I spotted the peaceful parasaurolophus drinking by the river. I sent a rock flying from my crude slingshot, and my tamed pair of dilophosaurus shot out from beside me, chasing the fleeing herbivore across the water.
Dangerous things lurk in the water, like megapiranhas. I was nearly killed just making the brief swim. I lacked a Chris Pratt-style motorcycle and quickly lost sight of both my quarry and my dinosaurs.
On the far side of the river, I watched in stunned silence as a Spinosaurus attacked a herd of brontosaurus. I was snapped back to reality as a pair of giant killer wasps suddenly bore down on me. I fled right into a pack of wild dilophosaurus. My screen turned black as their spit hit my face, and I died to a frenzy of claws and teeth.
Welcome to the world of ARK: Survival Evolved, a prehistoric island where humans are the lowest on the food chain.
ARK: Survival Evolved contains the usual checklist for the popular survival genre that can trace its roots back to Minecraft: constant food and water needs, building and crafting increasingly complex buildings and items, and a big world to explore.
ARK also happens to be one of the best-selling games of the year, though it’s still in Early Access. Originally launched on Steam in June, ARK had the distinct advantage of featuring a gorgeous premise with an island full of dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters right when Jurassic World was taking over the cinema. Since then ARK has gone on to sell over a million copies, becoming a huge hit on Twitch.tv and YouTube.
Land of the Lost
The island itself is large, but not randomized, and learning the layout is a major part of the experience. Your nearly naked avatar is dropped onto the island—and possibly immediately murdered by predators or other players (if you’re playing online).
Death comes swiftly in ARK, and like the cruelest online role-playing games of old, you leave all your items on your corpse. This forces a shameful “corpse run” as you pray whatever killed you isn’t still hanging around—and that you can even find your body in the first place.
If the threat of speedy or large carnivores isn’t enough, monstrous beasts and insects that would feel right at home in a classic Ray Harryhausen film roam the island, including giant scorpions, wasps, and prehistoric birds.
Crafting is tied entirely to your level. As your character performs tasks, like making new tools or taming a dinosaur, you gain experience toward leveling up. A new level lets you spend skill points on new craftable blueprints called Engrams. Engrams bring agonizing choices each level. Do you spend your limited points on a bedroll or a waterskin? It’s an interesting system, but levels come very slowly. I was nearly 10 hours into my single-player game before I was able to craft my first dino-saddle.
Dinosaur taming and riding is the biggest selling point of the game. It’s a time-consuming process that involves knocking the prospective dino unconscious, then feeding it food as you nurse it back to health.
It’s a bit unsettling that the only way to make a dinosaur your friend is through violence. It’s not unlike capturing Pokémon, but things get a bit too real from a first-person perspective as your fists cause gushes of blood to pop out of the poor beasts.
Smaller dinosaurs can take 15 minutes, while larger beasts take several hours and lots and lots of food and “narcoberries” to keep them knocked out. I did love that each dinosaur has its own inventory, stats, and levels, giving a huge sense of ownership and progression for your new pets.
There’s also a fairly robust system for giving your dinos’ orders and commands. The interface in general is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a survival game. The inventory screen is a one-stop shop of crafting, items, stats, and information. It’s far more intuitive than most games in the genre.
Exploring the island with a small herd of pet dinosaurs grants a small safety net. Most of the island’s denizens are actually peaceful herbivores, from giant turtles to triceratops, parasaurolophus, and the little dodos that act as easy fodder.
Many times I crested a hill or cliff and looked out over a stunning scene full of prehistoric animals coexisting together. Simply exploring and finding new dinosaurs was an absolute delight, and I wished there was a game mode that eschewed combat and food/water needs and just gave me a camera.
While ARK excels at its visual presentation, it’s held back by its indie roots and Early Access state. ARK is very poorly optimized at this stage, requiring a relatively beefy PC to run well. I squeezed out a decent frame rate on Medium-Low settings with my two-year-old machine, but it wasn’t nearly as good-looking as the trailers. I often ran into stuttering issues, and my immersion was destroyed every time a dinosaur got wedged in between a rock and a tree.
The frame rate improved when playing online on one of the hundreds of available official servers, but then I had to contend with lag spikes, disconnects, and general latency quirks. The developers add new improvements, patches, and dinosaurs several times a week, but if you don’t have a top-of-the-line PC it’s probably worth holding off for now.
Life Finds a Way
ARK: Survival Evolved is the most compelling survival game I’ve ever played. An island full of dinosaurs and wondrous beasts just waiting to be tamed, explored, hunted, and built around is just fantastic. It still has many of the unfriendlier survival genre systems, like rapidly depleting food and water levels, but it’s the first one that I’ve really wanted to sink some time into. If you’ve got the PC and the time, ARK is a ton of fun right now. But even if you choose to wait you should keep your eye on it if you ever gasped with child-like excitement at the dinosaur-filled vistas from Jurassic Park.