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.