I’m trapped, nearly naked, on an alien world stuck in the equivalent of Earth’s Mesozoic era. There are dinosaurs everywhere, and nearly everything is out to kill me. This is ARK: Survival Evolved, the next generation game for people who want an open world survival sandbox without Minecraft’s big blocky pixels.
Ark is a brutal game, full of death, destruction and the fury of nature. Played either alone or in groups, Ark really is the next generation of Minecraft. You still chop down trees for wood, mine rocks, hunt for food and skins, and craft anything you need. Unlike Minecraft, however, the visual fidelity is jacked up to current graphics standards, so the world is as beautiful as it is unforgiving.
Available on PC and Xbox One currently (and soon the PS4), Ark is in “early access,” which basically means the game is buggy and still not finished, but up for sale anyway. The result is an intriguing take on survival with a convoluted interface that makes even basic crafting tasks seem damn near incomprehensible at first. To put it mildly, Ark is not, in any way, a “casual” or player-friendly game.
It will take hours of play—after you spend several hours just figuring out how the hell to not die immediately after starting—to get the general gist of how things roll. Once you get there, the game is empowering, if never really comfortable or easy. To put this learning curve into perspective, trying to make a simple fire was, personally, a bizarre string of awful mistakes, culminating with me accidently eating my own shit before I finally realized the correct steps involved.
Taming dinosaurs is a whole other level of patience, frustration, and outrageous discovery, since it can take vast amounts of time following the reptilian buggers, and either knocking them out, drugging them and force feeding them, or slowly following them around giving them nice things to eat from behind. Whatever method you choose, prepare to fail—a lot.
And probably start with a dodo. They’re ridiculously dumb, can be easily punched unconscious, and don’t fight back. No wonder they’re extinct.
Editor’s note: Dodos were probably actually pretty smart Jason.
There are so many, many things to punch in Ark. Trees, in particular. Taking a nod from Minecraft, since you start toolless, you have to harvest wood with your bare hands. Punch a tree or two (which hurts, by the way), grab some rocks, and suddenly you’re a master neanderthal craftsman making primitive tools. Continue and you’ll earn experience points and more skills, allowing you to do cool things like wear pants, build a hut, and craft better weapons and tools.
Keep that up and you’ll find more complex materials, blueprints, and abilities. 20 or 30 hours in, you could be riding a raptor while wearing body armor and wielding a rifle. Or, if you’re lucky, you can just make friends with experienced players who have already suffered through those tedious early hours and will just give you stuff. Hey, it could happen.
DINOSAURS AND POOP
The sheer variety of creatures to find (and, usually, flee from) is astounding. Every environment on this vast planet has something to discover, from amazing dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts (Terror Birds, anyone?), to megalodon sharks, super-sized dinosaur-eating crocs, and giant piranhas in the water. No matter where you go, there’s always something amazing ready to eat you.
While I personally prefer playing alone, playing the game online (as it’s meant to be played) offers a whole host of interesting elements. The game is very into being a “persistent world,” but in a bizarrely hardcore way that few games have the balls for. See, when you log off to go do, you know, real life stuff, your character doesn’t simply drop into the magical ether. They just go to sleep wherever you left them.
This means that, depending what mode you’re playing in, anyone who finds your poor sleeping and helpless avatar can rob them blind, destroy their house, and probably commit other acts of virtual heinousness I’d prefer not to contemplate. This feature alone makes Ark an investment in virtual space of near unheard of proportions. Ark requires you to want to be successful in a way few games demand. Hours learning and wrestling with the menu systems, hours more crafting, building, and taming things, and all so that, at any moment, it can all go sideways when you’re not even there.
That said, and for those who prefer the “creative” mode of games like Minecraft, Ark does offer plenty of options (all almost entirely unexplained) that let you dial the game down to easier settings, which is perfect when playing split-screen cooperative with those casual types and kids. But easy isn’t the point of Ark. Ark is hard, it’s meticulous, and it’s gorgeous.
Plus, it has dinosaurs and it lets player poop on command.
So, sure, maybe Ark isn’t for everyone. Yet as frustrating as the game can be (and as unnecessarily obtuse as the interface is), I keep coming back to explore more of the world, find new and more dangerous beasts, and generally run around like a crazy caveman in paradise gone all wrong.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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