That’s it. We’ve reached peak game. At last, after more than two decades of gaming, we finally have a piece of software where you can tame and ride dinosaurs. I can already hear Blizzard closing up shop, because let’s admit it, there is no better idea out there. ARK has, at last, given all of us the opportunity to fulfil the power trip that five-year-old Nick could only dream of. I have ridden Raptors, and it was glo- well, semi-glorious. JP defecated as soon as we took our first step, but she’s a noble beast nonetheless. It wasn’t a good time getting to that point either, and while your dedicated survival fan might have had more fun, I was over it.
I don’t have a whole epoch to play games, man. The Jurassic lasted, what? A trillion years? That’s how long I reckon it’d take to finish ARK, so, screw it, I’m doing my review with but a mere 16 hours of gameplay to speak of. Utterly casual, I know, but fertilise me in dino feces and irrigate my eyelids, this game is too much. There’s an overwhelming amount of mediocre content that might appease die-hard survivalists, but I’m done killing brain-dead diplodocuses.
As its tagline suggests, ARK is a survival game taken to the extreme. You awake on a mysterious island in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by punchable trees as far as the eye can see. Once you’ve made your first pickaxe, you can start hunting dodo, taming dinosaurs, exploring for resources and engaging in PvP. None of these mechanics push the envelope, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because the sheer amount of content in ARK is astounding.
Most games will have a core idea that they roll with, but not ARK. Where Minecraft went crazy with voxels and Overwatch perfected the hero-shooter, ARK doesn’t specialise. You can build bases, tame dinosaurs, go on PvE raids, find collectibles or go pwn some skrubs. There are plenty of mechanics playing a role in your survival too, including thermal insulation and torpidity. There are so many elements in this game that would appeal to just about anyone, but the problem lies in how these ideas are executed.
The scale of ARK is monstrous, but the game will make it as hard as possible to experience all the island has to offer. The leveling system restricts you to making lower-tier items regardless of whether you have high-tier resources or not. As you level up, you unlock engrams (memorised blueprints, basically) of new items, but the rate at which this happens is painfully slow. There are a hundred levels of items to unlock, and after 16 hours, I’m at level 32 with less than a tenth of the engrams unlocked. Levelling also allows you to increase your stats, and this presents a whole new slew of issues.
When you unlock a new set of engrams, this is coupled with increasing stats like your weight limit or fortitude. At first, you might go, “Oh, cool, a leveling system!” but the starter stats are so limiting that it’ll take 20 levels to carry more than a few berries. Restrictive inventories might sound fairly standard for a survival game, but ARK is especially unforgiving, and this is true across all your attributes. Don’t level your health and you die after a couple of bites from a piranha, and not upgrading food or hydration means you can’t walk a few metres without feeling malnourished. Once you get past the initial hurdles, these annoyances don’t go away.
There’s plenty to do in ARK, yes, but everything can grind to a halt because those core survival mechanics get in the way. You’ll be tearing your way into a Diplodocus only for your ride to stop on the spot and defecate. Walk a couple of hundred metres out from your base, and you’ll have the option of dying by dehydration or Sarcosuchus. I can’t play the game because the mechanics keep slowing me down, like how No Man’s Sky wouldn’t just let you go exploring. I could let the hassle of survival mechanics slide if the other parts of the game were above par, but nothing quite hits the mark.
My biggest problem with ARK is that nothing feels polished. From the UI to the combat, everything feels half-baked, as though the development team had a first-draft-final-copy attitude. Everything is functional, but mechanics don’t mesh well together or deliver satisfying feedback. I was fighting a brontosaurus under its legs and taking damage because it was swinging its tail nowhere near me. Damage through inferred contact is more akin to an MMO than a first-person survival game, and it makes combat feel like you’re being cheated even when you’re winning. Everything on offer is a shallow attempt at satisfying gameplay, and with such a hyper-realistic aesthetic, it just doesn’t feel right. On the plus side, the game looks damn good, right?
For such a magnificent looking game, ARK does a terrible job of conveying relevant information. You have things like your hydration meter at the side of the screen, which is good, but you don’t have a crosshair or any other indication of what you’re going to be harvesting. A small hand or tool icon will appear at the side of the screen, but that doesn’t tell me what I’m interacting with. Nothing gets highlighted or outlined, so you’re left to guess whether you’re going to be interacting with the door or the frame. There were times when I’d be staring at a plant to harvest but only manage to stare dumbly at it, but other times I’d be staring into the sun and harvest plants without issue. There’s an apparent attempt to go with form over function, but the game can’t even stick to that.
The game looks good 80% of the time, but it’s the remaining 20% that stands out. If I break a rock, the weird textures on the broken pieces look horrifically out of place. Dinosaurs have fantastic animations until they start clipping through trees and climbing invisible balconies above boulders. Pteradon’s fly at a snail’s pace, retreating animals will merrily run into and along the ocean floor, and the occasional framerate hiccups are straight up weird. Everything I’ve talked about would be easier to overlook if I had a few buddies to play the game with, but all my attempts to get a helping hand failed miserably.
ARK is designed around a multiplayer experience. There’s a formalised tribe structure system in the game, but every time I tried to make a few friends in a server, I felt more ostracised than encouraged. The first server I tried to join had fifty foot reinforced steel walls surrounding the starter area, so any new players were stuck there to die or leave the server. Hilarious, but not helpful. The second attempt was more promising since I could leave the starting area, but no one responded to my messages, so, no luck. The third try involved a guy leaving me to my own devices, the fourth attempt was the same as the second, and I decided to just stick with single-player after a while. Who knows, maybe I’ll make a server one day with a couple of friends, but I’m not hugely keen to go back and grind all over again… For now.
Despite all the unpolished and tedious gameplay, there are still moments in ARK that kept me coming back. Taming my first raptor, building up my base and finally being able to explore the island with a small amount of freedom felt like huge accomplishments. I have mixed feelings about whether it was worth my time to get to that point, but for your survival aficionado, overcoming these kinds of obstacles is what the game is all about. The problem is that you have grind through so much to get to those points that it’s a hard sell to your average gamer.
I think the major appeal of ARK is how much stuff there is in it. Sure, it’s half-baked, but maybe there’s an item or a raid to do that will reinvigorate me further down the line. As it stands, however, everything on offer feels unpolished and shallow. The game is not a high-quality product, and while you might enjoy it with a bunch of friends, it’s almost impenetrable on your own. Good luck finding an inviting server, though, because the community is so well-established that it might be a hopeless endeavour. Dinosaurs will always be cool, though. Always.