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ARK: Survival Evolved Review – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

By on Mar 30, 2016 in Games | 0 comments

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There are times when ARK: Survival Evolved (ARK), the dinosaur filled survival game in development by Studio Wildcard, is awe inspiring. Your initial hours of exploring the island and fighting to survive will be at times frustrating but more often engrossing and rewarding. ARK puts its hooks in early and they are only shaken loose by its inability to deliver on its promise in the mid and late game.

I’ve put way, way more time into this game than could possibly be considered healthy. No one should put 900 hours into anything that doesn’t pay your bills or further humanity, and I’m pretty sure playing ARK does neither.

Also, this review is interminably long. Sorry about that. What follows is The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of ARK: Survival Evolved.

ARK: Survival Evolved Review

This is a review of an Early Access (EA) game. That means the game is incomplete and is currently in active development. However, I’m not pulling any punches because of that. It’s been in development since October, 2014 and EA since June, 2015. Using EA as an excuse doesn’t fly when you’re asking people to pay to test your product.

The Good

ARK is at its best in the first few dozen hours of gameplay when you’re learning how to survive on the island. You’ll figure out how to feed yourself, build structures, craft weapons, and tame dinosaurs. Although there is nothing you could call an in-game tutorial – the information you’re given through the interface and from items you pick up are almost laughably inaccurate and/or cryptic – there is a well maintained wiki and an endless supply of YouTube videos that will help you through the early days. People playing online are generally friendly and happy to help noobs, of which there are a seemingly endless supply due to the cross-platform nature of the game and that fact that it’s relatively inexpensive.

The early to mid game stages of the game are very well balanced. You rarely feel like you’re grinding because so much is happening. Need to build a simple thatch hut? You’re going to need thatch, wood, and fiber. To get those, you’ll need to bloody your hands, or better yet, craft a pick or an axe. All along the way your character is leveling up, even by simply surviving, and you feel like you’re progressing in terms of your understanding of the world as well. Survival necessitates exploration and discovery in the early going and it keeps things interesting.

A dramatic re-creation of me after my first successful tame.

A dramatic re-creation of me after my first successful tame.

Taming dinosaurs is great fun, especially in the early and mid game. The challenge and time required are generally well balanced and you feel like you’ve really accomplished something when your new pet wakes up and prompts you for a name. You can mount most dinosaurs using saddles and they truly change the dynamic of the game. Once you’ve harvested with a mammoth or a brontosaurus you’ll never want to go back to gathering by hand. Newer additions to the game are becoming much too difficult to tame for dinos of questionable value, but that applies to a limited number of late game dinos at the moment.

All the while you have to avoid predators, find food and water, and if you’re in PVP, watch your back for other players. Even the simplest actions require thought and planning, and Wildcard has done a fantastic job of keeping you engaged in the world. You will find yourself unwilling to sign off until you have that door built and locked, that roof tile in place to keep out the flyers, or that last bit of meat cooked and stored in a preserving bin for your return. This, of course, keeps you playing longer than you would anticipate, which is how people have already racked up thousands of hours playing ARK. The late game balancing, however, leaves a lot to be desired. More about that in “The Ugly”.

If you have a powerful enough rig to run it on “Epic” settings, ARK is a thing to behold. There is a ton of attention to detail, from the sheen on reptiles that reflects sunlight to the independently moving ears of the kangaroos. The sounds of the island are, at times, even more impressive than the visuals. Ambient noises that change when you enter the croaking, buzzing swamps or the windy, bitter snow biome help draw you in to the environment and make you aware of the dangers lurking in them. As rain moves across the island it changes to snow and blizzards in the snow biome, dropping the temperature further, so you have to carefully consider your choice of armor if you’re going to stray from the warmth.

But all that glitters is not gold, and ARK has more than its fair share of issues and areas for improvement…

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ARK can be very, very pretty...if your PC can handle it.

The Bad

As a long-time player I’ve noticed that noobs are abandoning the game faster and in greater numbers and experienced players are dwindling as well. There are less than a dozen active players on my server left from the time that I began playing there sometime in July of last year. Since then, hundreds of new players have come and gone from our server with varying degrees of time spent learning the game and invariably asking for handouts. The general consensus is that, if a person is annoying, don’t worry; they’ll be gone in a week or two. They usually are.

The popularity of ARK has waned since the EA launch. It has never come within 17,000 peak players from its record of 84,838 back in July, 2015, despite numerous sales, events, and competitions with high value prizes.

So why do so many people try ARK and never return? Two reasons. One, it’s not an easy game. In the age of Candy Crush, casual players are becoming less and less interested in figuring things out for themselves, or trail and error. That’s fine; it’s not meant to be easy. The second reason is that it’s a massively flawed game being developed by a team of people who clearly abhor the community and have split their attention in so many different directions that updates have slowed significantly and additions to the game are so poorly thought out they are often not worth obtaining and break existing functionality.

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The Noob Cage is where we store new players who spawn within our walls. I can’t remember a time where one came back and asked to be released.

Where’s The Focus?

Studio Wildcard is developing ARK for not one, not two, not three, but five different platforms (PC, Mac, Linux, XBOX, and PS4). They have split off the total conversion, Survival of The Fittest (SOTF), into a free to play e-competition game (basically to get more attention on Twitch), which has required numerous updates to the core game. All of this on top of the fact that ARK is several games in one to begin with. There is the single player version that allows you to host your own server, which requires the developers to maintain the server tools to support new features. Then there are the private and official servers, all with their own time requirements. ARK is split into two types of gameplay; PVP and PVE, and although the core game is the same in each, the balance of weapons, armor, dinos, and everything else has to be tested and tweaked for both. There are a number of dinos that are essentially useless in PVE, such as the Pachy, that might be worthwhile in PVP (although I can’t imagine the Pachy is useful anywhere), or the kangaroo that’s definitely not useful anywhere. There are certain dinos, like dragons, that have only made an appearance in SOTF. The path forward for ARK is about as clear as a balled up Rand McNally Road Atlas in the glove compartment of your grandfather’s F150.

Take, for example, the latest major update – v237. It was released a full month after v236 and contained very little in terms of substantive additions. The two caves it added are full of very high level dinos, which can’t be tamed, and rarely have anything of value in them to justify the effort. This is the case with all of the caves; none of them are worth the time and effort they require, with the exception of one that’s good for a specific resource, yet they are billed as a major part of the game with their artifacts being required to summon bosses. Speaking of bosses there is currently only one that’s active, the Broodmother, and it’s a massive waste of time. It would take days or even weeks for a player to gather all of the artifacts required to summon her and the grand reward for vanquishing it? A trophy and a flag.

Where Has The Love Gone?

In the 100 days prior to the XBOX launch of ARK on December 16, 2015 there were 84 patches for the PC version. In the 100 days since there were just 57.

Prior to XBOX Release

Since XBOX Release

That’s a very specific gripe, but it’s symptomatic of the mindset of the developers. The game listing on Steam mentions a Trello roadmap, which would be a great way to involve the community in development, à la Subnautica’s Trello. Instead, the developers first released patch notes in a Steam forum thread and then further confused things by asking everyone to stay up to date in their own forums. Neither of the patch notes are updated regularly and both list wildly inaccurate estimates of when patches will be released and what they will contain. Sometimes patches are a week or more behind schedule. “We just don’t have the time to care,” says Wildcard. Nearly every patch doesn’t include the items listed when they are released, and some items, like Windows 10 Directx 12 performance enhancements, have been listed as “coming soon” since last year. The devs have used the same excuses to cover this delay as with other issues: we don’t have a lot of engineers, they are busy, and we don’t focus on low-end systems.

Worse Customer Relations Than Your ISP

How game developers haven’t learned the importance of positive, timely community interaction is beyond me. I’m sure that each of them has experienced and recoiled at examples of poor communication and customer service from developers in the past, yet they seem to have learned nothing from those experiences. A good example of this came back in late January when patch v233 was released and it wiped out every single industrial cooker and beer barrel in the game. The former is an end game item and very time consuming to build. The reports began rolling in right after the patch was released, and the devs answered that they were looking in to it. In the past when issues like this would happen the developers would roll back the server to a time before the patch was implemented and fix the patch before applying it again. Not this time. Wildcard’s often abrasive Senior Technical and Gameplay Designer Kayd ‘TheRightHand’ Hendricks had some nasty replies to players in a massive thread where people were complaining about their lost items and time. The thread has since been deleted but you can find one of his apologies here. Not only was the communication unsavory; it offered a clear picture of the customer-last mindset at Wildcard. The patch removed the items because one of their developers failed to include the correct files in the patch build, so when it was pushed to servers and clients, it was simply deleted. This is an oversight fixed by a simple file scan, but apparently this wasn’t part of Wildcard’s process. Add to that the fact that someone forgot to backup the servers before the patch was rolled out and you have a bad situation for all involved, made worse by Wildcard’s rude response.

The Key To Surviving a Mysterious Island: Beer?

Then there are the bizarre additions to the game. Things like tables and chairs, which serve no purpose unless you’re trying to stage a house for sale in-game. Beer brewing is a thing, and so are swords and shields, which are basically useless throughout most of the game. Rafts, which seem useful until you realize they are slow and unwieldy, difficult to build on, an unable to navigate most rivers. Dino platforms for undersea creatures – I’ve never seen anyone actually build on one of them. Fur was added to dinos back in November and it looks more like a random assortment of Earth-toned chenille stems you made crafts with as a kid than thick coats of insulating hairs. There is a recipe system that no one uses because you simply never need them, and any number of craftable items you’ll completely ignore (radios, ballista turrets, catapults, fireplaces, elevators, and the miner’s helmet, to name a few). All of these required development time and ongoing tweaking and have minimal value in game.

Some items are useful but extremely expensive to use. The most powerful non-dino weapon is the rocket launcher, but its ammo (rocket propelled grenades rather than rockets, inexplicably) is so expensive that it’s simply not worth the time to build them in most cases. The electric prod is used to knock out dinos or people but breaks after a single use and must be refilled at a fabricator, usually at your base. Sure, it’s possible to build five or ten prods, lug them around looking for a dino to stun, and then hope for the best. You could also build a fabricator on a platform saddle and bring along the factory, but once you realize it’s a million times more effective to use a tranq dart in a rifle you won’t bother. Also, good luck using the prod on anything that moves quickly, swims, or flies.

Shadows in The Night

PVP in ARK is something of a conundrum. ARK is, by its very nature, a game that requires a lot of time; the one thing you don’t have a lot of in PVP. The moment you think your new home is defended well enough for you to finally get some sleep, some jackoff on a rex comes by and in seconds wipes away days worth of work. This cycle of starting over can seem endless in PVP, with very little progress being made. You can’t compete with higher level players if you can’t craft better items and tame better dinos, but you can’t do that if you’re constantly being murdered. There is strength in numbers, but in my experience PVP tends to be more for loners looking for cheap thrills rather than groups looking to build and relax.

The problem with PVP is that I can’t think of a good way to fix it. If you make it harder to kill or destroy things, you simply increase the amount of time it takes to do so. Since there are no safe zones on the island and, although it’s large, hiding is difficult, you will always feel vulnerable. Maybe that’s the point, but it just isn’t fun. As of this writing there are 60 Official PVP servers and 149 Official PVE servers, showing that players prefer relative safety more than two to one over the ulcer inducing PVP.

  • Official PVE Servers 71%
  • Official PVP Servers 29%
The Ugly

Can You Play Me Now?

One of the most serious issues with ARK is the sluggish performance of the game. The stated requirements of a 2Ghz dual-core CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 1GHZ GPU are, to be blunt, a complete fantasy. I seriously doubt you could comfortably play ARK on even the lowest settings on that machine. When questioned about performance issues in a June 2015 Polygon article, co-creator Jesse Rapczak made it clear that performance hasn’t been a development priority.

“We didn’t spend a lot of time optimizing for lower-end graphics cards,” he said, “because that would have taken development time away from our team.”

Despite dozens of updates since then promising performance improvements, players with low-end and even higher performance systems are still suffering from crashes, glitching, and generally poor performance.

Server issues are significant as well, with lag becoming severe the more players inhabit your particular island. Even with a dozen or fewer people on a server at off-peak hours, you can count on hiccups that will make your dino appear a few hundred feet behind where you thought you’d gone, or that alpha you’ve been chasing disappear. Or worse, the dino you’ve just spent five hours taming wakes up with almost no health and is immediately murdered by a predator that suddenly appeared out of no where.

Lag is such a long running issue that you almost get used to it. Many players will type a period into chat to measure the lag and get a sense of when normalcy is restored. Particularly large spikes are always followed by less than kind remarks in global chat. These issues aren’t limited to the PC version, either. The same problems have been reported for XBOX as well.

Part of the reason that ARK is so laggy is that the developers have yet to implement any serious garbage collection routines to cleanup the island. Every time you log out, a countdown timer begins. In three days thatch structures can be demolished, in seven wood, and so on. This allows other players to manually cleanup the island, but that is serious work and most people simply ignore structures that aren’t in their way. This results in thousands upon thousands of objects on each instance of the island that aren’t used by anyone. It would be so easy to implement a simple decay timer that triggers after the waiting period ends. For example, after three days a thatch object can be demolished. Each day after that it loses 25% of its health. In four days each server would have removed thousands of unwanted and unused objects.

Ready For a Second Job?

While early and mid game balance are well honed, late game suffers from a lack of polish and some glaring issues. After you have tamed or “acquired” enough high level dinos the challenge starts to be less about surviving and more about maintaining what you have collected. At that point it’s like a second job; you login each day to feed dinos, fertilize plants and plant turrets, check defenses, and harvest the ridiculous amount of materials required for end game items like the industrial forge (which only makes metal ingots and gas) and industrial cooker (which can’t cook meat). Higher level items, crafted from blueprints found in various drops around the island and in the ocean, are also laughably expensive to build at times, and impossible to find in most cases. In some cases they are literally impossible to build because you can’t fit all of the required materials into the smithy, a problem that has been around for at least five months.

The best drops are found at the bottom of the ocean but they are also the most difficult to get to and spawn on a schedule so anyone who times it properly can simply run a circuit and grab them all up. The land-based drops, found at the end of various colored beacons, are plentiful but contain largely useless or redundant items. Once you’ve found your 100th medium size crop plot you’ll know what I mean. Red beacons, the highest level in the game, often give you the same items you’d find in much lower level beacons, and almost never contain anything of use to a level 60+ character, which they are aimed at. This has been exactly the same since I started playing in June 2015 and has never been addressed.

The Giganotosaurus – OP Done Wrong

One thing the developers have addressed are their plans for the apex predator, the Giganotosaurus, or giga. This is a dinosaur that can easily decimate anything except a higher level giga or wild giga, meaning that once obtained, you’re basically unstoppable. TheRightHand has stated that it’s just the way they like it, thank you very much. Well, maybe they need to spend a few hundred more hours playing their game, because the giga is a game ending dinosaur, especially in PVP. One could argue that the point of the giga is to do just that, settle arguments in PVP in the most violent possible fashion, but don’t forget; ARK isn’t all about PVP.

First of all, the wild giga has 140k health which, once tamed, drops to 30k. Why? Even at 30k it’s unstoppable to anything except it’s wild counterpart, which will easily slaughter it because of the lopsided health and melee damage, which also drops 80% when tamed. It has practically no stamina so covering large distances is usually not a good use of your time, and leveling up anything except melee on it is a fallacy. You could put 100 levels of stamina into the thing and gain maybe two seconds of running time.

In the late game, when you have a lot of pointy-toothed mouths to feed, and especially if you’re breeding them, you’re going to need a ton of meat. The giga is the best dino for this and in some cases, such as when spawns are rare, they can be the only one capable of gathering enough meat to sustain your dinos or breeding efforts. That’s fine for the few players who can obtain them but everyone else is out of luck and a single giga can wipe out large swaths of prey from the island so quickly that it can seriously unbalance the environment for other survivors.

Then there is the issue of fall damage. I’ve had a giga for months and the only time it’s taken any serious damage has been from falls, sometimes of no more than 30 of 40 feet off of a boulder while walking. Even running can be dangerous if the ground is uneven or at a serious enough downward grade. How a massive 80-foot tall monster such as the giga could be critically damaged by a fall that would be equivalent of three or four feet to your average adult human is beyond logic. But, according to Wildcard, it’s just fine.

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It's never fun to see your giga almost die from a 50ft "fall".

To Follow or Not To Follow

One of the most exciting possibilities in ARK is building your very own dino army which you can lead into battle and make your enemies wish they had never said or done the bad thing. While it’s easy enough to tame an army of large-fanged lizards, getting them to follow you is another thing entirely.

To say pathfinding leaves a lot to be desired is an understatement. Dinos will get stuck on anything; rocks, trees, branches on the ground, things you can’t even see, and yes, other dinos. Since very little of the island is open terrain, it makes navigating with your hungry friends tedious at best.

Leading around an assault wing of fliers is not much easier. You have to fly on the fastest animal or the others will overtake you and circle, making it impossible to fly properly. If you get too far ahead of the others they will get lost and simply stop in mid-air. I’ve seen countless bids lost by players in this manner. It’s not unusual to be flying around and find a missing bird hovering over a lonely forest.

One solution to the problem of the giga and other dinos taking such massive fall damage is to have them follow you while you run ahead on foot or mounted to another dino, but you’ll soon learn that this is futile because once they catch up they will glitch into your character and you’ll be unable to move until you dismount or wiggle your way free. The fact that a giga will nearly die if it falls 50ft while you’re riding him but can fall from a massive height and take no damage as long as your little human body isn’t sitting on its back is silly.

It’s The Little Things

Finally, there are the myriad smaller problems that keep enjoyment at arm’s reach. In the early game you have to eat a ton of berries to stay alive and you always seem to be thirsty; this is an annoyance that is later handled by better food and water containers, but it is more than a little annoying for new players or when creating a new character. Tamed dinos vanish below the map, only to be “killed” by starvation days or weeks later. A long running glitch where if someone is at the dead center of the map, 50/50, no one on the entire server can harvest certain vital materials with dinos. This has been reported and simply hasn’t been fixed. For months.

No solution has been offered to combat thatching; the act of claiming land with thatch tiles that also eliminates spawns which has caused more grief than any other single item. You can build a perfectly nice home and login to find it surrounded by thatch, effectively blocking you from expanding and stopping all nearby spawns. Want to find out who is doing it to you and plot revenge for when they are offline and defenseless? No problem. Just turn on their Steam name in the settings and stalk them. This has a snowball effect and encourages bullying.

To effectively tame higher level dinos you need to create kibble from eggs dropped by your tamed dinos, but egg drops are random and sometimes don’t appear to be working. Patches and special events often break egg drops completely, and although a special dinosaur was created, the oviraptor, which is meant to boost egg production, it doesn’t seem to make a significant difference.

Breeding is a ridiculous time suck. The only reason to do it is to create the perfect dinosaur, and the mechanics are such that you have to find two wild dinos, one male, one female, with exactly the right stats. This is nearly impossible, as stats are random and almost never what you want, and finding a high level dino is difficult in and of itself. Then you must tame them, mate them, and roll the dice hoping you get what you want. Then you have to raise it, level it, and you’ll finally have your super-dino. Which could vanish underneath the map at any time. Or die from fall damage because you ran too fast.

Dinosaur attack animations leave a lot to be desired. Rather than watching a nine ton monster rip apart its prey what you’ll actually witness is more like a chicken bobble toy; the head, tail, or beak simply slashes at the enemy in the same manner until one of them is dead. No real contact is made, there is no sense of intensity, just one graphic lunging in the direction of another graphic. Sometimes they don’t even make contact as with the giga which simply needs to be close to its target. Although there are blood textures, and those look good, they are not dynamic. If you attack a tail, blood will appear on the head, for example. This just takes you out of the action a bit and could use polish. I understand that biting, gnawing and thrashing would not be a good idea because it would slow the game down and be nauseating when riding the dinos, but there has to be a more impressive middle ground.

When special events are launched, sometimes they introduce beasts such as the Dodorex, which spawns randomly for a few minutes and is impossible to kill. Fun, eh? In recent events you can summon the Dodorex if you gather an insane, no, impossible amount of random drops. It’s like the devs just don’t think these things through or intentionally make them unobtainable, but why?

Conclusions

ARK is one of those games that draws you in and becomes addictive quickly. There are moments of beauty and the island itself is very well conceived and designed. Like Civilization, it creates a sense of something significant being just minutes away.

Those moments don’t occur often enough, however. Most of the time you’re farming, building, or recovering from something that should never have happened in the first place due to a bug or flaw in the game. Taming at the higher levels becomes a huge time commitment, and breeding is basically broken as it stands now. PVP is simply not much fun, and PVE tends to lose its appeal after a while as there is very little to do after you’ve tamed the higher level dinos.

I’d love to see the developers do a better job of communicating with the community. They can start by making their development timeline public and enabling feedback. This will help us all understand what’s going on and what to expect; maybe next time biomes are introduced huge numbers of players won’t log in to find everything they’ve worked on destroyed.

It’s hard to know whether to recommend ARK to a new player because I can’t even decide if should quit ARK or keep playing. My opinion on this changes daily yet I’m still logging in, feeding dinos, upgrading bases, and hoping that something new and interesting will be added. I think a lot of players feel that way which means Studio Wildcard has a tough road ahead. I’ll echo a comment I’ve seen voices hundreds of times; fix the lag, fix the dinos, and add things that are useful and fun. That’s really all the community is asking for.