At the climax of Billy Wilder’s brilliant 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) pumps three slugs into Joe Gillis (William Holden), leaving his body floating in her swimming pool and shortly thereafter gives us a classic line of dialog as well as one of the best endings in movie history.
ARK: Survival Evolved is, in its own quirky manner, a digital Norma Desmond all made up and ready for her close-up and you’ll be playing the part of poor Joe Gillis, but in a remake of Groundhog Day with a hell of a lot more dinosaurs and without the romance angle. Translation: expect to die in this game. A lot. That out of the way, the sheer amount of things to do here makes it somewhat fantastic if you put aside a few nagging “warts and all” issues. Then again, hell, it’s basically like dumping all the best toys you ever had as a kid onto the floor and making the biggest, craziest “epic” playset you can think of. Except the toys bite back harder and might make you want to bite your controller in half on occasion.
Based on that last bit alone, Studio Wildcard‘s game is worth the $60 with a few caveats. On the technical side, expect performance highs (great looking creatures and often gorgeous environments) and lows (frame rate dips, assorted glitches, too tiny font text) along with plenty of patch updates (five since release day). Unlike poor Joe Gillis, the game is also bullet-proof (and unlike Norma Desmond’s career, critic-proof) thanks to a very dedicated legion of longtime players since it first appeared on PC as an Early Access game back in 2015 who don’t give a hoot what anyone says. The overall kitchen sink sandbox approach works quite well on one hand as the game is never shy about giving you a ton of choice in most areas. But yes, it’s a case where patience and even more practice is required in order to fully enjoy all the rides in this Jurassic Park meets Minecraft meets sci-fi/action survival hybrid.
From the outset, two game modes are available: Survival Evolved, and Primitive Plus, each with solo, co-op and multiplayer functionality. The former allows eventual access to stuff like modern to futuristic tech upgrades while the latter limits things to more or less “prehistoric” gear. While the game defaults to a first person mode, you can also play in third person with or without an offset camera view. I suggest trying out all three viewpoints as each has its own merits. There’s a handy Survival Guide that’s a must-read for newbies, but the game has no tutorials to show beginners the ropes. If you’re really stuck, you’ll need to poke around at the very necessary online wiki for tips, mess around with the many options, or in my case, do both then ask a friend who’s been playing for a while for quick advice.
As you can probably guess, the difference between online and offline play are a few-fold. Being able to join an online Tribe and share much-needed resources is a good thing, as is playing a few exhilarating team-centric matches where you get to see the crazier mixes of primitive to modern tech at work. It’s a night and day experience when you see how creative some of the higher leveled players are (provided they’re not hunting you down), but you’ll also run into helpful players who want to hang out or hand you goodies to make your experience more enjoyable.
On the other hand, as with any online game with PvE and PvP modes, you’ll encounter a few overcaffeinated folks who want nothing more than to mess with your stash, wreck your hard-built (albeit temporary) home and leave you with nothing while you’re offline (or happen to have a string of bad luck online). That said, there are a ton of servers and games to wade through, so you can very likely find one that suits your style of play. You can even run your own server and if you have friends who want in on the fun, send out invites to them to meet up for some online thrills. They’ll need to buy their own copies of the game, so you’re be the one making the selling points with no commission if they’re skeptical.
It’s your move on where to start first, but I’ll highly recommend single player, as that’s where I spent the bulk of my time playing. There’s actually a big backstory here (and a newly added endgame/final boss) that you probably won’t think about initially because you’ll be too busy trying to not die from creature bite(s), disease, hunger, thirst or even temperature changes (among other things). That said, dying is so easy at the beginning that it’s almost a miracle when you can safely build a shelter, feed yourself and poop without worrying about something saurian, human or otherwise taking you out of (or adding you to) the food chain. Sure, you can look up some handy cheat console commands if you want to. But, playing the game as a pure survival experience is actually more terrifying and while less “fun” at times, makes pushing through those early parts somewhat more satisfying.
Well, to a point. Getting surprised and mauled to death by some roving raptors while straying off during a bout of overconfidence is one thing. But death comes so quickly at times that you might get the feeling Harvey Dent had a hand in the programming and he kept flipping his coin during the coding process. Of course, it makes total sense that playing as someone who’s dropped without warning hale-naked into a strange, impossible land would be disoriented and full of questions. What are Engrams and Tekgrams? How do I get more than 100 feet past the beach without dying? How do I grow crops? What’s up with the saddles? Ooh, can I touch that Trilobite wriggling my way? All will be answered in time, grasshopper. Just stop dying so much and get to it, pal.
But this is a game where its random nature kicks you around from time to time often to amusing (yet infuriating) effect. My first character appeared on the island and within seconds got whacked in the head by a passing low-flying Pterosaur of some sort (or was it a Pterodactyl?) before a nearby dino I didn’t get to identify charged in to finish off the job. Ouch. Another got attacked and killed while harvesting shelter materials about 15 minutes in. The third made it far enough to gain a few levels and get some decent clothing, shelter and a fire built. But raptor chase hijinks, a short cliff fall into water, THEN something in that water getting grabby took care of her but good (*sigh*). And so forth and so on it went, but I didn’t give up other than to quit playing a few times and watch a assorted movies to de-stress (Sunset Boulevard included). At least you keep your earned Engrams (crafting recipes) and don’t have to completely start from square one after each demise.
Early on, nearly everything in the game is a game of chance like a big buffet in Vegas where you can pig out at your leisure despite your doctor telling you eating six steaks and half a quart of gelato after a jumbo shrimp cocktail isn’t the best idea. During one session, a friend dropped by to check the game out and made me laugh out loud after he noted that watching me play was like driving through the old safari at Great Adventure with all four windows rolled down only to crash and end up having to make it back through Action Park with dinosaurs. Gee, thanks. As noted, this is a game where you have to work at having fun with, but it’s also one where you get the feeling you’re that 98-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face on the back of an old comic book.
The creature taming and raising is another aspect where chance can ruin a load of hard work. While it’s not the most complicated process in the game, one core aspect of taming requires making sure your dino or other beastie of choice isn’t eaten by other predators or over-smacked around if you choose to knock it out before taming. Of course, riding your newly tamed dino or other creature makes for more great fun. Er, just try not to get both of you killed off right away like I did – a cliff and run in with a ticked off Somethingorothersaurus did me in in that particular case.
In a way, I’m surprised Studio Wildcard hasn’t added the option to get inexpensive or free pre-made starter pack characters with low-level gear with already tamed starter beasts for those willing to admit they’re kind of lazy but still want to play without using cheats. But that’s not necessarily a good thing to add DLC like this in a game where you’ll likely lose both hero and mount/sidekick in a handful of minutes. I’m gathering from poking around online that a lot of players just want to get into the game sans some of the pesky deaths they’ll face, but whatever. I’m gathering thanks to patching and feedback this game will have more than enough legs to last for quite some time.
As I’m still playing through the main game’s story mode, it’s a case where you see something coming together that, despite the technical hiccups is actually somewhat compelling on a primal level. That beach gives way to a much more expansive set of interior and exterior environments with more bizarre creatures (so far the game has over 100 types). As you level up and get access to higher levels with more Engrams and Tekgrams, there are moments where everything clicks and you’ve ended up sinking a few hours into exploration and surviving despite the odds. Yeah, it’s not perfect on a few fronts, particularly when playing on a base PS4 or PS4 Slim and trying to push all the visual settings up. But it’s a case where you look at the big picture (and adjust the settings) and see what the deal is as you shrug your shoulders at an occasional iffy texture or crazy glitch and push onward through them into a newly discovered area.
Wait. Was that a dragon flying overhead just now or was my mind playing tricks on me after coming out of that crazy cave earlier? Shrug. Maybe not, but it’s late and I’m just about to pass out from being up too late. Eh, let’s go find out, shall we? I’ll very likely die on the way there, but I’d say I’m used to it by this point.
Score: B (80%, but maybe rent it first because you kind of need to commit to the experience)
Review code provided by the publisher