As children, we are almost predisposed to have a fascination with dinosaurs. We stared at their humongous skeletons on class field trips to museums, enraptured as tour guides described how they met their terrible fate. We bashed together our plastic figurines during playtime, making a brontosaurus fight a T-Rex to the death for the umpteenth time. We lounged on the couch, watching the friendly dinosaurs of Littlefoot and company in The Land Before Time or, on the other side of the food chain, the apex predators of Jurassic Park. If someone had told 6-year-old me there would be a game 20 years later where you could tame, ride and live among dinosaurs, I would have spent the remainder of my childhood attempting to build a time machine to take me there.
Luckily, that won't be necessary. It's 2017, and we have ARK: Survival Evolved, which often provides moments of childhood wonder. The first few seconds of ARK are breathtaking. You awake half-nude on the beach without a clue. For a moment, that's not important. There are dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures everywhere. Tiny dodo birds run along the beach. A pteranodon caws before flapping its wings and taking off somewhere in the distance. The earth shakes as a brontosaurus lumbers by... and you get to ride these things.
A lot of things could be argued about ARK, but the scale and beauty of the world is not one of them. There are over 100 species, and the detail put into them is massive. The enormous world harbors beaches, jungles, swamps, snowy landscapes, lava pits, deep oceans, mountains and more. It has to be one of the most ambitious games of all time. Turning off all elements of difficulty, and simply walking around the map is a treat in and of itself.
The world tour is great and all, but ARK's promotional artwork shows a woman commandeering a saddled-up raptor into battle, assault rifle in hand, with what appears to be a rocket launcher strapped to her back. Another depicts a futuristic-looking soldier atop a T-Rex, peering down the sight of a sniper rifle. A T-Rex with armor. I repeat, the T-Rex has armor. That right there is what the people want. But herein lies the fatal flaw — ARK isn't a game about riding armored dinosaurs and wielding weaponry, as the advertisements would have you believe. It's a survival game that, to be fair, does mention "survival" right in its title. To get to the point where you're comfortably riding around on a big, badass dino with heavy weapons in hand, a massive time commitment is required, and a huge learning curve must be conquered.
From that first moment on the beach, you are given no direction other than you are cold — it makes sense, since you're nearly naked — and should find warmth. Beyond that, you're not told a thing. Luckily you're on a beach, so running around in the sun is straightforward enough, but what happens next depends on your experience with survival games. Those who have been exposed to the genre likely know they need to begin gathering resources, making tools, clothing themselves, finding food and building shelter. And those who haven't? Well, button mashing would show you that you can pick up objects off the ground, punch trees and rocks to harvest resources and more. There's also the likelihood you may get bashed or bitten to death by the nearest unfriendly dinosaur and give up right then and there.
My first moments on the ARK
Doing what video game players normally do when they need help — looking through the menus at controls and options — is liable to make you even more confused in ARK. The menus are a maze, the UI is cluttered with text so small it is barely legible, and it's filled to the brim with terms with which you will be unfamiliar. A general tutorial would have been a vast improvement over what is offered. Instead, there are pages and pages of information, called the Survival Guide, that can be referenced. Should you make it this far, the internet is a far superior teacher than the Survival Guide, with it being less of a hassle to punch "How do I start a fire in ARK?" into the nearest search engine than it is to thumb through your Survival Guide. ARK asks the player to make a serious commitment to outside learning and research of the game to have any hope of accomplishing anything.
Once you start to understand what you're doing, you realize the gravity of the time commitment involved in getting far in ARK. Leveling up allows you to raise your stats — again, none of this is explained and no descriptions are offered for what each stat does — and you also earn points to buy new engrams. Engrams are essentially blueprints or recipes, informing you what supplies you need to build items and giving you the knowledge required to build them once all the materials are assembled. Engrams are one helpful thing that will aid you in your ARK gameplay. They're ordered in a way that suggests the items you need to carry on. For example, you unlock the campfire engram, so you think to yourself, "Well, I'm probably going to need a fire." Without these, it'd be hard to know what you need and when and what should be your next step.
As you mosey on down the engram list, you'll notice it'll take a substantial amount of resources to build a modest thatch hut, not to mention a gun or a saddle for your gigantic dinosaur (that you have no chance of fighting and training yet). These won't be unlocked until the later levels. This means most of your gameplay will be centered around "farming," "grinding" or whatever you like to call it, instead of gun-slinging with an army of T-Rex in tow. In fact, it takes a lot of time to do everything in ARK . There is a lot of waiting around: waiting for your dino to be tamed, waiting for your metal to become smelted, waiting for your supply reserves to be enough to begin construction. When you're not waiting, you might be chopping down trees or breaking down rocks. If it doesn't sound exciting, it's because it's not.
What's more intimidating — a T-Rex or the amount of information on this menu?
Despite the fact survival games like ARK and Rust ask you to spend a lot of time doing tasks with about as much appeal as scrubbing a toilet, millions of gamers dump thousands of hours into them for a reason — they provide amazing moments. Smelting metal is boring, yes. Gathering supplies is dull; it's true. But add in a few friends, set an end goal, and you have an unforgettable, often exhilarating, experience. ARK does this well, if not a little too well. For players who are flying solo, the upper engram requirements seem unreachable as though they were designed for large groups of players to work toward them together. If you can convince a few enthusiastic friends to join in, you won't be disappointed in the incredible moments you can experience together, such as gearing up and going to take down one of ARK's several bosses, or planning an elaborate raid on the guys down the hill.
One of ARK's saving graces is the console command feature. Punching in a command can get you everything you want instantly. Do you want to ride a T-Rex, or maybe even a Giganotosaurus, with the highest-tiered weapon in the game? Just punch in commands to spawn all of the above. Most servers will have rules regarding console commands so that everyone is on a level playing field, but there is nothing preventing you from experimenting in single player or in a private game with friends. It's nice to work up to the memorable moments, but it's fun to have the option to spawn a bunch of pteranodons, so you and your friends can race through the skies, too. There are also dozens of options outside direct console commands, so you can tone down the survival characteristics like how often you need to eat or how quickly you run out of stamina, tuning the game to how you prefer to play.
Believe it or not, all of ARK's achievements can be unlocked or made greatly easier with the aforementioned console commands. Making use of them, the completion is estimated at roughly six to eight hours with a title update tossing a few more hours on top of that. If you're here for more than achievements, the potential entertainment value is unlimited. As of this writing, the only thing to watch out for is a title update achievement that is currently unobtainable. Between the base game and the update, ARK offers 1,500 gamerscore, provided the achievement gets fixed.
This game was featured in our Best Xbox Survival Games to Play in 2018 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?
SummaryARK: Survival Evolved is a game of grandiose scale. The fact there is a beautiful, alive world with thousands of dinosaurs to train, ride, breed and more is remarkable, especially if you grew up in a time where games weren't more than few pixels. Amazing things are possible in the ARK — the gun-wielding soldier set high atop the most badass predator of all time comes to mind — but the experience is clouded by the best ones being locked behind excessive grinding, boring farming and the need for a large group. System commands and customizable settings can ease some of the pain, but the base concept remains a chore. A messy UI and the lack of a tutorial leave you alone in the dark, forced to spend hours researching on your own in order to figure out what's what. But there's no denying that if you're willing to put in the time, you will be rewarded with some incredible gameplay moments, especially if your friends join you on the ARK.
- Breathtaking world with massive size and scope
- Can be an amazing experience in multiplayer with a group
- Has a lot to offer to those willing to put in the hard time
- Wide array of customizable settings and system commands to tailor gameplay to your liking
- Advanced progression system
- Little to no explanation of how to do anything
- A lot of time spent on boring tasks like gathering materials before you get to the good stuff
- Cluttered and intimidating UI with small text
- Higher engrams feel unobtainable without the help of a big group and substantial grinding
EthicsThe reviewer spent about 30 hours playing ARK, a pittance compared to how long the game could realistically keep you entertained. 15 achievements were earned for 750 gamerscore. An Xbox One code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
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