Video Games Review: ARK: Survival Evolved (Xbox One, 2017) combines wonder with next-level grind

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I know I’m not the only one. I loved (and continue to love) The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park, I read every book on them I could find, I inhaled the Dinotopia novels, I spent more time on DinoPark Tycoon in the primary school’s computer room than I did in class. ARKSurvival Evolved would have been the kind of game I’d have lost my mind over as a younger person, regardless of its many obvious shortcomings. As an adult, sadly, its a far harder sell.

Perhaps the best moment of ARK for me was its opening one. Your character awakens, buck ass nude, on a beach but, in that moment, that’s not really your biggest concern. As you look around you, there are goddamned dinosaurs and prehistoric animals everywhere. There’s little compy’s around your feet and pteranodons are swooping in the distance and the ground is shaking because there’s a brachiosaurus over there and WAIT, I CAN RIDE THESE THINGS?

There’s a lot of negative things you can say about ARK: Survival Evolved, and I plan to say a few them myself later in this very review, but moments like the one outlined above happen on the regular. The scale of what ARK is trying to do is breathtaking — from its sprawling world to the dinosaurs and animals that inhabit it to its many different systems, it was enough for me to simply take a walking tour like the island map was my own personal park.

Nice as the simulation of a day in a prehistoric national park is, however, you probably bought the game because the cover art shows a warrior woman astride a raptor with a rifle in her paws. In the background there’s a guy riding an armoured T-Rex while sniping. I mean, look at the header image on this review. That is a cool ass header image. That’s some Turok shit. Yes. Let’s do that. And here, abruptly, is where things start to go wrong for ARK.

For a start, not only is the game not about riding battle dinosaurs into combat, to actually get to the stage where you can do anything approaching that requires sinking an amount of time into the game that most working adults would consider irresponsible. ARK is a survival title (and it does, at least, put the word Survival right there in the title, presumably so they can say you warned when you complain to them on Twitter about the lack of dino rampage).

ARK, like many games in the survival genre, doesn’t do much of anything to help get you on your feet. Once you’re done admiring the dinosaurs on the beach, you’ll realise the game is telling you that are you are Cold. That’s it. That’s the only information it gives you to start with. Okay, what do I do about that? It’s a nice day out, running about in the sun seems to take care of the cold. But what about longer term? Your ability to create shelter and begin building a life will hinge on how experienced you are with other games in the genre. Veteran players will already be hoovering up crafting components and resources, fist-fighting trees for wood and ginning up a rickety shed in which to survive the night. Those unfamiliar might just get eaten by a dinosaur as they frolic about, realise the game isn’t what they thought it was and log out, never to return.

For those hoping there might be some documentation within the game, know that you’re going to have to work for it. Whoever was in charge of UI for ARK is a sadist. The menus are labyrinthine, the text microscopic (on my 50″ 4K television no less) and even if you do find what you’re looking for, there’s every chance you may not be able to decipher it. The controls screen alone is an absolute shambles and does nothing to help you understand how the game works.

I’m just saying, it’s not that hard to throw a tutorial in. That’s right, there’s no tutorial. The game stacks systems on top of systems on top of systems and what it does to help you understand how they work, or interact, or even how to play it in general is provide an encyclopedic document called the Survival Guide that info dumps everything about the game into one incomprehensibly long in-game PDF. I can’t speak for anyone but myself here, but when I’m not playing games professionally, I’m play them as a way to escape or unwind at the end of a long day. Being made to feel like I need to undertake a short course just to understand how a game works is a massive turn off for me. If that’s your thing, if having to devote a significant amount of time to studying how a game works before you can actually play it sounds like your idea of fun then please, go forth and enjoy yourself, but know that I will be staring at you in wide-eyed bewilderment the entire time.

There’s one other gripe I have with the game, and it’s the same one that comes up almost every time we have to review games with an online component as Australians — where my AU servers at? There’s hordes of US and EU ones, and the ping is fine I suppose if you’re playing with Aussie friends but you’re shit out of luck if you run into someone who isn’t Australian. Their ping will outstrip yours by hundreds of ms and you’ll be murdered and looted for your resources before you even have time to react.

ARK: Survival Evolved operates on a truly crazy scale, and it is home to a beautifully crafted world that feels as though it lives and breathes while you amble through it. It locks all its coolest features behind near unattainable milestones, achievable only through hours, days and in some cases months of grinding. Its UI is a mess, its documentation moreso and while there’s certainly dopey fun to be had in the multiplayer with the right people, there’s not enough to keep the average player in for the long haul. For the right person, ARK will be exactly what they’ve been looking for. For everyone else, it will feel like the game that told them they could ride a dinosaur but then wouldn’t actually let them do it.

Score: 6.0 out of 10
Highlights: Great maps; Dinosaurs!
Lowlights: Complicated; Time consuming; Every part of the construction process is a chore
Developer: Studio Wildcard
Publisher: Studio Wildcard
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Reviewed on Xbox One.