Wot I Think – Ark: Survival Evolved

ARk 5

I had it all planned out. I’d reach level 21 and unlock tranquiliser arrows, which I could then shoot at a triceratops to knock it out long enough to tame it. Then I’d craft a saddle for my newly-owned Trike (as it’s known in the game) and stomp around collecting more berries than I could feasibly eat in a lifetime. I’d use those berries – including Narcoberries, which help keep dinosaurs asleep while you tame them – to breed a small army of raptors, more Trikes and a flying Pteranodon to transport me around this tropical island. It was one arbitrary goal among an infinite sea of possible arbitrary goals in Ark: Survival Evolved [official site], a sandbox craft-and-survive multiplayer game set in a world where dinosaurs can be mounted with cannons. The game left early access two weeks ago, and here’s wot I think.

After selecting this goal based on a YouTube video I saw and thought looked fun, I set off, crafting crude tools, bashing rocks for flint, and hacking down trees for wood, all the while building up a (very) modest thatch base that had a good view of sunrise over the beach. I wouldn’t say I was enjoying my first five hours of resource gathering, but I was at least making progress. However, around level 16 Ark turned on me. While whacking a dodo with a spear for some hide – which I needed to craft a raft, an action that gives you buckets of XP – Ark’s hit detection went awry, as it has the tendency to do. One of my spear thrusts somehow caught a Therizinosaur, a huge scary creature with giant claws that was wandering behind me. I didn’t notice until a swipe nearly knocked me off my feet.

I ran away, back to my crude thatch and wood hut, cowering inside. I couldn’t hear the dinosaur, and assumed it had left me alone until it roared and tore through my walls, destroying me and the wooden crates that were holding hours’ worth of material. There was probably enough hide, wood and fibre in those boxes to craft three or four rafts, each one giving me a full level’s worth of XP. As I awoke lonely and naked on the beach, the prospect of gathering them all over again was less appetising than the faeces the dodo waddling past me had just kindly produced.

ARK 1

In ARK’s always-online open world you can do virtually anything, provided you’re willing to grind. Its islands are vast places with sandy beaches, snow-capped mountains and tropical rainforests. You can build forts atop waterfalls, farm crops, craft weapons, dive into caves to collect artefacts, raid other players’ bases in PvP or simply battle the environments in a single player mode. It has a huge spectrum of technology, from simple wood hatchets to assault rifles. And – its main selling point – it has dinosaurs to tame and breed, each of which has a unique set of skills to help you on your free-form quest.

But to start, you awake cold and naked on a beach with no indication of what to do. So, you start levelling. You gather wood and thatch, first with your hands, then with tools. Soon you’ll have a bow and arrow, clothes made from dinosaur hide to keep you warm and wooden walls around your first modest base. At every level-up you’re handed Engram Points, which you spend on Engrams (basically crafting recipes). Every item requires an Engram to craft and you only get enough points to unlock one or two at every level, which forces you to choose between items. At level 32, for example, you might only have enough points to unlock either a toilet that turns your poop into fertiliser and gives you an XP boost or a lance for when you’re riding a dinosaur.

It’s a solid system that gives you a steady stream of new items. You always have a goal to work towards: even if you haven’t decided yet what your place in ARK will be, you’ve always got a shiny new crafting recipe sitting in your inventory. Each requires a variety of resources to craft that you can find throughout the world. Most can be made on the fly but some require different crafting stations, ranging from a mortar and pestle to an industrial forge. So, the idea is you pick a new Engram, note the resources it requires, and go and collect them to craft the item. Voila: a purpose.

However, other bits of the game get in the way, especially early on. Your character has hunger, thirst and stamina bars, and you can also overheat or freeze. Far from making the game feel more realistic, it’s a constant, tedious distraction from whatever task you’ve given yourself to achieve.

ARK

On one PvP server (where you and up to 100 others try and survive against the elements and each other) I got into a tense shoot-out with another player in the forest. Neither of us had a dinosaur so it was bow vs bow, and we were simultaneously trying to fend off a pair of raptors. Halfway through I became dehydrated. I hadn’t packed a water skin, so instead of dying honourably with an arrow through my skull I was defeated by a dry throat.

That’s one of ARK’s major problems: every time it threatens to draw you in, its systems distract you with busywork.

Take taming dinosaurs, for instance, which sits at the heart of ARK. Not only is riding on the back of a Brontosaurus a cool idea, it’s actually very useful as well. Each animal will be able to help in its own unique way. Mammoths will bash down trees to give you huge stocks of wood. A flying Argentavis is great for transport but can also pluck other players off their dinosaurs’ backs. The Trike is good for collecting berries and also strong against groups of smaller dinosaurs because of its large cone of attack. And all of them can together defend your base while you’re offline.

Some dinosaurs can be tamed passively: you approach them from behind and feed them their favourite food (each animal is different) to start the process, then return over time to top them up until they’re yours. But the most common method starts by knocking them unconscious. Then you put food into their inventory, which they’ll eat when they get hungry. Every time that happens the ‘taming bar’ ticks up.

ARK dino

They also have an ‘Unconscious’ bar that depletes over time, and when it runs out the animal wakes up and you have to start all over again. To prevent that you force feed them narcoberries or narcotics, which requires you to manually access the animal’s inventory and click on the item. If it sounds like a bit of a faff then, well, it is. Taming animals can take real-time hours, during which you have to constantly return to the dozing dino and make sure everything is alright. A mid-level flying Pteranodon, which is common, isn’t too bad, and will take around an hour. But a giant Brontosaurus could take upwards of six hours.

It’s also incredibly resource intensive. Before the taming time you have to spend hours stocking up on the right foods to feed the dinosaurs. And that’s not to mention the saddle you need to craft to ride each one, which can take stacks and stacks of dinosaur hide to craft. It’s overwhelming and – again – tedious. I understand that you should have to put in work to tame a dino, but surely there must be a better system than spending half a day watching two progress bars move up and down.

And, worst of all, from an enjoyment point of view I don’t think the rewards are worth the hassle. Having a team of dinosaurs is great for progressing because dinosaurs make you more efficient, but actually using them isn’t as wondrous as you’d imagine. I like the idea of flying to the top of a mountain on the back of a winged beast (who doesn’t?), but doing it for the first time felt underwhelming. The dinosaur could be an airborne car, really: use WASD to steer, press shift to go faster and space to bring it to a halt.

ARK

This lack of wonder isn’t helped by the lack of polish in nearly every area of ARK, with glitches galore. Dinosaurs clip through structures, hit detection is inconsistent, and objects you place in the world overlap awkwardly. In other words, the hangover from its lengthy Early Access remains.

And – it can’t be said enough – its opening hours are a real struggle. Its tutorial is paper-thin and you’re forced to leaf through its weighty wiki (or ask other players) to even get the vaguest idea of what on earth is going on. You’ll be alone and defenceless and, as I found out, hours of resource collecting can be wiped out because you simply haven’t unlocked the right Engrams to keep your loot safe.

Yet although it never feels as good as advertised, Ark might just have more freedom than any other sandbox I’ve tried. I started on a PvE server (something I’d advise) and spent the first 10 hours getting to grips with the game, building up a wooden base, and generally pottering about. Other players were helpful, with one taking me under his wing for a time to teach me the basics of taming. I eventually had my own flying dinosaur that I could mount to soar deeper into the island.

Ark 4

Then I moved onto a PvP server – a completely different experience in which any sight of another human could be my last. I died countless times to higher level players before finally finding a foothold in a secluded spot for a small but efficient base, occasionally striking out to raid another player, or sit in the shadows waiting for an unsuspecting victim to walk by so I could shoot them with my bow and arrow and steal their stuff. It was slower work, but each time I killed I felt a rush.

Then, when I was bored, I tried the single player, waking up alone on the sand. There is a campaign of sorts in which you defeat bosses, dive into caves and find out more lore about the setting. I found it uninteresting because the caves are dark and filled with repetitive combat, and because it still punishes deaths severely enough to make progress a chore. Instead, I opened up the console and spawned all the high level items that I couldn’t possibly have the time to get online, like a jetpack that could easily replace any flying dinosaur.

There are undoubtedly rewards for those willing to stick it out. Play on the same server enough and you’ll notice the same players pop up. If you make friends you can join a tribe – a group of players that can work towards the same goals (and share XP along the way). Tribes team up to raid other groups and your new friends can help you tame dinosaurs more efficiently, taking turns in the feeding process and protecting the sleeping giants from attack.

And once you’ve played enough to build up crates of resources then you can also take advantage of ARK’s impressive building tools. It’s all based on laying down foundations and then snapping other objects to them. You can create some really complex structures with sloping walls, staircases, gates, pillars and catwalks, and when tribes pool building materials and expertise they can create some really monstrous forts. I’ve barely scratched its surface, and every time I pass another house on a PvE server I get a new idea.

ARK 2

So, ARK definitely has its merits, and its sheer scale is impressive. There’s far too much to even try and touch on here: you could write reams about breeding, for example, which requires you to pen two animals of the opposite sex, care for a fertilised egg and then protect the baby dino when it hatches.

But should you buy it? I think people that like tinkering with systems, and min-maxing their games, might get a kick out of it. There’s a certain intricacy in knowing exactly what dinosaur to tame for your next project, having exactly the right food on you to feed it and the right number of narcoberries to keep it asleep. There’s an almost puzzle-like aspect to levelling up early on, gathering materials you need to craft the items that give you the most XP (churning out wooden boxes is the way to go).

If you’re immediately drawn to the setting then you might enjoy it too: if you’ve ever wanted to ride on the back of dinosaurs or build your own stegosaurus army, then ARK lets you do that in a massive world that is, at times, very pretty. Also, if you’ve liked sandbox games in the past and you’re looking for another to sink hundreds of hours into, then ARK has enough stuff in it for you to consider a purchase.

But for everyone else, I can’t recommend it, because ARK simply demands too much of your time for too little reward. Its first ten hours are particularly unpleasant, but even after that getting things done is a grind that requires copious amounts of resource gathering. Its best played in a Tribe, but that in itself requires a time commitment, as well as finding a group that are willing to take you in (nobody I asked on the numerous servers I visited said they were recruiting newcomers).

While ARK can be a lot of fun – grabbing another player off of a raptor with an Argentavis feels bloody brilliant – it’s rarely worth the hours of tedium. If you can spare the 100 or so hours it takes to get your teeth into it then I’d recommend you spend them elsewhere.

Ark: Survival Evolved is out now on Windows, Mac and Linux for £50/$60/€60 via Steam and Humble.

40 Comments

  1. Blackrook says:

    Ark as a single player game or on vanilla settings = boredom grind.
    Ark with friends on your own server where you can adjust xp/harvest rates/taming time and all the settings to your liking (eg cut the grind) can be great fun – even with the bugs.

    Saying that I wouldn’t pay the full price now they upped it.

    • Zanchito says:

      This, quite clearly:

      Playing on default settings is a sure way to hate the game, unless you’re trying to replace an MMO or something like that. There are plenty of servers with decreased grind, that’s what you want to play. Still, I’d recommend waiting a bit for the price to drop.

    • Merus says:

      ‘Boring on your own but fun with friends’ is probably the most damning-with-faint-praise games get. Everything’s fun with friends. You’re with friends.

    • badmothergamer says:

      I disagree. I have 400+ hours in ARK, all single player. And other than the first 50 hours or so all using a trainer in my own sort of “creative mode”. For me I was more interested in creating a Jurassic Park than spending hours gathering resources and taming dinos.

      I haven’t played nearly as much in the last 6 months but I’ll still play for a couple of hours now and then, mainly just to admire my base.

      I will say they shouldn’t have jacked the price up to $60 though. The game definitely lacks the polish of a AAA title.

    • davebo says:

      Speaking of upping things, did they also increase the minimum specs instead of optimizing the engine? I bought two copies to play on a lan a long time back and it ran like garbage, and now I see those same computers don’t even meet the specs for the launch version. So all the developers’ talk of adding all the features first (and releasing paid dlc?) THEN optimizing seems to have been pretty disingenuous.

  2. Flopper says:

    If you like PVP Rust is the better of the genre. I slept on Rust for 2 years. Finally picked it up a few months ago and regret spending any time in Ark.

    If you like dinosaurs that’s about the only reason to play Ark. The graphics, shooting mechanics, sound, lighting. Everything is better in Rust.

    Building is night and day better in Rust.

    The community is about the worst part of Rust. Very toxic and screamy in VOIP. But you can turn off chat and VOIP and play with your friends. No need to talk to people you’re murdering anyway.

    • xvre says:

      Is Rust perma PVP or are there PVE only modes/zones?

      • Meoith says:

        Your on a island full of skin heads with out any form of law and order, its every rat for himself trust me worrying about the environment is the least of your worries.

        Its one of these games you either accept it for what it is and love the brutal challenge it provides or hate it and roll up in a ball and cry for mummy like a little baby.

        carebears incoming in 4…3…2…1

        • Daymare says:

          You didn’t answer the poster’s question.

          … but at least you got your daily dose of #r34lg4m3r Superiority Complex Juice (TM) with your comment. Did you wash it down with some tasty Mt Dew (TM)?

          (edit) “inb4 salty response” durr hurr

        • Sandepande says:

          So manly.

        • Beefenstein says:

          Ah, so it’s one of those times where either you’re amazing like me or ha you are [insert disparaging comment here] because of a false dichotomy? Great, I love those!

      • JarinArenos says:

        *looks up at previous replies*

        *shakes head*
        It’s PVP only.

      • West44 says:

        Not sure if there are still PVE servers (used to be) but it’s not really a PVE game, it’s best played as a raid-heavy PVP building game and it can be very brutal and time consuming, similar to ARK. It’s a lot of fun with a group but you have to know what you’re getting into and be prepared to learn from mistakes and read up on strategies.

  3. int says:

    Seems it should still be in early access. But I suppose the thirst for full release with delicious full AAA price and paid DLC was too great.

  4. Jjgddyuikbvff says:

    I’ve always thought it a shame that the developers best mechanical solution for taming an animal is to drug and trick into submission.

    I think BOTW handles this the best of any game I’ve played with the horse taming, you literally positively reinforce the horse. As in, how you effectively tame real animals.

    I guess there are only so many ways to befriend a T-Rex, but it’d be so much cooler if you actually did. Maybe leave a snack for it, exchange gifts for a couple weeks, like a crow! Then when you’re buds you suggest the idea of a saddle and he’s like yea let’s do it let’s get gifts together!

    • Zanchito says:

      Some dinos actually are tamed like that, and if you try to beat them into submission, they won’t react well. Still, the default method of training that thinks Stockholm syndrome is the same as friendship makes me feel a bit uneasy.

    • badmothergamer says:

      This is basically what we do IRL though. Shoot an animal with a tranquilizer; lock it in a cage and force feed it drugs to remove any aggressiveness; then feed it while captive in hopes it becomes docile.

      • hungrycookpot says:

        Well, you missed the crucial step of breeding that animal in captivity for a couple handfuls of generations to actually make it domesticated and trustworthy.

  5. lancelot says:

    Great tagline. Guess Samuel hasn’t quite managed to tame that grindosaurus.

  6. AutonomyLost says:

    Is it still optimized like a dirty turd? Last time I tried playing, as most have experienced it seems, it was unplayable and I have top hardware. Otherwise, informative review and thanks!

    • Nelyeth says:

      From what I’ve seen, it’s better now, but it’s still not optimized. Last time I played (a month or so ago), I was reaching a stable 50FPS in 1440p (high settings) with a 1080 in the busy areas, and around 70 FPS otherwise. Epic settings, though… No way.

    • badmothergamer says:

      It has definitely improved though not nearly as much as I was hoping for final release. I’d recommend following a graphics setup guide via reddit to optimize things.

      • AutonomyLost says:

        Thanks for the replies. I’ll probably wait to check it out again until a handful of patches get implemented.

  7. teppic says:

    It’s just too painful to start if you’re playing solo. It takes forever to level up and get the basics, and then when some random thing happens to kill you, it’s barely worth bothering to try again.

    I agree fully about the busywork. We don’t die from starvation if we don’t eat for an hour, having to constantly eat and drink all day gets in the way and adds nothing to the game.

    As for the price, it’s twice the cost it should be.

    • Nelyeth says:

      You can adjust every single rate to fit your ideal playstyle. I’ve gone through most of the game in single player in 50 hours (by which I mean I have tamed and saddled all but a few of the dinos), with taming speed x15 (sounds crazy fast, but it still means waiting half an hour for some dinos), harvesting rates x2 and the experience gain ramping up to x3.

  8. Nelyeth says:

    I absolutely agree with everything you said, but blimey, why would you not even mention that you can play with customized rates for everything on unofficial servers or single player ? You can make tames go ten times faster, food drain ten times slower, change the experience gain to adjust the leveling curve as you see fit…

    Ark with vanilla settings is a slow, painful and punishing slog, in which the grinding spoils the fun parts. Ark with your settings is great.

    I’d understand you not mentioning it if I was talking about mods, but this is part of the vanilla game, and as such, I feel it should be part of a review. But well, if your review makes a few people not buy the game, it’s still a win, with the terrible way the devs have been handling pricing and EA DLC.

    • AutonomyLost says:

      This is a great point. The ability for custom sliders on many of the systems in the game sounds much more enticing than having to schlep around for hours, hoping you won’t die because the thought of repeating the work again is just too much.

      I wasn’t aware of this option, so thanks.

  9. akaks says:

    i would like to draw your attention to 2 things that were announced in early access and that devs have ignored in the release, they promised procedurally generated arks, and although the system exists its not playable since it does not have caves and bosses, and its too complicated to create a playable random island with ease, and the other thing is they promised a linux version and it worked much better during ea than these last 2 months with graphical glitches absolute disdain from developers about a future repair, no answering to bug tickets or any input from linux community

  10. Danarchist says:

    I still think its a praetor willi syndrome simulator. NO ONE needs to eat every 30 seconds to stay alive, even if punching a tree with bare hands.

    I have played this for a few hours on a private server with a bunch of co-workers and just could not get into it. Even with the grind mechanics modified to be somewhat bearable the game is about as approachable as a Kardashian. In the…maybe 9?…hours I played I had to basically start from scratch three times. Two of those were due to bug related deaths, one to what must have been a radioactive crocodile. I have seen real crocs, they do not run that fast.

    This one fits in the column of “games I should love, but hate with a passion”

    • Nelyeth says:

      Sadly, evolution did, for real, chose to grant legs (and, of course, sabertooth-like teeth) to crocodiles so that they could run faster : link to dinopedia.wikia.com. While it’s still unknown whether their legs were that long or not, they were exclusively terrestrial predators, and their skull show evidence of them dashing at prey to either ram them with their snout, or straight-up chomp their butt.

      … Am I supposed to talk about the game ?

  11. hungrycookpot says:

    The #1 thing to know about Ark is that people LOVE to shit on Ark. Take it with a grain of salt. The community is one of the whiniest I’ve experienced in all my years of gaming, despite paying peanuts for one of the most expansive and content filled sandbox games ever created. Ark definitely has it’s share of problems, performance and balance-wise. It’s important to remember that for balance; this game is constantly being expanded. There is a years-long steady stream of new items, dinosaurs and maps being released, and with new content comes balance problems. By the time a new balance has been figured out, new content has dropped again and more balancing is required. Just the way it is, if that’s a deal-breaker for you, then consider deal broken. As for performance, you’re on a highly detailed 36 square kilometer map with 100 other players and 100’s of player created structures. There are physical limitations, show me a game with the breadth and scope of Ark that performs significantly better and I’ll shut right up on that one.

    Ark isn’t perfect, but its an incredible game if it’s what you’re looking for. However I can’t recommend playing Solo, it’s interacting with your and other tribes that makes Ark really shine.

  12. MikhailG says:

    EXTREMELY IMPORTANT NOTICE:
    If you want to play this game with friends that live on a different continent (USA and EU for example) you are out of luck officially as servers from other “regions” will never show, even if they are privately hosted and passworded. You need to VPN tunnel yourself to the region of where the server is hosted.
    I spent half an afternoon figuring this out back in one of the free weekends and its the dumbest thing on earth. At the very least the devs could have put a warning about this in the game.

    • Falcon says:

      You don’t have to VPN. I play on a friend’s server in Germany and I live in the USA. You probably have to manually add the server via IP for it to show up but from then on you can join it straight from the favorites list.

      • MikhailG says:

        Either they changed something or your buddy hosts the server on a remote server and not on their own computer, cause I tried adding the IP manually back then.

  13. takfar says:

    I’ve posted this elsewhere before, but will post again:

    I have 640 hours logged in Ark. The first 300 or so were spent online in PvP, back when the game first came out. My suggestion is: don’t do it. It takes too much effort, and your only chance of surviving is being part of an organized tribe and putting in daily hours to improve your position in the server.

    That said, a few months ago I returned to the game to check up on the new additions, and decided to host my own non-dedicated server and play with one or two friends, instead. It’s a much better way to enjoy the game without feeling obliged to “work” on it. Sure, some of the thrill from PvP is lost, but you are also in control of the game, you can set your own multipliers to taming time, experience, etc. You can backup your saves to prevent the loss of progress due to any of the myriad of bugs that are still in the game… It’s a win/win situation.

    Highly recommended game for single-player/cooperative for people who like sandboxes and dinosaurs.

  14. Spacewalk says:

    This is the problem with games these days, it takes too damn long to get anything done.

  15. zat0ichi says:

    “overwhelming and tedious”

    just like real life