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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.