It was around the time that the 60-foot-tall reptile beast smashed me lifeless against a rock that I began to feel really lonely.
No one cried out. No one came to my aid. No one even laughed at me for being terrible. I was simply jolted back to the menu screen, and left with the profound impression that I was missing something important here.
Specifically, I don’t have anyone to play ‘Evolve’ with. And that’s a real problem.
Evolve, out this week for PC, Xbox One and PS4, is the latest in a growing line of video games that only makes sense if you play them online, with other human beings, preferably whom you know.
Your task in Evolve is to either form one quarter of a team of ‘hunters’, specialised cartoonish warriors tasked with defeating an enormous, talented monster with a variety of traps, cunning and high-powered weapons… or play alone as the monster. And the mechanics of the game are all solid, if surprisingly unspectacular for an HD entertainment experience featuring more fire, alien wildlife and action than the next three Star Wars films combined. Your four warriors are finely tuned and specialised, each powerful and vulnerable in their own ways. Your Trapper is strategically vital but weakly armed, while your machine gun-toting Assaulter is strong but vulnerable to a canny Monster looking to take down the team’s primary death-dealer.
There are a variety of game modes, but the core of each sees the four Hunters waiting 30 seconds and then seeking out the monster, following their prints and signs of movement in order to bring the battle to a head. Meanwhile the Monster runs away, kills other animals, feeds and gets stronger to the point where it can withstand – and maybe win – a full-on battle with the more flexible humans.
This is a fantastic concept in theory, something like Predator meets Avatar, and though it is undermined by too many stats screens and over-complicated ‘upgrade’ pages, and an overall lack of maps and monsters (DLC is coming, but is expensive). It’s often entertaining in practice too. It’s fast and intense. Matches hang constantly in the balance and can turn around quickly. The environments are same-y but boldly drawn, with a genuine vision for the planet Shear as filled with toxic plants, cannon-fodder wildlife and huge power stations built between mile-high trees.
The problem is that unless you have friends to wade through these forest swamps with, you probably won’t bother. Because while it is possible to play in a Solo mode, with AI bots taking over the rest of your team or the monster, the game just doesn’t work without other humans. It’s not that the AI is unplayable (though bot-controlled humans do have a tendency to follow you around and stare, blank eyed, as the Monster strolls by clearly visible in the near distance), it’s that it’s just not fun. With other people controlling your team, you can direct tactics, share theories as to the Monster’s presence and live each others deaths, victories and defeats. You can call for medical aid and know it’s coming, or hear their shouts as the Monster springs an attack. Even in randomised online matches you’re going to lack that, probably, because you don’t know the people you’re playing with – so why should you care?
And that’s the problem, for me. Not just with Evolve, but also everything from the Left 4 Dead series (also made by developers Turtle Rock) to World of Warcraft and Destiny. Who you’re playing with matters. Playing with a group of friends can turn a dull, lifeless exercise into something emotional and often hilarious. And I just don’t have that group of people to play with. If a game can be played together on a sofa – your Mario Karts or FIFAs – I can just about rustle up two or three people to play the odd round, a few times a year. But when it comes to the sort of games about which journalists can write disappointed articles about £50 worth of co-op content becoming repetitive after literally hundreds of hours, I get left behind.
Fact is, the person I live with doesn’t play games. None of my close friends do either, at least not to the point where they would give up time of an evening to play pre-arranged games online. This just isn’t my world, right now. Evolve isn’t for me.
There are enough things that are enjoyable about Evolve to give it some benefit of the doubt if you’re a fan of shooters, monsters, or both. But it’s also objectively flawed. There are long loading screens, over-complex features and the learning curve is too steep. It feels dense and yet thinly spread, and there is no real depth to its narrative – a little like Titanfall. But whereas that went out of its way to make a multiplayer game palatable to a singleton, Evolve just doesn’t work. If you’ve got enough gamer mates, or you are prepared to brave the murky waters of random voice chat, you might like this. For this billy no-mates, it wasn’t so much a Monster Mash as a Monster Mulch.