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ARK: Survival Evolved

Score: 80%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Studio Wildcard
Developer: Studio Wildcard
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Adventure/ Free-Roaming/ Simulation

Graphics & Sound:

It's been a wild ride over the past almost-three years worth of development behind ARK: Survival Evolved. We've been there every step of the way, downloading updates and patches, documenting progress made toward the pending full release. There's something bittersweet now in recognizing how much has changed and how much of our early impressions remain the same. At the very least, the team behind ARK: Survival Evolved has created an amazing world. The visual and aural impact as you explore the world is incredible. It's a unique vision; even if you can say it's somewhat derivative of Jurassic Park, Land of the Lost, or other fictional dinosaur worlds, the addition of tech, survival, and PvP combat definitely propels ARK: Survival Evolved into new territory.

But hey, into each life some rain must fall, as they say. The flip side of all this incredible variety and depth is that the interface is incredibly confusing for newcomers, at least on console. PC gamers have evolved to be okay with umpteen menu layers, switches, toggles, sliders, hotkeys, and macros. On console we don't play like that, and we generally don't like to play like that. It's true that once all the settings are dialed in, you can power through ARK: Survival Evolved with an eye toward the beautiful world around, but you're never far from those awkward menus. Also, it feels like the attempt to visually polish every single item in the game left it in an overall state of "good but not great" graphics quality. Don't get us wrong, it's beautiful in its own way, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. Some of this may be due to load during online play, versus limitations in the core game.

What we most appreciate and expect you'll appreciate as well is the loving attention to detail behind each and every dinosaur and item. At the heart of ARK: Survival Evolved is an elaborate crafting system, and the output of that is spectacular. You very literally create the world around you on some level, and the denizens of that world are not only majestic to behold, they're full of smart A.I.


Gameplay:

Before worrying about the A.I. of those dinosaurs though, you'll have a choice to make. ARK: Survival Evolved is known both for being a fascinating single-player sandbox and for giving large groups of players a chance to co-exist in one of many hosted server sandboxes. After playing through both options extensively, we can say that the single-player experience is fantastic on its own. It's possible to burn an immense number of hours just building up your survival basics, killing dinosaurs for food, and exploring the world in search of mysterious technology. This latter piece ends up being the game's only real narrative thread. Yes, cracking the mystery of the "ARK" isn't all that mysterious right now, it's just a thin story layer on top of a massive survival game. All the same, it gives you a reason to move beyond your puny campfire and brave more dangerous parts of the island.

The other side of the game is still all about survival, but the dangerous dinosaurs are now joined by dangerous humans. Okay, not all humans are dangerous, but in a kill-or-be-killed world, it's inevitable that you'll come into conflict with other players. The mechanics behind this style of play are really well thought out. You have ownership of some basic resources like a campfire and then have the opportunity to build up your fortifications, all the way to taming and training dinosaurs to stand guard against the great unwashed. You can also build alliances with other players, which can leave the brand new player a bit overcome, watching highly developed gangs of humans and dinosaurs sweeping through the island. Much like any online multiplayer environment, you'll find servers dedicated to a style of play that suits you, albeit without a lot of helping hands in the early hours of the gameplay experience.


Difficulty:

The greatest hurdle you'll have to overcome is the onboarding experience as a new player. As mentioned before, the interface is cluttered and inelegant compared to the trend (on console at least) toward spare U.I. that gets out of your way. Keep in mind we're talking about what amounts to a sandbox game that grew to godlike proportions, so it's no wonder some of the design decisions fell by the wayside. Keep in mind also that single-player, story mode isn't really an appropriate frame for the solo experience. ARK: Survival Evolved is as much about building the game experience as it is about building the world around you. There's a massive amount of documentation available, but few of the tutorial features most console gamers have come to expect at this point. In a nutshell, don't be surprised if you struggle through the first hour of this game.

Once you graduate from "raw newbie" status, you can start really focusing on the survival skills you'll need to continue playing indefinitely. There are options to play in raw survival mode or with the special tech that helps you level up and master crafting skills more easily. In both cases, you'll need to attend to the raw physical needs of your character. Lack of water or food, extremes in temperature, and wounds will lower your health. Clothing your character and building shelter is a priority, plus arming yourself against the few majorly aggressive dinosaurs you'll encounter. Dedicate the time and you'll eventually be able to build the massive forts you come across as you explore the world, not to mention beating up bigger and badder dinosaurs. The crafting recipes and uses for dinosaurs in the game are many and varied, and as long as you attend to your basic survival, there aren't many truly wrong choices. Which isn't to say you can't die quick and dirty at any point in the game, because you certainly can. Like any survival game, ARK: Survival Evolved is all about pacing yourself and setting ambitious goals you make progress toward in small increments. If that's your think, ARK: Survival Evolved delivers the goods, big time.


Game Mechanics:

The underlying problem that drives the U.I. / U.X. complexity we mentioned earlier is that there are literally metric tons of ways to play this game! It's a good problem on one hand, and something the developers should be hugely praised for. There are items to gather, items to store, and items to use. When you interact with objects in the world, you can sometimes destroy them, gather them, or store other objects inside of them. An early interaction with the campfire establishes a rule you'll see repeated often in the game, which is that most "storage" is really about changing the state of an object. You don't actually start a fire, you put flammable objects inside a campfire object. This applies to taming dinosaurs by putting drugs or food into them, and in a more normal frame when you create storage objects or shelters that hold other objects. Navigating all this through the menus and hotkeys mapped to your controller is a challenge simply because controllers only have so many buttons. Things are as good as they can possibly be, but the moments when you're simply running around the game world hitting things are definitely refreshing in their simplicity!

There's no way to hate this game. It's a tremendous achievement and proof that community building and iterative development work. The last couple of years especially have seen a huge amount of new content flowing into ARK: Survival Evolved, both free additions and paid DLC. To think we're this far along in the game's evolution and only now talking about an "official" release is remarkable. Fans of the game know all too well what makes it special, and aside from a few hiccups in the orientation process, new players who enjoy a good sandbox and appreciate the survival aspects will find their way into the ARK and stick around for tens or hundreds of hours. Sure, it's probably a better experience on PC than console, but that likely goes for almost every game in this category. If you're strictly a console gamer, don't let that caveat keep you away from a great and truly unique gaming experience.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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