ARK: Survival Evolved has left early access and has simultaneously been released in its full form on consoles. After previewing the PS4 version earlier, we now gave the PC version a try.
From the moment ARK was first announced (it was in early access for years), the concept seemed absolutely great to me. A prehistoric world in which you struggle for survival and can run into a very diverse range of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures – what wasn’t to like? I generally don’t play much early access though, since my gaming time is limited and there’s already such a great amount of finished games out there to play – not to mention all the titles on my backlog. So until now, I hadn’t gone hands on with ARK – but I was sad to see it still felt like an early access product due to technical and balancing difficulties. More on that later though.
One thing that ARK: Survival Evolved does extremely well is deliver content – the sheer amount of creatures added during the early access phase is staggering, and although some of them are quite identical in nature there are quite a few game-changers in there as well. Once you’re able to tame or even ride these prehistoric beasts, you’re a long ways away from the early steps of the game where you struggle to survive and gather wood and other resources in the hopes of building up a somewhat secure camp – one in which you possibly join forces with other human players as well, if they don’t ransack the place and take you down instead.
When you eventually grow stronger and more powerful, using dinosaurs is very cool – even though some feel quite clunky to control. Laying waste to your enemies while riding a T-Rex never really gets boring though – and how could it? A brontosaurus isn’t a fierce flesh-eating monster like the T-Rex, but it can do serious damage on account of its sheer size and mass. And then there are pterosaurs as well, which can deliver aerial attacks or carry friendly troops over enemy lines for an attack on their less-defended rear.
There are some truly standout moments like that where ARK really shines, but the road to get there felt too long for a player like me. The buildup – if you even get there before being taken down multiple times, is relatively long compared to the impression I got when I saw the trailers for the game as well. Perhaps part of that is that my expectations were off, or they were improperly managed.
If it’s not the action portion that you’re after, but rather the survival section, then ARK has an interesting approach to prehistorical survival. Plants, meat and fresh water sustain you, but you’ll need minerals and wood to start building the structures that eventually form your base. Eventually, you’ll be able to grow crops as well – but you always have to be careful that animals or other players don’t lay waste to your hard work. To help with this, you can form tribes with other players and tame some of the prehistoric animals to protect you or attack pesky neighbors. Because of this dynamic, stealing and looting is also a part of the game – but it can go both ways.
ARK is incredibly ambitious this way, and allows you to grow from very humble beginnings to an all-powerful warlord who commands an army of ferocious dinosaurs and dominates the world map. To me this kind of payoff was the best section of the game, but it was troublesome getting there. Early on you’ll struggle to build up your base and find the right resources, as whatever is not available nearby has to be gathered using a long trek – which in turn depletes your already scarce resources. Heading into the water can see you run into man-eating fish, and instant death can follow when you run into some of the stronger land-based animals. You also lose whatever you’re carrying, since getting back the dropped loot would require defeating that same animal.
The gameplay concept in ARK is still captivating, but the execution feels unpolished at times – almost as if the game should still be in Early Access. Technical issues include problems with textures, especially in the larger and most densely populated game worlds. This happens and these issues usually get patched up, but I’m more worried about the balancing issues that the game seems to have. This applies to the balance between units, but also to the way the early game compares to the later portions of the game.
The feeling I’m left with is that ARK is a great idea and it’s loaded with hundreds of building blocks to realize that idea, but they never quite come together – or at least, not yet. If ARK’s developers focus on bringing everything together then there’s a real gem in the making here, but this end of the early access phase might suggest otherwise. There’s plenty of extra content available and even more coming up – but with the sheer wealth of content that’s already available I’d say that the biggest thing this game needs right now if for that content to come together. If they forge all of the existing content into a consistent and bug-free whole, then I’m be happy to recommend ARK. Until then, be ready for a tough survival grind before you get to the good bits.