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Ark: Survival Evolved on Switch: Is it Really a Disaster?

What happens when you port a rough game to a portable platform.

Analysis by Mike Williams, .

Nearly every released game is a compromise of the developer's vision. The final product is the collison between development time, available resources, developer expertise, and current hardware. The development version of a game is the concept car, using the best technology and the most innovative styling to showcase an upcoming product. A concept car is sleek, sexy, and full of promises for the future. It's also a dream. The reality is the production model, which takes that concept car and whittles it down for practicality and safety. A concept car can live on a show floor or demo reel, the production model has to perform in real life.

The majestic dinosaur in a new habitat. [All pictures taken from Nintendo Switch in portable mode, using native capture.]

For the purposes of our conversation, the production model are the released versions of a game. The PC version might be the GT model with all of the luxury extras, the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro versions are sporty tuned coupes, and the base systems are the basic sedan. It's all a matter of compromise and sacrifice. Each version asks, "What can be cut to get as close to the original experience as possible?"

The Nintendo Switch version of ARK: Survival Evolved is the stripped down model. The engine is tiny, the materials have been downgraded to their cheapest versions, and the styling is gone in favor of a utilitarian design. From Acura NSX to Honda Civic to Honda Fit; it gets you where you need to go, but you probably won't enjoy the rider.

We've had Switch ports like these before, for games like Doom and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Both titles have their definite fans on the platform, mostly for the portability, but I tend to wonder when "optimization" goes too far. Booting up ARK had me asking this question again and again.

The graphics are a blurry mess, with poor textures up close and shapely blobs in the distance. Effects like shadows and reflections load in as you're moving and seeing a tree's shadow pop-in is a frequent sight. These cuts were made to preserve the frame rate at a target of 30fps, but ARK on Switch still chugs hard if too much is happening onscreen. I think the iPad version of the game looks better, even if it performs worse.

Worse, the optimization of the game for the platform is hit or miss. The touch screen is active on the menus, which can be a boon in certain cases, but the text and touch targets in portable mode are far too small. The text is standardized for your HDTV, not the tiny Switch screen, and it shows. The controls also feature the same problem as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One counterparts, trying to fit far too much on a limited amount of buttons. I spent my early time in the game trying to open my inventory and at one point I turned off the HUD and couldn't figure out how to turn it back on for 15 minutes. Crafting remains based on the PC version, with few concessions made for consoles. Loading into the map in the first place can take upwards of two minutes.

And if you're not well-versed in what ARK: Survival Evolved is, this game will teach you very little. There is a survival guide for new players, but it's not in-game, it's an option in the launch menu. Lots of players will skip right past that into the game proper and find themselves hopelessly lost. It's a shame that Studio Wildcard didn't think more about new players in regards to ARK, especially given how much players need to know to craft and survive in its world. God forbid getting into things like taming animals and dinosaurs.

"And yet..." I find myself saying. I looked at Doom and Wolfenstein II on Switch, but ultimately decided that I wasn't going to compromise either experience to play portably. With ARK, I've never found it to be the best game in terms of performance. Maybe the PC version or the console releases have improved since I last played them, but they've always been rough in terms of frame rate and visuals. ARK for Switch is a goddamn mess—with rampant pop-in, bad low-poly models for distance rendering, and more—but for the most part it's still a playable mess.

It's got servers, but text size needed to be optimized.

It brings across everything ARK is supposed to offer. The full Island map is here, though the Switch version lacks any of the alternate downloadable content maps, like Extinction and Aberration. You can play the game in single-player mode, or jump online in PVE and PVP servers with full 64-player complements. The entire crafting tree is available and building isn't compromised in any way. The bestiary is missing around 20 creatures, but most of them are here. This is ARK: Survival Evolved, for all the highs and low that name offers, with several more compromises due to the Switch platform.

The price ($49.99) is entirely too high for what you're getting, given that the PC version looks better and offers the full bestiary for the same price. ARK on Switch got problems, to the point that I almost wonder why this Frankenstein's Monster of a game exists. It's all a matter of if you love ARK: Survival Evolved enough to deal with the cuts necessarily to play it on the Switch.

I enjoyed playing ARK: Survival Evolved while I was playing it, but every statement I have about my experience is full of caveats. I can't recommend it, but I had fun diving in on the Switch. It runs like a nightmare, but it does the job. I don't want to drive a Honda Fit all the time, but I'm willing do so occasionally. Maybe the same is true for you.

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