My day started off like everybody else’s; cold, naked and hungry, with nothing more than my hands for tools. I foraged through bushes for berries, and dipped into a nearby river to hydrate myself. I punched trees, bloodying my knuckles, but I’m rewarded with the sweet sight of wood and thatch. I picked up stones and crafted a pickaxe, a spear, and later, a slingshot. I came across other fellow survivors and we stuck together, forming our own tribe. Together, we built our very own house made of simple thatch and plant fibres. We hunted dodo birds and giant turtles that roamed nearby, cooking their meat in the fireplace, and as we ventured further inland away from the beach, we encountered huge herbivorous dinosaurs. We needed to explore the island to try and figure out where exactly we were, depressed by the blank canvas that was our map. So we followed a huge, towering pillar in an attempt to gather our bearings and work out which way was north. As we approached the impressive spectacle preparing to celebrate our achievement, the ground began to shake, and a roar deafened our ears. A hulking Tyrannosaur charged from out of the undergrowth and took a deadly bite out of my companion. The other raised her spear in defiance but to little effect; she is dead before she even realises it. I fled the scene as fast as I could but my hunger and stamina hold me back, and as I turn around, I see the mighty beast’s eyes gaze at me, lusting over my flesh before it ripped me into pieces. I re-spawn on the complete opposite side of the island, cold, naked and hungry, with nothing more than my hands for tools. Welcome to ARK: Survival Evolved.
Before I carry on, it’s worth noting that the game is only available via Early Access on Steam, so it’s not actually finished yet. Bear this in mind before parting with your money and expecting a fully-fledged and polished experience. Developers Wildcard Studios have stated it will be in a state of Early Access for about a year, with a full release planned for June 2016 to coincide with console releases. So the main question you might want to ask is – is it money well spent? Well, the short answer is yes.
ARK: Survival Evolved is a survival adventure game reminiscent of something like Rust, with the same gathering/crafting concepts but with the added bonus of being set in a gorgeous island paradise teeming with all manner of prehistoric life, ranging from dodos and sabertooths, to raptors and stegosauruses. You need to harvest resources, explore your surroundings, grow crops and research technologies in order to survive, and there is a seemingly huge array of things to craft; from simple spears and axes, to compasses and guns, to materials required to build your own shelter to withstand the elements and the various predators ready to make you their next meal. Depending on whether you choose to play in a PVE or PVP server, there is also the added element of other players to deal with. Who can you trust? Who is out to stab you in the back and steal all of your belongings? It’s a fantastic concept for a video game, and one that the PC community has seemingly taken a shine to, with over 1 million sales since its Early Access release last month. That’s something that took Rust twice the time to achieve. It’s also become something of a Twitch phenomenon, becoming one of the most popular games for streamers to watch in the last few weeks.
I’ve spent over thirty hours this past weekend getting to know the game, and as it turns out, there is quite a lot to like about ARK on top of its ambitious open-world sandbox experience. Right off the bat, it’s one pretty beast, an impressive feat for a game not even properly optimised yet. The lush and detailed environments are what stand out the most; up close, simple geometries and textures aren’t quite as great, but this is certainly a ‘big picture’ game. Dinosaur models are equally impressive, as are the fantastic lighting and water effects. ARK features one of the best day and night cycles I’ve seen in a game, and the weather effects are also top notch. For a game in Early Access, developers Studio Wildcard have created a gorgeous, vast, and mysterious world for players to explore.
ARK is also refreshingly challenging. You aren’t really given any idea what to do or where to go. In my first few hours, I spent more time exploring the island, being chased by wildlife, and getting myself killed before I realised I could punch trees to gather wood or gather rocks from the floor to craft a pick axe. You soon begin to realise there is a deep and complex crafting system to learn, that aids in weapon creation and base building. You’re very much left to do what you would do if you were abandoned on a dangerous, tropical island in real life: depend on your human instincts to survive.
As I mentioned earlier, you can choose between a multitude of different servers all with different rules to suit the kind of experience you want to play, such as PVE vs PVP, whether buildings decay over time, or whether you can see your location on the map. I experimented with a few, but for the authentic survival experience, hardcore PVP is where it’s at. It’s here where ARK really stands out. In some servers, you will experience all-out tribe wars where players band together and do battle over land and resources. In others, players have created Lord of the Flies-type societies, with new players having to prove themselves in order to join. Successfully hunting down a mammoth with your tribe is as heart-pounding as being ambushed by other players whilst scouting for new lands. It’s at this point you begin to realise the ambition, scope, and sheer potential for multiplayer – co-operative play is what makes ARK a fantastic experience. And did I mention you can tame dinosaurs? You ain’t seen anything ‘till you’ve experienced the thrill of rounding up enemy tribe members aboard your very own pet Spinosaurus.
Of course, the downside to this is that it can be very frustrating when you are on the opposite end. Being constantly killed by other players, robbed of your possessions, as well as logging in and finding that the house you spent hours building has been destroyed can be genuinely heart-breaking. There are some bullies out there who make life impossible for new players, but I also met some great people who were happy to share their homes with me and give me food and shelter. But this is why it’s important to find a server with rules that meet your needs. It’s just as much fun joining a PVE server and spending your time never worrying about other players or having your homes destroyed ,so it’s great that ARK has that flexibility. Should you wish, you even have the option to play solo or host your own server and just play with friends.
All this being said, remember, this is still a game in its Alpha stage. Optimisation is not great, so even with a powerful rig, frame rate can be inconsistent. I tested the game on two machines, one being a high end i5 4960k rig with 16gb of RAM and two 280x’s in crossfire; the other an older Alienware laptop with a third generation i7 and a mobile 765m chip. Neither could max the game at 1920×1080 anywhere near 60fps, hovering closer to 20-30, but ARK comes with a range of graphical settings to tinker with that thankfully can make the game run at more playable frame rates. However, it’s worth noting that even on low and medium settings, the game still looks great.
The biggest issue with ARK is the general lack of polish. Enemy AI is definitely a work in progress at the moment, and that’s putting it mildly. Dinosaurs will hover on certain terrain and path-finding certainly needs improving. There are some pretty annoying bugs too, such as when you kill something, only to see its body randomly float away. Dropping items (which is how you share items in the game) usually results in the dropped item jerking around uncontrollably on the floor, making it near impossible for another player to pick it up. Several times during my thirty hours of play, the game randomly crashed, and during one instance, it would crash whenever I tried to place down walls or ceilings. Combat is also extremely clunky due to the lack of any fluid model animations. Attacking a dinosaur will result in the animal jerking around the screen as if had some sort of Flash-like super powers, only for it to randomly die twenty yards in any given direction. The character creation screen is pretty terrible, and inventory management, a crucial part of any survival game, is also a bit clumsy. But at the end of the day, these are issues we expect. Understandably for some, this can make the cost of entry difficult to swallow, but the developers clearly state on the Steam store page to expect this. The good news is that ARK is getting consistent updates, with many planned features and content additions being made all the time, most of which are being suggested or iterated by the player community – the very point of Early Access.
Ultimately, ARK is one to look out for the future. If you’ve played Early Access games before and you can look past its issues, ARK: Survival Evolved provides a genuinely brilliant concept, a huge expansive world to explore, and unlimited amounts of multi-player experiences. It’s riddled with bugs, but it’s extremely fun, and without a doubt heading in the right direction. Its price tag is a little steep for an Early Access game, but with one million copies already sold and having become a Twitch sensation overnight, it’s very easy to see why so many players have already succumbed to the beauty and mysteries of the island of ARK. It provides one of the most interesting and unique gaming experiences you can find on the PC right now, and for that reason, you should definitely at least consider seeing why so many others are spending their time here.