ARK: Survival Evolved is one of those survival games that flourished under early access on Steam, and is still one of the most popular games in the genre after release, as the combination of dinosaurs with the possibility of progressing through to modern technology such as rockets and flamethrowers is a big draw compared to other survival games like Conan Exiles that stick to one theme throughout. Despite seeing a video every now and again and understanding the basic gist of the game, our reviewer went into the Ark experience knowing very little, to get the truest first impression possible.
When you start, you spawn on a beach, and when we did that there was already plenty to see - a triceratops to our right and an enormous, thumping Brontosaurus to our left, with some critters scurrying about as well. We tried to punch one to death to get some food or other materials, but it fled underwater, meaning we needed to chase it down below the surface... but then we suffered our first death at a watery grave.
Choosing the same spawn area, we started on the other side of the same island. Thinking that we'll be better off with a weapon, we started punching trees, because that's how every other survival game works, and voila, we're rewarded with wood and thatch. We still needed stone to make a pickaxe and punching rocks didn't work, but small stones litter the shores so we spammed every button and figured out triangle picks things up. We crafted a traditional pickaxe, then attempted to jump over somebody's fence because they'd blocked off the beach, only to get stuck between their wooden fence and a spiky barricade. Unable to escape, we starved. Second death.
Third time around, we opted for one of the other southern areas of the map, but still considered easy in difficulty. There was a lot of plants and trees around, so we crafted another pickaxe and figured out that triangle also forages for berries and fibre. While gathering food, however, a Dilophosaur appeared and took us out before we could get a single hit in. Third death.
Understanding the basics, we quickly got to building a thatch hut as our base of operations for somewhere to shelter and store our possessions. We crafted and placed down a few foundation blocks, but another Dilophosaur snuck up on us and ends our life before we could even get the walls up. Fourth death.
As we spawned so close to our corpse and got further last time than before, we managed to retrieve our items and evaded the lingering dino. In an attempt to find somewhere less inhabited by hostile creatures, we tried to swim across a river to a nearby island but were eaten by piranhas. Fifth death.
Our sixth attempt was short lived, as we tried to get our stuff from underwater but were eaten by piranhas for the second time. In frustration, we gave up and pledged to have a different approach the next day.
Booting up the game for the second time, we found a new server, had the Getting Started page open to our side, and got to work. The early game is the same as every other survival experience (as you may have gathered by reading this far); punch trees, acquire wood, gather other basic resources until you have enough to build a basic shelter, all while managing your food and water levels and avoiding hostile beasts. Ark does little in the way of innovation, but everything it does is competent and holds up well against other titles.
Levelling up your character rewards you with one skill point to invest in any attribute such as health, oxygen, or weight. It's fairly straightforward, but becomes slightly more complex with Engrams, which are essentially blueprints that you have to learn to be able to craft various items, and the more you level up, the more Engram points you receive and the array of options becomes much greater. At the start you're limited to simple things like a spear, wooden club, and thatch building materials, but before long you'll have hit level 20 and be able to make things like irrigation pipes to transport water, smoke grenades, and a flare gun. Keep persevering to the much later levels and you'll eventually get rockets, turrets, electrical based systems, and more.
Despite this promise of far more impressive gear and equipment than a simple two-storey wooden house and a single pet Phiomia, there wasn't much incentive to actually keep surviving. The early game is very repetitive; harvest trees and stone, kill some dodos, gradually level up, rinse and repeat. We were playing solo so it may be different when playing with a friend, but it was a slog for the first few hours.
Early versions of the game saw poor optimisation on PS4, but since the game has updated to version 513.0, most of those issues have vanished. The frame-rate chugs along at a steady 30fps, which isn't ideal but with the amount of world rendering and things happening on the official 70-person servers, it's understandable. This means exploring the island to find new dinos and explorer notes wasn't as painful of an experience as it was beforehand, with relatively smooth loading and less texture pop-in.
Combat is such a large part of the game too, as it's required to kill creatures for hide and meat, and to tame them early on you need to knock them out with a club or slingshot. With the constant lag, however, fighting is a serious chore and is purely based on luck whether you manage to get a clean hit or not. The being you're fighting will jerk all over the place sometimes while you aimlessly spam the attack, hoping to hit it enough to take it out. God forbid you're fighting anything that will actually fight back rather than just try and flee too.
Taming is simple enough, as you just render a creature unconscious then feed it either meat or berries until the taming meter is full. You can also tame them passively by feeding them while they're conscious, but it's much more difficult as some are aggressive, most will walk around, and if they become damaged or hostile then you'll have to completely start the taming process over again.
Perhaps the biggest hindrance to the enjoyment of our time with Ark: Survival Evolved was the dense population of the servers. We don't mean in terms of other players - we rarely came across them - but the remnants of other players were everywhere. We played mostly on a PvE server to prevent ourselves from being mercilessly killed over and over by other players, but there were small huts and thatch foundations everywhere. There's a limit to how close you can build to another player's foundation, meaning half of our time was simply spent looking for somewhere suitable to set up shop, as the vast majority of areas were unavailable due to the close proximity with someone else's half-finished structure.
When building a base, you're provided with a considerably large amount of options such as sloped roofs, ramps, spiralling staircases, and windows. It's fairly intuitive, as components snap on to pieces that are already placed and you're given a degree of freedom with how items are placed, as you're not limited to a grid based format for things like chairs or crafting stations, so this was definitely something we enjoyed.
ARK: Survival Evolved is a solid survival experience and one of the better options available, on consoles at the very least. Previous optimisation and lag issues may have been eliminated, but it's difficult to recommend for one simple reason: playing solo is tiresome. Studio Wildcard have created an experience solely meant to be enjoyed with at least one friend, so the time it takes to gather materials, build a base, hunt for food, and all the other requirements is halved. Not to mention playing with somebody else is just so much more fun. The late game content is much more interesting and fascinating than the early stuff, but playing solo it takes so long to reach that point, especially due to all the deaths from rogue dinos like Therizinosauruses, Compys, Dilophosaurs and more. Pick it up if you've got a buddy or three, otherwise hold off for something more single-player friendly.
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