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Turtle Rock Studios is taking drastic measures, and well, they have nothing left to lose.
Unbeknownst to us, Evolve has been burrowing in its shell for months since last year and, starting today, will be breaking out and transforming into the aptly-named Evolve Stage 2. In addition to a multitude of gameplay changes meant to make the 4v1 predator-versus-prey chase more accessible, Evolve Stage 2's most significant alteration is switching to a free-to-play model—beginning with a beta that's available today on Steam—a model many argued should have been how Evolve was designed in the first place.
To say that Evolve has had a rough time would be kind. I mean, our very own Jeb Haught recently wrote a feature on modern games that didn't live up to the hype, and this was one of them. Despite receiving multiple awards from critics and fans alike at E3 2015, Evolve just didn't pan out the way we all expected it would. With gated progression systems and an overwhelming, head-spinning, eye-rolling number of pre-order, DLC, and season-pass shenanigans, the hype train derailed. Most players simply quit after trying the game, if they even got that far, and Turtle Rock Studios has struggled to maintain Evolve's community ever since.
But the developer famous for the Left 4 Dead series knows that it can set things right. Heading the reboot is Lead Designer Brandon Yanez, who along with Community Coordinator Cory Lanier, fielded my questions in a private interview. Since Cory Lanier was a pro gamer for Evolve (and has logged thousands of hours in both Evolve and Dota 2) before being brought into the development team, he intimately understood the complaints that lead to the production of Evolve Stage 2.
With other games like WildStar having transitioned to a F2P model as well, there's certainly precedent for this, combined with a partial apology and admittance of the game's original mistakes. Yanez isn't sure whether Evolve would have become a free-to-play game anyway, but the backlash from what they call a “DLC shitstorm” certainly stirred Turtle Rock Studios and 2K to rethink how to package triple-A titles.
The inspiration point for Stage 2's development is recapturing the magic that secured Evolve its barrage of early E3 awards, a time when players could simply play their game at an event without having to get through any paywalls. So in that respect, changing to a free-to-play model is line with its new design philosophy.
The other core tenet for the reboot is listening to the community more aggressively, which is why the beta is specifically on PC and not the other platforms at the moment. Concentrating on the PC version will allow Turtle Rock Studios to update the game weekly on a consistent basis before pushing it to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in the coming months when the game is good and ready.
Now, if you have already purchased Evolve in its full retail package, the developer will be awarding your loyalty with Founder status which will grant you exclusive skins, other gifts, and special access. All your unlockables and progression will be carried over. (More details on Founder status can be found in this official FAQ.) Evolve Stage 2 plans to offer Starter Parks to accelerate your progress through the game, but you will be able to unlock pretty much everything simply by earning in-game currency and unlocking skins, characters, and other areas of progression. If you're consistent in playing Evolve Stage 2, you should be able to unlock a new character from the (currently) 24-hunter roster about once every three days. If you want to earn Founder status now or even during the beta, you can find a boxed retail copy of the game.
More importantly, Evolve Stage 2 features a condensed 18 pages' worth of gameplay tweaks meant to reduce the level of “toxicity,” as Yanez and Lanier call it, to reduce the friction that occur between the team of four hunters. For instance, if the trapper class misses in ensnaring the monster within a mobile dome, you can expect the other teammates to throw verbal daggers (or just sit there and pout). In Evolve Stage 2, the mobile team is now a shared ability among the team and can be activated by anyone. The trapper will still be the class most likely to use the mobile dome, but now anyone can spawn the dome in case the monster is nearby.
Instead, the trapper class will have a Planet Scanner ability that gives the hunters a general GPS direction of where the monster is, but that's not the only class to get a primary skill overhaul. Support classes no longer have the cloaking ability which is mainly activated for the support player alone; in exchange, they will have a Shield Burst ability that will instantly give all surrounding teammates an instant shield refill. Assault classes, in lieu of their standard invulnerability skill, gain a Defense Matrix ability that provides a 75% damage reduction bonus. On top of that, all hunters have a very low passive health regeneration in case their Medic is pre-occupied or dead. All of these changes together give the hunters better team synergy.
As a counter, Monsters now have more health and will have access to all of their abilities at the start of the match, if they allocate their starting skill points that way. Instead of immediately hiding from the hunters at the start of the match, the Monster is encouraged to get kills early on as that increases the spawn time hunters have to re-enter the battlefield. In fact, how long it takes for downed hunters to respawn from the dropship will depend on what stage of evolution the Monster is at and how many kills the Monsters have accumulated over the course of the match. Early mistakes by the hunters are thus easy to recover from, but the team may pay for it dearly as the match continues.
If that weren't enough to encourage engagement, the duration of the mobile dome has been extended to a whopping 5 minutes, though that is just a temporary boost. If the Monster scores a kill, then the duration of the mobile dome is significantly reduced. In this way, the Monster is not encouraged to stay inside the dome and simply wait out its effect.
Each of the four maps have been enhanced in Evolve Stage 2, with better landmarks and UI indications so that the hunter team can call out where the Monster is to other teammates. This has the added benefit of reducing the amount of time it takes to learn the general layout of the map. Beyond that, Stage 2 comes with plenty of user-interface improvements, loading time reductions, smoother maps, and overall better performance, along with a Spectator mode that streamers can use for broadcasts.
Evolve Stage 2 represents the literal second chance for the game, if you're willing to give it one of course. Evolve's transition to a far more community-driven, barrier-free experience might be a little too late for many players, but those of you who remember how embarrassingly terrible Final Fantasy XIV was before its complete overhaul may want to let bygones be bygones. Turtle Rock Studios has heard all of our collective outcries and, based solely on its pedigree with Valve and the Left 4 Dead series, it does deserve another shot now that all of the packaging nonsense has been scrapped, hopefully never to return ever again.
The beta for Evolve Stage 2 will be live on Steam today and will last until the game is fully ready to come out as a full release.