Reviewed: June 27, 2000
Released: May 28, 2000
This has to be one of the strangest yet coolest games I have played this century. I got my first taste of Interplay's Evolva when I received the playable demo version with my first GeForce card earlier this year. At the time I barely even gave it a try. It was poorly documented and very difficult to figure out. When the opportunity came for me to review the full version I was hesitant, but now after many sleepless nights I must say this game is truly revolutionary - or should I say "evolutionary".
Understanding the premise of Evolva is half the battle of playing and enjoying it. Trying to pigeonhole this title is extremely difficult as it covers so many genres so very well. First glance will have you comparing it to Tomb Raider or any of the many other 3rd-person action/adventures. But then those four monitors at the bottom indicate you are controlling multiple characters so now it looks and plays like the old Space Hulk games from the early 90's. Now throw in some character stats and multi-path branching for your character development and you have an RPG. As you can see, Evolva is a unique title that covers many aspects of gaming and will capture the attention of many types of gamers.
The opening movie is stunning (and immune to my screen capture attempts) and sets up the action to come. A giant spore traveling through space lands on a strange alien planet and immediately begins to take over. As its organic tendrils spread across the planet it also starts to create guardians; insect-like creatures that protect the mother-plant and lay waste to the indigenous life. These creatures come in a variety of shapes and sizes and each with their own special attack. When traveling in large numbers they strongly reminded me of the battle scenes in Starship Troopers on the Bug Planet.
Creepy noises like the screaming insect roars and clicking legs and mandibles add to tension of each encounter. I can clearly recall walking down a narrow canyon toward an intersection and seeing 3-4 of these Ostrich creatures run past me. In hot pursuit was at least 6-8 guardians snapping at them. They totally ignored my four hunters until I moved in and attacked from the rear. Then they forgot their prey and turned all their hostile aggressions toward me.
Moments like this are extremely cool the first time. But once you replay the level you will find out this is a scripted event and goes down pretty much the same way every time. Sure you can vary your attacks or even let them kill the Ostriches if you want but the enemies and their locations are totally scripted and vary only in numbers and severity of damage based on your selected skill level.
We (the gamer) assume the role of a science vessel pilot who is alerted to the hostile plant's attempt to overrun the planet and decides to save it from complete domination by the invading vegetation and its endless supply of deadly creatures. Of course we won't be getting our own hands dirty. We have Geohunters at our disposal to carry out the "wet work" so to speak, and this is where things get interesting. If you'll take out your "Introduction to Genetic Engineering" textbooks and turn to page #127 I will begin the lecture.
You have four Geohunters at your disposal; each genetically engineered with certain inherent attributes such as speed, agility, intelligence, etc. At any given time you are in direct control of one of the four Geohunters while the others follow you around using some pretty impressive AI. You can assume control of any of the four at any time to make use of their special abilities.
The game eases you into the action quite nicely and things don't start to get rough until around level 3. As you explore the planet your Geohunters will be able to feed off of the genetic material (DNA) from plants and native life forms. This is where the game gets really cool and the possibilities become virtually endless. Feeding off certain DNA gives your Geohunters certain abilities inherent in those genes. If the carcass you are consuming was from the Ostrich-like creature then your Geohunters can mutate into a faster version of themselves. While you really aren't encourage to kill the indigenous life (after all, you are here to save the planet) you will find plenty of pre-killed carcasses lying around waiting for you to absorb.
Just as the native life bestows physical abilities on your Geohunters, consuming the genetic material from slain aliens (guardians) will allow you to mutate your Geohunters into powerful fighting machines. When you first land you have a small claw attack, which is adequate on the early enemies, but as you progress you will soon acquire all sorts of special attacks such as lasers and flame breath.
Once you kill a guardian with one of these special attacks you can then mutate your Geohunter so that he can use that same attack. The trick is that using that weapon on the creature that gave you the power is generally ineffective, so now it becomes important to learn which creatures employ which attacks and have the appropriate weapon armed to defeat them. If you are being swarmed by a group of fire-breathing bugs then you don't want your Geohunters to all be equipped with the flame attack. Lasers work much better.
Mutating your Geohunter can be tricky. You will often need to know what abilities you are going to need for the upcoming areas. An example early in the game is where you must mutate all of your hunters so they can jump over a river gorge to continue to the end of the level. Also, increasing your ability in one skill can lower or even eliminate another genetic ability. You will have to use much caution and planning when mutating your hunters.
Evolva isn't just a hack-n-slash action-fest though. There are specific missions and objectives for each of the many levels you must complete to rid the planet of the alien infestation. One mission has you locating these energy spores. There are two types of spores and when they are combined (dropped in close proximity) they generate an almost-nuclear reaction. These make great explosive devices, which you can use to blow up the large alien structures that produce the guardian creatures - just make sure you run away in time. Another mission has you herding a variety of creatures into a protective rock formation then defending them from countless aliens as they swarm into the canyon to kill them all. The mixture of puzzle solving and pure action is perfectly blended.
I've never really been good at controlling more than one thing at a time. Whether it be "units" in Command and Conquer or even my AI allies in Unreal Tournament, I'm just not that organized where I can keep track of several things outside of my direct control. Needless to say I was worried when I saw I was responsible for four Geohunters, but the AI in this game is very smart. Geohunters will fight and switch weapons as needed and will feed when they can to restore their health. My only real responsibility is to mutate them at regular intervals and make sure they have the appropriate weapons available for the next encounter. Sometimes I will switch to the big green guy to smash through an obstacle or take control over a weaker character to keep him out of the thick of battle until he has healed enough.
Exploring the planet is made easy with the navigational HUD that fills the monitor of whichever character you are currently controlling. Indicators clearly point your next objective (O) and the nearest source of genetic material (A). The location of your three partners is also shown (1,2,3) and if your guys start to fall behind you can issue a "regroup" command that will summon them to your current location. You can issue commands to one or more Geohunters, and while it is often tempting to take control of one and leave the rest behind, you will die very quickly if you try to play Evolva as a solo adventure. This game is geared toward teamwork and only by controlling your team and properly mutating them can you ever hope to cleanse the planet.
Since Evolva was initially a pack-in title with the original GeForce card you might expect that there are some pretty impressive graphics and you wouldn't be mistaken. The opening movie alone is almost worth the purchase price but once you get planet-side and the 3D engine kicks in you will be amazed. This game uses every trick in the GeForce handbook to render a strange alien planet with colorful rock formations, rivers and lakes, towering plant-life, and a host of wondrous life forms that go about their business yet still react when you enter their sphere of influence.
Most of the native wildlife will keep their distance so you can use their fear to herd them into protective canyons and away from the attacking guardians. The battles with the guardians are frequent and spectacular. Special effects are used in abundance with fiery explosions and burning carcasses smoking in the bloody battlefield. Some creatures shoot lasers out of scorpion-like tails. These prove particularly deadly when the creatures place themselves high in the cliffs and organize their laser attacks into the canyon below. While there is some fogging the effect is used more for atmosphere than to increase frame rates. There is nothing more terrifying than hearing the screaming and clicking of an unknown number of guardians then to see them charging out of the mist on the horizon.
The sound and music in Evolva are appropriate for the genre and of excellent quality. The opening score suits the movie well and could easily be on the "big screen". There are no voices or narration, only the unearthly sounds of alien life forms and the terrifying sounds of the horrible guardians. Explosions rock the battlefield and when you smash through a blocked passage you will have to hang onto your desk until the dust settles. One of the best sound effects is the crackling of the fire you will hear when structures or dead aliens burn up. You will almost want to break out your bag of marshmallows.
Even with the less-than-stellar multiplayer features this game offers tremendous replay value. There are virtually unlimited possible combinations when mutating your Geohunters, so you will never play the game the same way twice. Of course this leads into the only negative aspect of Evolva - it gets boring too soon. After about a half-a-dozen levels into this game you will get tired of the same old scenery and the limited variety in creatures and enemies. Even though the mission objectives change it still boils down to getting from the Start to the Finish and killing everything in sight along the way so you can mutate into stronger hunters for the next level. By the 5th or 6th level there will be little left to surprise you and finishing the game becomes more of a chore than an adventure.
The concept of teamwork would clearly indicate the possibilities for online multiplayer gaming, and while Evolva does support Internet play it was done more as an afterthought. The interface for starting or joining an online game is rudimentary at best. You must use an external program to learn your IP address then tell your friends who then type that address into their Join Session screen. One big downer is that you cannot even join a game in progress. Unless you get in at the beginning you are out of luck.
HEAT.NET seems to be the only online service that is supporting Evolva but I could never find anyone playing it during my week of reviewing this game. I did hook-up with a friend for some one-on-one and it wasn't nearly as much fun as just playing the solo adventure. There is co-op play and deathmatch and all sorts of options for mutations, etc. but it just seems that Computer Artworks tacked it on so they could say their game had multiplayer features.
One cool feature is that each time you save your game a DNA file is also stored which logs the current mutation of your Geohunters. This file is quite small and can easily be emailed to others who can then use your Geohunters in their games. While I can't think of any huge benefits to this feature it is still cool; almost like Genetic Trading Cards.
Evolva is extremely violent. Even though there is no "human killing" parents may want to keep this title away from the younger ones. The game does have an M (mature) rating and for very good reasons. You are literally forced to kill almost everything in sight then even after it is dead you must savagely claw it apart until you can ingest the genetic material. The landscape will often be painted red with the blood of your enemies making for some possible disturbing imagery. The moody graphics and creepy sounds alone are enough to freak-out those of us old enough to buy this game.
The sound and music are superior and the game features some of the best AI I have ever seen in a game of any genre. The graphics are crisp and colorful but start to wear thin after awhile. It's too bad Evolva could not have taken place on a variety of planets so the designers could have offered us other exciting alien worlds.
As it stands, you will have seen most of what this planet has to offer in the first half of the game. I hope the concepts of Evolva are developed further and implemented even better in a future release of a similar squad-based combat game. Computer Artworks is certainly on the right track. Evolva might not be the best game on the block, but it certainly has the potential to evolve into something quite spectacular in the very near future.