Early Access Review: ARK: Survival Evolved

ARK: Survival Evolved is an open-world survival sandbox game developed and published by Studio Wildcard.  Since it was having a free weekend this weekend I thought I may dabble in the survival game enough to do a proper Early Access Review, especially seeing as several of my correspondents had expressed interest.  I have to say, it's a fair bit much more polished than many of the trendy games in the genre, but like many of them, there isn't much actual game here, sadly.  This is one I'd watch, because it shows some potential and seems actually decently well made, but I couldn't presently recommend it.  Why?  Well - read on.

ARK looks good, but it doesn't feel good

The classic saying in food criticism is that the first bite you take is with the eye, and that's an idiom that applies equally as much in video games - your first impression is often going to be of the graphics presented in the game.  In that respect, ARK leaves a very positive first impression - it looks pretty good.  Not jaw-droppingly great, but good nonetheless, and certainly it looks better than many games in the genre.  The problem comes when you look past that first impression to the details.

Immediately evident and problematic is how poorly-optimised the graphics engine of ARK seemed.  It was using twice over as much memory as The Witcher III does on my machine, and let's just get one thing out of the way right now, it looks good, but it doesn't look Witcher 3 good, not even close.  It also pretty much jeapordised all fo the processor time on my CPU, again using much more resources than it really has any reason to.  This could perhaps be somewhat understandable if I was at least getting a decent framerate out of it, but I was lucky to push 30 frames per second out of it, and the graphics driver had constant jitters, freezes, and crashes, as well, which contributed to the game feeling much "jerkier" than it really should have.   Given that this game in Early Access is going for 32 dollars Canadian, I can't really give it the excuse of being Early Access in this regard either.  If was going to pay that much, I expect at the very least technical competency.  And unfortunately, we don't really have that here.

Beyond that, there is a very good veneer of shiny graphics on display here, replete with options, but it falls apart somewhat in much of the fine detailing.  For instance, when you are harvesting trees, it indicates 'damaged' trees by putting a damaged bark texture on it.  Okay, so far so good - we can't expect everything to have that neat tree-chopping visual bit The Forest did, but as I said, this is in the details.  The decal just applies to the object in general, so if you're chopping a tree down by its leaves somehow, then the leaves will transform into damaged bark.  Now, this is more the kind of fine detailing we expect to be lacking in an early access game, but there was a lot of it on display here, enough to be worthy of note, I'd say.  One thing that particularly bothered me was the lack of body awareness in the first-person mode.  This is the year 2015, and in a game where we have a third-person camera as well, there's really no excuse for it.

The construction aspect is pretty well-done

I've gone on record before saying that I really do have something of a soft spot for construction-type games, and to ARK's credit, the construction aspect of it is really well-done.  This is why I have my hand-wringing and reservations about not recommending it, in spite of the technical issues: because the building aspect, if you can get past the frame-rate problems, is pretty well done.

Construction occurs by placing foundations, which you can fairly freely within common-sense restrictions, and then snapping other building parts to them, such as walls, door frames, doors for those frames, and roofs.  You can also place other objects within the house, construct beds, crates, and such, and it all works very intuitively and fairly well, except for one kind of big problem, an elephant in the room if you will -

ARK's controls are very sluggish

Now, when I was first playing, I was playing with a pad, mostly out of preference for these sorts of games honestly, since analog sticks make it easier to fine tune the positioning of things and I have as I said a weird penchant for such games, but when I was getting into things, having somewhat solved framerate issues by running it with literally nothing else going except Steam, I noticed there was a good two second delay from releasing the stick, to the movement stopping.  For an easy point of reference, I experimented with rotating the character on the creation screen, one .. two .. yep, two seconds between releasing the control and it going.  So obviously my first thought is the controller setup was in some way a hack or otherwise "not ready", so I unplugged the controller, and did the game with just keyboard.  Looking at the binds and options, this seemed what the game was designed almost entirely for as is (making me question whether I was just having the control mapping from another game going in the third-party driver), but whatever the case there may be, the input lag persisted.  I proceeded into the game to see if perhaps this was just an artifact of the creation screen, however, it appears in the game as well.  It seems related to the 3D model rotation - as for example, simply doing an attack was fine, snappy and responsive , however, turning manifested that problem.  The net effect is that the controls feel rather sluggish.

Combat is very floaty as a result

The second affect of that control issue is the already floaty feeling combat, which lacks any real feeling of impact or even an animation of the creature flinching, merely just blood spray as a visual indication of the hit and a sound, feel even more floaty than it already was.  Since there is no animation of a hit, it feels like you're just wailing endlessly against a soft wall without any real weight or feeling of impact.  Dead creatures just drop dead where they are.  Unlike trees and rocks they do not accumulate "damage" decals either.  So there's no real visual feedback of doing damage other than that rudimentary blood spray, which makes it feel very bare bones.  Again this is one of those things that, if not for the list price, I might give a pasds, but 32 dollars is less than Skyrim costs presently, and even Skyrim's combat has more impact to it than this.

Another control issue that I had, which you might not depending on your setup, is that the windowed mode doesn't capture the mouse properly on a dual monitor setup.  This was married with the fact that the full screen mode straight up crashed, so what I ended up having to do was use a tool I had on hand that traps the mouse to the current monitor.  A tool which, I may add, doesn't come with the game, and shouldn't be neccesary to play a game.  Without it I was constantly having the cursor click off-screen onto the desktop and oh, there was many deaths to those annoying prick Dilophosaurs until I sorted that out.  They're kind of jerks.

The core gameplay, however, is promising

So getting into ARK, when you finally get into it, is a matter of customising a male or female character into some variety of humourous chariacture of something that is only human if you are considering mutant offspring human, and then getting yourself started.  That's probably the weakest part in the actual game design there, actually, the getting started.  You're plopped into the game without even an explanation of the basic controls or mechanics, and just expected to work it out.  The meta progression is the biggest problem in that respect, since what individual statistics do is left as an exercise for the player to figure out.  A short bit of wiki-ing fixed me up in that regard, honestly, but stuff like that needs to be a part of the game proper, one cannot rely on third parties to provide such things, nor do I consider it fair to the games that do provide strong tutorials to give one that does not a free pass since wikis exist.

Thankfully, the actual core mechanics are pretty familiar.  It goes as pretty much every survival game does, with the exception of some nuance.  You punch down a tree with your fists.  Find some rocks.  Punch down another tree.  Now you get a pickaxe.  Now you mine stone to make a proper hatchet.  And so on and so forth.  There's nothing really all that marvellous in the progression, though that you are picking what blueprints ("engrams" as the game calls it) to unlock, does allow you much more agency to take the approaches you like and focus on what appeals to you.

The dinosaurs are a gimmick, as one might imagine, but the various life forms on the titular ARK you're surviving on are an effective gimmick.  Taming them is a new twist on things, and having to do so by effectively capturing them and then earning their trust is a mechanical translation of a very crude form of actual taming which I quite appreciated.  And there's no denying the appeal of say, riding around on a raptor, or having a massive beast like a triceratops to guard your home base, it's just one that would be all the more appealing if the graphics engine wasn't crapping out all the time, or if the need to first render the beast unconscious didn't highlight how weak the combat engine is so frequently.

There's some minor cracks in that design beyond that though - the simplistic nature of the interactions - just hitting things to mine them, or in some cases pointing your use key at it to gather things gets repetitive fast, and the fact that the spawns are fixed and without spawn protection meant there was more than one death on account of the fact that a few dilophosaurs were around the spawn point just had me dying again.  Did I mention they were jerks?  That aside, even if you do have enough of your wits about you to defend yourself if you are in such a situation, since striking with your fists (as opposed to a weapon) does damage to you, you can actually kill yourself trying to defend yourself against such attacks, which let me tell you, did nothing for my blood pressure.

The final mechanic worth mentioning are the supply caches.  Spawned randomly by the server are caches of rare and valuable items which essentially create organic objectives for the players to work towards, or, on a PvP server, to fight over.  While this is hardly a new mechanic, and indeed, the forced nature of H1Z1's supply drops caused some consternation at the very least in that community, it's done basically randomly here, and the items are gated with certain level gates, essentially meaning you cannot have super-powerful items at a low level, and since the points are fixed and just randomly triggered by the server, there's no such favortism.  There's an arguement that this results in the rich getting richer, so to speak, and I wouldn't neccesarialy refute that, but in this case its somewhat integral to the game experience, especially on a PvP server, that a player would want to maintain the lead and fight over those supply caches, thereby creating flashpoints of conflict to keep the gameplay dynamic.

I really hate to come down on ARK: Survival Evolved, but there's too much wrong here to recommend in its current state.  I will say however, that the core game mechanics - especially the taming and riding aspects with the dinosaurs, offer a lot of promise if they manage to even out the technical and design problems.  As is presently, the frame-rate chugs, there's wide-spread performance problems, and  the combat feels weight-less.  There's some fun to be had as a purely sandbox affair, but that's about it in it's present form.  I wouldn't say it's enough to make up for the technical issues.