Friday, February 13, 2015

Evolve (First Impressions)


I’ve been waiting to sink my talons into Evolve ever since it was first announced. Being a huge fan of the cat and mouse multiplayer modes in the Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed games, I was convinced that the experience was practically made for me.

The opening cinematic does a fantastic job of setting up the context for all the action that follows. You are shown the desperate conflict between the monster and hunters. The violence is pretty evenly distributed to both sides, and there’s no clear victor as the scene ends, highlighting the important gameplay theme of balance that informs every design decision throughout the experience.

After navigating through some brightness settings, tutorials, and menus, I was treated to another cutscene before being set loose into the fray. I inwardly groaned at the idea of having to sit through even more exposition, but the incredibly straightforward, well-made introduction to the hunters and their agenda was a nice touch to immerse me even deeper. (Basically: “We messed up thinking we could colonize this world called Shear, so now you gotta get in there and clear everything out!”) I thought maybe the dialogue and mandatory minimal screen time for each character seemed a little forced. Why do I need to know how these characters are different? I don’t care about them as “people,” I said to myself. But I soon realized how differentiating the hunters and giving them unique characteristics could only add to the experience, taking nothing away.

In my first live match, I set - and got - my preference as Goliath, the monster. This wasn’t like the tutorial, however, in which I naturally felt my place as predator, god of Shear’s food chain. No. When the tables were turned, the feeling of being hunted drove me to make some impulsive decisions. I ran through the jungle, terrified of what was on my trail. I left huge footprints, crushed every tree, every creature in my path and stopped to snack on their life-giving flesh. You can’t evolve into the next stage on an empty stomach, after all. As soon as I hit the evolutionary requirement, I eagerly entered my ten second metamorphosis. But my membranous sac wasn’t enough to guard against the hail of bullets that suddenly slammed into me. In my rush to gain new power, I hadn’t realized how important it was to hide before leveling up. Right there in the center of the trail, I was no longer a colossal, alien hulk of destruction, I was a sitting duck.

So the hunters found me. Their ten seconds of free shots weren’t enough to kill me though. I emerged, furious, and took the fight to them. Now it was my turn for some payback. The puny humans put up a good fight, eroding my armor, diminishing my health, leaving my rough hide visibly slick with blood and gore. None of them stayed still for long, expertly firing their jetpacks at the right moments, weaving away and dodging my attacks. It became clear just how important my peripheral vision was. I should have kept a closer eye on the HUD to see when my ability cooldowns reset. I realized a little too late that I couldn’t rely on melee strength alone when four hunters surrounded me, weakening me, tethering me, leading me into mines and traps. Those powers are there for a reason. Use them.

I panicked. I turned to run. I tried to get away. Then the blue dome went up, trapping me. I died like a coward, shot in the back, fleeing from battle. But I learned plenty of lessons. Evolution is more than gaining new traits and abilities over time, strengthening your perch as predator at the top of the food chain. Evolution is memory. It bonds with your very DNA. As I bled out there on the man-made trail of my merciless planet Shear, I knew my offspring would carry these lessons.

And so they did. I won my second round. It might have been because the next team of hunters didn’t operate as the same cohesive group as the previous ones, but I like to think it was because I was moderate in my feasting, cautious in direction, selective in my choice of hiding places, observant, and most of all patient. And quiet. I evolved easily into stage two before I even saw my hunters. Remembering to use the sneak ability, I hid in tall brush and watched them run right past me, one by one. I pounced on the straggler of the pack, pinning him (or her?) to the ground, completely thrashing the life out of this puny creature before its pack-mates even knew to turn around. So then there were three. I kept a better eye on my cooldowns this time, focusing all the power at my disposal on one hunter at a time - starting with the life-saving medic - rather than flailing around madly at the whole group. They had no space, no time, to recover with this mad beast charging right for them, unrelenting.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of breaking out from underneath a solid mass of hunters that are trying to pile on and crush you. I can’t remember any game I’ve ever played that has captured this unique feeling of triumph so well. The feeling of victory in Evolve is pure. The natural phenomenon when a predator takes down its prey - diffused through a highly imaginative, sci-fi tinted lens - has never before been captured in a video game so well.