Ark: Survival Evolved Review

With all in the Xbox Sector camp except this writer having played Ark: Survival Evolved during early access, objective review duties have been placed in my hands.  Wildcard’s survival/ jungle/ beach/ dinosaur simulator saw final release last week in both digital and boxed retail versions and wow, there really is a lot of content to get through.

Let’s start where I started shall we?  On a beach, naked and completely defenceless. Actually, I started there several times.  Survival game is, as it turns out, code for absolutely hard as nails.  So here we come to my first and biggest problem with Ark. Aside from a perfunctory slideshow of a tutorial on the main menu, this is a game which provides absolutely no guidance for new players.

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Many players like their games dense and mysterious.  The mainstream success of Dark Souls and their ilk are testament to that.  Even by their standards though, Ark is an impenetrable title.  The first hours are spent in a frantic scramble to gather enough resources to build a shelter from the cold weather so you don’t freeze to death.

If you do die during that early period respawns occur in a random location on the starting island with absolutely no possessions.  If you manage to make it back to your body before it decomposes you can pick them all up.  But the real kick in the teeth here is that the map gives you very little clue as to what direction you’re heading in and no marker as to where your body is!  I took to taking a photo on my phone just so I didn’t lose potentially an hour’s worth of gathered resources!

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Another example of Ark’s disdain for new players comes before you even load into a server.  As you would expect from a sim-type title, the world in Ark has it’s own day and night cycle.  Being an online game this cycle passes whether you’re in the game or not. The baggage to this though is as follows: you’ve got a 50/50 chance of spawning on a server right in the middle of the night.  So you have no resources on your person to create light and almost no way of seeing 5′ in front of you to gather the required items. The list of servers doesn’t provide any indication as to the time of day either so it really is just pot luck as to whether you have a good or a bad start to the game.

If this were still a Game Preview title, excuses could be made.  Assuming a retail release was being made to reach a new audience for the game, (along with the accompanying significant price rise) it seems absolutely crazy that Wildcard didn’t put stronger systems in place to ease new players into their huge world.

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That said, once you get going – in my case with the help of an online guide – there’s plenty to do.  Every action in the game accrues XP (even just breathing!) and with every new level gained you have the chance to put points into your character.  My early choices involved piling stat gains into health and melee damage.  When even the smallest dinosaur can put you to sleep and munch on your prone frame, anything to keep you alive a little longer is of huge benefit!

On the subject of dinosaurs, there’s quite the variety to be tamed.  It’s a veritable child’s fantasy of Stegosaurus’s, T-Rexes, Velociraptors and around 190 other dinosaurs that you’ve probably never heard of.  Wildcard just keep adding content in this department. And each and every one of them wants to kill you in their own unique way!

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Taming allows dinosaurs to be used as utilities and death dealing machines.  You can ride them into battle against other players in PVP and other dinos in PVE mode.  The larger ones can even be used as mobile bases should you so wish.  On a smaller scale, they can be used as an overflow for your own inventory as you collect more and more materials to expand your encampment and arsenal.

Unfortunately, the UI for managing said inventory and interacting with objects in the world is uniformly annoying.  For example: lighting a fire.  Of course a fire needs fuel so either wood or or thatch needs to be added to the fire’s inventory first (why wouldn’t a fire have an inventory?) and then it’s a separate button to actually light the fire.  It’s just fiddly!

Likewise, why do you have to assign a building piece to your quick access menu in order to easily re-select it.  The nature of the game makes it unlikely that you’ll only want to use one of such items so surely there has to be a more efficient way of re-selecting it without adding it to your permanent hot-wheel?

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Even Conan: Exiles, which I’ve played a little bit of in early access, and has a very similar menu system, has found a one button solution to get from one side of the screen to the other. This leads me neatly into my overarching feeling from my time with Ark: it doesn’t respect my time.  I’ve written previously that as a relatively new Dad (with another one on the way!) I don’t get the hours a day to play games that I did in my younger years.  So if I do choose to pour time into something, I don’t want to spend hours just working out how to get started.  I know I’m whinging, but the majority of these issues have such simple solutions!

It’s a real shame as Ark is a stunning game, some minor draw distance issues aside, and Wildcard is completely dedicated to adding new content – whatever your feelings on their choices with the expansion packs.

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Community-wise it’s a bit of a mixed bag too.  I found people on the forums and Reddit all-too happy to help new players such as myself.  In game was not quite as welcoming. Selecting EU servers rather than being able to pick UK specific (for me anyway!) sometimes caused a problem as it often meant the in-game chat was in another language. Again it didn’t seem to be something that could be viewed before entering a particular world.

Servers top out at 70 players currently and I would usually try and pick a number closer to the 20 mark when selecting where to play.  Even with this relatively meagre number I would often struggle to find a decent starting location on the Island.  Players that have clearly poured dozens and dozens of hours into the game have huge fortresses in many of the starting locations and then placed small pillars along the beach every 100m or so. Due to the game’s own rules against building within a certain distance of another player’s constructions, new players are forced on long treks just to try and find a starting location.  It’s really frustrating!

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Bottom Line:

Ark: Survival Evolved is an incredibly ambitious title that really struggles to engage new players in what it is exactly which makes the game fun to play.  With time (and I mean a lot of hours) there is oodles of content here and who doesn’t want an army of prehistoric creatures at their beck and call?  That said, if Wildcard had made just half a dozen quality of life changes instead of adding a few extra dinos, Ark would be a significantly better game.

Gameplay : 5.5

Graphics : 7.5

Sound : 7.0

Story : 7.0

Value : 8.5

Overall : 7.1 / 10


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