For all of the technical wizardry going on behind the scenes, Left 4 Dead was a simple game: four players versus seemingly endless hordes of zombies, peppered with the occasional, amped-up special zombie. Evolve, the latest game from Left 4 Dead developer Turtle Rock Studios, trims down the number of bodies on screen while simultaneously introducing new layers of complexity. Evolve ditches the undead hordes for a single, player-controlled monster pitted against four player-controlled hunters. On the surface, it's a much simpler formula, until you realize that each hunter has their own individual set of weapons, items and abilities, and the monster is constantly evolving, steadily becoming stronger and more deadly as the round progresses. (You'll find our video preview from February after the break, if you want a better idea of how it all works.)
After trying my hand as the monster at PAX East – and losing, sadly – my first question to Executive Producer Denby Grace was obvious: How do you balance this? How do you make sure it's both fair and fun?
"There's just a bazillion little dials that we can twist," he says. "The biggest thing we do is we playtest a lot. We have a huge telemetry system built into it." Every match that Turtle Rock plays internally, whether by the development team or QA, brings with it lots of data, he says. "Every ability, every item, every weapon has its counter as well, on the opposing team. In that respect, we're very careful about not giving people a bunch of overpowered stuff. It's a real precision exercise, and it only comes out with playtesting, so we do a lot of it." Everyone in the studio, he says, plays around two hours of Evolve every day.
In terms of balancing, Turtle Rock has to take a lot into account, including multiple hunter and monster types. While Evolve will always be a 4-on-1 game, players will be able to choose from a range of different monsters and hunters. Grace won't reveal how many types of monsters and hunters there will be, saying only that hunters all fall into the same four basic classes of Medic, Assault, Support and Trapper. Each class variation plays "very, very differently," he says, only having the basic class ability in common.
Every Support variation, for example, will be able to cloak, but each will have completely different items and weapons. "We see it like a fighting game," he says, noting that players will gravitate toward certain characters that have particular loadouts (each class variation is actually a different character, incidentally, and each will have his or her own personality). Furthermore, each match requires at least one member of every class, meaning players won't be able to rush the monster with four damage-dealing Assault soldiers.
Turtle Rock isn't ready to show off additional monsters and hunters – we've still seen only one of each class type and one monster, the Goliath – but Grace says that character selection lies at the heart of Evolve. "That's where the variety and the real strategy comes in. It's that face-off, not only is it who you're playing [against], but what they're playing with, what's their loadout?" If all of this has you worried you won't be able to scrounge up enough buddies to play Evolve, Grace says that the computer will fill any slots not occupied by a human player, either human or monster. "You can play any part of the game in any combination of four versus one."
While Evolve bears many similarities to Left 4 Dead – an emphasis on cooperation and interplay between characters – one of Evolve's primary differences is its level of intimacy. "It has some moments where it's really quiet – eerily [quiet]. It's like The Predator in tone. And stuff like that, that's a really, really unique, cool feeling. That was a conscious decision by the team." That feeling is different from Left 4 Dead, but it turns out that one of Evolve's greatest inspirations was drawn directly from Left 4 Dead: Tank battles. The Tank, as Left 4 Dead players well know, is a massive, hyper-aggressive zombie capable of pounding players with its gigantic fists or smashing them with huge chunks of concrete. That's not too far off from the Goliath, who hurls boulders and smashes the ground with equal ferocity. Evolve was the "brainchild" of turning Left 4 Dead's Tank fights into a full game, says Grace.
My Goliath may have fallen to the collective firepower of the hunters, but I'm eager to try again. Evolve arrives on PS4, Xbox One and PC this fall.