A slow climb to the top
Initially ARK: Survival Evolved didn’t leave much of an impression on me. Not only did I forget I actually owned the game, but that I had played it as well during early access at some point. It got lost among a sea of other games of its ilk in a genre that I can only imagine is pretty much entirely saturated by now. So when I sat down to play it for review, I was curious if only because I was trying to piece together why I put it down in the first place.
After many exhausting hours of play, I remember. While I think ARK is probably one of the best examples of the what the genre is actually capable of and blows many of its clones completely out of the water, I left it thoroughly exhausted by the grind, and vowed not to touch another game of its kind for a very long while. At the same time, ARK can also be a pretty incredible experience for all its many flaws, so for as numb as I was by the end of it, it gave me plenty to look back on with approval.
ARK: Survival Evolved (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One]
Developer: Studio Wildcard
Publisher: Studio Wildcard
Released: August 29, 2017
The elephant in the room you hear constantly about ARK is that it has numerous glitches both in the graphical and technical department. This is all true. ARK is a nightmare of micro issues, weird performance spikes, bizarre graphical glitches, generally bad A.I. and collision detection, and seemingly not much of this was rectified for the final release. If it was, I commend its early access players: you are patient saints, all the gods bless your little souls. Pretty quickly though this becomes something you just sort of live with while playing ARK, and at least for me, it was a nuisance more often than not, and not typically something that broke the game for me.
That said, I will make one recommendation up front; make sure you have a decent system. My own machine is showing its age, apart from a graphics card which is on the lower end of the spectrum. I had to tinker with settings quite a bit to find a nice balance between the admittedly pretty graphics and reasonable performance, and while the game certainly ran smoothly for me most of the time, for the less patient it might be a better move to get equipped before you jump in.
Not that it will matter much in the first couple of hours as you frantically punch trees and pick shrubs and chip away at rocks to gain as many resources as possible to give yourself a sense of protection from the prehistoric nasties that litter the dangerous world around you. This very much makes up the bulk of the gameplay in ARK all throughout the experience. We call these survival games, and that’s true to a point but ultimately after a solid hour of play, it won’t be too difficult to live the darkness of night, hunger, or weather conditions; so the survival element comes into play more when dealing with hostile creatures, or the infamously difficult climb against other, more well-equipped players.
This element of ARK killed any interest I might have had in enjoying the multiplayer experience. ARK very much exists in real time, meaning when you are offline, other players may still be online and can ruin the hard work you have done building your fortress and collecting resources and crafting gear. I have personally known players whose game time in ARK runs into the thousands of hours; not necessarily because they love the game all the time, but because they are afraid to be away from their server for too long lest some assholes decide to destroy everything they have spent their time building up. ARK has become a chore for them, a collection of daily to-do’s. This is not what I enjoy doing in games, but there is a strong single-player component here as well. Though unquestionably, this competitive, tribal nature of the PVP component is really the beating heart of what makes ARK special, and to get the most out of the experience, suffering through it is a necessary consequence.
As a new player, this makes it almost impossible to carve a path for yourself on public servers without a strong group of buddies beside you willing to put a lot of time into the game. If you have that, more power to you; the way of ARK is the way of the gang, and you will be much better off if you can convince a group to tag along for the ride. The game is fun on its own merits, and the narrative thread drives solo players to the end, including various boss encounters and some real cool discoveries for those willing to see the game to its conclusion.
If you are playing alone, this is going to be the only driving factor to continue apart from playing with tamable dinos (the taming of which, by the way, is a tedious horrible slog due to the sheer amount of time it can often take), building a kick-ass fortress, and beefing up your weapons arsenal. The real experience comes from the agony and ecstasy of online play, and you are missing out on both a great deal of grief and fun if you choose to avoid that element of ARK completely, which I resigned to doing after realizing the requirement of my time that would have been necessary to get the most of it. My online experience was short, miserable, and inconsistent, but I don’t fault the game itself for this — it is simply a necessary side effect of the way these survival titles present a consistent world, and is both their greatest burden and blessing, but ultimately not my cup of tea.
Frankly there is a ton to sink your teeth into here regardless of how you choose to engage with the world of ARK. With sizeable maps and several different biomes, the game is rife with exploration. So if that’s all you plan to do, it will take awhile before you encounter the bulk of the world’s creatures, resources, and locations. This is the way I prefer to play these sorts of games, and ARK does not disappoint. The grind can be reduced on your own server or in single-player by fiddling with sliders as well. This might seem a bit of a cop-out that would ruin the gameplay, but considering the long road of progression required to get to endgame, it probably isn’t going to taint the experience for most.
Alone or with friends (lots of friends, close friends, while barring out the rabble) ARK is a playful haven, a giant toybox with endless possibilities for both fun and boredom. My time with the game was split between awe-inspiring moments of excitement and joy, and the dull tedium of waiting for familiar tasks to repeat ad nauseam to craft a familiar item I had lost in a fight minutes before. The base-building mechanics are superb, the worlds are breathtaking and vast, and the progression from naked caveman to fully armed super warrior is ambitious and fun. If I have a complaint about ARK it’s that it’s tiring, that the repetitive nature of its gameplay loops and seemingly arbitrary leveling system are begrudging requirements walling off the fun it has to offer within, and that the multiplayer content is so fundamentally demanding that by proxy the game becomes something of a second life to a lot of players.
But apart from all this, aside from all the little flaws and the feeling of tedium that permeated large portions of my experience with ARK: Survival Evolved, I can’t fault the game for what it is, which is one of the best in its genre — even if after playing it, like Willard after his mission from Apocalypse Now, I’ll never want another. If any of this sounds good to you and the prospect of a straight climb up a wall full of spikes to experience the multiplayer is not intimidating, add a couple of points onto my final score; you will probably find a lot to love here.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]