With the start of the new year, I decided to give ARK: Survival Evolved another chance. So many people rave about this game, in streams, podcasts, and blogs. I had a lot of bad feelings to overcome, but I figured it was possible that I was the one who was wrong about it. So on January 1st, I fired up a single player game, determined to play until I “got it.” I ended up playing about 18 hours over the holiday weekend.
I will refrain from writing at length about the poor graphics programming over at Studio Wildcard, Instinct Games, Efecto Studios, and/or Virtual Basement LLC*. I’ve covered that before. I choked down my outrage over having to reduce the rendering settings to nearly the lowest, blockiest, homeliest settings there were to achieve something resembling 60 fps. (The last time I had to lower my resolution from the maximum my graphics card could handle was sometime around the time of Quake and Quake 2.)
But enough about that. I’m trying to be positive here. I spent a couple of hours figuring out how to find wood, thatch, stone, and flint, craft a pick, build a campfire, kill some penguins and dodos, chop up their corpses for raw meat, cook the meat, craft some clothes, and generally stay alive. The crafting and survival aspects of the game are done fairly well. Perhaps not as good as some, but probably better than most.
The biggest key to surviving in ARK, of course, is running away from large carnivorous dinosaurs, saber-tooth tigers, and giant gravity-defying birds until they (hopefully) lose interest. You also have to hunt for berries and meat almost constantly. The survival, crafting, and gathering parts of the game are fun and interesting, although admittedly once you get it figured out it’s not difficult to get to a place where you can survive indefinitely**. You can last forever on berries, a torch, and the occasional cooked dodo.
That’s where I’m stuck right now. I can survive indefinitely, but I can’t really do anything. I setup my own private LAN server so I have The Island all to myself, and I’ve built up several different bases along the north coast so I have places to go after I respawn. Because inevitably after I venture out to try to tame dodos or explore further, some big monstrosity comes along and one-shots me and it’s back to the drawing board.
The leveling curve in ARK seems slow, but maybe that’s my imagination. After 18 hours I got to level 15, mainly from the experience gained by crafting and gathering. Killing things is somewhat rare for me, since at this point there aren’t many things I can kill with my meager little stone axe and spear. Dodos, penguins, trilobytes, and sometimes the little compys (I call them tinysaurus) are about all I can reliably kill. Running away is often the better choice. (Except with raptors and t-rexes, which I can’t outrun.)
Still, I have to admit that the game has its hooks into me now. It’s very addictive–the kind of game where you look up at the clock and realize you’ve just spent several hours playing without realizing it. For me, that might turn out to be a detriment to playing in a cooperative or multiplayer environment, because it means it’s very time-consuming to advance in ARK. People of the Internet who have more spare time to play are going to have a big advantage over more casual players like me. I’ll come into the game with my spear and dodo pets and everyone else will be using assault rifles and flying spaceships.
ARK has issues beyond the rendering speed, too. Some aspects of the user interface, like the inventory and hotbar system, are rudimentary at best and require a lot of dragging and dropping. (Drag-and-drop has been a crutch for lazy interface designers since the beginning of time–a pet peeve of mine.) At this point, though, with the amazing success of the game, I doubt they will do anything to improve it. They have to please the masses now, so they’ll spend their time adding new dinosaurs and holiday events. Gamers quickly adapt to terrible interfaces when they enjoy the gameplay. (Reading over the patch notes basically confirms this hypothesis.)
But overall it’s a lot more fun than I originally gave it credit for, and I now understand why everyone likes it. The real question now is whether to keep playing it or stop until it’s actually finished.
* Why does this game have four different developers? Is that why it’s such a technical mess?
** At least until a pair of Sabertooths moves into your base camp, kills your dodo army, and runs you out of town.