There are many pros and cons to Early Access titles but that never feels more real than when you’re investing in a survival game. I don’t simply mean the amount of resources necessary to create, fine-tune and sustain such a title, especially one which fosters numerous players on one server. I’m talking about the amount of time you invest to build yourself up in a world that essentially wants you dead six ways from Sunday. Not only do you have to invest the time necessary to gather materials for crafting shelter and weapons but there’s also time spent in exploring and “learning” the ins and outs of the game. The true reward, at least to me, comes from the unique experiences gained based on the amount of time you put in and given the procedural nature of most survival titles, you’re inspired to just keep playing and see what’s out there.
"Oddly enough, your character defecates in Ark. The feces can then be used as manure for growing plants. The entire process isn't as gross as it sounds, we promise, but it never really stops being weird."
Studio Wildcard’s Ark: Survival Evolved is a very different kind of survival game that doesn’t really do anything much different from other titles, at least not at first. Set on a sprawling map where you just wake up one day with a crystal embedded in your hand, Ark promises a lush open world populated by dinosaurs. There’s also the promise of riding said dinosaurs to explore the more far-flung corners of the world, which is when it really opens up. Bosses are out there to fight! Mysterious beacons are meant to be discovered and suitably pondered over! Adventures are to be had!
Unfortunately, you start off rather bare at the beginning of it all and have to work your way up to said adventuring. Your character can be customized from the outset, resulting in some pretty bizarre creations overall (and make no mistake, there are plenty of bizarre player characters already roaming the world). From there, you must create shelter, craft weapons, hunt dinosaurs and try not to get eaten in the process.
Ark also adds the environment as an oppressor. Rush through humid areas for too long and you’ll find yourself dehydrated. From the outset, your character needs clothing to keep warm and ultimately survive. It’s nothing new – 7 Days to Die does something similar – but does add to the overall survival aspect, motivating you to find an ideal location to set up home and a steady supply of food and water to keep you going. Oddly enough, your character defecates in Ark. The feces can then be used as manure for growing plants. The entire process isn’t as gross as it sounds, we promise, but it never really stops being weird.
"You'll need to level up quite significantly to get anywhere near the good stuff. Even a basic ranged weapon like the bow and arrow require a hefty amount of grinding. Until then, you'll have to rely on your trusty slingshot, knife, fists and innate sense of not dying to get by."
However, any one even vaguely familiar with Minecraft will know how the basics work. Punch trees to gain wood, open the crafting menu and create a spear to increase your chances of survivability. Eventually you’ll work your way up to sentry turrents and machine guns. At the very least, the menu system for Ark is good for telling you how to create tools, buildings and whatnot. Also, your ability to invest in better structures and weapons is as dependent on your level as gathering the required materials. Leveling up allows you to increase several of your stats along with spending points on engrams. The engrams allow for different items and progressively more potent recipes basically.
There is a problem though. You’ll need to level up quite significantly to get anywhere near the good stuff. Even a basic ranged weapon like the bow and arrow require a hefty amount of grinding. Until then, you’ll have to rely on your trusty slingshot, knife, fists and innate sense of not dying to get by.
Then again, for a world populated by enormous dinosaurs – some which get into brawls with each other – there is a very uneven balance to Ark. Agile foes like raptors can take you down quick but lumbering enemies like a stegosaurus can easily be maneuvered around and shanked until dead. The AI of all enemies needs work currently and results in both one-sided fights and some very clunky battles when dinosaurs collide with each other.
There are also some performance optimization issues with Ark at this point. Even with a powerful rig, you’ll have to experiment with settings for the sake of better performance. For all the beauty that the setting imbibes, especially when soaring through the air admiring the burning sun above, frame rate issues are common at higher settings. I personally felt most comfortable at medium settings, for the most the part, and future optimization will hopefully correct this. Also, some lag was noticed on several different occasions. While it isn’t constant, I did spot dinosaurs alternate between moving normally and teleporting around on some occasions.
"Make no mistake though - once you actually begin riding dinosaurs and exploring the world, that's when the game really picks up."
Ark does have its cool little touches though. You can earn the trust of different dinosaurs by knocking them out and feeding them food based on their type (for example, carnivores love meat, obviously). They can then be used to carry items for you and level up alongside you. The sheer range of dinosaurs to domesticate in this manner is pretty impressive especially as you gain saddles and ultimately start riding your eclectic collection of reptiles.
There are few pleasures in life like riding a raptor and maiming prey with it and thankfully, Ark knows that too. Make no mistake though – once you actually begin riding dinosaurs and exploring the world, that’s when the game really picks up. There’s no shortage of mysterious caves to explore or horrifying creatures to confront in Ark. A wide variety of dinosaurs are also available for taming and, at the risk of some one spoiling whether it’s actually possible, I really, really want a tyrannosaurus mount.
And that’s perhaps one of the biggest sticklers of Ark: Survival Evolved. For an Early Access game, it’s not expected to be perfect and most games at this stage aren’t. It has a long way to go though what’s there is fun to play despite the slow start, AI problems and performance issues. Though Ark: Survival Evolved has its fair share of issues, I’m genuinely looking forward to its direction for the coming months.