Let me put this out there: loads of wild dinosaurs, riding them, pooping, eating it, farming with it, PVE and PVP servers, loads of crafting and progression. 70 players per server for now, with hundreds promised down the road to launch in 2016. Does this sound like a game you might want to try? If so, read on because ARK: Survival Evolved is quickly becoming my sleeper of 2015.
First, let's get some of the very big negatives out of the way. This is an early access game after all, so there are bound to be issues. Here are the top three complaints from Early Access, in no specific order, in handy list form.
- The official servers are almost always full. Ergo, you either must find a good unofficial server, host your own, or play solo on your local machine. None of which are quite as comforting as playing on the dev-hosted servers, especially when (like me) you just want a PVE server to call home.
- The optimization isn't there yet. This is an Unreal 4 game, so it's definitely pushing boundaries with visuals, but even so on a GTX 980, a Gen4 I5, and 16GB of RAM I should get more than 25-30 FPS. The devs know this, and have many tweaks incoming to improve performance.
- Eating your own poop causes too much dehydration.
Okay, so that last one was probably only 50% serious. Honestly, the game's surprisingly well-developed for the fact that this is Early Access and it's not officially launching until this time next year (which is also when it will go live on PS4 and XBOX One). Things like server woes, optimization, and all of that are expected but still annoying. ARK was/is the #1 selling game on Steam since its launch, so there's clearly an audience for a survival MMO with dinosaurs that you can tame. Think DayZ meets Land of the Lost, with better RPG aspects and PVE servers.
A nice 90 minutes of stream VOD.
Character creation is pretty decent at this early stage, even though you can only use one face, because you can pretty much tweak every other body part to your heart's content. And they managed to get female PCs in there as well, which is more than you can say for other recent survival games. You might wonder why I'm calling this one an MMO, when right now there's only 70-100 players per server. Firstly? I personally think that's enough considering the current one-island map-size to call ARK an MMO. Secondly, the Studio Wildcard team expects server capacity to increase with map-size into the hundreds before launch next year. Hundreds may not be massive to everyone, but I'm calling it: ARK is an MMORPG.
There's character permanence, skill progression, world permanence, crafting, role-playing, tribes (guilds), and hundreds of players eventually on a single server. Oh, and it's also a completely open sandbox world with a thriving ecosystem of prehistoric and fantasy animals.
But how does it play? I'm a fan of the Unreal Engine. It's always been smooth as butter, and even with ARK's early performance optimization issues, once you get a decent framerate it holds and everything works as it should. Animations are rough, but there's something wonderful about waking up naked and afraid on a strange island, figuring out how to get equipped and how to survive. Then, as you move inland, you learn more about the world, you discover arks and shards from alien technology. You learn how to tame dinosaurs, ride them. Eventually, you're flying on a pteranodon and you suddenly realize this your childhood fantasy come to life.
Oh, and your character poops. That poop can be used as compost, thrown, or even eaten. Poop is a core gameplay element of ARK, as the animals all leave it behind and it becomes vital for farming as you progress in the game. Not only is it hysterical when it first happens, sometimes at precisely the right moment when a megalodon attacks you in an inlet, but it's useful.
It's standard survival stuff to craft axes, picks, and collect tons of plants at the start, but the game really starts to shine when you work with others to build colonies, towns, farms, explore the skies on the back of winged ancient beasts, an on and on. I've never been a huge fan of the survival horror zombie games. But this? Land of the Lost Online? I can get behind this. If it weren't for the rough animations, server woes, and optimization, you'd have a hard time convincing me that this was an unfinished game.
As ridiculous as the beginning is: punching trees, picking berries. It's the survival game equivalent of killing crabs or boars in a quest-driven MMO. You have to pay your dues. And like the meager beginnings of your character's life on an Island, ARK is just beginning. There's already a wealth of content to explore for the sandbox lover and fan of games that don't hold your hand. Wildcard has been patching every day, and is incredibly communicative on the Steam-hosted forums and Community Hub. It's also very nice to have a survival game where you don't have to worry about PK-ers (H1Z1 is another) unless you want to. PVE fans can find a home here, guilds can host their own servers here and keep things entirely in-house.
It won't be for everyone. And the server and performance issues really are a drag. But keep an eye on ARK's progress, and the buzz from its players. If the first few days are any indication, this one's going to have a big playerbase for a very long time to come. It's rare to find a game that genuinely surprises you. I had a pack of dilos chasing me, I was eaten by two megalodons, I fell off a cliff, got knocked unconscious from dehydration... these are things you won't find in any other game. ARK deserves to be played by anyone tired of the same old stuff. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go wrestle with a few dodo birds on my local client.