Evolve came out yesterday, but we haven’t run our review yet. It’s not the kind of game you can review after a day or two. The new shooter from Turtle Rock Studios, the developers behind Left 4 Dead, is part co-op, part competitive, and almost entirely dependent on playing online with friends. It takes time to learn and analyze its systems, and between its various classes and playable monsters there’s incredible depth for the player to dig into.
According to Chris Ashton, Turtle Rock’s co-founder and design director on Evolve, that depth was a crucial goal. “We wanted it to be one of those games that you could put like 1000 hours into and still be learning,” he tells me over the phone. “Hopefully it’s easy to get into but takes a long time to master.”
To hit that goal Turtle Rock has created a game with four different player classes, with multiple unique characters for each class. The classes fit under basic archetypes—medics heal, assault brings the big guns—but every character has different weapons and strengths that the player will need to internalize. The trapper is also something special, a character whose goal is to keep the strongest enemy as close to the squad as possible, and a shooter class built specifically around Evolve’s big hook. This is a five player game, and the fifth player controls the massive boss monster that the other four team up to kill. Playing as the monster feels drastically different from playing as any of the hunters, and seems like a completely different game.
Evolve’s been in development for years, but that monster idea was always its core. “It was always a team of hunters in a sci-fi environment hunting down a monster growing bigger over time, and that monster was player controlled, or could be player controlled,” Ashton says. “That was the first idea.”
The initial inspiration for that idea is surprising. It grew out of a deer hunting sim from the late ‘90s. “Deer Hunter was really big and we were trying to figure out why,” Ashton says. “And it did a couple of neat things when you played it, like tracking. Following tracks through the woods was exciting, and having big outdoor environments and never knowing what was around the corner was exciting. We thought it would be more interesting and exciting if the deer could fight back and was really scary. So that lead to us asking, ‘what if it was a bear?’ What if you were on an alien planet and you didn’t know what the plants or wildlife around you were? What if it was a big monster that you were fighting? So it sounds odd, it’s a weird place for inspiration to come from, but that kind of process led us to our idea.”
Ashton and Turtle Rock’s co-founder and creative director Phil Robb had that idea back in the late ‘90s, predating Turtle Rock itself. Before exploring the Evolve concept they spent almost a decade working on games with Valve Corporation, initially working on Counter-Strike games in various capacities. Eventually they developed their own original idea for Valve, resulting in Left 4 Dead, which became a big critical and commercial hit with a successful sequel and numerous DLC expansions.
Ashton and Robb tell me that Evolve was influenced in many ways by what they learned while making the Left 4 Dead games. “Some of the things with Left 4 Dead that we wanted to address from early on in Evolve was that if you didn’t make it, if you got beat and you had to restart the chapter again, there really wasn’t a lot for you to do differently the next time,” Ashton says. “There was only a handful of weapons and all the characters played the same. And a lot of it was luck. What we wanted to do was insert more player choice into the game and more things for you to try the next round. You can choose different characters, you can choose different perks. We wanted to give you reasons to go back in and try again.”
Evolve isn’t just an updated Left 4 Dead. It feels very different. They’re both built around co-op, though, which is something Turtle Rock is greatly interested in. For Robb that emphasis on co-op comes down to his own love of playing with others. “For me, with a lot of hardcore competitive games I always come away kind of frustrated and angry, because there’s always somebody better than you,” he says. “With a team, when you win it’s great, but when you lose, if you’ve got buddies on your team with you, it’s a little less painful. It goes back to being a kid and wanting to play videogames with my friends instead of against them.”
Evolve’s four versus one concept is a novel take on co-op—instead of teaming up to mow down waves of zombies or outflank a rival squad, the four-person crew of hunters is fighting against one hugely formidable opponent that can be controlled by another player. There are occasional animals that can be killed for buffs and perks, but that constant fear of being attacked from all sides so common in shooters is replaced with the dread of hunting down a single brutal monster. Still, Turtle Rock kept in mind timeless co-op game design lessons when making Evolve.
“You need to design the game so that you can’t win without cooperating and working together as a team,” Ashton says. “That’s something we learned with Left 4 Dead. Counter-Strike is a really good example. It’s a team-based game but it’s not co-op, and what I mean by that is if you have one really good guy on your team, he can kill everybody else on the other team. He can just wipe everybody out. That’s not co-op. It’s team-based multiplayer because teammates can help, but the teammates aren’t required. And that’s something we discovered when making Left 4 Dead, and it carries over into the hunter side of the game. You need your medic. You need the assault guy to do the damage. Every class is necessary.
“And the second piece to that, if you made it hard to co-op and work together as a team, if you made it confusing or too complex, then it just turns into frustration for players,” Ashton continues. “Make it intuitive and as easy as possible. That’s one of the reasons that Evolve has classes. If you choose to be a character from the medic class, you know what your job is and I know what your job is, and we don’t even have to say any words to each other. We know that what you’re trying to do is to keep everybody alive. Decisions we make in the user interface, decisions we make in the gear, are all aimed at trying to make it as easy as possible for people to act like a team.”
Replacing the opposing squad or swarms of enemies often found in co-op games with a single monster also made map design a challenge. “Early on when the maps were very open and there weren’t pinch points, the monster could keep running around the edges of the map, the perimeter of the environment,” Ashton explains. This led the mappers to completely reorient their direction with the maps. “Imagine going from a donut shaped map, where the monster can just keep running in circles, and then imagine playing on a map that’s like a figure eight. Now if the hunters just stay in the middle the monster will run by them. The mappers started to build maps that had pinch points and cliffs and boundaries that would push the monster player back towards the middle of the map again so even if the hunters were tracking very well or weren’t cutting off the monster’s path the two teams would eventually collide.”
As much thought and care went into making Evolve, the truest sign of a successful game is when you’re able to completely to lose yourself in its world, with all the technical and design decisions disappearing as you play it. When I play Evolve I’m not always thinking about how my hunter is balanced alongside my partners, or if the map is conducive to my monster sneaking around before surprising the hunters with a deadly outburst. I’m too busy tracking the monster, or simultaneously avoiding and stalking the hunters. I’m too busy trying to win and survive.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.