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Next-gen consoles won’t just make Evolve prettier, they’ll make it possible

Several years ago, before Turtle Rock Studios began work on what would become Left 4 Dead, the studio came up with the idea for the game Evolve. The concept was simple enough in theory: take four players working as a team and pit them against a player-controlled boss capable of growing in power throughout the match. It was an original and exciting idea, and the team agreed that it would make a great game. They then filed it away in a folder where it collected dust for the next several years.

The technology for Evolve just wasn’t available yet. Turtle Rock’s ambitions were more than the gaming technology of the time allowed, so the developer shelved the idea and went on to create its seminal co-op zombie title under the Valve South banner. But Evolve wasn’t forgotten.

… the idea of what makes Evolve unique was always the same regardless of what platform it was on.

Following the 2008 release of Left 4 Dead, the developer amicably split from Valve and went independent, just as they had been prior to the Steam creator’s 2008 purchase of the studio. Returning to the Turtle Rock moniker (with the blessing of Valve, which technically still owned the name), the studio decided the time was right for Evolve. The game briefly landed at THQ, but following its later collapse ended up with 2K.

After years of uncertainty surrounding the business side of things, Evolve is on track and due later this year in Q3 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One only. The previous generation of consoles simply weren’t powerful enough to create the game Turtle Rock wanted to create.

“It’s both computing power and memory,” Turtle Rock design director Chris Ashton told us, referring to Evolve’s need for more powerful. “All the wildlife is in play there, so if you think about some of the creatures you saw and killed and chased [throughout a match], all AI-controlled. Plus it’s multiplayer. You’ve got all these guys, five of you in the game, plus you’ve got all [this] wildlife simulating.”

It was also a matter of needing the game take place outside in a fairly large arena. The monster has to be able to do things like hide in dense foliage, and natural tracking cues like disturbed birds flying away are an important part of the gameplay. By today’s standards, making a game set outside may sound simple enough (or as simple as anything in game development can be), but it was only within the last few years that developers could pull it off… at least to their satisfaction.

Turtle Rock always intended for the game to be released on both PC and consoles. The team considered a watered-down port for the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, but ultimately dismissed that idea. It wasn’t that they couldn’t do it; rather, it was a matter of quality. Ashton specifically noted that the foliage wouldn’t work on the current gen. It wouldn’t be detailed enough to offer cover, which would directly, and negatively affect the gameplay.

“We wanted to be outdoors,” said Ashton. “Years ago when we did Left 4 Dead, you just started to see games with grasses that would blow and stuff like that. But now, everything in that environment moves, and trees break and fall over, and we have dynamic weather.”

At its core though, the idea of what makes Evolve unique was always the same regardless of what platform it was on. Details have changed, but that primary focused has remained.

Evolve takes place in a series of massive, contained arenas that lean heavily on nature as an important gameplay element. The player controlled beast begins in a position where it is especially vulnerable to attacks from the four human hunters, and it can quickly be wiped out. In order for it to survive and ultimately fight back, it needs to consume local animals. Each animal contributes to an evolution meter, and when that meter is full the creature can “evolve” into a larger and more powerful version. It can evolve twice, and by the time it is at stage three, the hunters become the hunted.

“Everybody jumps into the game and wants to do well.”

“The game was always a four versus one, it was always co-op versus lone wolf; it was always ‘I want to have a boss battle, but do that co-op with my friends,” Ashton said. “But then it’s a lot more interesting if I have a friend that is also the boss. So that core concept, along with feeding on wildlife and growing and staging, was there on day one, and is here now. It’s mostly details about abilities or equipment [that have changed], or that sort of thing.”

For a game like Evolve to succeed, it all comes down to one single factor: balance.

Looking at the game for the first time, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that Evolve is slanted heavily in the monster’s favor. The beasts (once evolved) are massive, hulking brutes with huge health bars. The humans, on the other hand, are by gameplay standards, familiar first-person shooter characters (although well armed), and can be wiped out with just a few well-placed attacks. It’s easy to think that there’s going to be an imbalance when one player has a tranq gun and their enemy can breathe fire.

Without question, finding a balance between the two sides is the single most critical element to the health of the game. Fine-tuning it requires countless hours of testing, as well as poring through endless gameplay stats that highlight the unseen minutia of the game. It’s a daunting task too. It isn’t a matter a creating one base character that will be replicated and then tweaking different attributes; it’s a matter of creating two fundamentally opposing sides, and finding a way to make them balance out.

Making of Evolve screenshot Markov 0012

“We’ve been playing the game for three years,” Ashton said. “Every night we play test, and we have a very elaborate telemetry system that gathers data on everything.”

When a game pairs four players as hunters, they have the choice between one of four character classes: Assault, Medic, Support, and Trapper. Each class has its own tools, and therefore its own function. In earlier builds of the game, there were no classes, and instead players could choose their own loadout. This invariably led to confusion more often than not, and the necessary balance wasn’t there.

“Before we had [character classes] all the equipment was broken out, where you could choose it,” Ashton told us. “Anybody could choose any equipment, but then no one knew what their roles were. It actually made it harder for the team to function as a team.”

By adding specific classes and locking players into using all four in a match, it not only encourages teamwork, it forces players to work together on an instinctual level. For the medic, the class does have offensive weapons, but it also features a Med Gun that heals allies. To not use it is simply to cut off one of the primary functions of your character’s class. You would almost have to deliberately not want to heal others, since it is so deeply ingrained into the character’s identity.

“… everything in that environment moves, and trees break and fall over, and we have dynamic weather.”

The same is true of all the classes. The trapper, for example, has a harpoon gun that holds the beast in place until the player releases the line or the creature cuts it. Using the harpoon isn’t just about helping your allies; it’s one of the trapper’s most effective tools. Whether you mean to or not, you end up helping your team just by playing to your character’s strengths.

Turtle Rock’s chief lesson from Left 4 Dead is that, by and large, players want to work together. Griefers were common enough to encourage their victims to scream fantastic perversion of the English language into their mics, but stats pulled from the game suggest that most cooperated easily enough It was this knowledge that helped to inform the developers when it came to Evolve. There will always be that group of gamers that just want to watch the world burn when it comes to co-op games, but these are a minority.

“If any one of those guys don’t do their job, then the team won’t do very well. But I think everybody wants to win,” said Ashton. “Everybody jumps into the game and wants to do well.”

Evolve has come a long way since it was first dreamed up years ago, but its identity has remained constant throughout. Turtle Rock still has some details to iron out – things like matchmaking and details like how long matches should last – but the game is nearly complete. We’ll find out for sure later this year if it was worth the wait.

For more info on Evolve, check out our recent hands-on preview.

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