Well, this one has been a long time coming. After over two years in early access, and a huge amount of development, Ark: Survival Evolved ($60, PC PS4, Xbox One) has finally exited beta, and entered full release. The survival game that changed the face of survival games forever, and practically invented the gather-craft-build mechanic is finally ready for the big time, so let’s see if it can overcome the technical limitations that have plagued it throughout the early access, and rise to the top.
When I first encountered ARK: Survival Evolved, it was just a little game, with basic mechanics, one map, and well not a whole lot to it. Today that tiny game has ballooned in to a massive empire with dozens of mods, Multiple maps and game modes, private and public servers, and of course, rideable dinosaurs. Through its entire early access development period ARK has never lost its fun, and now in full release with two major maps on the horizon, I don’t see it losing it anytime soon. If you just want to know if ARK: Survival Evolved is worth your $60, look no further than my number of hours played, which is well over 400.
The basic premise of ARK remains so simple that you could easily mistake this for one of those thrown together Minecraft clones from 2010. You wake up on an island with nothing, you punch tress to get wood, gather food, craft weapons and armor, and work your way up to building a base. Ark however set out from the very beginning to be different from other survival games. It came with a complex tech tree, where crafting and killing gave you experience, and when you leveled, you could choose what crafting item to next unlock. It emphasized team play, rewarding players who formed tribes and built bases, and finally it took the genre to the modern world, adding guns, and armor as end game items.
The second park of ARK’s title is not forgotten amongst all that gathering and crafting, and Ill never forget the feeling of panic when I first noticed I was starving to death. The slow crawl of damage as I searched for edibles around the map was one of the most visceral moments I have ever had in gaming. Food, Water, and shelter are the core of any survival game, and ARK knows this and does all of them well. It also has mechanics for temperature, and weather, but neither of those ever killed me. If it just had those mechanics ARK would have been a forgettable entry in to a crowded market. But a series of innovative features pushed ARK over the edge.
New Features in ARK gave the survival genre a twist, pushing it from the idea of doing “runs” where you would just see how long you could go, to a more advanced state, where building and preserving your base became important. But, ARK didn’t stop there. It was not the first to introduce taming of animals, but it was the first to do it with dinosaurs! From the humble alosarus to the mighty T-rex, dinos served both as transport for goods, and war mounts. ARK also introduced tribes allowing servers to have competitive factions, inside or outside of PvP. All of this before its first year in early access was over.
Ark also has massive secondary supporting cast, with dinos and wildlife galore. From rabbits to T-Rexes, almost every dino in the games menagerie can be tamed and ridden. Taming is of course grindy, but honestly I don’t mind it, it’s a nice passive break from most of the games other grinding tasks. I do wish there was a way to streamline or automate taming but I am sure there’s a mod for that. Ill never forget the first time I rode a dino around increasing my ability to gather by a magnitude. I was not the only one to have the experience either, ARK is also about playing together.
Up to 100 players can build, tame, clash, and survive on ARK’s multiple kilometers wide maps, and more maps and game modes just kept coming from the community as the game grows. Builds span multiple materials, and especially in early game, everything was terrifying to me. That’s what I remember most about my early days in ARK, every single animal (Except Diplos, thank god for those things) could kill me. After grinding out 100’s of hours and finally feeling secure, as master of the island, I still died to the occasional random creature, and of course players. But, all that grinding felt so worth it. Unlike many other survival games where you just lose everything and go back to the start ARK lets you keep your stats and as you grind you can really see the improvement. Nothing can compare to that feeling of taking down your first triceratops, or taming your first big dino and then riding it around feeling like a king. But, that feeling can’t possibly last forever, but it does last quite a long time, with later level rewards still feeling good, even when it may take hours of grinding to get one level. By end game (40-60 hours for good players, over 100 for me) you’ll be standing atop a steel fortress filled with technology and weapons that the you that woke up on the island could never have dreamed of. Despite the emphasis on team combat, even single players with enough hours in game could eventually build a massive base full of awesome gadgets and weapons its just going to take forever and your probably going to die a lot.
Let’s Talk about that grinding. Yes, I said it doesn’t feel bad, but I personally love any game driven by loot even if it does involve 400 hours of repetitive actions. Most players will no doubt get bored after hour 100. Ark sadly does little to push aside this boredom, especially in end game, it’s up to you to keep yourself interested. Players in larger tribes will find they spend a lot less time gathering and crafting, but the tradeoff is you may never see that awesome end game solo fortress you want. The tradeoff of course is you get to participate (at least on PvP servers) in the games amazing PvP combat.
PvP for you and me
PvP may be ARK: Survival Evolved’s greatest feature, but it’s also the thing that’s going to make most players hate it. The fear of losing everything you have on you when you die is a risk every survival game player wants. It’s what makes the game high stakes, and without it there’s no real fear of death. This is also what makes ARK’s PvP so frustrating. Because when you die to player who is several tech levels above you, that doesn’t feel good. I can’t do anything about the flying dude with the rifle who just sniped me from a half mile away when I have spears. There are of course non PvP servers, but those just aren’t as fun.
I haven’t even gotten to the most infuriating part of PvP servers, the base raiding. On PvP servers, everything is up for grabs, and I do mean, everything. All of your walls can be knocked down, and all of your chests opened and resources stolen. Because of this, it’s almost better to just hide than build a large base that stands out. Nothing can compare to the utter devastation of logging in after a couple of days break to find your walls broken, your resources stolen, and your character naked again. In that sense, I often felt ARK was a bit too harsh, but even a wuss like me eventually got used to it. Those who don’t want to experience this should stay off of the PvP servers, or join one of the large tribes on the massive public PvP servers for protection.
Let’s say none of that appeals to you at all, PvP you hate, grinding isn’t your thing, and you don’t play with other people at all. Well even here ARK has an answer. There is an extensive single player, offline campaign to play through as well. It included a sprawling map that will take you through caves, underwater, and all over ARK’s massive map. You’ll fight bosses, including a spider right out of my nightmares, and a giant dragon. And if you can beat all of that, you are rewarded with an end game dungeon that fills in neatly the games backstory and the reason for the ARK’s existence.
I very much enjoyed the campaign, it was not something I expected as very few survival games of this type have any story at all, and most rely on players to make their own experiences. Boss battles were punishing, not dark souls level, but dying of course meant losing everything. I died twice to the dragon, and honestly was very much ready to give up at that point. The amount of time and effort that I put in to the single player of this game would make most gamers weep. In fact, the reason that you are reading the review so long after it came out is that it took me over 2 weeks to finally reach this final dungeon.
This wouldn’t be an ARK review if I didn’t at least touch on technical difficulties. This is a game that’s been in early access for over two years now, and it’s not like there hasn’t been time to polish it. While Studio Wild Card has been busy adding dinos, and tech, and a story, they sadly seem to have forgotten to do many of the common optimizations that we see in modern games. This game is a massive memory sink. Even with 16GB of ram and a GTX1070 I had chugging with the settings only on high. Now I have seen plenty of people playing this game with no trouble, so I googled around a little and found that turning off a lot of the excess textures (like ground cover and foliage) could massively improve the game. After doing those things the game ran like a dream. But, I have to at least mention it since most players just dropping in wont know about the need to fine tune the graphics to get performance. There are still bugs, and dino AI still needs work, but the developers have shown an ongoing commitment to the game, that will hopefully see these things patched.
Finally, we arrive at the end. ARK: Survival Evolved is without question worth its price tag. Studio Wild Card have built a surviving thriving world, that they continue to add to and tweak. Every month I get email telling me about a new dino, or a new item, or a whole new map or mode coming to the game. I love the games progression and later game mechanics, but I hate the grinding that it takes to get there. I love flying a dinosaur while shooting down at my foes, but I hate it when someone does that to me. Ark is funny like that, I both love and hate the game, but at least so far its more than enough to keep me playing, after all, theres always one more upgrade, or fortress to conquer, or player to kill. See you on the ARK.