Studio Wildcard started developing action survival game ARK: Survival Evolved in 2014 as their debut title. Originally available on Steam through the Early Access program on June 2, 2015, it was released as games like Rust and DayZ made multiplayer survival games extremely popular. With a refreshing focus on primitive survival and dinosaurs you can tame and ride all on a mysterious island, ARK provided a break from zombie survival, which both birthed and dominated the genre. Unlike DayZ and Rust, however, ARK: Survival Evolved has officially exited Early Access, surviving controversy around downloadable content, developing a passionate playerbase and being wildly successful while doing so, selling over 7 million copies over multiple platforms.
ARK: Survival Evolved is an open world game where survival is the main goal. The game starts you on the shore of a large island called the ARK with nothing but a pair of shorts and large meaty hands to punch down trees. Shelter, food and water are your immediate goals. Getting a drink is as easy as taking a quick swim, but building a shelter and getting food require gathering materials in gameplay that has been well tread since Minecraft became popular. ARK also shares multiple traits with massively multiplayer games: start off killing low level dodo birds in a relatively safe area and work your way up to fighting all sorts of massive creatures that ARK throws at you.
What you can build isn’t just dictated by the materials you can gather; increasing in player levels allows you to learn different crafting recipes called engrams. The higher your level, the more technologically advanced engrams can get – from building stone tools to futuristic weaponry. Also like a massively multiplayer game, it takes a massive amount of time and dedication to get to advanced levels of technology on your own – but you can be taming and riding dinosaurs within a few hours, so fun isn’t hard to reach.
Like any sandbox game, ARK’s fun is where you make it. There is an endgame –ARK guardians, and answers to why you are on the ARK – but most of your time will be spent exploring, gathering, crafting, building and trying not to be killed by dinosaurs or other players. There are single player options, but multiplayer is the default and preferred way to play. A lot of fun in the game is when players are with friends or interacting with other players. You can kill or be killed by other players, help them on whatever crazy adventure they may be on, or even create or join groups of players called tribes for protection in numbers. Players can organize entire towns, and defend them against other groups of players for tribal warfare.
Unfortunately, ARK: Survival Evolved can feel like an ugly, unwieldy beast, too. Sometimes gorgeous graphics are marred by an overabundance of graphical effects and a loose centralized aesthetic. Large garish green words tell you when you’ve leveled up, and the user interface looks and feels like something from a bygone era. My initial impression was that ARK felt overloaded, like wet cardboard – and just about as fun.
After watching a few tutorial videos, a visit to the official wiki, and being murdered by players with guns (while all I had was a spear) I have come to the conclusion that the new-user experience is lacking. There are little to no in-game tutorials or hints on how to proceed, making you rely on information outside of the game. Unless you have friends to guide you along, getting into ARK can feel frustrating and daunting.
ARK: Survival Evolved doesn’t necessarily feel like it should have left Early Access, but it’s out and only time will tell if it will continue to be massively popular despite doing something few survival games manage to do: officially release. With free and paid downloadable content available and more on the way, ARK: Survival Evolved will always be changing, so leaving Early Access may not be such a big distinction. ARK is available now on Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One – this review was done on the PC version.