ARK: Survival Evolved: Early-Access Review

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Ever since I was a small child, I’ve loved dinosaurs. Yet another big passion of mine was, and still is, videogames. This always made me think how awesome of an experience it would be to explore the world of dinosaurs in a 3D environment within in a videogame. While there were some games like Dino Crisis and Turok that were good in their own right; they mainly just focused on killing the dinosaurs. They didn’t offer the open-world experience that I was yearning for. I even bought The Stomping Land just to see if it maybe had the dino experience I was looking for…a mistake my wallet won’t soon forget. However, I finally saw a spark of hope when I laid my eyes upon ARK: Survival Evolved (commonly abbreviated as just ARK), an early-access title developed by Studio Wildcard, Instinct Games, Effecto Studios, and Virtual Basement. With such beautiful graphics and the promise of offering a large open-world environment where you can interact, hunt, and even tame wild dinosaurs – I had to try it.

Something I should mention, I will not be accounting for the Survival of the Fittest mode as that is more of an add-on than a part of the core game. This will be review of the game in its current state as of April, 2016. It is an early-access title and it wouldn’t seem fair to judge a game completely without all of its content and optimizations. With that disclaimer out-of-the-way, I can now move on to the game itself.

Fun fact to start out with, I couldn’t even run this game when I first installed it – it would just crash on startup. This was the case for many other people, as ARK had a notable reputation for its horrible optimization during its initial early access; with only NASA super computers seemingly being able to run it. Thankfully, the game has become a lot more optimized since then and as long as you have a decent enough gaming rig you shouldn’t run into many issues. Though, even the strongest of computers will still get low frame-rates at times and sudden crashes so there’s definitely some more room for improvement.

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The less than stellar optimization isn’t completely unwarranted, because as soon as you start playing ARK you can’t help but be taken back by the game’s amazing graphics. The water looks gorgeous, the terrain looks sublime, the sky is magnificent, the lighting is strikingly realistic, and, most importantly, the dinosaurs look absolutely fantastic. Their models are intricately detailed and have a variety of fluid animations; making the dinos move as you could imagine they did back when they were still alive.

In terms of realism, you will notice that many of the dinos are very stylized versions of their actual, prehistoric counterparts. For instance, the Dilophosaurus appears as it did in Jurassic Park, with the frill and poison-spitting that the true dino lacked. The game also tampers with the actual sizes of the dinos with some appearing larger, like the T. rex and Giganotosaurus, or smaller, like the Titanoboa and Megalodon. I like most of these slight alterations to the dinosaurs as they give them a little more personality. Though at times the random spikes, frills, and ridges that the designers tacked onto some of the dinos can seem a little excessive. An example would be the massive crocodile, the Sarcosuchus, which appears to have teeth on its nose and horns sticking out of its nostrils – who knew nature could evolve to be so metal? All in all, though, these are some of the best looking dinosaurs you’ll see in a videogame to date.

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This is how many dinos and bosses we can expect from ARK on official release (as of April, 2016).

The gameplay of ARK is primarily that of an open-world survival game; a genre that has sprung up in popularity since recent years. The game also has some FPS elements with the firearms and bows that you can craft along with a few RPG aspects by eventually leveling up, after gaining a certain amount of XP, and can then choosing which stats of yours to enhance. While there are certainly many other games on the market that more or less follow this same formula, ARK manages to stand out with its emphasis on taming wild dinosaurs so that you can utilize them for their various abilities and strengths. Some help you better traverse the island by land, sea, or air; while others are more suited to being war mounts to fight other players or dinos. Tamed dinos can also be used as resource gatherers, beasts of burden, or even provide a unique service or buff that you otherwise would not have access to. Messing around with your tamed dinos is one of the most fun features about ARK and just like Pokémon, you’ll want to catch them all.

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Unfortunately, the actual taming process itself leaves something to be desired. The usual method to taming dinos in ARK is to sedate a dino of your choosing, usually with tranquilizer arrows or darts, and to then start feeding it whatever kind of food that it likes. After you’ve done that part you have to wait for the dino to eat the food and protect it from any occasional scavengers until its taming bar becomes completely full. This process is very tedious and just plain boring, as it can take hours just to tame one dino. You can make a certain kind of kibble that the dino likes to eat and increase the taming speed on your server by up to 3 times the normal rate, thus making the taming process less time-consuming, but it’s still not a very fun mechanic. Aside from that, the game also offers end-game goals by hiding artifacts within caves spread throughout the island for you to find. You can bring all 8 of the artifacts to these massive obelisks that tower over the island to summon an epic boss monster that offers a brutal challenge in the task of defeating it. You could also turn the artifacts into trophies to decorate your house with if you want to be all vain and stuff.

In terms of ARK’s audio design, there isn’t all that much to say. There’s very little music in the game. In fact, I only recall hearing three sound tracks over the entire course of the 80 plus hours that I put into the game. The little music there is; however, is decent and is fitting for the situations in which you hear it. The roars, grunt, and other noises that the dinosaurs make is pretty standard fair. Their sounds don’t really stand out that much and they generally sound more like currently living creatures, but they get the job done.

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With all of these main bases covered, I think it is best for me to give a recollection of my grand adventures whilst playing ARK. This way you’ll get a much better idea of what you’ll be getting into when playing this game.

The game begins with you creating the character that you’ll be playing as. The customization options are fairly limited as you only have one hair style and one type of facial hair, but you are able to create a fairly convincing eldritch abomination by adjusting your physical proportions to an extreme degree. You are then given the choice of where you want to spawn on the island that the game takes place on (known as the ARK). The northern and western parts of the island are especially hazardous as you can end up spawning in either a swamp or the tundra, both of which are two of the most dangerous biomes in the game, that I’ll go into more depth about later.

As I finally awake on the island, I find myself on a beach with nothing but my undies and the will to survive. I start out by collecting rocks, punching trees, and brutalizing the island’s native population of dodos and trilobites. It is not long until I encounter one of the very common occurrences in ARK, death. Indeed, you will be dying a lot in ARK due to its very punishing design as there’s little regulation as to what type of and how many dinos you can encounter as soon as you start playing. You can get unlucky and immediately run into a Spinosaurus or Carnotaurus that will just flat out wreck your face with little to no consideration for your personal well-being. Even a small pack of high level Dilophosaurs, which is what first killed me, can potentially take you down if you’re not prepared.

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The Gigantosaurus stands tall as one of the most fearsome dinosaurs in the game.

After reviving, I attempt to cross a river in search of an area with less dangerous dinos around; only to then be ravaged by at least a dozen Mega Piranhas. These menaces seem to be in every freshwater area when you least want them to be and do a lot of damage despite they’re relatively small size. Well, maybe I’ll just take a dip into the ocean to find some fish to eat; except screw that because there are 18-foot long sharks just kind of chilling out along the ends of the shore. Even when you eventually are able to venture out deeper into the depths by aid of an aquatic dino, there’s not much out there other than dozens of Megalodons. It’s only when you get much further out and closer to the floor of the ocean that you’ll start to see some of the grander and more dangerous sea creatures that the game has to offer. While they are certainly improving the variety of dinos that you encounter in the sea, it still feels empty and you have little incentive to go deep into the ocean. The only resources that can be found in the ocean are silica pearls and the newly added black pearls that can only be obtained by killing the also newly added Eurypterid. I’m fairly certain that they’ll add more to do and collect in the ocean and it should become more rewarding for the player.

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The waters in ARK are home to some pretty nasty creatures, like this grinning Plesiosaurus.

So now fast forward a bit into my survival, and now I’ve got a small wooden shack in a field with a decent amount of resources and a few tamed dodos that I collect eggs from (free-range of course). I didn’t mention the building aspect of ARK before and that’s because it’s really not that exciting to do in the game. You’re given relatively few options in terms of architecture so your bases will almost always look just the same as everyone else’s and the game expects you to acquire so many resources to build anything of decent size. Plus, there’s no rotate button, which would seem like a mandatory feature in a game like this. This is especially troublesome when trying to build walls in the game.

Anyways, I finally set out to tame my first big dino which was a Triceratops that was stuck in a tree. Everything gets stuck in trees in ARK, aside from the biggest dinos in the game. This is due to the game’s wonky collision detection that could seriously use some work. Though this does give the player the opportunity to easily obtain a large amount of meat and hide by wailing on the imprisoned dino; that is if it doesn’t suddenly catapult itself across the map upon death – apparently ARK is set on a terraformed moon in the future because that’s the only way the game’s physics could ever make sense. They’re really just terrible at the moment and I severely hope that they improve upon this flaw in the future. Moving on, now that I’ve acquired my Triceratops I can gather more resources and defend myself so that I can further progress in the game.

I decide to tackle my next challenge in taming the Carnotaurus. At least that was my plan until I made the grave mistake of ever setting one foot into the swamp. Why was this such a fatal error on my part? That would be due to the insidious design of the game’s Titanoboas, a hell spawn of a creature straight out of the Codex Gigas. The way this dino attacks you is by biting you and injecting your body with venom, knocking you out if the Titanobao manages to hit you enough times. The problem with this is that it takes so few bites for the Titanoboa to knock you out, and their will often be several of them silently ambushing you at a time. Once you are knocked out, your completely helpless and have no other option but to just watch as you are slowly devoured. Even if you have a friend along that manages to eliminate all of them, you still have to wait a few minutes before your character can even get back up. This concept of enemy design is frustrating and feels a little overly punishing.

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I am finally able to tame the Carnotaurus after a while and feel pretty accomplished in my new feat. I’m now safe enough to really roam around the entire island and see all of its sights and wonders without getting my face eaten and feeling extremely demoralized. It really is a wonder when you’re able to survey a huge open plain and see tons of different dinos moving about and interacting with one another – it really feels like a scene straight out of a movie.

This feeling slowly begins to fade away though, as more Titanoboas emerge from the shadows and swarm me and my dino. Me and my Carnotaurus are gallantly fighting the evil hordes of Titanoboas in their violent uprising that threatens the safety of our world and the chastity of our women. While I manage to kill off the last of them, my Carnotaurus falls unconscious due to all of the venom that it tanked for me. Now you have me thinking that I can just stick around and protect my dino until it wakes up and carry on, but the very fabric of space and time had different plans for us. Suddenly, my dino begins to slide across the world like a stone in a curling match until it manages to escape my sight and is totally lost.

So while my Carnotaurus is off testing Einstein’s theory of relativity, I decide to tame a Sarcosuchus (I know the game gives the dinos shortened versions of their names, but I just want to sound smart). You would think having a giant crocodile would be cool, but it’s actually the equivalent of controlling a speeding torpedo that takes way too much damage for how big and bulky it is. The swimming dinos, in general, move way too unrealistically fast and it makes them hard to handle. At least the aerial and land dinos are actually very fun to move around with and allow you to get to the far places of the island with relative ease.

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The Argentavis makes for one of the better flying mounts in the game.

Despite these unfortunate incidents, I’m still able to progress further in the game. But as I keep playing, I finally start to notice just how much of a daunting task it is to get all of the stuff you need to get to higher levels of tech. It would simply be so time-consuming that I gave up trying to do it on my own and got one of my friends interested in playing with me on a new server. There was originally four people on the server (including me), but two of them got frustrated after dying so many times and stopped playing the game outright. While things are certainly easier with more people, that didn’t stop us from having to face a slew of challenges to survive on the island. From a savage pack of raptors, to an alpha Carnotaurus (essentially boss versions of certain dinos), to an overly clingy Brontosaurus that was permanently stuck inside our base, we not only cursed a lot but also started to grow as people. As we began to become more mentally aware of our surroundings, it wasn’t long until we discovered the true source of evil and anguish on the island – an evil we came to know as the Ichthyosaurus (which I will be referring to as the Ichthy for the remainder of this text).

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The Ichthys in midst of their occult ritual to summon their dark, underwater overlords.

The Ichthy with their blank stares and bright colors may seem innocent enough at first glance. They’ll even to try to impress you with their fanciful hand stands on the shallow shores of the island that sometimes result in them suddenly dying and remaining suspended midair above the water. You must not be fooled though, as when you come into close contact with them you’ll see their true intentions of making sure you don’t have a good time. The Ichthy is supposed to come off as a curious type of dino, which is conveyed in the game as them diving straight into you. Groups of multiple Ichthys will do this at a time to the point where they’ll actually push you down and prevent you from being able to reach the surface to stop yourself from drowning. If you even think of trying to tame the evil that is Ichthy, you will fall even deeper into despair as me and my friend did. You have to follow the Ichthy around and sporadically feed it, which doesn’t sound so bad except for the fact that the Ichthy loves to dart around aimlessly in the ocean for no reason and often ends up heading straight towards something that will immediately eat it.

This is just another example of an underlying issue of this game which is the AI. It’s basic at its best, while being random and annoying at its worst. Dinos will walk off a cliff without a whim, or, in the case of the carnivores of the island, will do nothing but kill anything it sees. For a short period of time the AI won’t seem that bad, but if you observe the dinos for long enough you’ll start to lose the feeling of immersion as the dinosaurs’ habits can seem very unnatural.

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Just your typical day on the island.

While these moments were a deterrent to my friend and I’s enjoyment of the game, there were still three times as many great moments. The main point I wanted to get across is that if you want to enjoy ARK, you’re going to need a lot of patience beforehand and be forgiving of the game’s current faults. The game can offer you hours of enjoyment as there is already a lot of content in the game. The game is very grindy as it currently is, so it’s very possible that you might just get tired of it and stop playing before even reaching the end-point of the game. While my friend and I may end up revisiting the game at a later point, I feel burnt out on the game after all of the time I had spent playing it.

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When all is said and done, ARK can be a very enjoyable title for those who love open-world survival games and have an appreciation for great looking dinosaurs. Those who get easily frustrated and hate grinding will most likely not find themselves charmed by this game. If you have a PC that is sufficient enough to play this game on high settings, then it’s almost worth playing just to see how beautiful it is. Even as it currently is with it’s obvious flaws, I still enjoyed the many hours that I played it. I gave the score a little bit of a higher rating than I was going to at first, because if the developers continue improving the game then it could easily become a truly great game.

 

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