Story: In ARK, you wake up and find yourself in an unknown locale, not sure who you are or what is going on. You have an odd implant in your wrist, but otherwise, you have little to no information. The Island is filled with tropical plants, lush landscapes, and all kinds of exotic creatures, including numerous dinosaurs. The narrative is simple, you need to survive. You can track down explorer’s notes and learn a little more about this world, but otherwise, you create your own story as you progress, with the emergent experiences as your personal tale. So punch a tree, gather some resources, and try not to die in this harsh new world.
Entertainment Value: After the meteoric rise of Minecraft, the market was flooded with a constant stream of craft/build/survive games, most with some kind of gimmick to try to stand out. You know, like zombies, medieval worlds, post apocalyptic landscapes, mutants, and in the case of ARK, it was dinosaurs. This proved to be an effective hook and the game built a sizable audience in early access, a development stage it would remain in for years. Now after countless updates and even some expansions, ARK has left early access on all platforms and we have the launch version of the game, for better or worse. I played ARK on and off throughout early access, often with large gaps between sessions and I can tell you, the game has changed in numerous ways, but remains the same core experience. The developers have changed the interface several times, added a wealth of items and animals, and even delivered entire new maps to explore, but the base experience is the same. The basics are still not polished, but function well enough that you can do what you need to do. Combat is simplistic and not much fun, the menus (on console) are tedious and poorly designed, and the game remains plagued by poor optimization and a parade of bugs & glitches. That said, these are things you can work around, though after years of early access that saw the game sell like hotcakes, it is odd that it remains so unpolished.
The game tasks you to survive, which means at first, you cobble together some wood and rocks, craft some implements and hunt some small creatures. This leads to some leveling up, which allows you to add points to various stats such as faster movement speed, less demanding water/food needs, overall health, and other vital attributes. As you level, you also gain access to engrams, which let you learn how to craft various valuable and fun recipes, like weapons, housing materials, vanity items, and useful tools to help you survive and tame the wilds. I love this aspect of ARK, as the slow growth in power makes you feel like you are really overcoming the harsh elements, with each step giving you valuable benefits to bolster your survival. You can choose to group up and form tribes, which is often crucial to the process, but you can opt for PvE servers or PvP, the latter of which is the real ARK experience. AI dinosaurs are lethal, but humans who conspire to raid your shelter and pillage your crucial supplies are a much more dangerous and tense element. This forces you to band together and even then, the game offers you minimal ways to protect your assets in the persistent world. So no, the PvP system isn’t fair, but it is a lot of fun and where ARK shines.
A huge selling point of ARK is the dinosaurs involved, as you can interact, hunt, and even tame these impressive beasts. The hunt isn’t all that great, thanks to lackluster combat and a system that just makes you reference the target’s level number and equip the proper weapon, with little else that matters. If you bring down a monstrous kill, it is still a good feeling, but with lifeless combat and no real interesting mechanics within the fights, it can only do so much. The taming process is a little more rewarding, since you can tame the beasts, then ride them, use them as pack mules, or have them defend your turf, which is vital to the PvP experience. I don’t mind a grind or time investment at all, but the developers show little to no respect for players’ time when it comes to this tame process. Even minor creatures are a time sink and if you want to domesticate huge, high level tames, be prepared to abandon the rest of your interests. This is intended to force you into the tribe dynamic, but I think this is lazy and disrespectful. The taming and breeding aspects should be a core part of ARK, but instead you have to worry about server issues or downtime tanking countless hours of progress, with no empathy from the developers whatsoever. I think ARK is a solid game and has a lot of potential, but it doesn’t feel like a top tier video game. The graphics are great, even on console, but there is so little polish and core parts of the gameplay come off as rushed and ineffective. Perhaps with another few years of development, ARK can live up to that potential and learn some respect for its devoted fanbase, as there is a good game in here, but it needs to be polished and optimized.