Last August I bought ARK: Survival Evolved, the fun new early access dinosaur survival game, and just barely made it to the character creation screen before having to ask Steam for a refund, since it demanded way too much of my old, laggy laptop. This week, with my new iMac and 24 GB of RAM, I bought the game for a second time and tried again.
ARK: Survival Evolved is set on a 48 square kilometer prehistoric island (apparently called “ARK”) full of dinosaurs. Well, I say prehistoric; there are hints that things are not exactly as ancient as you might think. First, when you wake up on the beach, naked and shivering, you find a glowing crystal implanted in your wrist. This is where you access your inventory and crafting menu. Second, there are massive glowing towers in the distance, and every so often beams of light will descend from the heavens, carrying supplies.
You can create your own character, male or female, and the creation screen allows for a lot more extreme body modifications than most games. If you join a public server, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone with normal body proportions. It’s fun, though, and allows for a lot of variety of body size.
As a brand new resident of the island, you’re wearing nothing but a set of prehistoric undies and a “specimen implant.” You can punch trees for wood and thatch, though punching trees damages your health. You can collect stones from the ground and various berries and fiber from bushes. With those ingredients, you can build yourself a pickaxe and a stone hatchet. When you level up, you can increase your basic stats like health, stamina, movement speed, etc, as well as spend your “engram points” to buy engrams, which are recipes for objects to craft. (The actual term ‘engram’ is a method by which experience creates memories; in other words, either you literally learn how to make these objects through experience, or else the recipes are etched into your brain via more futuristic means.)
As your level increases, a larger array of recipes are available to you. Earliest level objects are wooden clubs, waterskins, and clothing; later levels include anything from chairs to metal irrigation pipes to (in the very late game) rocket launchers. You can’t learn the engrams for every object in the game, so you must choose wisely, or better yet, join a tribe and specialize.
Everyone is automatically a member of their own tribe. You can invite others to join yours, or they can invite you to join theirs. Tribes share experience points, helping you level faster. They can also share items like beds or storage chests or even dinosaur mounts.
As you might expect, not all of the creatures on the island are friendly. You spawn on newbie beach, which is populated by benign, easily slaughtered creatures like dodos and trilobites. If you venture into the forest or water, however, you’ll very quickly stumble across more vicious creatures like swarming megapiranhas and acid-spitting dilophosaurs. The further inland you go, the worse they get. However, here is where the game gets really interesting: you can tame most of these creatures and use them as mounts or guard dogs. All it takes is a lot of raw meat, narcotics and patience.
If you fight a creature to unconsciousness, you get access to its inventory. By feeding it its preferred meal of choice, and by keeping it unconscious with the use of easily gathered narcoberries or a more powerful crafted narcotic, you can domesticate it. Once domesticated, it can used to guard you camp or gather berries and fibers, or ridden into war.
The game is styled for battle, whether against dinosaurs or other tribes. Tribes can declare war on other tribes, and even set a time limit for how long the war will last. Weapons range from wooden spears to assault rifles. Even if you’re not fighting against other people, there are boss battles to fight: the giant tower in the middle of the island is a place where you can summon the broodmother, a giant end-game boss that will take everything you have to kill. There are other bosses, though right now they’re only available in special events, such as the Survival of the Fittest challenge, which is only on dedicated servers.
So that’s the general idea of the game. Now for some comments:
- Early game, it’s very difficult to stay fed. You need to keep on top of your water and food levels. You seem to run through food a lot more quickly if you’re cold, which is all the time if you haven’t got clothes. Berries are easily gathered but do just about nothing for your hunger unless you eat several dozen of them at once. Cooked meat does better, but you can easily go through ten or twelve steaks in a couple minutes if you’re actively out gathering supplies.
- In a somewhat related field, you have a VERY active digestive system. Your character defecates just about once every couple minutes. You can trigger it yourself, or you just do it automatically. You can gather the feces for fertilizer if you’re a high enough level, but otherwise it just sits there until it decomposes. It’s handy, and I like that the mechanic exists, but seriously? If I had to poop that often in real life, I think I’d need to see a doctor.
- Like in most survival games, you can use a bed to respawn at a specific location. The first bed you can make is a sleeping bag, which takes 25 hides to make. Since the average low level dinosaur drops between 0-10 hides, this is a big investment. Yet…the sleeping bags are single-use. Like a condom. Use it once to respawn, and the sleeping bag disappears for good. You need to make a higher level bed if you want it to be permanent, and even then there’s a cooldown period between respawns. The cooldown period is fair enough, but single-use sleeping bags? These things are way too expensive for that.
- Dinosaurs have one major weakness in this game: trees. They get stuck on trees ALL THE TIME. It does make it easy to kill higher-level dinosaurs, but still, it seems a bit unfair and very unrealistic.
- This is a nitpick, but the water reflections are ridiculously amateur.
- You drop everything when you die. Fair enough; most survival games have that function. But unlike most games, there’s no admin command to stop that from happening. You have roughly a minute and a half to get back to your body before it all disappears. That, combined with the fact that respawning at your base is on a cooldown timer, means that in a heated battle, you’re going to end up respawning out in the middle of nowhere pretty often, and have to sprint back to wherever you last died before everything decomposes. If the dino you fought is still there, you’re going to have to punch it to death in order to gather your stuff up again, and you’ll inevitably die in the process, and then you start that all over again.
- Related: when you die, you leave your corpse behind. If you’re killed by a carnivorous dino, it’ll probably eat you and just leave your backpack. If it doesn’t eat you, you may come back to find your own corpse. After you scavenge your own items, you have the option of butchering yourself for meat. And then you can cook and eat it.
- In my multiplayer game with Gloria Hole, a flying dimorphodon was so attracted to our hut that every time we managed to get it out, it flew back in and wedged its face into a wall. In my singleplayer game, TWO carbonemys spawned inside my hut and managed to smash through the walls before I got them out. I think it’s cool that dinos will attack a hut if you’re inside it, but surely they should stay away if you’re not there.
- Finally: if you host a game yourself, there is a limit to which other players can stray from your vicinity. In other words, when I joined Gloria Hole’s game, I had to stay within a range of 165-600 meters (depending on the range she set in the options menu) of her at all times. If I tried to move out of it, the game would teleport me back in. If I was at the edge of that range and Gloria started moving, I would be dragged along the ground. When she died and respawned at a random location, I’d appear next to her, no matter what I had been involved in just seconds earlier. I’m sure this is meant to keep Gloria’s computer from having to strain at generating too much new territory, and dedicated servers don’t have this problem, but it’s still a hassle, especially if you’re playing with a larger group of people or aren’t working together with the host.
Overall, it’s an enjoyable game with a potential for hundreds of hours of gameplay. The graphics are gorgeous. I just love looking at my own hands in the game. The play of light over skin is masterful. Then again, I have a brand new computer; anything older is going to have a harder time with it. The bugs that I’ve found are pretty forgivable for a game still in early access. The price is slightly less forgivable: it’s $30, which I find a bit steep for a game in beta. It will be officially released this June, and will ultimately be available on Windows, Linux, Mac OSX, Xbox One, and Playstation 4. (The early access is available for all but PS4 right now). The price will rise with the full release, though there is no specific price set yet. Either buy it now before the price increase, or wait for a Steam sale.