Running up a snowy mountain firing a machine gun at a woolly mammoth from the back of a tyrannosaurus is a fantastic example of the reason many video games exist: living out ridiculous childhood fantasies. ARK: Survival Evolved has plenty of that to go around across its multiple sprawling maps – which it calls ARKs – which can be explored solo or crowded with up to 100 players. Some lingering technical issues, bad dino AI, and an extreme amount of grinding to reach endgame are the main factors keeping it from being as sharp in the tooth as it could be.
Like many of the survival/crafting games of the genre it partially helped popularize, ARK dumps you on the beaches of a massive, foreboding island with just enough clothing to stay modest and your own two fists. From there, the challenge is to stay fed and hydrated while avoiding a huge variety of terrifyingly detailed dinosaurs and other beasts long enough to progress up the tech tree. Early in the life of a character, you might be taking out dilophosaurus with throwing spears and hoping a triceratops doesn’t come and knock your thatch hut over in the middle of the night.
From there, there’s a really nice flow of technological progression that makes advancement feel like more than just an increase in stats. Thirty hours later, you may preside from a sturdy stone castle from atop which you snipe pterasaurs out of the air with a rifle. By the endgame, it’s possible to have a massive steel fortress full of blast furnaces, complete with electric lighting and gas generators, churning out components for building rocket launchers and SCUBA gear.
But the excitement is dulled as the amount of menial grinding required to reach the higher tiers of technology goes up exponentially, to the point where it could take an entire day of playtime just to stock up on ammunition for certain weapons. This can cause things to really start to drag when you’re just getting access to some of the most interesting tech – especially if you don’t have a large tribe of other players to help you divide the labor. It’s one of those games that can be played solo, but at least on PvP servers, I wouldn’t recommend it.
On public PvP servers, other players are both your greatest opportunity and greatest danger. As I learned the hard way more than once, making sure your shelters are hidden from potential looters is far more important than making sure they are strong, and I often returned from less than 12 hours offline to find my barricades wrecked and hours worth of resource harvesting hauled off. Things get much better if you can work your way into a strong tribe of players that can protect your stuff 24/7.
In offline single-player, there’s actually an extensive and detailed sort of campaign to follow that will take you to a variety of monster-filled caves to acquire artifacts and summon three challenging bosses. There’s a giant spider queen and a bonafide fire-breathing dragon! These encounters show quite a bit of attention to detail, though they rely a bit too heavily on summoned minions to increase the difficulty. It’s also extremely punishing to lose in one of these encounters because not only will you lose any armor, weapons, and ammo you had equipped – potentially several hours of gathering and crafting – but you’ll also lose the artifacts needed to summon the boss, forcing you to replay those challenging caves all over again.
Defeating all three bosses unlocks an endgame dungeon that reveals a surprising amount of backstory behind the ARKs and their purpose, which came as a pleasant surprise in a game that’s ostensibly just about riding dinosaurs around and smelting ore on first glance. It’s this narrative flourish more than anything that really distinguishes ARK from its genre brethren. The sheer amount of time and effort required to get there the traditional way is probably more than most solo players have the attention span for – even after more than 60 hours of focused play I had to resort to using console commands to shortcut certain steps just to be able to access the final area in time to write this review.
Beyond the bosses, I was highly impressed by the diversity of creatures crammed into each ARK – most of which can be tamed, and many can even be ridden once the appropriate saddle is unlocked and crafted. From bumbling, docile dodos all the way up to the colossal, carnivorous Giganotosaurus (Latin for “I bet you wish I was merely a T-Rex”), each looks fantastic and has a distinct set of behaviors you’ll have to learn to deal with them. Riding with a pack of dire wolves or taking flight on the feathered argentavis for the first time were major highlights of my ARK experience. The process of taming itself is just annoying, though. It consists of knocking your future pet unconscious and then feeding it while it slumbers, waiting for a painstakingly slow (especially on larger creatures) taming bar to complete. It’s the epitome of the “Sit around waiting for something to finish” activities that are ARK’s weakest components.
Though ARK has emerged from a long early access period with most of its nastiest bugs fixed, there are still weird graphical glitches all over the place, like shadows popping in and out randomly and intermittent frame rate dips. Worst of all is the fact that the AI on larger dinosaurs is pretty terrible. The best strategy for killing anything beefier than a raptor remains getting it stuck on the terrain and p-linking it in the head from total safety. Even my own tamed dinosaurs often get stuck in trees when moving through a forest if I don’t babysit them, and in some cases became so badly stuck in caves that I had to kill them to recover the items they were holding and move on.