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Ark: Survival Evolved Review (PC)

So Ark is out of Early Access and is now officially released. A dinosaur based sandbox survival game, Ark sees you and your friends (or enemies) gathering, crafting, building, and taming on a tropical island (or a scorching desert in the controversial paid DLC). You go through an underpowered weakling struggling to survive on scraps of cooked meat and berries to a powerful clan with numerous complexes all over the map, mech-style gear for you and your dinosaurs and a mostly automated system of gathering so you never run out of crafting materials. But is it any fun?

My feelings towards Ark can be summed up in two brutally short stories. One evening, on an official server on the Xbox One, Naimgear and me spent five hours taming a pair of sarcosaurs (giant crocodiles) in the always-dangerous swamp. Taming involved knocking them out with a huge amount of crafted tranquiliser arrows and bolts, and then sitting by the unconcious beast while you feed it narcotics and meat for hours on end, praying that nothing from the swamp comes out to kill you. We eventually got both of them, made the dangerous swim back to our base using our very expensive saddles, and put both of them in a giant pen we had been creating for this very purpose. We logged off, satisfied that they were safe.

The next day we logged on and everything had been destroyed. The giant warehouse we kept our flyers in, the giant pen, both sarcos, everything was gone. This was because some other players had seen our base and wanted to destroy it, no other reason.

The second story was on an unofficial server on the PC with ‘TheArrow’ and Naimgear where gathering and taming was sped up to be twice as fast, making the tames and building not quite so painful. We had built up a huge metal base with turrets on top, vaults inside, and electricity to power all manner of top-tier crafting benches. We had a pet T-Rex, a Brontosaurus, a Quetzal (the largest bird in the game that is notoriously tricky to tame because it never lands) and more. While we were playing the other two had gone off to gather things from nearby mountains while I was doing some basic chores around the base, fertilising planets, filling up feeding troughs etc. Then it arrived. A gigantosaurus, the largest of the carnivores in Ark, spawned in the middle of our base. Instantly everything went crazy because it took a disliking to one dinosaur and bit it, causing every other dinosaur to attack. Suddenly the base was a flurry of tooth and claw, but the gigantosaurus was high level and was winning easily. They go berserk when they take too much damage, and this one was destroying absolutely everything with reckless abandon. The main metal base fell almost instantly, along with most of our supplies and defences. The collection of dinosaurs was decimated as many of the carnivores who might have been able to help were trapped behind the herbivores and the flyers were on passive to make sure no one could kite them out of our base. Eventually I hopped on the quetzal and led the lizard away into the sea, hoping to drown it. This involved flying close enough to make it think it could bite me, then flying up and away so it missed and chased for a while. Leaving the smouldering wreckage of our 100-hour base behind, I flew out to sea. Then it bit the bird and we lost that too.

Both of these events were immensely frustrating and the reason I quit playing on each console, but then both couldn’t have been that frustrating if it wasn’t for the tens of hours I spent building up to that moment. Ark is a game that draws you in and absorbs your time, and the thrill of exploration and expansion is very real. There’s nothing like building a huge fortress with your friends and there’s always a project to be getting on with. If you log in alone you can head off to gather some rarer materials or even just expand your buildings a little. When everyone is on together you can take on a challenging tame, or explore a cave (which are unbelievably tough challenges until you have end-game gear and levelled dinos) or raid another team’s base.

Of course there are horrible disasters that will befall you, but you can mitigate most of these through your choice of server and base location. PvP servers make the game much more exciting and makes success more rewarding, but you’re constantly faced with the threat of being wiped while you’re offline because people are cowards. PvE servers are safer, but a little more boring and you end up butting against the strange building restrictions that occur when you allow hundreds of new players to build little huts everywhere but then not letting you destroy them to make space. You can make your own servers and play offline single-player or with a small group but then you’re missing out on the social aspect of Ark altogether. The point is, you have a choice and that choice is very broad. You can play Ark how you want to play it and once you get into a server you like, there’s a huge amount of things to do and fun to be had.

Sadly, there’s also a lot of annoyances in the game that will cause you problems at some point and betray the game’s lack of polish. Dinosaurs will glitch through the map and clip into rocks, you’ll be attacked by things you can’t see (especially underwater), when you’re building things will get placed in the wrong position at the last second, wasting your materials. While Ark is an impressively broad sandbox, it’s not a very refined one, and the developers have focused on introducing new dinosaurs and tech into the game without ever really fixing some of the key problems.

Thankfully on PC you can use mods and private servers to alleviate much of this, and even add in new maps and features. It really is a very customisable game and will no doubt persist for a long while after the developers stop providing new things thanks to the excellent community that works hard to create new things for people to play with – but for a game that is now charging a high retail price (£50 at the time of writing) you’re going to be getting something of much lower quality than you would probably expect.

For all its issues, Ark is an incredible game. It’s easy to spend hundreds of hours in its worlds and each time you start afresh on a new server you’ll have all of that fun all over again, but despite it coming out of Early Access, do be aware that you’re very much paying £50 for something that feels like a work in progress.

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Starting again in Ark: Survival Evolved

I’m back here again. Gathering stone for hours praying that the walls we build will keep the raiders at bay. Babysitting sleeping dinosaurs and quietly drugging them until they wake up and think we’re their masters. Being mortally terrified of the swamp.

Naimgear and me did all of this before on the Xbox One. We had a large base with a huge warehouse for flying dinosaurs and a giant pen for our Sarcosaurs (giant crocodiles). We had enough gear to comfortably travel anywhere south of the snow biomes without worry. We were friends with the huge tribe on our server that casually marched around the island on t-rexes and controlled the central valleys. Then we lost it all.

In Ark, when you log off your character simply falls asleep wherever they stand. We were playing on a PvP server so anything is fair game. In the middle of the night a group broke into our base using explosives. They killed all of our dinosaurs, destroyed most of our buildings and stole everything we owned. When we logged on there was nothing. All of those hours we’d spent amassing that dinosaur collection were gone. We stopped playing.

But now for some reason we’re back. Arrow, Naimgear, and me have all started a new tribe on a new PvP server on the PC. We’ve gone for an unofficial server this time with five times the gathering speed and ten times the taming speed. This means a dinosaur (like a Pteradon) that used to take an hour to tame now only takes six minutes, when you hit a rock you get 5 pieces of stone instead of one, everything is sped up.

We’ve got a nice new base on the edge of a cliff, we’ve tamed a few useful dinosaurs, we’ve started building a big new pen to keep it in. Of course the first night we logged off Arrow woke up to find us all in cages with all our stuff stolen, but he broke the cages and dragged us back inside so it’s probably fine.

There’s something undeniably addictive about Ark. There’s always something to do, some way to progress. Right now I’m looking for a giant armadillo so I can harvest stone quicker to build up our buildings. Naimgear wants to surround our base with spikes to keep would-be-thieves at bay (as long as they don’t fly), Arrow wants a frog. Whenever I log on, I’ll be able to do something. There’s always the chance we’ll lose everything again, but then there’s also the chance we won’t, that we’ll be able to defend, that we’ll survive long enough to explore the frozen north or the murky depths of the ocean. If we manage to do that, there’s a whole expansion available to take us into the desert.

Ark might be Early Access, and it might seem incredibly unfair, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun and definitely worth your money.

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Ark: Survival Evolved Preview (Xbox One)

This morning I woke up and it was all gone. Our two-storey base made from wood and stone was nowhere to be found, the 50ft perimeter wall that had taken three days to build was mostly erased. The collection of rare blueprints, weapons and crafting materials had all been stolen. Worse still, Jeffery, our triceratops, hadn’t even been killed, he’d been re-tamed by people down the beach. I went to demand answers and all they could say was ‘you started us, you killed us earlier, we were scared you’d get more advanced and destroy us so we hit you first’. They had a point, we had killed them, we probably would have destroyed them eventually. So we rebuild.

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Ark has been around on the PC for a while now but in its foray into the Xbox Game Preview program console gamers can finally get a look in at this exciting world of multiplayer survival. If you die you lose everything, building anything takes hours, it doesn’t sound too appealing at first. Once you do establish yourself though, when you survive an attack, that’s when the game gets its hook into you. In Ark you start off with literally nothing, you can scrape together a mining pick and axe Minecraft-style by punching a tree with your fists. You’ll spend your first hour scrounging an existence off berries, running away from basically anything. Within five hours you’ll be hunting smaller dinosaurs, crafting thatch buildings and hoarding everything you can find. Eventually you get rocket launchers, can ride pterodactyls, and can build refrigerators. This is an unusual world, but a dramatic one.

Literally every time we’ve played Ark so far there’s been a story to tell. From being chased by giant ants through a forest to watching in awe as a glowing red raptor managed to destroy itself on our base’s spikes, there’s always something amazing happening. Admittedly the game is still in fairly early days and there are some features that are beyond janky. The server browser is entirely broken and as you store all your progress on a single server, the fact you can’t get back to it if it’s full (there’s no queue system) is more than a little annoying. Playing at peak times I’ve spent upwards of half an hour refreshing the browsing screen to get back into the same. Thankfully that should be fixed this coming week with a new patch. Within the game there’s lots of little oddities like physics not working how you’d expect but it’s definitely playable and often the glitches just add to the fun. The team behind Ark have a good track record of supporting the game on PC so hopefully Microsoft’s certification process won’t get in the way too much and the game will evolve over time alongside the PC version.

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Right now, Ark is a huge amount of fun if you can get over the waiting times for servers. Get a group together, it’s not fun alone, set up a tribe and go build something. Just please don’t steal Jeffery.

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