayer, which is really the only way you’re going to have fun here. The offline mode is serviceable but repetitive, and the game as a whole suffers from a couple different balance issues that will likely turn off true competitive multiplayer enthusiasts. Overall, Evolve is a perfectly playable but thoroughly mediocre game that most people will play for a couple hours and then move on to something more interesting. With so many viable alternatives out there, natural selection dictates this is likely to go extinct (or find its way to many a bargain bin at the very least).

    Evolve (THE GOOD):
    +Good sized cast of characters that each have a unique set of abilities
    +Almost all of the characters are usable despite their significant differences
    +A lot of fun abilities split between monsters and hunters that should appeal to most play styles
    +Hunt mode is fairly enjoyable in small doses and it is a unique approach on asymmetric multiplayer
    +If you manage to get a full crew together and get in a competitive match, Evolve can truly shine

    Devolve (THE BAD):
    -Basic gameplay really doesn’t work unless you get a full competent team
    -Too much specialization can be a bad thing, particularly as only one player can be a role per game, meaning you might be forced to play a role you aren’t comfortable with
    -Balance feels slightly off, both in terms of the monsters vs. hunters and between characters in the same class
    -Beyond hunt, the other modes do not seem nearly as well thought out or executed
    -Evacuation is very poorly implemented, making it disadvantageous to win any match other than the last one
    -Matches grow repetitive before too long and even with all the different characters, there doesn’t feel like there’s enough variety
    -Environments tend to blend together and visual design is somewhat lacking
    -Very little backstory on any of the characters, which feels like a missed opportunity

    Scopes Monkey Trial (THE UGLY): Being unable to figure out why the round hasn’t ended because the game glitched out and one of your teammates is stuck in a weird twilight zone. There were several times I was playing and the monster turned me into human putty and smeared me across several different rocks. Then he just stood there, and it took me like five minutes to figure out it was because we had a teammate still alive somewhere. Well, “alive”. Switching to them revealed they were perpetually falling in some weird entirely blue environment, completely separated from the map. I don’t know what the monster did to you, Caira, but I wish you luck in your new pocket dimension.

    THE VERDICT: 5.00/10.00

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