Waking up on a remote island, near-naked, with a pulsing jewel fused to the back of your hand is confusing enough, but the hours that follow this opening moment make that initial mystery seem like a 12-piece jigsaw in ARK: Survival Evolved on PS4.
There’s a lot of aimless wandering to begin with as I try to figure out what does what. Using my well-honed survival knowledge, I decide that the best course of action is to punch the nearest tree to get wood planks. In a move that’s about as surprising as Jose Mourinho being humble, it works! Now I just have to figure out how to eat, drink, be clothed, and try my hand at some dinosaur fighting. This could be the start of an anecdote about my stag do, but it’s actually just the start of my video gaming adventure on the island known as ARK. Will it be as exciting as it sounds? I set off to find out.
So yes, ARK: Survival Evolved is, shockingly, a survival game (and to all intents and purposes, an early access one), but it has dinosaurs and mythical beasts roaming the world, waiting to be killed, eaten, tamed or eaten by. If I had to sell you, the reader, ARK, I’d simply say ‘you can punch a Dodo, and ride pterosaurs’. There’s more to it of course, but first you have to figure out where to start.
Once you’ve got punching Dodos and trees out of the way, you’ll be quickly aware that you need more than wood to survive beyond a few minutes. Berries, meat and the like are your most immediate forms of sustenance, eating is necessary for living in general, but stamina is also tied into it, with energy levels getting sapped by activities such as punching things (you may have guessed by now that this is a common theme early on). Water (aka hydration) is also tied into this system, and your initial attempts at survival will be brief partly because you have to gauge what helps, hurts, and heals, and beyond logic, it isn’t particularly obvious for some time.
Same goes for the crafting. While the components for craftable items come from a place of logic, the menus for creating them are somewhat clouded in their clarity. Sure, you’ll work it out eventually (be it via guides or through sheer force of will), but it, along with other facets of the game (taming, farming etc), could be a little more simplified. There’s plenty of good examples of survival games that give you something to go on while retaining plenty of mystery, but ARK is unfortunately not one of those examples. It leaves a sour taste for new players because this excessive ambiguity affects the opening hours massively.
ARK is pretty punishing to start with, everything can and will kill you very bloody swiftly. I restarted the game multiple times within my first hour. Some of these were down to disconnections, but mostly these were a result of starving, being crippled, eaten, dehydrated, or just generally lacking the will to live. I once lasted ten whole minutes before a bunch of ‘Compys’ savaged me as I stumbled, near-blind, into their path because I’d broken my leg or something. I’d made progress though, and thought I’d learnt enough to make better progress the next time. I died in two minutes as another, better-equipped, player decided to screw diplomacy and just go straight for the murder option. I went to restart on a different server. Failed, tried another, failed, and after five separate connection attempts all failed, I closed the game and went to play something less likely to make me dropkick the controller. I waited a week before I returned, such was the level of disinterest I had in returning. But return I did, and for a while, things really did not get better, and the state of the technical side of the game became more and more of an issue.
ARK is still in ‘early access’, so I have to make some considerations toward my criticism of it. However, I can’t deny that having been quietly excited by the prospect of a survival game with dinosaurs, my initial impressions of ARK: Survival Evolved were that of loathing and disdain. It looks rough and gaudy, meaning there’s little reward, visually-speaking, for persevering through the opening act of this gravely unenjoyable play. There’s not just an unfinished feel to certain aspects of ARK, everything about ARK feels unfinished to the point it often feels like a strange hybrid of a tech demo and a mod. Even the menus look like the work of a hurried, harrowed developer, all roughshod and make-do. The audio is laughably poor, the animation more so, and ARK just lacks a sense of fun during these testing, droll, opening hours.
If you can get past that, if you can stomach the heinous cauldron of degradation that is ARK’s starting point, then you will find a better game slinking through the mud when you come out of the other side of it. Whether that is enough is debatable (clearly it works for many people given the size of the player base elsewhere). I definitely had a much better time with ARK once I managed to push past the silt (it helped that a patch eased some of the gripes with connectivity). You begin to hit that rhythmic sweet spot that survival games can do so well where you’re tied into a routine that keeps you going day-to-day, but also having enough time left over to tackle other, more meaningful tasks such as defeating powerful mythical beasts and riding long-extinct reptiles. It’s in the later part of the game where more of ARK’s individuality is apparent.
It’s also worth noting you can avoid a large swathe of ARK’s issues by playing offline and fiddling with the many sliders to make the game more forgiving. Finding a way to play that you’ll enjoy becomes much easier this way, and perhaps is the best way to start ARK off at this point for newcomers, as online is not the greatest way to introduce the game right now.
There’s also the ‘early access’ dilemma to consider. It’s perfectly fine to have faith the product will become the finished article, even if, in my opinion, it looks a ways off, but there’s a warning bell in my head going off that’s proving hard to ignore. As survival games go, ARK is not the prettiest or most welcoming, but if you’re willing to overlook this and plough through the drudgery, there’s a decent addition to the genre that could potentially grab hours upon hours of your time. For me? I may return in time, but ARK hasn’t held my interest like I’d hoped.