It's been almost two weeks since Evolve came out, and yet I haven't written a word about it. There are two reasons for that.
The first is that I don't feel like I've properly played it yet. It's a game best played with three friends against a stranger, or with four friends in regular rotation, sliding between the "odd man" position of being the monster and working as part of a team with three other hunters, and I've only managed to play it, so far, with half-full teams of friends. Even then, there have been fairly major problems, similar to the problems I encountered when I started playing Left4Dead at release. Voice chat is an iffy prospect, relying on inconsistent detection or inconvenient push-to-talk methods, like most integrated VOIP outside of Left4Dead 2. Matchmaking is fine when you're just trying to find a random game, but while playing with friends I was repeatedly "banned" from a friend's server without him issuing a command of any kind. It would sometimes happen in the middle of a game, and required both of us restarting our clients completely to resolve the issue. Even then, it kept happening with irritating frequency.
Those kinds of bugs can seriously discourage gameplay, especially when people have lives outside of the game. A younger version of me would've soldiered through and troubleshot all of this shit, but present-me has papers that need grading waiting in his backlog, and present-me's friends all have kids and lives and responsibilities. Ain't nobody got time for this sort of shit. So even though all these bug related experiences happened a few days after released, I haven't tried to play properly again since.
I have sunk a little bit of single player time into the game, a few solo drops here and there to unlock new hunters and monsters, but that's not the same. It's akin to doing maintenance: there's a certain catharsis to it, and the function of play, the function of the game itself, is all there, but the spirit is missing. Without those tight multi-person maneuvers, without weird, customized teams based on preferred play style and discussion, there's something missing, something fundamental. It's clear that Evolve is meant to be a social game, an iteration on the tradition of trash-talking social shooter play that Goldeneye established so long ago, and while it's situated in a decidedly virtual couch environment, thanks to the asymmetry, the hook behind the game, which makes split screen play an impossibility, it's still clearly a game you're meant to play with a small group of friends.
The time I have spent in single player has made that clear. The colorful banter that marks play is sparse, mostly limited to a quick set of quips at the start of each mission. There's a little bit of dialogue representing situational and environmental issues, but that's just there to give audio cues to players who wouldn't get them any other way while playing alone. Missions unfold in much the same way each time. While the Monster's AI is quite solid, there just aren't that many tricks it can pull, and with quick, punchy rounds marking Evolve's play, you get to see those tricks on display relatively quickly. If I spend an hour playing, I'll see between three and five matches unfold, and two of those matches will likely be the same kind of match, possibly even on the same map. Bereft of the human element, the game stops feeling random, and feels like an exercise in basic coding: I see the way the AI has been mapped, and while I'm impressed by it, I can still see the seams at the rough edges.
Solo-play is also hamstrung a bit by a shallow progression tree. It took relatively little time to unlock all of the hunters and the monsters, eight, maybe ten hours all told. And while that's nice on a certain level (it does, after all, give me a lot of neat toys to play with) it has the unintentional side effect of discouraging grind play. While the "ah-HA!" response is still there, with leveling up and hunter and monster specific perks unlocking as play progresses, the rewards are so iterative and slight (the first in a series of stacking 2% boosts to damage for one weapon, or an upgrade that makes my 10% movement speed boost a 15% movement speed boost, to name a few) that it's difficult to remain engaged by them. The initial progression was smart and pressed me into trying new classes, testing out each aspect of those classes, and learning to play them "properly" in game, and additional challenge tiers seem to aim at teaching me how to use my character class in new and interesting ways. It's a savvy new take on training, but it's a crap incentive structure to keep me playing. When I do hop in to get some Evolve on, I feel like I'm spinning my wheels, especially with so many other excellent titles hanging out in my Steam Library. There's something missing in Evolve when you try to play it alone.
Which brings me, at long last, to my second point: there's just something missing in Evolve in general. I shelled out the absurd $100 for Evolve's super-duper fanboy pack, and while I don't regret it (I think Turtle Rock is an excellent studio, and I'm happy to support them financially) I also don't think I actually got my money's worth. Evolve released with a staggering amount of content missing, content that is theoretically going to be released in due time but, at present, is just absent. Hunters, monsters, skins, and maps are sure to come down the pipe later, but for now, Evolve is clearly not complete. There's a lot of game here, and with a good group of friends it's a promising, enjoyable game, but the fact that I'm sinking time into a product that I know isn't completely released yet does dull my fervor a little.
That's not to say that I've given up on Evolve. Schedules will soon align, and I'll be beyond psyched to get some Evolve time in with real live human beings. Content will release, at some point, and I'll have even more incentives to keep playing. Patches will shift things, I'm confident (based on Turtle Rock's relationship with its community) that new maps and modes of play will emerge over time. Evolve will, to cornball it up a little, continue to evolve. Right now it just feels like it's in mid-transformation. It's been sort of fun before, and when it's finished? I get the distinct impression it'll be explosive. I just worry that I'll wear it out before then.