ARK: Survival Evolved is probably the most controversial video game I’ve played since No Man’s Sky (perhaps more commonly known as “No Game Buy”). Despite being one of Steam’s most popular titles and having been rated by over 127,000 players, the game has a mixed reception with a sixty-seven percent positive rating. Ark is one of my most played games on Steam, yet I find myself agreeing more with the negative reviews than with the positive ones.
Ark is a survival game published by Studio Wildcard. I’m going to hold off on talking about Wildcard so that I can start this review on a positive note, as there are going to be a lot of negatives to get through. If you’re looking for an immersive video game experience, a game with tons to do that you’ll lose yourself in, then Ark offers this in spades.
The game’s various “Arks” are essentially different maps that players are dropped onto with nothing but underwear and a strange glowing wrist implant. Each Ark is populated by an incredible diversity of wildlife, ranging from dinosaurs to mythical beasts, and they contain numerous unique biomes. There’s plenty of advancement: you’ll go from wielding a wooden club to a laser rifle and start out taming dodos on a beach to stealing dragon eggs and hatching your own.
One of my personal favorite biomes in Ark is the Redwoods, featuring gigantic pine trees and numerous lakes. These lakes are home to the Castoroides (giant beavers), which happen to be one of my favorite creatures (it’s an excellent gathering mount). One of my tribe’s main bases was built onto several of the redwood’s giant trees.
The building in Ark, while simple and accessible, allows for the creation of a wide range of structures. Placement of structures is free-form, but once you place a single structure, let's say a foundation, other complementary structures snap to it, like walls. Ark’s building feels like 3D Minecraft, and there’s no higher praise for a video game building system than such a comparison. AAA titles, like Fallout 4, could learn quite a bit from Ark in this regard. I’ve seen many players who played Ark just for the building and passed up on the other elements entirely. You can build bases in a wide variety of locations, such as in a forest, in the ocean, inside a cave, or on a tree.
Taming and breeding in Ark offers a level of depth which surpasses even core Pokémon games. Each creature, or "dino", gets one point randomly assigned to a stat per level and you can use a binomial distribution calculator to find out how rare a particular dino’s stats are. A tamed dino can only have so many levels, and thus so many points, but you can breed dinos together to give the best of their stats to their offspring. It's possible for two level 200 dinos to produce a level 300 dino like this.
As an example of this, I might tame a direwolf with forty-six points in melee and another with forty-five points in health, then breed them together to create a dino with both these scores.
There’s also genetic mutations. A dino’s parents might have a mutant gene that allows them to pass down either a stat benefit or unique cosmetic color to offspring (you won’t find out about this until you’ve actually bred a dino). This system is in-depth as you might acquire high stats through taming, or trade for breeding rights from another tribe to produce super-dinos. This system is quite addictive, and if you look at the hours some Ark players have, you’ll understand this as the appropriate word.
Players start out worrying about basic survival, like getting food and water, running away from raptors, and building shelter. Mid-game players often focus on joining a tribe, if they don’t already have one. Late-game players will likely have joined a tribe and be more concerned with intra-tribe or server politics and any areas of the game they excel at (building, breeding, taming, and so on). Interestingly, this conforms with the psychological model of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs almost perfectly.
The vast array of features in Ark make the world much more immersive. Players might spend time cooking, fishing, running through what is essentially dungeons or boss fights, fighting wars with other tribes, taming, breeding, and just hanging out with tribe members or other tribes. I remember playing with a tribe that built a colosseum. They organized dino races and dodo fights for the whole server. It was a blast, and a ton of laughs.
Despite all of Ark’s excellent features, there’s one negative which outweighs them: Studio Wildcard.
At its core, Ark is an MMO, and an MMO needs to be well-maintained by its developers to keep the player base interested. Unfortunately, this is something Wildcard fails miserably at. The only time Wildcard seems to care about what the community thinks is when they’re losing players.
For example: there had been criticisms of the gathering and breeding rates for a long time, but Wildcard didn’t actually boost these rates until they noticed that substantially more people played their game during events with boosted rates. I’ve no doubt that if there were overwhelmingly negative feedback due to, say, a duping bug, and a substantial number of players went inactive, that the bug would be fixed quickly, but otherwise not touched.
Price is also something I consider when reviewing a game, and Ark’s current price tag of sixty dollars (not counting the over forty dollars of DLC) does it no favors. When I bought Ark, it was discounted to around twenty dollars (the normal price was thirty dollars). An Ark dev might argue that the finished product is worth more than the early access price, but I argue that the game was in a better state when I bought it for twenty dollars.
Ark has multiple DLC packs on the horizon, yet there are still numerous bugs, exploits, and optimization issues that the team has yet to address. Further, the finished product does not include all the promised features. Early access games are expected to have issues, but a sixty dollar full-release title? Not so much. To be fair, Wildcard has released some free DLC, but these have been poorly maintained and don't seem to be a priority (there have been holiday events that didn't occur on certain maps, like The Center).
While we’re on the subject of issues, Ark has a major network lag problem. When a large number of players are online at one time, or if a large number of structures are being destroyed, neither of which is uncommon, the servers become laggy. This makes some actions, such as aiming and shooting, incredibly difficult. Certain other actions, such as melee with a Gigantosaurus, one of the game's largest and most powerful tames, become flat-out impossible to perform.
There is another major bug where dinos fall through the world or disappear entirely. These take hundreds of hours to tame, breed, and level, so it’s quite frustrating when this happens. The fact that Wildcard chose to call their game complete and sell DLC despite these glaring flaws is incredibly disappointing.
Wildcard released the twenty dollars Scorched Earth bundle DLC when the game was still in early access. In my mind this is not ethical, as they hadn’t even finished their game before they were looking to make more money off it. Part of the reason for this sale was the paying off of their 40 million dollar lawsuit settlement (the case dealt with Studio Wildcard's illegal poaching of another studio’s talent). Had Wildcard not settled, this case was substantial enough that Ark could very easily have been pulled from Steam.
As a communication major with a minor in psychology, I’ve always been interested in psychology as it relates to video games, and there are core elements of Ark that encourage negative player interactions and toxic behavior. There are many valuable resources in Ark that are scarce, encouraging competition. Further, players are encouraged to band into groups, or tribes, each of which pursue these resources. In modern psychology, the literature seems to indicate that competition and anonymity are what leads to aggression and ultimately toxicity, something most Ark PvP players have experienced. I’ve seen all sorts of toxicity, including but not limited to griefing, sexism, racism, threats, exploiting, botting, and real-life stalking. The developers ban people for this, of course, but with the amount of people who behave this way, they should be doing more.
To be fair, I’ve also seen plenty of pleasant interactions, and even made some excellent friends through Ark, but negative interactions seem to be far more frequent than positive ones on PvP servers. PvE servers are generally much tamer, but I’d advise avoiding the online features altogether if this sounds like something you don’t want to deal with.
Earlier, I praised the depth of Ark’s taming and breeding systems, but the time investment required to perform these acts on official servers is somewhat ridiculous. First you have to gather the resources to tame a dino, which requires potentially farming for days. Then you have to find a high-level one, which could take hours or months, depending on the desired creature. Finally you have to tame it, which involves knocking out the dino and typically several hours of feeding and protecting it. I’ve seen tames go on for as long as eighteen hours, although most should be in the two-to-six hour range. Taming can be tedious and difficult, and, if you make a mistake, you might lose all the time and resources you put into a tame. This can be worth hundreds of hours in the case of an especially valuable dino.
Once you’ve tamed something, you have to keep it alive. Don’t log in for a few weeks to feed it? Dead. Attacked while offline by another tribe? Dead. Dino glitches through the world? Dead. If you spend a few hundred hours producing some super-dino, you really won’t want it to be dead, and so Ark goes from being a game to a full-time job.
PvP is a lot less fun when you’re putting stuff on the line that takes much effort to procure. Whether video games are addicting is a debate in modern psychology, but Ark certainly makes a case for game addiction.
The death of Ark’s taming system was the introduction of imprinting. One doesn’t have to be a certified psychologist to know that getting less than a full night’s sleep is a bad thing, yet Studio Wildcard has put a system in their game which encourages just this. The imprinting system gives bred dinosaurs bonus stats so long as the breeder logs in approximately every four hours to interact with it. It’s not a slight bonus, either: a 100 percent imprinted dino can be worth over two un-imprinted dinos with the same stats, provided it's ridden by its imprinter. In the case of some more intensive dinosaurs, such as the Giganotosaurus, breeding can take eleven days. Basically, if you have a job, school, or, you know, want a good night's sleep, you’re screwed.
Imprinting also encourages the sharing of Steam information. Players can allow someone else to log onto their Ark character and carry out imprinting via sharing their Steam account. Many take this risk rather than skipping work or interrupting their sleep (I’ve had numerous friends and acquaintances who choose to do this). The developers have received criticism for this but have done nothing, likely because the system encourages activity.
When I think of Wildcard, two phrases come to mind: shady and self-interested. The only time they’ve ever heeded the community is when they are certain it’s in their own best interest. If Ark were under a different, more ethical developer’s care, I would be more positive. I tend to give out high scores to games and, despite its flaws, Ark has a lot going for it. However, I don’t trust Studio Wildcard or believe they will complete what is essentially an incomplete game.
Ark could’ve been something great, and if you play it on single player or a good private server, it is a fun ride, but in its current state, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. All things considered, I feel that 5/10 is a fair rating for Ark. It's not a bad game at its core, but in its current state it’s technically flawed, and I don’t trust the developer to be loyal to the player base. Ark is also a major time sink. I’ve seen people spend thousands of hours on this game, and it hasn’t been out that long. Unfortunately, like the dinosaurs, Ark’s best days appear to be a thing of the past.