Thought Bubble: The Theory of Game Evolution

Ask any hardcore gamer what features they look for in online shooters, and they may rattle off a laundry list of things: Large player counts, ranking and progression, player customization, dynamic maps, destructible environments, unique ways to traverse the landscape, cooperative play, high frame rate, a variety of game modes – at this point, such features are expected.

When a game developer is unable to check everything off the list, they get criticized for it.

Evolve is coming out in a few weeks, and according to the above criteria, it should barely pass the litmus test. Let’s check out some of the features it’s lacking:

Large player counts? No. 5 players in total.
Ranking and progression? Yes, but there’s a cap on the progress of each character, and progress is incrementally small.
Player customization? Not extensively, and aside from new character unlocks and small damage or duration boosts, they’re purely cosmetic.
Dynamic maps? No, for the most part, the maps don’t undergo massive, landscape-altering changes.
Destructible environments? Yes, but only trees and shrubs break.
Movement options? Yes, but everyone has the same jetpack.
Large weapon library? No, players are tied to the same weapons throughout the match.
High frame rate? On the console, no – unless you think 30fps is high.
Varied game modes? Yes, but it’s variations of the same thing.

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That’s a lot of “no” or “yes, but”. Yet somehow, Evolve is also one of the most anticipated multiplayer games in 2015. From the limited time I’ve spent playing it, I’ve become hooked.

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While trying to determine what exactly makes the game so compelling, I started out comparing it with other shooters. But I quickly realized that’s the wrong approach. Evolve is not a shooter, nor is it a third person action game if you’re playing as the monster. At its core, Evolve is a fighting game, with elements of escape and survival.

Darwin’s theory of evolution posits that life as we know it descends from a common ancestor. And unless you’re a devoutly religious fundamentalist, it’s pretty much a scientific truth. Through mutation, selective breeding, and sometimes sheer dumb luck, organisms evolve past the limitations of their predecessors through natural selection. The same can be said of the game.

Evolve takes the essence of Shadows of the Colossus, splices in some Monster Hunter, adds the diverse personalities of Jagged Alliance, infuses the different abilities of a cooperative puzzle game like Trine, and wraps it in the framework of Left 4 Dead.

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Meanwhile, strip away the cool graphics and the slick presentation, and it would still be compelling because it’s based on a great premise that has existed for much of modern video game history. It’s a boss fight, like Balrog, Vega, Sagat, and M. Bison rolled into one. It’s the Shredder/Super Shredder battle in TMNT: Turtles in Time. What if every encounter is a boss fight? Sheer awesomeness.

But boss fights alone are not enough, especially if other elements are handled poorly. Tight controls, game balance, level design, setting and fun factor have to be present, and thankfully Turtle Rock Studios seems to have paid attention to that, too. Whereas in most FPS games you’re just another interchangeable cog, Evolve makes you feel like an important, individual component that works in conjunction with others to ensure the machine runs as a whole.

In other words, Evolve ultimately succeeds because of natural selection. It takes the best pieces of enduring games and uses them to craft something original that will hopefully survive at retail.

So why doesn’t it happen more often?

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These days, it takes much more for a game to survive a crowded retail environment, especially if that game decides to take risks or represents a new IP (Bulletstorm was SO GOOD). It’s why, despite only being a few months from release with pretty decent ratings, a game like Sunset Overdrive is constantly included in sales and specials. The industry keeps making clones of the same underlying game, Stormtroopers that are pale imitations of the original. For consumers, a by-the-numbers experience is often safer than a potential $70 dud.

That’s why it’s refreshing to play a game like Evolve. The development team took a great premise, made the right tweaks based on knowledge of what has worked before, paired it with solid gameplay, and won the hearts of many in the tradeshow circuit. But there’s still no guarantee it will work. The weeks following its February 10 launch will prove whether or not the masses will buy what Turtle Rock has done.

I feel silly waxing on and on about the game, but my limited Alpha and Beta playthroughs have made me a believer. The Theory of Evolution is real, and it’s the next great stage of gaming.

Who’s ready to Evolve?

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