I'm wandering through the darkness with no clear destination. There's a light in the sky and I'm moving towards it, but occasionally it disappears from view in the forest. I hear footsteps behind me and I pause. Is it a dinosaur? Is the creature neutral or hostile? Earlier I was attacked by a poisonous wasp that I lit on fire with my torch before running.
Out of the shadows comes another player. They seem as lost as I am, stopping a bit before sprinting back out into the darkness, no torch, no clothes, no anything. I hope they find their way.
I pass numerous wooden and thatch huts left by players who have long moved on. Some have left campfires and other useful tools behind. Others have locked their temporary homes, preventing anyone else from entering their shelter from this hostile environment. I find the source of the glowing point in the sky, a storage cache that doesn't have much for me, given that I've already crafted clothes for myself. As I wander towards the next point, I'm attacked by a raptor in the forest. I burn it twice before my torch breaks and the raptor kills me in the darkness.
It's not my first death in Ark: Survival Evolved. My first death was in the first five minutes of play, when I had little understanding of the game's point or its mechanics. A dinosaur far above my level summarily attacked and killed me. That's the kind of game this is at times.
Ark: Survival Evolved is a survival game, as it says in its title. It occupies the same space as Minecraft, Rust, H1Z1 Just Survive, Dayz, and more. It's a game where you're thrust into a hostile world with nothing and you have to punch, mine, and gather your way to bigger and better things. It's a bit of sandbox, a bit of survival simulation, and a bit of PVP action, if that's your jam.
Ark has been on Steam Early Access since June 2, 2015. Since then the developers have added a ton to the game. There are over 100 creatures in the game - mostly dinosaurs - that fight, feed on each other, and generally go about their lives. You can kill them for resources, or tame them to access various abilities. You can build your homes and bases on beaches, in forests, high the trees, or under the game's oceans.
The game's level cap is 100 and each level has its own list of unlockable crafting engrams, which extend from primitive stone picks and axes, to riot gear, night vision goggles, and rocket launchers. And that's before you get to Tekgrams, which you get from defeating bosses, offering up cool high-tech future gear.
Ark: Survival Evolved is all about the options. At launch, there's a menu for which type of Ark you want to launch, whether that's official servers, unofficial servers, low memory options, no skybox or sound. Once in game, there's a huge list of servers that you can join, all with various rules. Those servers can be PVE, allowing you to craft and work together against the environment, or aggressive kill-or-be-killed PVP servers. You can even stay offline to play by yourself, as there's a whole campaign of boss fights leading to a decent endgame.
Ark explains none of this. I had a review guide to helpfully point the way, but without it, Ark itself is painfully obtuse. I wanted to get the basic experience so I loaded up the game without any guides only to be struck by a host of questions. How do I gather stuff? How do I craft? What do these icons all mean? I'm cold; what's determining that? (Early on, I went from cold to hot simply by walking a few steps in opposite directions.) Ok, I know how to craft, where do I find fiber for clothes? How do I cook? I have berries that can be turned into dye, but how?
Dinosaurs are out there and you have no clue if they're going to kill you or not. As I said before, I died in my first few minutes because I was trying to figure out how to gather stuff with more than just my fists (which hurts you). I was attacked and killed by some dinosaur. I understand shying away from handholding, but Ark barely explains anything. The idea of survival of the fittest underpins the entire game, but it shouldn't extend to the early minutes and player onboarding of the game.
As such, Ark is an experience you have to give yourself over to. You have to willfully commit time to literally wandering through the dark in search of a way forward. Even once you understand it, like other survival games you're in for lots of gathering and crafting, hours of taming animals and building. You will repeat endless tasks just to get to the mid-level of the game. You will wiki to find out what you need to do. The maintenance for stuff you already have is its own journey. And if you die, you may lose everything in the process.
I suspect part of the reason for the obtuse onboarding is Ark's developers expect the players to pick up the slack. Ark is a game where you have to work together, either in impromptu groups or the built-in Tribes system. No one player can unlock everything in the game and the time-cost to get far is immense, so Ark wants players to band together into teams and build a functioning community. When it works, it's a magical thing; a world of trades, alliances, and friendships. When it doesn't, raiding parties will destroy everything you've built and players ahead of you will kill you on a whim.
Ark: Survival Evolved is a game that is surpassed in some ways by its ambitions. Graphical performance for the game is only just so-so, with a variable frame rate and an image quality that stretches from okay to good. The game isn't quite focused on any one thing, instead trying to be everything to everyone. That lack of focus means certain features and design decisions are rough at best, and given the fact that I didn't play the game in Early Access, I have no clue how long those issues have existed.
AI is spotty as hell on larger creatures. My first major dinosaur I killed was because the beast got trapped between two trees and couldn't move in any direction, letting my chop away at it from behind in safety. That's not a rare occurence. Building structures isn't as smooth or easy as Minecraft or the recent Fortnite. (Why can't I pick up items to move them around my base?) Taming and breeding animals is simply a boring, slow process, one that can be undone by local carnivorous wildlife. Players can build bases on spawn points!
Ark: Survival Evolved is a game full of rough edges. It's also a game full of some amazing moments over my total playtime. It's the kind of experience that has a lot of boredom and tedium, and a great deal of looking the other way in the face of bugs, but also some clear water cooler moments. There's something very cool buried in here, though I can't tell if that's because of some developer decisions or in spite of them. (Mods also vastly improve the experience.) In the end though, riding a dinosaur equipped with gear you crafted is pretty sweet. If the experience sounds cool to you, I'd say you should try it, but it's not the kind of experience I can recommend to everyone.
Studio Wildcard has built a game that feels like a rough framework for players creating their own experiences, rather than a whole, cohesive experience in and of itself. There's a lot here to see and do: gathering, crafting a wide variety of items, taming animals, and building tribes. But it's hidden behind an opening game that teaches players nothing and a mid-game of maintenance and tedium. But there's promise here underneath the cruft and rough edges. That promise just isn't full realized yet.