Five minutes after I logged into ARK: Survival Evolved, I punched a fish. A few moments later, I punched a tree. Shortly thereafter, I mustered the courage to punch a dinosaur, and while that didn’t go as well as I would have liked, I did in fact survive.
ARK is one of the ubiquitous early access survival sandboxes littering Steam these days, but because of some glowing recommendations and because dinosaurs, I opted to forego my usual bias against paying to test and dropped 25 bucks on the title.
And despite its reminding me of Mike Tyson’s Punchout in the early going, I’m having a pretty decent time with ARK. True to its early access nature, the game boasts little in the way of tutorials, lore explanation, or hand-holding. I awoke on some sort of tropical beach, scratching at the diamond-shaped implant in my arm and looking at a monolithic sci-fi tower structure looming in the distance.
First I took stock of the UI, which is dead simple and right up my alley in terms of its unobtrusive minimalism. There’s a single hotbar hanging out where most hotbars do, and there’s a vertical row of icons on the right side of the screen, displaying your health, stamina, weight, hunger, and thirst.
Yes, this is one of those survival games where you’ll need to not only kill things and craft things but also remember to eat, drink, and even defecate. Drinking is as easy as wading into the nearest body of water, which will also do you right should you get a system message like “you’re feeling hot; you should cool off.” Eating is almost as easy, since all you have to do is walk up to the nearest plant, hit your E key, and hopefully harvest a handful of edible berries.
These don’t fill you up, though, and soon you’ll want to procure some dino meat as well as all the necessities to craft a camp fire. Oh, and take my advice: Don’t eat the raw meat.
Press I to open your inventory, drag berries or meat to your hotbar, then activate them with a number key and chow down with some hilariously loud sound effect accompaniment. Your inventory screen also serves as a jumping off point to your character vitals screens, where you’ll make various progression related choices as you level up.
Leveling up seems to happen after you pick enough berries or punch enough fish/trees/dinosaurs. Each time I leveled up, I was given the opportunity to boost one of my character stats (health, stamina, fortitude, melee damage, etc.) by a single point. You also get something called engram points to spend, and I’m assuming that a lore explanation will be forthcoming as early access moves along. Maybe it’s some sort of Assassin’s Creed sci-fi memory thing? I dunno, but at any rate I opted to learn the stone hatchet and campfire engrams first, each of which cost three points.
The inventory screen also allows you to click over to the crafting screen, and after I’d punched a bunch of trees to gather wood and collected enough stone from the random rocks conveniently lining the beach, I clicked through and crafted the stone hatchet.
Crafting is disappointingly simple. If you have the proper engram and the required materials, you simply select the item from the craftables menu and click the craft button. Voila, it’s in your inventory. Given how gorgeous the rest of the game looks, I’d like to see some crafting animations at some point, not to mention some variation and customization in the process itself. That all may yet happen, of course, since this is early access and since the developers’ stated goal is to launch for reals in June 2016.
In addition to sparing my knuckles, the hatchet rendered resource gathering a much faster task, and it also allowed me to tomahawk a couple of loitering dinosaurs who kindly gave up their meat and their hides for my future survival needs.
Here is where the game’s alpha state first became apparent, as the dinosaurs in question did run away as I attempted to bring them down, but they also pathed right into a lump of nearby rocks and remained there while I hacked away at them with my crude stone gathering tool.
Visually, ARK is a marvel. The world feels alive and looks photo-real in places but for the aforementioned sci-fi tower and the dinos milling about. Character creation has a few basic sliders, though the avatars tend a little too much toward Gears of War beefcake for my taste.
There’s a day-night cycle with actual night, so be sure you’re versed in making fire before the sun sets on your first day. I’m running the game with the settings maxed on a 30-inch monitor and getting upwards of 30 frames per second, but performance will naturally depend on your PC hardware. In my experience, it’s more than acceptable for an alpha.
The animations are occasionally janky, but they’re also occasionally superb, from the way my avatar flips his hatchet in the air when equipping it to the lumbering gracefulness of the various dinosaurs on display around the starter area.
Is ARK an MMO? Probably not, given the fact that you can opt to play it solo or host a friends-only server. Oh, and the official multiplayer servers currently top out at 70 souls each. But it’s got more than its share of MMO-like mechanics, and you could do far worse in terms of quality when it comes to early access survival games. ARK’s world is truly massive, too, and its bare-bones navigation features (there’s no minimap that I’m aware of) make for a more interesting and immersive experience than the usual follow-the-line-and-kill-the-mob MMO paradigm.
I’ve written a lot of words about ARK already, and I’ve yet to really talk about the main attraction. The dinosaurs are big, beautiful, and varied, and I’m plenty motivated to level up and learn the game’s ins and outs after seeing players ride (and fly) by on various dino mounts. You can also build player housing using all of those resources you’ve been accumulating, and ARK features rudimentary guild functionality (here referred to as tribes) for those of you who want to grab your friends for a spot of survival gameplay crossed with Jurassic Park visuals.
While I’m typically loath to buy or recommend early access games out of principle, in this case I’m glad I broke my own rules. ARK is absolutely worth the 25 bucks it’ll cost you during the Steam summer sale, and if the development team makes good on the laundry list of additional features it plans to add over time, this’ll be one to watch in 2016. And if they don’t, well, it’s already enjoyable in 2015.