ARK: Survival Evolved Xbox One Preview – Living With Dinosaurs
- Developer/Publisher: Studio Wildcard
- Platforms: PC (Steam Early Access -$/€ 27.99), Xbox One (Game Preview - $/€ 34.99), PlayStation 4 (at launch in June 2016)
- Xbox One version tested. Preview code provided by the publisher.
Beach holidays are just the best aren’t they? And the latest destination, ARK: Survival Evolved, is such an unspoiled paradise. The chance to get away from it all and really return to the basics. Golden sands stretching away from your tranquil little hut, the glorious shimmering waves, packed with gigantic sharks, lapping at your feet. No phones, or internet or even clothes as you take long gentle walks in the forest at the edge of the beach, soaking up all the nature. Above the treeline there’s birds at play, as well as carnivorous pterodactyls, while poison spitting dinosaurs stalk your every move.
Wait, something is not right here. Oh, all the delectable local food. Hand tenderized Dodo bird seared over a wood fire, with a beautiful side of colorful berries. Aren’t holidays fantastic? Even the locals are friendly, well, sometimes. Actually, no, scratch that: these locals seem somewhat hostile to my presence. That might explain the small hunting party that chased me down the beach with spears, or the fortress tearing everyone apart with an automated defense network. Maybe the ARK is not quite the peaceful holiday destination that I had hoped for.
It feels a lot more like one of the survival reality shows hosted by Bear Grylls or someone equally inclined to jump off a mountain for kicks. It's certainly as exciting. Survival games haven’t taken off as much on console as the PC counterparts, and although most offer some variation of post zombie apocalypse, ARK: Survival Evolved decided to take a step backwards and feature a rugged landscape filled with giant lizards (dinosaurs).
When you start this terrifying getaway you’ll be left on the beach with nothing. If you’re lucky, the beach will be quiet, if you’re not there might be looming silhouettes of fortresses, towers and other houses. People in this world are just as dangerous as the dinosaurs. Making out a survival on your own will have you tiptoeing between tribes that may or may not hunt you for sport, while moving as a group paints a target on your back.
The real unique selling point of the game is the taming of the indigenous wildlife. As you stalk through the forests, cliffs and beaches of the island, you might spot players riding beasts to battle and beyond. It's impressive and awe inspiring, but the effort required to get your own is staggering. Like a lot of survival games, you’ll be at the mercy of nature, feeling weak and vulnerable for several hours before you can grind your way to relative safety. In the case of ARK that includes bases that are much harder for bandits to attack, enough weapons and ammo, as well as enough food to tame a dinosaur or two.
This wouldn’t be too much of a hassle, as the base gameplay mechanics are quite engaging, if it weren’t for the issues with the servers. Like a lot of online only games, you connect to a specific server when you join a world, every server has 70 places for players to join. Unfortunately, each character you create is tied to the server you selected, and if that server is full, you cannot play as that character and will have to start again on a new server.
Though it is understandable that Studio Wildcard would do this, it's also quite infuriating to have to go through the same early hours of grinding again, just because your old characters are locked away behind seventy other players. Couple this with the fact that like other survival games, your character is left unconscious while you aren’t logged in, and you can imagine once you get back online the character might be dead already.
This is the worst part of ARK: Survival Evolved, when you feel like you can’t progress past the basic weapons and buildings because logging out means starting all over again. Being at the beginning isn’t a bad thing, and offers some of the most tense encounters you’ll experience on your time in the ark. Spotting a firelight in the darkness of night can be a sign of comfort or threat, as other players scavenge for resources you might be carrying. Colliding with another player during the daytime can lead to a standoff, as neither wants to turn their back on one another. Similarly, it might end with both happily foraging together.
This also leads to the best chance you’ll have for survival: forming a tribe. Teaming up with other players, friends or strangers is the best method to avoid hours of grinding and kick-start an actual hub. Building in ARK: Survival Evolved takes resources as well as time to level and ‘relearn’ how to develop structures. In a team, one can forage while the other can attempt to level up and unlock new, sturdier structures. The equipment you can create in ARK improves at a steady rate. While alone you might be able to develop a small shelter that you protect with a trusty tamed sabretooth and a bow, a tribe can eventually get a herd of giant dinosaurs and lots of assault rifles behind fortified stone walls.
Crafting is simple enough, as long as you have the right components, but the overall inventory menu is another point for the developers to improve on. You’ll spend longer than you like organizing and reorganizing your collection of stones and berries. You’ll argue with the selection as you try to cook food on a roaring fire. You’ll be swapping quick selection items in and out as that’s easier than trying to use them from the menu directly. Not only is it irritating, but this leaves you vulnerable too. I cannot count the times I met an end by a sneaky player, or dinosaur, or cliff while I navigated the quick selection options or menu itself. And without a firm tutorial, you’ll have to learn the best methods through trial and error.
Reaching the powerful levels in ARK: Survival Evolved will take time, luck and quite possibly teamwork, but it's nice to look over a vast island where you have just finished building your place. Skulking through the rocking shores and overgrown forests on your way to the time can almost feel more like an MMO horror game than survival. Although there are plenty of elements yet to be improved, there is a solid foundation for something unique here, especially for console gamers. Even with many features still missing, Ark: Survival Evolved in its Game Preview/Early Access form is already a surprisingly engrossing game, although the menus and systems can feel backwards are times. Starting over from scratch is a pain, but staking out your own little slice of land in a hostile environment is rewarding and worth the patience needed to do it.
You’re never as isolated as you think you are in ARK: Survival Evolved, and a lot of other people are stalking this island too, some far more advanced than others. If rubbing shoulders with dinosaurs, sharks and savages sounds exciting to you (and why wouldn’t it?) you’ll have a good time in ARK, despite having to replay the same stages a few times over. By the way, the Xbox One Game Preview also allows you to try the game for free, so if you're interested in this version you can just give it a shot.