ARK: Survival Evolved is a frightfully addictive time sink which will tickle your reptilian brain, says Bee Bonthuys
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, Sammy, and I’m wearing Milk-Bone underpants,” utters a dejected Norm as he walks into the Cheers bar. He’s a symbol of the working man’s struggle to carve out a better life for himself, a decent person just trying to survive, and I sympathise with him. But as noble as his struggle is, in all fairness, Norm’s never had to dodge a pissed-off spinosaurus while butt naked and frantically trying to cobble together a spear, as he occasionally soils himself.
This lovely scene is brought to you by Studio Wildcard, new kids on the block who set the gaming world atwitter when they launched ARK: Survival Evolved on Steam Early Access in 2015. Here was something different from the stale zombie fare that had become the sagging backbone of so many fly-by-night survival offerings, instead aiming to be the Jurassic Park-inspired open world experience gamers had been pining for since 1993. Finally it was possible to ride your very own T-rex while humming that John Williams score horribly off key.
ARK’s lengthy and eventful period in Early Access has tarnished that mystique to a degree. There was a lawsuit that nearly saw it pulled from Steam; an uproar over Studio Wildcard’s decision to release its Scorched Earth DLC before launch; collective internet groaning over a lack of optimisation; and a steep price hike towards its official release date. Even after launch, there are still disgruntled mutterings over server wipes, lack of support for legacy worlds and the low number of EU PvE servers.
However, this drama shouldn’t distract from what at its core is a frightfully addictive time sink which will tickle the reptilian brain of anyone who adored the aforementioned Jurassic Park, Walking with Dinosaurs and the like.
Aside from the usual survival game trappings, ARK is essentially a nerve-wrecking endeavour where players dream up elaborate yet doomed schemes in order to stop a raging dino just long enough to knock it out, then tame it by shoving large amounts of precious narcotics and food down its gob. Best to think of it as a super complex version of Pokemon, just with a lot more screaming and mangled flesh.
This taming and later breeding requires a metric ton of patience as certain species can take several hours to come round. ARK is not for gamers who prefer quick hit-and-run sessions. There’s a lot of exploring and resource collection involved. What’s more, unconscious creatures being tamed are pretty vulnerable to becoming someone else’s happy meal, so they require a good deal of babysitting.
Those who choose to invest the hours will be handsomely rewarded. ARk’s large selection of dinos and assorted ancient mammalia have specific skills aimed at making the harsh sci-fi-inspired landscape a bit more manageable. You’re just a weak human, but with a posse of feathered raptors and stegosauruses at your side, you’ll be a killing and berry-picking machine.
It’s unfortunate that this inventive gameplay is supported by a crafting path that, while extensive — moving from primitive stone materials to super high-tech gadgetry — is still mostly linear. The intuitiveness of the construction system is somewhat lacking, too, turning building on uneven ground (something you may find you have to do a lot) into an infuriatingly awkward chore.
Also, if you’re looking for a deep and twisty story, ARK: Survival Evolved is not for you. Notes scattered around the world fail to fill out the flimsy plot in the same way as, say, Dead Space, while the big reveal at the end feels like a rehash of an EC Comics tale that’s not worth fighting your way through a series of increasingly difficult bosses for.
But let’s be honest: no one is here for the plot. ARK provides hours of gameplay challenge by allowing gamers to choose from three main modes — PvP, PvE or single player — and there are also two free and one paid-for DLC maps available. When boredom finally does set in, there are options that deviate from the base game mechanics even further. Want to drastically reduce your lifespan? Try the Extinction mode’s permadeath option, or embrace your inner caveman and play on a primitive-only server.
Your PvP experience is mainly dependant on who you have the misfortune to run into. PvP is a gamble at the best of times; someone could toil for months building an awe-inspiring base and acquiring an enviable prehistoric menagerie, only to find their fortress looted and tames killed while they were logged off. Servers can be ruled over by mega ‘Alpha’ tribes whose attitudes range from benevolent overlords to tyrannical megalomaniacs who eviscerate all comers on sight. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of the PvP experience; it’s survival of the fittest, after all, and ARK’s PvP rewards those who are willing to put countless hours into crafting plans, arranging complex alliances, marching to war when those eventually dissolve, and staying up late for a spot of sneaky raiding.
The best PvP advice is to hunt for a server that’s populated with like-minded individuals and to play with a group of friends. Having someone to watch your back and help tame the bigger creatures should make the inevitable loss of all your worldly possessions easier to deal with.
PvE, ironically, will make you hate your fellow man far worse than PvP. It’s not aimed at hardcore masochists, but it’s no less frightening or cutthroat. Your base and tames might not have anything to fear from your fellow players, but some servers are stuck in a perpetual passive-aggressive war for the most scenic base spots and best resources. ARK also allows players to claim vast stretches of land with very little effort, making it difficult for new players to find a place to start and expand from.
This and other complaints over Studio Wildcard’s perceived lax administration of the official servers has led to an exodus to unofficials, which players feel are better policed. While these unapproved bastions might offer higher default rates and allow a decent selection of mods, you’re also at the mercy of someone who can just take their server ball and go home at any time.
If you want to avoid all those headaches, stick to single player. While it can feel a bit lonely at times, it’s the best option for those with little time to spare and who aren’t willing to put up with a universe of crazy. With an active modding community and the ease at which you can edit ARK’s numerous settings, you can turn your surroundings into a peaceful paradise or a nightmarish hellscape.
Speaking of surroundings: ARK is pretty stunning on the highest graphics settings, though it’s not without its faults. Just as you’re pulled in by the haunting sounds of its overgrown fern forests, deep oceans and caves, you’ll be ripped away when your gigantic brontosaurus couldn’t make its way around a small rock, or your pteranodon has a mini-seizure because it can’t find the perfect a spot to land on. Bugs are expected in open world games, but it can ruin the immersion. Studio Wildcard, to their credit, seem committed to improving the experience, and gamers who left during Early Access because of glitches and optimisation issues should give it another go.
In the end, there aren’t any dogs in ARK: Survival Evolved — only prehistoric terrors with large teeth, and less-than-reputable characters, and neither gives a shit about the common man, Norm. So hold on your Milk-Bone underpants, because you’re in for a hell of a ride.