Rampaging onto the eSports scene: Evolve at gamescom 2014

There are plenty of articles debating what the new big eSports title will be, but Evolve stands out from the crowd. In fact, Evolve stands out from the entire gaming industry. Its developers Turtle Rock Studios - who are well-known for the Left 4 Dead series - have clearly used that legacy as a launching point for Evolve. However, what they’ve created is something uniquely distinctive, with their team having plans to charge head-first into competitive gaming.

Evolve: the basics

The key concept of Evolve is pretty simple: there are four hunters tracking down one monster, all of whom are controlled by players. Each hunter is a specific class: assault, support, trapper or medic. Only through teamwork - and it is through this alone - will they be able to bring down the monster.

The monster can be one of several types. Currently there are two: the Goliath and the Kraken. Goliath is your classic Godzilla-esque brawler with the ability to charge, leap and breathe fire. The Kraken is more strategic in nature. Looking like a Cthulhuian horror, it is more comfortable in the skies than it is on the ground, with its thunderstorm motif featuring in abilities such as long range lightning strikes and the homing ‘banshee mines’.

At the start of a match, the monster is weaker than the hunters combined, but by tracking down and eating other creatures on the map, the monster can ‘evolve’. This leaves the monster vulnerable for a couple of seconds, but just long enough for you to select which of your four abilities you want to level up and with an extra little moment to change your mind if you really want to. At level two, the monster’s strength is equal to that of the hunters, but at level three, it is stronger than all the hunters’ combined strength.

The objective for the hunters is pretty self-explanatory. However, for the monster, the objective can vary. In my experience playing as the monster, the first objective was to destroy the power station where the hunters had landed onto the map. However, once the hunters had been significantly damaged, the objective changed to “finish them off”.

A matter of perspective

Myself and a colleague played two matches, with me playing the monster both times. From the hunter’s point of view, the world is dark and foreboding. Their torchlight battles against the darkness which threatens to engulf them and the creatures that inhabit the world are as much a threat to them as the monster that lurks in the shadows.

Playing as the monster, the world feels considerably less threatening. You are by far the largest object on the map, and the only thing that frightens you is the pack of hunters - regardless of the game’s design, it is still four human players against just one of you. After we had finished playing, my colleague talked about the huge velociraptor creatures he was chased by. I described them as small chickens I gobbled up to evolve. 

An evolution in competitive gaming

So how could Evolve be played - and watched - as a competitive eSport? I discussed this topic with the staff at 2K who are committed to developing Evolve as an eSport, many of whom have a background in competitive gaming. They have apparently written over seven pages of suggestions on how to play Evolve competitively.

The problem is, of course, that you have four players versus one, which doesn’t fit with the usual model of team games in eSports. Possible suggestions ranged from time trials to maybe having a monster on both teams! Comments were also made about wanting to see a monster vs. monster fight, although this would just be for the fun of it.

However, the most likely suggestion seems to be two teams of four players: one team plays as the hunters while the other team sends out their monster player. After the match, the teams switch sides, and continue alternating until everyone on both teams has played as the monster once. This may take a long time, though, so perhaps we would see ideas like a time limit for the hunters still being implemented.

This is only speculation and not to be taken as the definitive answer, however. The best way to play Evolve in a tournament setting has yet to be discovered, but it seems that this is the structure staff there preferred, and, in our casual discussion, seemed to make the most sense.

Depth of strategy    

“But surely the monster always wins, right?” is, I’ll admit, the first question I put to them, and it is the same question people have asked me time and again. However, this is not the case, and not only that, but the developers at Turtle Rock have some ingenious ideas on how to keep gameplay diverse and rich with strategy.

For one thing, not all hunter classes are identical. At gamescom, a second set of hunters with notable differences were showcased. For example, the medic, Lazarus, does not have the ability to heal other hunters. Instead, he can resurrect fallen comrades. This means that with Lazarus on your team, the hunters are always still in the game, but they lack active healing abilities, which may be less likely to take risks.

Another example is Bucket, the support robot. Not only can he deploy small turrets, but he can also detach his head and fly it around the map, leaving his body behind. This, in combination with Maggie, the new Trapper, and her pet Daisy, who can sniff out the monster, gives a team of hunters more than one way to find their prey, something which is vital to their success on the large maps the games has.

The other mechanic that creates a variety of strategies is the perk system. As the monster, at the start of the game I got to choose from one of four perks. These included faster eating and things like bonus armor or damage. In addition to this, though, there are also perks that can be obtained on the map, although these are contained within other creatures.

These creatures are usually larger, taking a lot longer to kill than the smaller ones, and could be classified as mini-bosses. However, it’s not just the monster who can collect these perks - the hunters can as well. Either team can fight these larger creatures to grant themselves significant rewards, but it will leave them vulnerable while they do so. One strategy is to lie in wait while your opponent takes down the target and steal the perk for yourself at the last moment, not unlike an Aegis grab in Dota 2.

The final aspect of this rich gameplay is the monster’s health. Simply put, it doesn’t regenerate, and currently no monster has the ability to heal itself. Damage to the monster is permanent, but it does have a certain amount of armor. This recovers over time, but very slowly.

This isn’t like the shields in Halo, though, which recover after a couple of seconds: it’s more like a Zerg Drone’s natural rate of healing in StarCraft II - it is slow. The amount of armor a monster has, however, can be increased with perks and by eating other creatures.

What this means in terms of strategy is that the monster has a window of time in which to get in, do some damage and leave again before he permanently loses health. This means that the ‘cat and mouse’ gameplay is not lost when monster becomes powerful enough to begin taking on the hunters directly. The monster needs to strike suddenly and quickly before fleeing back to safety, while for the hunters any permanent damage dealt brings them that bit closer to victory. When we played, I was victim of my own over-eagerness, and found myself tethered to the ground by one of Maggie’s traps, unable to escape and taking much more damage than I wanted to before finally breaking free.

Evolve for spectators

In an interview at PAX East earlier this year, senior producer Mike Boccieri described how the crowds responded to watching Evolve being played:

“People are getting really pumped and excited… you can tell they’re cheering because they’re starting to understand what’s going on, on screen, even the guys who haven’t even picked it up and played it yet. That’s critical for this being successful as an eSport.”

This is definitely true - the nature of the game is apparent to anyone who sees it: hunt the monster while the monster tries to survive. Even while the abilities of both the hunters and the monsters are varied - and may be become even more so in the future - their roles are distinct enough for people to understand their purpose.

Aspects of the game, such as the monster farming animals to evolve and fighting mini-bosses for perks, are immediately reminiscent of MOBA games, while the teamwork of the hunters, along with the palpable aura of tension which presides over the game, reminds me of CS:GO matches. This means that Evolve has a unique and interesting narrative as an eSport as it combines these two dynamic qualities, usually found in very different eSports, in one game.

Why Evolve is going to make it as an eSport

At the beginning of this article, I said that Evolve stood out not only as a game, but as a potential eSport - more so than many of its contemporaries. Over the past few years, we have seen an increasing trend of horror/survival games, such as Amnesia, Day Z and the soon to be released Alien: Isolation. Evolve takes this rising genre and not only redefines how it can be played, but also how to play an FPS game.

Team Fortress 2 doesn’t even come close to this kind of class-based shooter. Teamwork is absolutely crucial to the success or failure of the hunters, and the combining of their various abilities at the right time is the only way to win. Again, this is reminiscent of MOBA games, despite Evolve primarily being a shooter.

However, its inventive gameplay, depth of strategy and ease with which it engages and captivates audiences are not the only reasons why Evolve is going to have a bright future as an eSport - it’s also because the developers want it to.

We can’t deny that a game has to be popular with both players and viewers in order to be an eSport. However, without support from the developers directly, both the game and its community will have their work cut out for them. A comparison would be Dota 2 and Starcraft II to games like Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. If a game’s developers are interested in creating a game that has a dynamic and vigorous competitive scene, and who want to provide that community with as much support as they can offer it, then it is comparatively easier for a game to find success as an eSport. Many fighting game by comparison, have sadly not had as much support.

That is why Evolve is going to rampage its way onto the eSports scene, and I cannot wait to see it happen.

You can check out more of our Evolve content, including Jason Kaplan and Lauren “Pansy” Scott’s experiences playing it for the very first time, here.

For more on Eliot’s experiences at gamescom, you can check out his blog at TryingToBeGosu.com.


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