On my third night in Ark: Survival Evolved [official site], when the sun had finally set and I was left alone in the seething blackness of the jungle, I saw a glimpse of my possible future. I was chopping trees in the dark, too scared to even light a fire for fear of what the warmth might draw toward me, but as another tree toppled with a groan I spied lights in the valley below. I crept closer. Silhouetted in flickering torchlight towered a tyrannosaurus rex, around which a group of hunters darted back and forth, attacking with spears and arrows. Eventually, they hunters prevailed, and, as they set upon the fallen dinosaur with tools to harvest its meat and hides, I faded back into the jungle and began chopping with renewed purpose.
Ark: Survival Evolved is an early access survival game full of these moments - the kind that fill you with trepidation and excitement in equal measure. But for every moment that adds to the enchantment of surviving on an island teeming with prehistoric life, there are just as many capable of frustrating you. Building on a firm foundation well tread by online survival games, Ark certainly has potential, much of it unrealized, but I can't help but wonder if the claim of Survival Evolved is just too hyperbolic of a statement to make.
When I spawned on a beach, squinting up at the tropical sun, I felt almost disappointed with how by-the-books Ark initially seemed. If you've played Rust or DayZ, you'll be intimately familiar with the song and dance that Ark would have you perform. Naked, without so much as two sticks to rub together, I was thrust onto a hostile island. Unlike many of the barren wastelands that form the survival genre though, Ark's setting was infused with a sense of alien mystery that quickly washed away how unimpressed I felt.
Even though I felt strongly familiar with what was expected of me, like maintaining my levels of hunger, dehydration, and temperature, Ark quickly surprised me. As I completed my crucial "press every key to see what it does" routine, I couldn't decide if I was more alarmed or amused when a line of text informed me that I had defecated. When I turned around to see the little dollop laying on the beach, I was even more surprised that I could pick it up. But by the time I swallowed it whole and was promptly overcome by a sudden, crippling illness, I only felt bemused; of course I can eat my own poo.
While there are many aspects to Ark that are worthy, like the freedom to consume your own waste, few of them elicit the wonder inspired by the dinosaurs roaming the vast expanse of the island. These beasts are everywhere, and my first hours in the game were spent largely learning where I fit in this strange environment. While other players always posed an ever-present threat, it was within the jaws of a dinosaur that I often met my demise.
Over 30 species exist on the island, and the number seems to grow with each passing week. Ranging from hapless dodos (a willing supplier of meat at an early stage) to the threatening predators that hunt and savagely kill anyone without a keen sense of their surroundings. I truly felt like a small cog in a much larger machine.
Originally, the dinosaurs instilled a sense of awe as I watched them lumber around, but it wasn't long until the spell was broken by the half-baked behaviors that guided them. I know dinosaurs were dumb, but this is something else. In just a short time, any threat they posed was quickly disarmed by the one dimensional artificial intelligence. I came to view them not as deadly creatures to be treated with care but rather as resources in the environment to be controlled and exploited; an image reinforced by the bizarre and clumsy way in which they moved and engaged with one another.
Of all the interactions you can have with dinosaurs, taming is easily the most important. With careful use of sedatives (or the less surgical application of blunt force trauma) every creature can be rendered unconscious and eventually tamed. Doing so requires an overly steep investment of time and some understanding of what the creature prefers to eat. By keeping the beast sedated and fed, a meter gradually fills until the monster awakens ready to dutifully serve. Some monsters can be tamed within 15 minutes, but others require upwards of a handful of hours. Most of the large creatures can also be fitted with a saddle and used as transportation, a prospect that had me drooling with anticipation as I mothered my first unconscious turtle who, after successful taming, I promptly named Ori and to whom I became too emotionally attached.
Like many survival games, Ark prides itself on teaching through repetition and trial and error. In the savage wilds of the island, my demise often greeted me suddenly. But each time I respawned naked on a beach, the process to recovering from my death became more and more precise.
Where Ark begins to veer into uncharted territory is with the implementation of stat-based character progression. Earning experience by crafting, killing, and even walking eventually netted me a level, which allowed me to increase a stat like health or stamina, and afforded me a few points to spend unlocking crafting recipes. Called engrams, these recipes can be used alongside the required resources to create everything from armor, weapons, and structures that I could place in the environment. But while this interesting blend of RPG inspiration created a sense of progression even in the face of death, it did little to dampen the severe sting.
The prospect of tangible loss is a valuable component to creating meaningful encounters with other players. While some servers cater to the non-aggressive crowd, player versus player combat was the catalyst for so many of the rich moments I'd experienced. Not every encounter had to end in blood, but one of the biggest issues I discovered was how severely the scales were tipped in favor of the aggressor.
Crafting and building is a core component of Ark, but feasibly creating the highest tier of recipes requires a monumental group effort. Even furnishing my humble wood cabin took me the better part of an hour when I accounted for the trips to the beach to replenish my stocks of water and meat. But creating a proper fortress requires a staggering number of resources that can only feasibly be gathered by a group.
Ark features a built-in tribe system, which grants access to a rudimentary suite of tools for managing allies and sharing various benefits like spawn points and control of tamed dinosaurs. Playing as a team is a crucial aspect of Ark - not just to survive but to experience the deeper aspects of base building and crafting. But the way I felt strong-armed into cooperating with others - by disproportionately increasing the requirements for gathering higher quality materials - felt constrictive and demoralizing rather than inviting. It also paved the way for one of my greatest issues: the effort to build something up far surpasses what is required for someone else to tear it down.
When I woke up one morning, eager to log in and feed Ori, I was confused to find that I wasn't within the cozy confines of my secret base but rather naked on a beach. After hurriedly checking the forums to see if there had been a server wipe, I discovered the true cause for my death. When you log off in Ark, your character doesn't magically vanish without a trace. Like Rust, your unconscious body is left behind, totally vulnerable to anyone with an appetite for the catatonic.
In theory I like this concept because it loans a sense of permanence and responsibility to the world I inhabit. I'm no longer free to quit the game whenever it might please me, so I have to alter my behaviour. The problem stems from the fact that, for a fraction of the effort, anyone can break into my fort and, without much consequence or effort, destroy everything I worked so hard to achieve. When the hour I spent building my first hut was robbed from me, I shrugged it off; no use crying over spilled milk, I thought. But when that glass of milk took five hours to obtain and also had an adorable turtle named Ori guarding it who also took an hour to tame and whose blood was also spilled, it deflated any motivation I had to continue playing. I can only imagine what it would be like having that feeling shared between the members of a tribe after hundreds of man hours were washed away by the whim of a few malicious players. The simple truth is this: player versus player combat is a rewarding experience, but waking up to find everything you owned destroyed without a proper chance to defend it is crippling.
That isn't the only elephant on the island, either. While no one is expecting an Early Access title to fire on all cylinders right out of the gate, Ark barely manages to hobble along. Playing at the visual quality represented in its screenshots requires a beastly computer - and not because of how incredible the game looks. Don't get me wrong, on the highest settings Ark is good looking, but anything less than an top-tier machine will likely need to make serious sacrifices to achieve anything near acceptable performance. Furthermore, the game scales down horribly, forcing the compromise between fidelity and performance to be made all the more painful.
Although these issues likely stand to be corrected, Ark can be so debilitating in its current state of optimization that you should be mindful of it before diving in. Of course, the game is also host to all manner of smaller issues, many of them annoying, but I have to say I'm impressed for how playable it actually is. Though only in alpha, there is so much to see and do on the island that I already feel like my investment has been returned.
Ark: Survival Evolved possesses many of the building blocks for a robust and rewarding survival game. That initial sense of wonder, fleeting as it was, gave me the notion that, as all of its various parts begin to fall into place, Ark may be the kind of game that inspires dedication. But without some major adjustments and careful consideration for how it juggles those pieces, I cannot help but worry it will be just one more game all too willing to carelessly spoil those precious hours.