Developer: Studio Wildcard, Instinct Games, Efecto Studios, Virtual Basement
Publisher: Studio Wildcard
Review Platform: PC (Steam)
Review Copy Provided By: Studio Wildcard
Release Date: 29th August, 2017
When I previewed ARK: Survival Evolved over two years ago, I wasn’t exactly enamoured with Studio Wildcard’s Early Access outing. The game was buggy, poorly optimised to the point where just getting it to start up was no mean feat, and it seemed to be struggling with a fairly critical identity crisis. Was ARK a story-based adventure about glowing, prehistoric space glyphs? A copycat crafting/survival sim wherein punching trees and jerry-rigging huts was the name of the game? A free-roaming, dinosaur-riding romp that allowed you to fulfil your ultimate Jurassic Park fantasies? Even in its final form, ARK is trying to be all three, and never really succeeds at at being any. Instead, Survival Evolved still feels like a solid concept, a great idea that suffers immeasurably from balancing issues, visual bugs, clipping problems, and a host of other quirks that suggest it wasn’t quite ready to leave Early Access’s primordial ooze.
You begin ARK like most other survival/crafting game: washed up on a beach in your ragged underwear. You can craft some rudimentary tools from the get-go (a welcome improvement over previous versions of the game) by collecting wood, slate, stones and fibre from the environment. Work at it for long enough, and you’ll soon be able to cook meat, craft weapons, more advanced items of clothing, and gargantuan steel fortresses from which you can survey your dinosaur kingdom. At least, that’s the idea…
In truth, ARK‘s biggest issue is the randomness and unpredictability of its world. You can choose to spawn in an “Easy” area for low level players, but that won’t stop some level 75 survivor from jumping out of a bush and one-punching you to death. Thankfully, your level progression (and your items, if the murderous player is kind enough not to loot them) will stay intact upon respawning, but that doesn’t stop the repetitive nature of harvesting, crafting and dying from getting laborious after about three tries.
It’s not just players who make low-levellers their prey – it’s also highly likely you’ll spawn next to a level 100 raptor, who will take no displeasure in tearing the meat from your measly beginner bones. This even applies to peaceful wildlife like dodos; nobody’s idea of “exhilarating dinosaur fantasy” involves punching a level 50 dodo for three straight minutes until it collapses.
Had this been a single-player game, ARK‘s steep learning curve and hard survival features might have been compelling, but as a rather clunky MMO, Survival Evolved is plagued with far too many wildcard elements. There is some enjoyment to be had through player interaction. Upon asking in the game’s chat system: “When does this start getting fun”, I was greeted by another player who responded, “around the time you tame a dinosaur.” Fair enough, I thought. At this moment I discovered said player standing by a campfire and a large wall of menacing-looking spikes. He treated me with caution and instantly raised a slingshot, but I think he could sense how pathetically lost I was pretty quickly. He offered me some meat. “It’s in the fire,” he said, which didn’t exactly sound like the friendliest of offers. Although still convinced he was going to push me into the fire (or the spikes), I accepted his charity, and enjoyed some cooked dino meat. That is, before I was mauled by a dinosaur 60 levels higher than me only a few short minutes later.
Truthfully, I had only found this rare pleasant survivor because his campfire was the only thing visible within 200 yards. At night time, the game is unbearably dark, to the point where you can’t see whether you’re on a beach, in the sea, in the water, or in the jaws of an angry T-Rex. Try to fiddle with ARK‘s video settings, and it’s likely you’ll once again be chomped by a nearby dino. I didn’t know what a Therizinosaurus was before playing Survival Evolved, but after being killed by one three times in the space of an hour’s play, I came to be quite familiar with the beasts.
This might sound like a repetitive criticism, or something that can be remedied by “getting good”, but it’s really the largest roadblock preventing ARK from realising its full potential. I’d like to tell you that once the dinosaur taming and pterodactyl riding begins, things start picking up. But it takes so much work and frustration to get to that point, that there’s no way the payoff could be worth the time investment. ARK doesn’t offer up nuanced, considered survival gameplay like The Long Dark, nor does it boast engaging battle royal showdowns per Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. What it does have to offer, is an endless cycle of craft, die, repeat, a maddening gameplay loop that isn’t nearly satisfying enough to justify countless deaths and rebirths.
Taming a dinosaur is fun for all of five minutes, until said dino eventually falls victim to the same dangers as the player.
If it’s not the overpowered dinosaurs, it’s the other players. If it’s not the players, it’s the rapidly decreasing food and warmth meters. If it’s not your stats, it’s the fact that night-time is near-unplayable. Whatever it is, something will kill you in ARK: Survival Evolved. It won’t be a fun death, an impressive one, or a pretty one, but it will happen, and with each passing, you’ll start to wonder if it’s worth spending another twenty minutes crafting a thatch roof, only to suffer the same fate once more.
If you’re lucky enough to get into the game’s PVE servers, you’ll have an easier time of things. There’s no griefing, your tamed dinosaurs won’t be killed by other players during offline hours, and it’s actually possible to learn the game’s quirks at your own pace. This still doesn’t change the completely nonsensical dinosaur levelling, nor does it make the overall experience any more exciting, but it at least means you’re able to learn how to hunt, manage your stats, and tame wildlife without constant interruptions. Combat is still sloppy, taming is still fairly dull, and without a story to follow or goal to pursue, everything still feels rather pointless.
This is even without touching upon the myriad visual bugs that still plague the game. Even on high settings, ARK isn’t the prettiest picture. Foliage is spotty, characters look like they were modelled out of clay, and the frame-rate is generally inconsistent. On the odd occasion, you’ll be taken in by the majesty of a huge diplodocus strolling past you, the striking light of a nearby Halo-esque tower playing off the water. That is, before you’re punished for having the audacity to enjoy looking at dinosaurs in a game about punching trees.
This speaks to why ARK: Survival Evolved has never once come close to the promise of its initial trailers. Were this an arcade-style dinosaur-hunting game, it would probably be great. But it isn’t even about dinosaurs, ARK is a largely unfulfilling craft-a-thon with dinosaurs indiscriminately thrown in for good measure. You might find yourself on a beach surrounded by ten different species of dino, but when there’s nothing you can do with or to them without first enduring ten hours of grinding, they’re essentially just part of the scenery.