Evolve: The Big Alpha – First Impressions, Part 1

Evolve is the upcoming game by Turtle Rock Studios (of previous Left 4 Dead fame) where one Monster player gets to pit themselves competitively against four Hunters with different roles like Medic, Trapper, Support and Assault playing cooperatively.

Premise-wise, it sounds really fun.

evolve-summary

Looks-wise, it doesn’t have anything to be ashamed about.

Being rather cheap and unwilling to pay a box price sight unseen, I was initially perfectly content to wait until after launch and pick it up when it got discounted, following prior established pattern for all these FPS games like Left 4 Dead or Natural Selection 2.

Then the Evolve Big Alpha announcement dropped: all players who own XCOM have free access to the current ongoing alpha.

Oh. Well. That changes things.

And I have a new computer that is just asking to run these sorts of graphically intensive games.

Downloaded it, tried a few games and now I’m caught in an even bigger dilemma – do I pick it up at launch, pick it up as intended much later on when it is discounted, or maybe I shouldn’t even bother to pick it up at all.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad game. Even in alpha, it’s extremely functional and does what it says on the box. Pits one monster player against four hunter players.

But after two days of very light play, I’ve suddenly realized that there is an inherent flaw in multiplayer PvP-only games.

(It’s a flaw to me, others might find that it is the very -point- of why they enjoy multiplayer PvP.)

The level of challenge (and resultant enjoyment or frustration) faced depends very much on the players themselves and their level of skill and where they are on the learning curve.

Any asymmetries in the matchup produce something less enjoyable as a result, and the variance in encounters can be exceedingly high.

I guess part of the reason why I got bludgeoned in the face with this fact is that Evolve, being in Alpha, still has room to improve on its matchmaking and learning tutorials/tips/safe learning grounds (such as bot games) for new players.

At the moment, though there are in-game tooltips and an introduction video when playing a new character, there still seems to be gaps where an unsuspecting player can accidentally skim through and miss something.

For example, in my first game, I had selected Monster as my first priority of character, followed by Support, Trapper, Assault then Medic. Then hit the automatic matchmaking.

Somehow, I got thrown into an already in-progress match, skipping all the initial load and introduction screens that I saw in later matches, and got presented with one character in a drop ship with the cryptic message “Press E to take over BOT.”

I vaguely remembered on skim-reading the Evolve website that there was some kind of robot character that was a Support, and assumed that I’d been given my next priority choice. Being my first game, I had no clue that this was an in-progress match – for all I knew, this was the standard introduction screen.

Pressed E. Pressed E a few more times. Eventually something happened and I parachuted out of the dropship by myself and landed in some dark jungle somewhere.

No intro tutorial, possibly because it was a mid-match join up, which left me rather lost and confused and inventorying my guns by myself.

Press 1 – Some lightning gun thing comes up. Press left click. Sparks fly around the end. Nothing visible seems to happen. No bullets, no big zap, no nothing. Wut.

Press left click to hold and charge, maybe? Released left click. Nuthing. No big boom. No massive zap. Huh.

What kind of dumb gun is this? Maybe it was for close range fights, was my next thought, though it seemed a bad idea to get up close and personal with a Monster when I was all new at this game.

Ok, next gun. Press 2. Ok, looks like a more standard Assault Rifle. Left click, and get bullets flying out. Ok, I know how this works.

Press 3. Looks like mines. That looks quite standard. Press left click, mines get laid, presumably Monster runs over them and there’ll be a big boom. Great.

Press 4. Hmmm. Some kind of personal shield thing. With a cooldown. Ok, I can deal with that.

All this, while desperately trying to catch up with two other players, who had run ahead and hadn’t bothered to wait for the rest of the group. For whatever reason, my jetpack seemed to be running out of fuel at a much faster rate than the other two.

The last player had wandered off somewhere else by himself.

I suspect you might be able to immediately tell that we were a shit group of Hunters, with no coordination whatsoever.

Me, I was so disoriented, it took me a couple minutes to figure out that I wasn’t playing a robot, that my character’s name was apparently Markov (given the context of the voice-overs that popped up when I pointed my target reticle at something) and that maybe I wasn’t the Support character I’d been expecting to play after all.

(For the record, Markov is an Assault. I know that now.)

Meanwhile, our Monster opponent was a Kraken – a flying beast with ranged attacks, which is apparently unlocked through progression, after playing a grounded melee Goliath.

Naturally, that suggested that this player was of quite a high level, and as you might expect, he proceeded to wipe the floor with us for most of the game. He went through the weak Stage 1 in under a minute or two, while everyone was still running in circles trying to figure out what we were doing. Not a good sign for the Hunters, that.

In Stage 2, the Monster is about an even match for the Hunters and in Stage 3, it gets OP. The Kraken player pretty much controlled the entire pace of the game, indulging in fly-by bombings and tearing through Hunters like tissue paper. The only reason we didn’t immediately lose the game was that we were so spread apart, the Kraken couldn’t find all of us before someone respawned after two minutes.

We only managed a temporary stalemate when the Monster happily evolved to Stage 3 and we all decided independently that we’d camp out by the power reactor that was ostensibly the Monster’s main target and let the Monster come to us.

At first, the Monster player was not exceedingly keen on entering entrances that were loaded down with Arc Mines with four rather panicky Hunters aiming and spraying in its direction the moment it showed its face.

Eventually, when it got bored, it decided to barrel through and massacred everybody.

Yeah. Well. Inexperienced Hunters. Learning curve. These things happen.

My next two games were from the perspective of the Monster. Except I didn’t get a flying Kraken, I had to start with a Goliath. Big, strong and clumsy. Mostly melee.

In my first Monster game, everything was unfamiliar, I was still learning what all the controls did, via very quick pop-ups that I barely caught. Hell, I didn’t figure out how to climb up vertical surfaces until the second game, when I finally managed to read the pop-up tip.

I can only take comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one who had trouble with this – if this forum feedback is anything to go by, that it feels very cheap when the poor Monster player is forlornly jumping at the edge of a cliff, trying to figure out how to scale it, while the Hunters just stand at the edge, zip around with the jetpacks, riddling its large bulk with bullets until it dies, none the wiser about how it was supposed to get up there.

(For the record, it’s pressing SHIFT while one is climbing.

Nor is it still very clear which walls are climbable and which are not, despite the tool tip proclaiming that the Monster can climb pretty much anything. Not true, very tall faces seem to be off-limits, despite me wanting very much to take advantage of verticality to evade Hunters.)

Conversely, all four hunters I faced stuck like glue together and didn’t wander off by themselves.

For all I know, they could have been a pre-made team that knew each other and were linked by voice chat. (Pre-made groups in the Big Alpha were limited to Hunter teams only. So it would make a lot of sense that a lone individual selecting Monster as a first priority might be paired up with a Hunter team ready to go.)

You can expect that I gave a really poor showing as a Monster and made easy prey, getting cornered very quickly while I was still working out how to feed, entangled by what seemed like a million holding cables and zapped by tranquilizer darts, then trapped by the Trapper’s dome.

Mostly, I think the only challenge I presented for the Hunters was being cowardly as hell and trying like dickens to run away and hide.

Not very well, since one’s first impulse at escape was just leaping away in a straight line, which tended to just collide you head on with the map limits in front and the Hunters in hot pursuit behind.

In my second game, I finally figured out how to climb, which made evasion slightly less pathetic, and how to break the cables by aiming my reticle at them by left-clicking.

I was also working on my absolutely disgusting aim – it’s not easy to actually target any hunter while they’re so small and wriggling around. There was also always the big question in the back of my mind, exactly what kind of ping do I have versus theirs? If they have better ping, that might explain why they’re able to see my intended attack and evade it faster than I can make contact, for example.

Some of the targeting also felt very console-y. For example, I kept overshooting the distance from which to “eat” from, which led to me always having to start the eating process, then getting stuck halfway as my monster leaned down to eat and backing away for proper distance, then eating again.

Or there’s the rock throw on the Goliath, with which I’m still trying to figure out exactly how it works – it seems like I generally get better results firing the skill the moment the targeting reticle is over a hunter, where it then tries to automatically lock on and land the boulder after the whole animation is complete… except in cases where the boulder doesn’t land, because I don’t exactly know why one Hunter was able to evade it by moving while another couldn’t.

By virtue of just ignoring survival as a criteria and just focusing on “I am going to learn how to attack people in this game,” I managed to down one or two. All that while taking fire from two other Hunters sniping from all sorts of vantage points, so that’s not exactly good overall either.

Eventually, I got attritioned to death and died, realizing after the fact that I’d been going in circles in a very small part of the map, and that I could have run a lot further away, had I –actually- been familiar with the map, which I wasn’t.

Learning curve, yet again.

I don’t have issues with learning curves per se. All games have learning curves, some easier than others.

And I do think that Evolve is potentially a very fun game when Monsters and Hunters of roughly equivalent skill are having a go at each other.

However, my first day newbie experience rather rubbed my face in the fact that -while- players are going through these learning curves, the game as presented isn’t really fun for either party.

Newbie Monsters are a boring pushover, say the experienced Hunters who know their weapons and how to work together. That it almost feels cheap and isn’t very challenging to face such a Monster, and the only thing they can do is end the game quickly, say in 3 minutes or less, and move on to another hopefully better game.

Meanwhile the newbie Monster is faced with rather impossible odds of trying to break up a coordinated party of four, or get away long enough to feed and get powerful, which is rather hard to achieve if the Hunters are good and more experienced than thou. The experience becomes a rather frustrating tempting-to-ragequit moment, because you start weak and never are given the opportunity to become on par with the other side to get a fighting chance.

Or conversely, the opposite scenario can also occur. Wow, this Monster is OP, say less experienced Hunters who get their face wrecked by someone who actually knows how to play a Monster, who took advantage of their inexperience to get valuable time gaps in which to feed and power up.

It strikes me that in a contested game where player skill level determines the difficulty, these sorts of asymmetrical matches are going to be very much more the norm than the ones where player skill is perfectly matched.

Yes, there is such a thing called matchmaking.

Yes, the goal of matchmaking is to reduce as much as possible these sorts of uneven situations.

Yes, the game is in Alpha, and Evolve devs have shared that the matchmaking priorities can be tweaked a little more so that the game prioritizes player skill levels a little more over player-selected role preferences.

I was the level 2. I followed the level 20+s like glue. The poor level 3 became the Monster. It wasn't what you might call a close match.

I was the level 2. I followed the level 20+s like glue. The poor level 3 became the Monster. It wasn’t what you might call a close match.

(Which very much explains why my Alpha experience tended to end up with level 1 or 2 players mixed in with level 21 to 23 players… It’s very obvious that the higher levelled players have spent more time with the game and know more of the tricks.)

I do worry, though, that matchmaking tends to fall flat if there aren’t enough players at all skill levels to evenly distribute out, to say nothing of geographic region matching too.

This may be less important for a game like League of Legends that has a playerbase of millions of players, which suggests ample critical mass at any one point in time, but smaller population games may face a challenge with this.

The big question I’m asking myself is: Do I personally find this sort of inherent asymmetry fun?

Truth is, I’m leaning towards “Not really.”

I liked Left 4 Dead because it was a cooperative game where the computer “Director” was given the responsibility of entertaining the players.

If the players sucked, the computer would ease up on the amount of zombies sent their way.

If the players were a cohesive team, the computer would raise the stakes and tension by challenging the players with more special zombies, more hordes and so on.

This adaptive difficulty level creates flow. The perfect amount of challenge to produce player engagement.

Too little challenge produces boredom. After the hundredth easy Monster pickings, I doubt a skilled Hunter player would be interested any longer, beyond the schadenfreude pleasure of bullying a real person. Ditto the opposite situation where Monster and Hunter roles were reversed.

(I suppose in a contested multiplayer game, there -is- a substantial subset of players who are more griefing/trolling oriented than fair fight-competitive PvP per se, and this would appeal to them. Being able to dominate another player without much real challenge faced.)

Too much challenge produces frustration. Frustrated individuals, who don’t feel there’s any more value to be gained by investing time and effort to learn to get better, quit.

Is there any way around this?

There’s a few I can think of, with some onus on the player, and some on the developer.

From a developer perspective, they can definitely work on better matchmaking to hopefully give the most number of players an even balanced match.

And they can work on creating smoother learning/tutorial experiences where a newbie player has more safe opportunities to learn the game to the minimum level needed for enjoyment.

Ideas along this line would be things like single-player tutorials or games against bots, where their newbieness won’t spoil any other real player’s experience and they’ll have more time to find their feet and get familiar with all the controls.

Or more contextual tool-tips, so that the poor Monster humping the cliff will actually get a pop up telling it to “Press SHIFT to climb this,” or the Assault left-clicking vainly with his lightning gun will get an out-of-range message or indicator or some other kind of visual feedback to suggest that it doesn’t work well at long range, rather than taking home the message that this gun is broken.

Of course, some effort and time investment on the player’s behalf is required too. One generally gets more familiar with a game by playing more matches and playing different roles.

Continued in Part 2

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