With their pale skin and long, bushy beards, Turtle Rock Studios’ co-founders Chris Ashton and Phil Robb appear as if they just escaped the confines of some underground lair after decades in hiding. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the truth isn’t far off.
For nearly half a decade, the creators of Left 4 Dead have been hard at work at the long awaited follow-up to their co-op zombie shooter, and it hasn’t been the smoothest of projects. After leaving L4D publisher Valve in 2010, they pitched the idea behind Evolve to THQ shortly before the game publisher went belly up in 2012. They finally found a home after the game’s publishing rights got bought by 2K Games parent company Take-Two Software.
Add that bureaucratic difficulty to the tricky challenge of balancing a game that pits four players against one. It’s little wonder that the publisher announced in August that Evolve would be delayed four more months from Oct. 21 to Feb. 10. A 2K spokesman said the time extension would “allow enough time to fully realize the vision for Evolve and meet our collective standards of creative excellence.”
According to Ashton, all that time spent under the knife has paid off.
“If nothing else, Turtle Rock will be known for making some innovative and interesting games that are different than other studios,” he said. “We don’t know how it’s going to sell or how it’s going to perform, but I think we’re already proud of that we built this thing because it’s so different from everyone else from all the other games out there. We’re proud of that and I think we’ve already accomplished what we set out to do.”
That uniqueness stems directly from the concept, which might qualify as gaming’s first true “asymmetrical” shooter. Instead of only controlling a space marine on a quest to eliminate bloodthirsty aliens, Evolve asks players to suit up for both sides of the battle. Four people play as humanoid Hunters who are sent to a planet to eliminate a threat to a colony, while another player jumps into the skin of a massive beast bent on destruction. It’s an evolution, if you will, of what Turtle Rock Studios started with the survivors-versus-zombies modes in Left 4 Dead.
“But even in that mode, the teams were even,” Ashton said. “(Evolve) goes a step further with a different number of players on each side. So for us, that makes the game more interesting, it’s more interesting to play the game and see what the outcome is when those two teams clash.”
Part of the trick of making Evolve has been to start things simple and grow increasingly more complex over time — tweaking and modifying along the way. Early in the design process, Turtle Rock started with one monster who had a single melee attack and four hunters that each sported basic assault rifles.
“We balanced the game for that and got to a 50-50 win ratio between the two teams, and then we added the dart rifle and tranquilizer and the monster got a concussion blaster that would knock the hunters back. And then we had to re-balance again. So it’s been, for almost four years, we’ve been balancing the game with every update,” Ashton said.
Evolve has gone light years beyond the four guys with guns model. It now claims four different Hunter classes: assault, support, medic, and tracker and 15 different characters, each with its own grab bag of weapons and tools. That’s a lot of variety, but even so, the three monsters proved more difficult to design. That’s especially true after the design team opted to change the players’ perspective from first to third-person while inhabiting the beasts. Why keep the Hunters first-person and switch the monsters to a third-person perspective? Size matters. It was easy for a squad of smaller hunters to surround the hulking monster and take it down because of a lack of awareness on the player’s part.
“When you’re in first person, you have this tunnel vision of only seeing what’s ahead of you. So if you got harpooned in the back, for example, you couldn’t see that because you’re looking this way because of a limited perspective,” said Ashton. “But the problem is, we’d never built a third-person game at all and never had to deal with third-person cameras or animation systems or anything like that. There were some nice side effects to that. One is that you spend all of this time on this crazy cool monster, but if you’re in first-person, the only thing you get to see are the little bits of hands in front of you. Being able to be third person and see the monster from the outside was something people were excited about.”
A new design challenge rose up with the basic design of the Hunt mode, in which the humans chase down the monster by following Daisy — Evolve‘s alien equivalent of a bloodhound — who can sniff out the beast’s scent. The typical game of Hunt played out like an extended chase, with a short battle at the end that determined who won and who lost. The developers played with different ways to facilitate multiple battles per match, until finally finding a worthy solution with the Mobile Arena. It’s a tool that comes standard with the Trapper class that allows you to contain the monster in a small area for one minute. If no one wins that battle, the mobile arena goes down and the monster takes off. The chase then begins anew.
With all of the focus on the core experience, there’s some concern that Evolve doesn’t allow much room for extra content. Like Titanfall, a shooter that also put nearly all of it’s focus on a few sparse multiplayer modes, some gamers may have a feeling that Evolve is an appetizer of a game instead of a main course.
Turtle Rock Studios is aware of that perception, which is why it has tried to emphasize Evacuation Mode — a solo and multiplayer campaign of five interconnected matches.
“It’s very much a concern,” said Ashton. “We felt like the way for us to tackle that was to go into the procedural side of things so that we could create this new experience every time.”
Evacuation is like Battlefield‘s sprawling Rush multiplayer mode combined with Left for Dead‘s campaigns, where each previous match affects the next. If a monster wins Day 1, he might have the assistance of electric eels that shock Hunters in Day 2. If the Hunters win, they could benefit from extra turrets that automatically shoot the monster. Turtle Rock claims there are over 800,000 variations of Evacuation matches.
“I’ve played Evacuation mode a hundred times and every time it’s been different and every time I see different crazy things,” said Ashton.
Lack of breadth of content or not, Ashton is confident that Evolve‘s ready to leave a legacy on multiplayer gaming.
“I hope that we’re doing it in a way that people will always remember. In the future I think anytime anyone talks about asymmetrical multiplayer games, I hope that Evolve is in that conversation, in the same way that when people talk about co-op games, Left 4 Dead is always in that conversation.”