LAKE FOREST, Calif. (AP) — It's a hairy time inside Turtle Rock Studios — and not just because many employees have pledged to stop shaving until they've finished work on "Evolve," a highly anticipated video game about hunting huge, Godzilla-like creatures. Really, it's because the creators of the popular zombie shooter "Left 4 Dead" are working diligently to deliver another monster hit.
The hype for the new co-op shooter has been building since June when "Evolve" captured the industry's attention — and a slew of awards — at the Electronic Entertainment Expo with a simple, subversive conceit. Instead of equal groups of gamers aiming for each other as they do in online "Halo" and "Call of Duty" battles, "Evolve" pits a team of four against one.
The catch? The solo player portrays an oversized, overpowered monster built for destruction, while the others are cast as humanoid hunters dispatched to an alien planet to eliminate the threat. They're equipped with traps and special abilities to isolate the towering creature, which can grow and attain more powers by devouring wildlife and deceased hunters.
"E3 was obviously a huge morale boost for the team, but it also heaped on the pressure," said veteran design director Chris Ashton , whose blonde beard now almost reaches down to his chest. "When we set out to make this game four years ago, we never imagined that we would win all these E3 awards and receive all this acclaim. It's not something we ever considered."
The outlook for "Evolve," well, evolved in August when publisher 2K Games announced that the multiplayer shooter was being delayed from an Oct. 21 to Feb. 10 debut, so that "Evolve" could "reach its absolute, optimal state before we release it," according to Strauss Zelnick , chairman and CEO of 2K Games' parent company, Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.
After being lauded as they showed off "Evolve" at events like E3 and the fan-centric Penny Arcade Expo over the summer, Turtle Rock's enthusiasm was clipped in October when the studio released a strand of "Evolve" in the form of a "big alpha" test. The tease of just one "Evolve" mode left many gamers wondering "That's it?" instead of "Where do I pre-order it?"
"There was some concern about the content," said Ashton. "We always told everyone that there's more modes, more ways to play the game. We just weren't talking about them yet. It's one of those things that even though we were saying that, people either don't believe it until they see it, or they think we're just trying to deflect the question or something."
The alpha test only allowed gamers to play the modest "hunt" mode. It provided Turtle Rock with valuable data about how "Evolve" performs online but left many potential buyers questioning whether the final product would be worth $60. It was yet another example of how important — or detrimental — such public sneak peeks have become for games that primarily exist online.
The developers are now letting their hair down ahead of a beta test set for January that will feature all of the game's modes, including "nest," which tasks the monster with protecting eggs from hunters; "rescue," which adds turmoil to the battlefield in the form of human survivors; and "defend," which involves the monster clamoring to destroy a spaceship.
There's also a chaotic campaign dubbed "evacuation" that features every mode in five rounds. Each match can be affected by various outcomes. For example, if the monster dominates one round, another beast might be unleashed the next match-up. If the hunters triumph, teleportation devices could go online in the next fight that make moving across the terrain easier.
"This is stuff we've had for a long time, but we've had to hold back because 'Evolve' is such a new idea with four-versus-one and the monster leveling up," said Ashton. "We felt like we had to first explain the basics before everything else. We also kind of want it to be overwhelming because we want to counter that feeling that the content of 'Evolve' is underwhelming."
With the recent success of original multiplayer games like "Titanfall" and "Destiny," which similarly abandoned traditional gameplay for online action, Ashton and the other 97 developers at Turtle Rock are hopeful "Evolve" will exceed expectations. After all, their dedication to creating an addictive new interactive experience isn't just in their hearts. It's also growing out of their faces.