The monsters in “Evolve” (2K Games, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, $59.99) don’t seem that scary at first glance. Ugly, yes, but nothing your arsenal of flamethrowers and rocket launchers can’t handle.
Unfortunately, if you leave the critters alone for just a few minutes they mutate into bone-crushing behemoths that can make short work of a bunch of puny humans. It may not be what Charles Darwin had in mind, but evolution on the planet Shear really does come down to survival of the fittest.
That tension is the key to “Evolve,” a five-player slugfest that brings some clever innovations to the popular but somewhat stale realm of online combat. It starts with the video-game industry’s latest buzz phrase, “asymmetric multiplayer”: “Evolve” is a four-versus-one contest, with four human hunters ganging up on one particularly vicious creature.
The Wraith is a Lovecraftian horror that mows down enemies with razor-sharp blades, teleports across long distances and summons decoys to distract the hunters. The Kraken backs up swings of its deadly tentacles with bursts of chain lightning. The Goliath is a musclebound monstrosity that also breathes fire.
There are four types of hunters. Assault units have the biggest guns. Trappers are good at figuring out where the monster is and making it stay put once you have it surrounded. Medics keep teammates healthy. Support units have an assortment of talents, such as cloaking fellow hunters, calling down bomb strikes and deploying turret guns. As you gain experience, you can unlock more hunters with fresh talents.
Each mission in “Evolve” takes about 10 minutes, provided you survive that long. The core mode is Hunt: Find the beast and kill it. In Rescue, the hunters need to find and protect human survivors; in Nest, they search for and crush monster eggs. Defend mode sets up generators that the hunters need to protect from rampaging minions. All those mission types are combined in Evacuation, a five-match challenge in which each scenario is affected by the successes and failures of the one before it.
All this runs fairly smoothly, and in the few days since the game launched, I haven’t had any trouble finding the type of competition I wanted with the hunter — or monster — of my choice. Still, much of the satisfaction of online play depends on the skills of your teammates and competitors; some matches end quickly, while others turn into tense, exhausting affairs with every player struggling to survive.
At its essence, “Evolve” is a simple game of cat(s) and one very nasty mouse. If you’re looking for complex stories or well-developed characters, you’re in the wrong place. Instead, it delivers quick, satisfying blasts of sharply executed mayhem, and it’ll be interesting to see how it, well, evolves as its players become more adept and developer Turtle Rock Studios throws in more monsters, weapons and battle arenas.