Developer: Studio Wildcard, Instinct Games, Efecto Studios, Virtual Basement
Publisher: Studio Wildcard
Review Platform: PC (Steam)
Review Copy Provided By: Studio Wildcard
Release Date: June 2, 2015 (Early Access)
ARK: Survival Evolved is a hot mess, but a damn hot one at that. In an attempt to buck the ever-exhausting trends and clichés of the “first-person survival game with crafting elements” genre, which has become so prominent since Minecraft and DayZ sold gangbusters, ARK adds dinosaurs to the mix. Although its two most important gameplay mechanics are completely at odds with each other – trying to regulate your temperature, eat food etc. versus riding stegosauruses like it’s nobody’s business – ARK does offer up some truly awe inspiring moments. I just wish the path to these moments wasn’t lined with so many trees to punch.
ARK begins like every other survival game you’ve played. You need to hit a tree and pick up some rocks, which allows you to craft a pick, which allows you to get more rocks to build a hatchet, and so on and so forth. As you do this, you’ll gain levels which allow you to craft more items, such as structures, campfires, weapons, and clothes to cover your grotesquely muscular mutant body. It’s actually a well formed crafting system, in that certain tools can harvest different resources from the same rock or tree, and it’s easy to get to grips with the basics without needing to delve into guides at each turning.
Guides do become a necessity, however, when dinosaurs come into play. Outside of murdering them for their meat and hides, dinosaurs can also be tamed as mounts, fighters, or turned into Tauntaun-style shelters. This being one of the game’s main draws, I was excited to get to taming some pesky raptors, but there’s nothing in the game itself to explain how you go about doing this. There are some fairly simple, concise guides available on Steam on or ARK’s comprehensive Wiki page, but nothing resembling a tutorial on how to punch a Dodo into unconsciousness so you can use it to carry your berries.
Herein lies to dichotomy of ARK: Survival Evolved in its current form: the dinosaur parts of the game don’t work well with the crafting elements. I lost count of how many times I’d amassed a reasonable amount of food, weapons, tools and the beginnings of a basic house, before I was struck down out of nowhere by a level 64 Sabre Tooth Cat. There’s pretty much no way for a low level player to fight stronger, instantly aggressive wildlife, so the game become less about survival, and more about dying over and over again, only to repeat the same tree punching routine in order to amass your lost fortune of flint and thatch. It’s fairly easy to keep your basic human needs in check, but legitimately impossible to face up to creatures 25x tougher than you are.
If servers were specifically tailored for beginner players, it’d make ARK a much easier game to get a handle on. It’s unreasonable for new players to be able to tame large dinosaurs instantly, that has to be earned, but it’s equally unreasonable to ask players to repeat the same grind time and time again only to be mauled by a pack of raptors too strong to be dealt with conventionally. I spent many a dinosaur encounter waiting for two of the beasts to devour each other, before I picked up the pieces and fashioned them into a waterskin. This was, admittedly, an intense experience, but I couldn’t help but feel like I should have been down there dealing with the dinos myself, not cowering on a rock three feet above.
This also gets in the way of what would otherwise be an admirable exploration game. It’s thrilling to comb ARK’s golden beaches, to hike through its luscious rainforest surrounded by some of the most awe inspiring creatures our Earth has ever birthed, but it definitely gets cheapened with each inescapable death. Great effort has been taken to populate this vast island with titanic Brontosauruses, as well as genuinely frightening T-Rex’s, but it all become window dressing when there’s no way to really interact with them without first putting in fifty hours of grinding.
In a way, ARK becomes a game of voyeurism, a game of dino-envy. When playing on multiplayer servers, it’s incredible to see the players band together to construct jaw-dropping metallic fortresses – entire communities of players surviving, thriving and raiding their neighbours on dinosaur-back. Though you’re always at the whim of your fellow sociopathic player, most of my experiences with other humans in ARK were positive ones, or at least neutral ones.
This also means that ARK‘s single player component is effectively moot. You’ll go through the same grind, and encounter the same dinosaurs, but the world feels practically empty compared to the same island in a heavily populated server. For a game intended to be about dinosaurs, ARK becomes a very human survival-MMO, which isn’t ideal if you’re as cantankerous or anti-social as I am. A more substantial, dedicated single player mode wouldn’t go amiss – perhaps introducing some NPCs or a light story would boost the game’s solo potential.
For all its thoroughly interesting ideas, ARK suffers from being heavily imbalanced; for every glorious peak, there’s a greater trough. It’s completely absurd to populate a world in which many players are level 1 with level 101 T-Rex’s – that’s like dropping every new Runescape player in the Wilderness. It shows an awful lot of promise, but it’s a very long way from completion, even in terms of cosmetics. The more I played, the more texture bugs and pop-ins ARK threw my way. I’m not certain if the game’s aesthetics can be affected by a server’s ping level, but it certainly seemed like the graphics took more of a hit on servers with more players.
There’s also the inescapable fact that so many of the island’s dinosaurs clip through huge rocks, or congregate in areas that aren’t large enough for them to occupy. Even trees that are cut down fall straight into the floor and sink through it, eliminating any sense of weight or immersion that might have been intended.
There’s definitely some wonderful stuff going on in ARK, but a lot of it is either gated off by unreasonable difficulty barriers, or is crushed under the weight of the game’s lofty ambitions. Hopefully some of these issues will be dealt with before the game hits a full release, but until then, you’ve got some trees that need punching.