Developer: Studio Wildcard, Instinct Games, Efecto Studios, Virtual Basement LLC
Publisher: Studio Wildcard
Release Date: 29/08/2017
Format(s): Xbox One (Reviewed), Playstation 4, PC, Mac, Linux

It feels like ARK: Survival Evolved has been around forever at this point, thanks to its Steam Early Access release two years ago and subsequent appearance on consoles not long after. It has now OFFICIALLY launched though, with the game finally in a form that can be treated as release-worthy. Is it an improvement on what gamers have already been used to though, or does it still belong in Early Access?

Well, it isn’t perfect, but ARK: Survival Evolved’s official release is a hell of a lot better than console gamers were used to with its original Early Access form. Don’t get me wrong, the game can be pretty special at times, but you’ve got to work hard and long before you get to witness those moments.

ARK: Survival Evolved

For those who have been living under a rock for the last two years, ARK: Survival Evolved is a survival game that sees you crafting, hunting, taming creatures, and working with other players to try and stay alive as long as possible. There’s a twist though – those ‘creatures’ are actually Dinosaurs who want to rip you apart. Great, right? It’s actually a great premise for a game, whilst the inclusion of Dinosaurs is what made me interested in it to begin with; I mean, who doesn’t want to tame their own Dinosaurs, right?!

Whilst it’s known that survival games can be notoriously difficult, ARK: Survival Evolved actually ups the ante tenfold. A lot of this isn’t down to the game actually being hard (which it is, don’t get me wrong), but rather that it doesn’t teach you how to play. Players don’t only have to contest with the weather, a lack of food and water, or one of the countless deadly Dinosaurs wandering throughout the environment, but also a steep learning curve that’ll demand hours of your time before you’re even close to grasping how everything in the game actually works.

ARK: Survival Evolved

Of course, before talking about how the game works, I think the notorious character creation tool needs mentioning. Now, most people consider ARK: Survival Evolved’s character creation tool awful; I mean, yeah, it is pretty bad if you’re looking to actually create something that doesn’t look like a deformed creep. HOWEVER, if you look at it with an open mind and focus on making your own hideous creation, it can actually be a lot of fun. One of my friends and I made twins who were rather… interesting to look at: one was incredibly small but with a massive head, whilst the other incredibly tall but with a tiny head. It looked stupid, but it brought a lot of laughs and added a bit of personality to the game. Basically, you’re going to be disappointed if you actually want to create something lifelike, but if you’re after a cross of a munchkin and Big Foot you’re going to have a good time.

When you finally get started at the game, you’ll quickly realise the foundation of everything always seems to boil down to crafting. Nearly everything that you need will have to be crafted by the player, so you’ll have to go out gathering resources before you can even begin thinking about anything else; it’s the same tried-and-tested formula that survival game fans have been used to for years, so there’ll be nothing out of the ordinary for gamers returning to the genre.

ARK: Survival Evolved

That’s where the main problem lies though: if you aren’t used to the genre, you’ll have no clue what to do. ARK: Survival Evolved doesn’t actually teach you how to play the game, but instead expects you to know what to do with little to no assistance. There is a basic tutorial in the game’s main menu, but that’s simply made up of static images and text; there are no real instructions in-game that actually teaches you how to play. Don’t get me wrong, some aspects of the game like the hunger, thirst, and warmth meters are obvious, but other elements of the complicated survival mechanics can be pretty frustrating without any instructions on how to deal with them.

It doesn’t help that the in-game menus can be incredibly intimidating at first glance. Whilst the menu certainly covers all aspects of the game, everything is incredibly cramped together and the text size incredibly small – seriously, I struggled to read some of the stuff on there and my eyesight is pretty good. Seeing everything on one screen was just plain awkward though, with it hard to work out properly what was in your inventory, what I could craft, and what was actually needed to do so.

ARK: Survival Evolved

After a bit of playing around you will eventually work out how everything in the menu works, but that initial few hours trying to toy around with it and get crafting could be hard work. It’s another example of ARK: Survival Evolved not featuring enough instructions to actually teach you how to play the game. Having to learn how it works without knowing what the items were or whilst worrying about the threats to my character was just frustrating. The best piece of advice I can give to gamers is to get on YouTube and check out some of the video tutorials; ARK: Survival Evolved has so much to appreciate once you’ve actually learnt how it all works, so learning tricks from other players will be a big help.

When you finally get used to the game and learn how each mechanic works, you’ll quickly find that it becomes a lot more fun to play. You’ll start to learn where resources are, what you need to craft, how best to take on enemies, and actually start to level up and improve your stats. It’s through levelling up that you actually unlock the Engrams (think blueprints) required to craft new items, so your reward is more than a simple stat boost. Committing time into the game and actually making the effort to improve your character just feels very rewarding – it’s the best way to learn how to make the best bases, the best tools, and, perhaps most importantly, the best weapons. Be warned though; knowing how to make something is just half of the process, with the other half being a long drawn out slog as you gather the resources required to do so.

ARK: Survival Evolved

ARK: Survival Evolved is something you’ve got to be willing to commit to for the long haul; you can’t simply jump on for an hour here or there, but must actually be willing to sink in plenty of hours if you want to see all of the best things it has to offer. Everything just takes up so much time, be it levelling up, uncovering the countless resources you need, or actually building the bases for your character to have a safe place to call home. It’s not until you’ve sunk in a good few hours that you’ll be making the best equipment that the game has to offer, including the futuristic guns and the armour for your pet Dinosaurs. That’s right – you’re able to tame, arm, and ride Dinosaurs into battle.

Like every other element of the game though, you won’t be riding around on the armour-equipped Dinosaurs until you’ve spent a long time with the game, so at least expect to spend a few hours getting killed by tiny Dinosaurs and turtles beforehand. When you finally tame your first Dinosaur and equip it with some tasty armour though it’s incredibly satisfying; the game promotes the idea of riding around on the back of Dinosaurs with friends whilst wielding some machine guns, so actually getting to that point and doing it is incredible. It’s almost as if ARK: Survival Evolved is a game of two halves – the first being learning how to play the game and grinding things out whilst you gather resources, and the second being the enjoyable moments where you reap the rewards of your hard work and unleash hell with your new pet Dinosaur.

ARK: Survival Evolved

ARK: Survival Evolved is at its very best when played with friends and fortunately there’s plenty of support for it – you can either jump online via the many PvP and PvE servers, host your own little server for just your own private use, or even play in split-screen. There’s plenty of options there to support how you decide to play the game.

The human interaction elements of ARK: Survival Evolved are some of the best I’ve seen in any video game, for both good and bad reasons. When you work together you can share your crafting skills in order to succeed – you can quickly get into a system where you’ve all got your own jobs and are pulling your weight in different ways in order to make the best possible conditions for your character. It’s a lot of fun and was the quickest way to get the best equipment the game has to offer. Add to that the fact there are some big ‘boss’ Dinosaurs you can work together to take down and you’ll quickly find that ARK: Survival Evolved has some amazing co-op moments you can share with friends and other players.

ARK: Survival Evolved

On the flipside, when players work against each other things can get nasty pretty fast. I’ve been happily wandering around carefree at times only to get attacked by groups of other players and have all my equipment stolen from me. It’s heart breaking, especially after working so hard. Of course, you can always get revenge by taking down other players yourself, so you can be a villain too if you prefer. The freedom is there for you to play how you want – just always be wary of other players when on the PvP servers…

Despite the difficult nature of ARK: Survival Evolved, when hosting your own game you can adjust the difficulty to suit you. If you want an easier time you can actually make it so the enemies are weaker, players stronger, experience gains faster, hunger and thirst drain slower – basically, you can configure the game to be incredibly easy. This isn’t the true way to play the game and it won’t be the case when playing on the official servers, but it was something I appreciated; sometimes I just wanted a Dinosaur-filled sandbox where I could play with friends, and thankfully we got one.

ARK: Survival Evolved

Whilst ARK: Survival Evolved doesn’t look or perform as well on console as it does on PC, it still manages to look decent. The Dinosaur models are great, whilst the luscious environments really stand out – honestly, there’s an incredibly broad range of different locales to visit and they all look impressive.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t some flaws though. I did notice quite a bit of pop in and textures could take some time to load in, whilst the frame-rate could drop a lot too. It’s a hell of a lot more consistent than when the game first released on consoles in early access, but it still hit low figures during some of the more strenuous scenes. None of the issues stop the game being playable or well-presented though, so playing on console is certainly a viable and enjoyable option.

Conclusion

ARK: Survival Evolved can be an incredibly special experience that offers a lot to players, but it demands a lot of time and patience to get to that point. Your initial time with the game can be incredibly frustrating too, especially since you’re never really taught how everything in the game works. It’s a daunting prospect, with death seemingly always lurking around the corner be it through starvation, hyperthermia, or from getting stomped by a huge Dinosaur.

When everything clicks though and you’ve got the resources and Engrams to really thrive in the game it becomes something special. Riding Dinosaurs whilst equipped with a slick armoury of guns is incredibly satisfying, whilst the experience of riding through the skies on a Pteranodon with friends is absolutely insane – especially when you consider how difficult life is when you first play the game. You can even ride a T-Rex… eventually…

I’ve mentioned it already, but ARK: Survival Evolved really is a game of two halves. One half of that can be frustrating and boring, but once you overcome it there’s plenty of fun to be had. It comes down to whether or not you have the patience to do it. Are you willing to invest the hours into ARK: Survival Evolved? If no, stay well away, but if yes, get ready to have some fun – once you learn how to play…

Also from this game: