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ARK: Survival Evolved Early Access Review

Jurassic ARK.


GameSpot's early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.

Like DayZ and H1Z1, ARK: Survival Evolved is another Early-Access survival game that has received an explosive amount of attention. But does it provide something different enough to warrant all the publicity? In short, no. You can collect materials, craft items, and tame dinosaurs, but many of those features are not exclusive to ARK, nor are they any better here. Serious functionality problems and lag exist, sapping enjoyment and crippling immersion. Still, it’s not completely awful. Given the chance, you can have a lot of fun, even if there are not many fresh ideas at this stage of development. The game can be entertaining at times and frustrating on occasion, but the evolution of survival it is not--at least not yet.

Welcome to Jurassic Ark.
Welcome to Jurassic Ark.

When you first wake up on the mysterious island, the game’s primary drawback immediately becomes clear: performance. ARK has the trappings of many Early-Access games, but even with this caveat, it is incredibly sluggish and randomly glitchy. You may have to spend a lot of time in the graphics options menu clicking buttons and sliding bars until the frame rate becomes tolerable. Of course, this means you have to accept an uglier game to get better playability. This is what I had to do, so you’ll have to forgive some of my screenshots. I could only run the game in a blend of medium and low settings. On high settings, the game can actually be quite attractive, with lush, green jungles, roaring waterfalls, and stretching grasslands with flora swaying in the wind. It’s a shame to watch said flora blend into pixelated green blobs just a short distance away. Another major issue is server lag. Stuttering certainly occurs, but you have to enter a fight against a man or a beast to see it at its worst. In battles, players and creatures spring back and forth, to the point where any fight becomes a frustrating disarray of rubberbanding bodies.

Entering the game, you settle down on the island, which is populated by your fellow players, dinosaurs, and other extinct monsters. Creating your character is the first step, and ARK gives you a choice between a male and a female form, with many additional options -- and I mean a lot of options -- for shape and size. The results are interesting to say the least. In my travels, I met grotesque mutants with giant heads and stubby arms as well as many other variations. It is amusing to see what others have come up with, but be prepared to encounter some nasty looking folks. You awake with little more than your underwear and a map that slowly fills in as you explore. On your HUD you’ll find indicators monitoring stamina, food, and hydration levels. Weather, such as fog, will creep through the island, and rain will shower down, further stymieing the frame rate. Similar to DayZ, the game also introduces status effects. Extreme cold can damage health, while heat has a strong effect on your hydration levels. Sprinting through a steamy jungle will often leave you searching for sources of water or otherwise reaching for your waterskin.

Stay away from those horns!
Stay away from those horns!

Crafting is fairly rudimentary if you’re familiar with survival games. You punch trees to acquire chunks of wood and pieces of thatch, and you can gather rocks scattered on beaches or jungle floors. These materials can be combined to create a rock pick-axe that can shatter boulders so you can obtain more materials, such as flint and chunks of metal. A metal, diamond-shaped implant on your left arm displays your inventory and menus for leveling up crafting; the latter features recipes, include instructions for tools, weapons, and parts to create structures. You can carve raw steaks from dinosaurs and dodos that you kill, and you can pick berries from bushes. However, the type of berries that could be harvested seemed random. There are multiple types of plants, but I couldn’t figure out whether one bush or another was more likely to give certain berries.

Other than that oddity, as I began my journey into collecting various goods, everything appeared to be in order for a survival game -- save for one interesting surprise. As I was going about my business, I heard a gaseous rumble, and I was informed that I had defecated. I looked down and, sure enough, there it was. Huh, I thought, that is new. Naturally, the defecation has a purpose besides being instantly hilarious (I’ll grow up some day). You can use fecal matter that your character and animals expel as fertilizer to grow new plants for fiber and berries when you decide to create your own farm.

Surviving on the island rewards you with experience points and more crafting options. As you level up, you can boost one of many attributes, ranging from health to stamina. Leveling up also grants you a small handful of points to spend on engrams, which unlock even more recipes and item tiers. Thatch structures make way for buildings crafted from wood, and the slingshot makes way for the bow, which you can eventually trade in for greater firepower, such as pistols and automatic weaponry. But there is a steep time investment to consider. You have to reach level 15 just to unlock a bow and arrows, and it took me around 10 hours to reach that rank. The time requirements also tie into a major criticism I have with the structures. Walls made from thatch and wood can easily be destroyed by anyone with a hatchet and a few minutes of time. You can eventually upgrade to powerful metal walls and doors, but I was nowhere near that point. Every time I logged back in, I found my character dead, my base ruined, and all my materials and food pilfered. It’s almost enough to make you defecate in fury.

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Unlock dinosaur dossiers to gain some history on the wildlife.
Unlock dinosaur dossiers to gain some history on the wildlife.

ARK’s primary draw is the dinosaurs, large and small, that populate the island. But don’t expect the shock and splendor of Jurassic Park with large, migrating herds of brontosaurs or clever raptors surreptitiously assassinating any lost traveller who wanders too deep into the jungle. Instead, animals tend to stay where they spawn, meandering about without much purpose or urgency. On occasion, a meat-eater will attack a herbivore, but a battle of titans it is not. Utahraptors swarm their prey, nipping and slashing for several minutes, sometimes longer. It’s not an exciting event to watch whatsoever. The two sides slowly hack or bite, usually without moving locations or moving just a tiny bit, until eventually one side emerges victorious. A larger-scale battle between, say, a tyrannosaurus and a stegosaurus, is impressive only because of its size, not because of its content.

Even facing most animals on your own is hardly risky. With many fights, if you can stay near the back end of a beast (or at least out of reach of its pointy bits), you can take it down with a steady stream of whacks using your stone hatchet. The exceptions here are the faster predators, but with the aforementioned lag issues, you can usually deal with them quickly by standing still and waiting until they bound into your vicinity. All this considered, we can conclude that at this stage, the most attractive aspect of the game (i.e., the creatures inhabiting the island) is also the most vapid--at least until you learn how to make some friends.

Why walk when you can ride a utahraptor?
Why walk when you can ride a utahraptor?

You can tame dinosaurs, which can be used as pack mules or sometimes as mounts. I found this to be my favorite activity in the game because it gave me a goal and provided a welcome challenge to overcome, which I wasn’t getting running around picking berries and crafting huts that kept getting raided. Taming a dinosaur is relatively simple. The process involves rendering it unconscious, either by punching it, pelting it with rocks, or using a tranquilizer arrow, then earning its trust by feeding it the correct food according to the creature’s correct diet--meat for the carnivores and berries for the herbivores. All the animals on the island have varying levels, and your tamed dinosaurs will level up, granting you the opportunity to increase their health and carrying capacity over time.

But, with a dinosaur at your side, wouldn’t it be better to ride it? The answer is yes, always yes. As you level up, you unlock saddles you can strap on to various dinosaurs, ranging from the slow-moving phioma to the speedier utahraptor and even the flying pteranodon. The raptor tears across the land, leaping far distances and using its talons to rip enemies to shreds. ARK’s world begins to open up once you start riding dinosaurs. Without having to rely on your slow legs, traveling far distances becomes possible, and the joy associated with exploration soars.

0008: Beams of light signify when a supply drop is about to touch down.
0008: Beams of light signify when a supply drop is about to touch down.

The more you pry open the world, the more activities and enigmas you discover. Hidden caves, both on the surface and below the water, are scattered across the area, guarded by ferocious creatures. You can also find hints of mystery on the island. Three enormous obelisks, colored red, blue, and green, float lazily in the sky. The odd, alien structures could have something to do with the device imbedded in your arm and/or the random supply drops that appear and slowly fall from the sky in a beam of colored light. All of this suggests that some semblance of a crazy science experiment or “Hunger Games” plot is lurking just below the surface. You can also track down bosses to battle, such as the broodmother, a giant arachnid queen.

In its current state, ARK: Survival Evolved doesn’t provide many surprises. It is unquestionably a survival game, complete with core gameplay and issues that have often defined its mates in the genre. But including the words “survival evolved” in its name makes you think it offers the next stage in what should be expected from the genre. ARK, however, doesn’t quite shake the foundations, notwithstanding the included thunder lizards. The developer promises more content, including procedurally generated environments, gas-powered vehicles, and a whole lot more. I want to remain optimistic because I did encounter moments of good fun in the game. The developer a year left until the game’s projected release, so if they can smooth out the rocky performance and add some fresh elements, ARK: Survival Evolved may eventually be something worth all the surrounding hype.

What's There?A survival game with dinosaurs to tame, buildings and items to craft, and a load of performance issues that hamper the fun.
What's to Come?More of everything, including weapons, animals, bosses, and biomes. The developer also promises better performance, and that the “game will sparkle like a shiny diamond before it is considered ready for Full Release.”
What Does it Cost?$24.89, available via Steam.
When Will it be Finished?Projected release date is June 2016.
What's the Verdict?ARK: Survival Evolved is less of a step toward evolved survival as much as it is a shuffle. Still, there is entertainment to be found here, so long as you’re willing to invest the time and weather the performance issues and server lag.

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